Fat shaming makes people fat

Support rather than stigma is what will help people lose weight.

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This is a time of year when lots of people are thinking harder than usual about managing the weight. There’s no shortage of advice on this subject but most of it is aimed at the person’s whose trying lose or avoid gaining weight. But what about the people around them and the rest of society?

As an example of what not to do, allow me to invoke human straw woman Katie Hopkins who has said “I feel it’s my responsibility to point out to chubsters that they need to get up off their a**, stop costing me money as a taxpayer, and get out there and run a little bit more.”

This notion has a certain intuitive appeal. We don’t like being criticised. And if being fat will lead to being criticised then that will encourage us to not be fat.

But it probably doesn’t actually work like that:

….in a study published in 2011 in the journal PLOS ONE, Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of Florida State University College of Medicine tracked the weight of more than 6,000 Americans for four years, from 2006 to 2010; they also noted whether the participants reported being treated unfairly because of their size. The men and women who were overweight in 2006 and said they’d experienced weight discrimination were more than twice as likely to have become obese by 2010, as compared to the overweight participants who hadn’t felt discriminated against. Another paper published last year in the journalObesity came to the same conclusion: Fat-shaming appears to lead to weight gain. 

Both studies are observational, rather than experiment-based, so they can’t prove that one thing definitively led to the other — and if they did, why. But the association makes sense to Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director for the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who has studied the impact of weight stigma for 15 years. “Stigma and discrimination are really stressors, and, unfortunately, for many people, they’re chronic stressors,” Puhl told me back in 2013. “And we know that eating is a common reaction to stress and anxiety — that people often engage in more food consumption or more binge eating in response to stressors, so there is a logical connection here in terms of some of the maladaptive coping strategies to try to deal with the stress of being stigmatized.”

And just today the Atlantic reports researching suggesting the opposite. That kindness helps people lose weight:

….187 women at a Canadian university were asked questions about their weight, ideal weight, and self-esteem. They were then asked if they had ever talked to their romantic partner or friend about their weight concerns, and if so, how that person reacted. If the friend/partner said something like, “your weight is fine,” that was considered a message of “acceptance,” while if they said something like, “you have a reason to be concerned,” or offered to help them lose weight, they were considered a contributor to the subject’s sense of weight-loss pressure.

The results showed that, for the women who were concerned about their weight, those who received supportive feedback in response to their worries were more likely to maintain or lose weight. Those who didn’t, gained.

Over the course of the nine-month study, women who received lots of weight-acceptance messages shed about .17 units of body mass index, or BMI, while the BMIs of women who received few such messages of acceptance ticked up by about .75 units.

There’s probably a wider message here about supporting people rather than stigmatising them. There’s also probably also one about the danger of thinking your sanctimony is helping people when it’s really just making you feel superior. And there’s definitely one about the merit of things Katie Hopkins says.

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