Are You Being Fat Shamed?

“Fat shaming” has become a standard term recently, starting a few years ago when several videos strongly criticizing and harassing overweight people were made public and went viral on the Internet.

It is possible that these poorly educated individuals actually believed that their hurtful comments would spur some obese people to lose weight and actually improve their lives. However, the science is pretty clear that fat shaming causes people to gain weight and severely depresses self-confidence levels. In one study of 93 overweight women, those who were exposed to weight-stigmatizing information ate more calories and expressed feeling out of control of their eating habits. In another study, overweight women who watched a stigmatizing video ate three times as many calories afterward when compared to women who watched a non-stigmatizing video. In an extensive study including 6,157 people, those who were non-obese and experienced weight discrimination were 2.5 times more likely to become obese over the next few years. In the same study, obese individuals who experienced weight bias were 3.2 times as likely to stay obese over the next several years.

Many conversations regarding obesity take place on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, often starting as fat-shaming and quickly devolving into cyberbullying. A study published in Springer’s journal Translational Behavioral Medicine analyzed over a million social media posts and comments about body weight (keywords included ‘obese,’ ‘overweight,’ and ‘fat.’ The word ‘fat’ is used more often than the others and is most likely to appear with words that have negative, derogatory, or misogynist meanings. The words ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ were most often accompanied by helpful information, such as hyperlinks to reputable websites. The researchers found that one in every three of the top relevant retweets contained ‘fat jokes’ or music lyrics containing stereotypical comments about women’s physiques. Furthermore, the authors found that there are “far too many unchecked instances of flaming and cyberbullying against overweight individuals, particularly women.” The lead author, Wen-ying Sylvia Chou suggests that partnerships with existing anti-cyberbullying efforts and online ‘influencers’ could be harnessed to educate social media users about the dangers of fat shaming.

Amy Erdman Farrell, a professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dickinson College and author of Fat Shame contends that if we accepted the word ‘fat’ into our vocabulary, it would no longer hold negative moral value. She writes that we see it as our right to rid fat people of their fat, which is akin to encouraging black people to bleach their skin to fight racism or to convert Jews to Christianity to challenge anti-Semitism. She feels that shows such as The Biggest Loser debase people. Farrell states that we often confuse fitness with “not fat,” and describe it in terms of being something that can be seen, such as six-pack abs. In reality, less visibly apparent markers such as blood tests or EKGs would be more likely to tell the real story.

Medical fat shaming refers to when a doctor is unable to see past obesity, even when a patient’s symptoms are completely unrelated. Doctors have reportedly blamed obesity for conditions such as a chronic cough, broken legs, and strep throat. Medical fat-shaming and weight bias have been well-documented in research on doctors, nurses, psychologists, dietitians, and medical students. As published in a Huffington Post article, recommendations for overweight people seeking medical care include:

  • Explain to the doctor that you’re uncomfortable with your interactions.
  • Bring articles about how weight stigma affects medical care
    to your appointments.
  • Ask to speak to a patient advocate about specific incidents or interactions.
  • Bring a trusted friend or family member to medical appointments.
  • Get a second opinion when necessary.