Fat-shaming firestorm: Is it motivating or bullying?


Have you seen the flurry of online debate about whether fat shaming helps or hinders individual motivation to battle obesity?

The recent heated debate has been hard to miss, ever since skinny US talk show host Bill Maher said at the end of his nightly monologue earlier this month: “Fat shaming doesn’t need to go away, it needs to make a comeback.”

Maher gave statistics for the worsening obesity epidemic, puzzled over the growing body positive movement, and likened fat shaming to the motivating social pressure applied to smoking, seatbelts and racism. Said Maher about shaming: “It’s the first step in reform.”

Not surprisingly, the backlash was swift and furious, but it was fellow talk show host James Corden’s thoughtful and personal reply in his monologue September 12th that went massively viral.

“It’s bullying in disguise” said Corden who was open about his life-long battle with his weight and noted that when he heard Maher’s comments he thought ‘Someone with a platform needs to say something….ah, I guess that would be me.’

“Fat shaming has never gone away. We feel it all the time,” said Corden, noting that the common misconception about people who battle their weight is “that we are stupid and lazy, and we are not.”

If shaming worked as a motivator, said Corden, no one would ever be fat. “If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there’d be no fat kids in schools…. Fat shaming only makes the problem worse.”

Corden’s passionate response was full of insight and on-point zingers. “We are not all as lucky as Bill Maher. We don’t all have a sense of superiority that burns 35,000 calories a day.”

But the debate did not end there. In the past week newspapers, magazines, talk shows, panel shows and Twitter have all weighed in on the issue. Most proclaimed Maher’s comments were offensive and ill-informed, but a surprising number of (usually skinny) commentators took Maher’s side, usually citing the eat-less-exercise-more dogma.

One of the most unenlightened exchanges occurred on the UK talk show, Good Morning Britain, hosted by Piers Morgan. UK celebrity personal trainer Danielle (Danni) Levy defended Maher and said, astoundingly: “The more we fat shame, the more people would keep their mouths shut and stop overeating.”

The statement garnered a huge Twitter backlash against her but she stands by her comments saying “it is not an aesthetic issue, it is about health!” She called anyone who posts a differing opinion on her Twitter feed “a troll.”

Even The New York Times got in on the debate, asking “If fat shaming doesn’t work, what does?” The article’s expert advice, frankly, was hugely disappointing. While the toxic food environment and lack of evidence-based approaches to weight loss in medical care were cited, not a word was said about the hypothesis that excessive carbohydrate loads in modern diets and the low-fat message of the last 40 years may have contributed to an over-consumption of carbs.

Nor was a word was mentioned in the article that perhaps cutting carbohydrates and upping fat, or even trying a ketogenic diet, might work for those who had life-long battles with their weight. (In the comments, some did describe their own personal success with a low-carb or ketogenic approach.)

Instead, the article promoted more government paternalism, such as Japan’s mandated yearly waist measurements (essentially state-sanctioned shaming), the need to find a “safe” pharmaceutical drug fix, and the need for more access to bariatric surgery. Sigh.

In all, the tone and tenor of the extensive debate shows how far we still need to come as a society in understanding and reversing the obesity epidemic and supporting and assisting people who may become obese despite their best efforts.

The vast majority of visitors to this site know that fat shaming doesn’t work and has never worked. It is down-right bullying, and never an effective long-term motivator. Solid, evidence-based research and individual support for dietary change is a more effective way to go.

That is what we are endeavoring to do, every day, at Diet Doctor. We aim to empower people everywhere to dramatically improve their health.

Thanks for reading — and thanks for helping spread the word about other ways to address the obesity epidemic and tackle poor metabolic health. Perhaps the Bill Maher’s and Danni Levy’s of the world, faced with new information, will eventually open their minds and update their outdated, ill-informed opinions.

Anne Mullens

Scale on the floor

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