The Shame and Blame Game
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
There has been a bit of back and forth lately in the world of television comedic talk-shows, and the topic of discussion has been eating habits, body weight, weight loss, shame, and blame. First, on his show Real Time with Bill Mahar, Bill criticized the way Americans eat, blamed it as the reason for health conditions associated with higher body weight, and argued that fat shaming needs a comeback to force people into changing their eating habits and losing weight. In fact, he said, "some amount of shame is good," and "shame is the first step in reform." You can see the full clip here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm4TAdiEFn0).
Then, a week later, on The Late Late Show with James Corden, James responded that fat shaming doesn't need a comeback because it "never went anywhere." He then remarks how fat people are reminded of their body size all the time, and shares a bit about his own struggles with his body weight and chronic dieting most of his life. He goes on to talk about how fat shaming only makes people feel ashamed, and shame "leads to depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviors like over-eating." He likens fat shaming to bullying, and says "bullying only makes the problem worse." The full clip can be seen here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ax1U04c4gaw)
There is quite a difference of opinion on this issue from Bill and James, also within the medical profession, and it is quite evident in the public's comments below each of the clips. As a dietitian, I have worked with hundreds of patients and clients over my career who have struggled with body weight concerns and chronic dieting. It's these client relationships and the stories they have shared that has given me quite a bit of perspective on how complex this issue really is. James makes mention to this, specifically in his points about the role of genetics and poverty. I do strongly disagree with Bill's assertion that it's all about the way people eat.
Indeed, this is a very complex situation, with many different opinions. However, one of the most powerful statements made by either celebrity was James's comment "if making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there'd be no fat kids in schools." This brings up one of my biggest concerns about fat shaming, and that is the impact it is having on children. It’s not just adults who are the target of hateful comments, but children too are often bullied by their peers, and sadly, targeted as having bodies that are “wrong” by their families and health-care providers. As we all know, bodies come in all shapes and sizes, yet, the cultural “thin ideal” that is spoken as “truth” paints a very different picture. Children, especially young children under the age of 10, do not yet have the developmental capacity to critically understand these messages and do not have the resilience to make sense of it all. All they hear and internalize is something is wrong with their body; something is wrong with them.
Children and adolescents are going through one of the most tumultuous periods of their (our) lives, and it is completely normal and expected to gain a tremendous amount of weight during this time. Furthermore, it is completely normal for the body to gain a significant amount of adipose tissue (body fat) to support the incredibly high energy demand of growth and development. Yet, our fat phobic, fat shaming culture points the finger at this as something “wrong” that needs to be prevented and fixed.
Again, I have worked with hundreds of patients and clients over the years, including children, adolescents, and adults. Overwhelmingly, the adults I’ve worked with who struggle with body weight concerns, chronic dieting, and disordered eating have shared this roller-coaster ride began in childhood. I can’t even count the number of people who report their first diet was at age 7 or 8. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/general-statistics), “by age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat, and this concern endures through life.” Many will go on to develop pathological eating habits, debilitating body weight concerns, and diagnosed eating disorders. It is estimated that “approximately a half million teens struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating.” And, males are not immune to this cultural thin ideal, as “males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don’t have eating disorders.”
Lastly, I want to bring attention to a very recent, extremely controversial issue, and one that only reinforces fat shaming of children. WW (formerly Weight Watchers) recently released an app called Kurbo targeted at children and adolescents ages 8-17. It is a high-tech, flashy app that encourages restrictive eating habits and an emphasis on weight loss. WW is denying the weight loss emphasis, saying it’s about health and encouraging healthy eating habits. However, earlier versions of their web site clearly used language of weight loss and showcased “success stories” of weight loss (one example was a 40# weight loss in a 10-year-old). The weight loss language has since been changed due to the negative backlash when it was released. You can read/learn more about Kurbo in this brief statement by NEDA (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/neda-statement-kurbo-ww-app?). A petition has also been created to remove the app and as of 9/21/19, there are over 112,500 signatures (https://www.change.org/p/weight-watchers-remove-your-weight-loss-app-for-kids?).
Our community continues to fight so hard to stop fat shaming and allow bodies to be what they were meant to be. If this blog and its message speaks to you, please consider supporting the effort and sign the petition (https://www.change.org/p/weight-watchers-remove-your-weight-loss-app-for-kids?).