Ever have one of those days where you feel like you must have gained a few pounds? You look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Ugh, I’m so fat!” and start to scrutinize every inch of your body, feeling depressed and totally down about yourself.
And then what happens? Does that motivate you to go hit the gym, eat “clean” for a week, and cut out sugar? I don’t know about you, but when I start to internalize the idea of being “fat” (a subjective term, I know), the last thing I want to do is fix it. In fact, the disappointment I feel just makes me want to eat a whole package of Oreos and laze on the couch all day.
And that’s a relatively innocuous example. What happens when people are shamed by others about their weight? Maybe it’s just a semi-friendly, “Oh, hey, you look like you put on a few pounds there,” or something more passive-aggressive like, “You know, if only you worked on having a little more willpower, you might lose some weight.”
Of course, things can get much nastier than that. We all know that body shaming is a very real thing — from schoolyard taunts and bullying to the cruel, cruel world of internet commenters. Body shaming affects children, teens, and adults, and can have deep and lasting effects. And while much of it is directed at people who others somehow deem as fat, that is not always the case. People can be shamed for any aspect of their shape, including looking too muscular or thin. We are all targets.
Besides the fact that body shaming and ostracizing is just downright cruel and complete asshole behavior, it almost never motivates someone to actually go out and get healthier. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that people who have internalized the idea that their body is something to be ashamed of are not more likely to be motivated to become healthier. In fact, the opposite is true. The researchers warn that the stereotyping of obese people “threatens health, generates health disparities, and interferes with effective obesity intervention efforts.”
In essence, hold your damn tongue when it comes to how you talk to someone about their weight. Unless you have something kind to say, your critique is not going to help one bit and will probably make it less likely that the person you are targeting will lose an ounce of weight or get healthier. It’s not your place to comment on the body of another person.
A brand-new study published in Obesity: A Research Journal has an even more dire warning about the consequences of stereotyping and stigmatizing people who overweight. The study found that people with high levels of “weight bias internalization” were three times more likely to have something called “metabolic syndrome” than people who had low levels of internalized weight bias.
If you are wondering what metabolic syndrome is (I sure had no idea), Medical News Today describes it as “a cluster of risk factors that increase the likelihood of stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. These risk factors include high blood pressure, a large waist circumference, high fasting blood sugar, and a low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.”
In addition to metabolic syndrome, the researchers found that individuals with high internalized weight bias were more six times more likely to have high triglycerides, which can raise a person’s risk for stroke and heart attack.
It should be noted that the study was controlled for BMI and depression, so these scary health side effects stemmed solely from the individuals’ internalization that they were fat or somehow “less than” because of their body type, according to the study. The researchers are uncertain exactly why that is, but they surmise that the stigmatization leads individuals to adopt unhealthy behaviors, which can in turn have negative effects on their health.
“The act of self-stigmatizing may lead to a state of physiological arousal that itself increases risk for metabolic abnormalities through biological pathways (e.g., cortisol secretion). This state of physiological and affective stress may also lead individuals to cope by eating unhealthy food or binge eating,” the authors of the study explain. They also hypothesize that stereotyping overweight individuals as “lazy” leads them to want to avoid physical activity altogether.
The bottom line? Fat shaming isn’t just mean and entirely unacceptable. It’s dangerous, and the effects of stigmatizing overweight people can have real and lasting consequences on their health and longevity. So if there is someone in your life whose weight you have genuine concerns about, treat them kindly. Offer positive encouragement only. Choose your words carefully — very carefully — and if you don’t have anything nice to say, just don’t freaking say it. Seriously. It really shouldn’t be that hard.
And if you are a victim of fat shaming, please know that whatever was said to hurt you was wrong and uncalled for, no two ways about it. Try to surround yourself with positivity — about your body, your health, and yourself. There is no reason to keep anyone in your life who brings you down or hurts you in any way.
Most of all, know that you are beautiful, inside and out, and deserve to feel happy, healthy, and proud. You get to decide how that looks, not someone random jerk.