There is no evidence that making fat people feel unhappy about their weight does anything at all to bring about weight loss. However, people who fat shame others routinely hide behind the excuse that they’re doing it to help. Fat shaming people is a form of bullying, the mechanics of which need exposing.
I have some idea what shape my body is. At this point, my sense of self may be fatter than my physical presence. It may always have been – it’s hard to tell. I have never needed anyone else to tell me about this, and I am normal in this regard. Talking to people about their body shape starts from the assumption that somehow the fat person doesn’t know about their own body. At best, that’s patronising. At worst, it’s humiliating and destructive.
It’s ok to talk to fat people about their body shape if you are their doctor, their fitness coach, their physiotherapist, their counsellor, their nutritionalist or some other professional and qualified person working for them. If you aren’t qualified and you haven’t been asked then it is better to assume that your unsolicited opinion is neither helpful, nor required.
One of the great myths about fat is that it is simply a consequence of eating too much. It is because we are encouraged to see fat as a moral failing that we feel entitled to humiliate fat people in the guise of ‘helping’. There are many causes of fat, including physical illness, medication for bodily ills and mental health problems, sleep deprivation, and possibly stress. We don’t know how pollution impacts on fat storage. We do know that starving yourself increases your chances of subsequent weight gain, and we know that making people miserable and self conscious doesn’t help them change.
Poverty diets can mean you’re overweight and suffering malnutrition. Depressed people may be eating as a form of self-medication. Alcohol has a lot of calories in it. If you don’t know what’s caused a person to gain weight, you aren’t qualified to tell them how to deal with it. If you give unsolicited advice when you don’t know what’s going on, you might encourage the very behaviours that are causing the problem. Just because a person is thin does not mean they have a good understanding of how anyone else can also be thin.
If you are genuinely worried about the health of someone you care for, pointing out to them the health risks associated with their weight won’t do anything productive. Instead, why not find out what the problem is – maybe they are in too much pain to exercise and could do with some emotional support. Maybe they are in poverty and living on cheap carbs and you could help them by setting them up with a weekly veg box. Maybe they are so painfully self conscious that they can’t face exercise, and you could offer to go with them so they feel safer and more supported. Maybe their diet is being influenced by a controlling partner who wants them fat so that no one else will find them attractive – it happens.
Those moral judgements about fat mean that sometimes some of us can’t bear to see a fat person being happy. Some people act like its unacceptable for a fat person to be comfortable with themselves, and the reaction is to knock down hard with fat shaming. That’s deeply shitty. By ‘fat people’ here, in my experience we can also be talking about women who have recently given birth, and women who are anything other than bone thin. Fat shaming on social media and in the rest of life can happen to anyone female who isn’t a skeleton. Because it’s not really about the fat at that point, it’s about grinding women down.
If you care about someone, find out how to support them on their terms. Anything other than that, is about hurting, shaming and undermining a person. If you see it happening, speak up. Shaming people destroys self esteem and makes it harder to resist this kind of abuse, so it should not fall to the victim to have to deal with the perpetrator.