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Some "experts" suggest that shaming people for being overweight, as if it can only be their fault, inspires them to lose weight. Scientific evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

In every era of human history, some health condition has brought shame. Several thousand years ago, menstruation and nocturnal seminal emission were thought, in many cultures, to be reasons for exclusion from the household or from the community. Cultures all over the world have shunned people who have leprosy or harelip. Tens of millions of women around the world suffer fistula and are regulating to solitary lives as a result. Sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and syphilis often bring ostracism and opprobrium. And hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions of people, are stigmatized because of obesity.

When People Are Shamed for Being Fat, Are They More Likely to Lose Weight?

Some self-appointed experts on obesity, usually people who report that they can eat anything they want and stay thin, opine that fat is the fault of the people whose bodies carry it. After all, the reasoning goes, fat is storage of excess calories. Just quit stuffing your face or get off your butt and get some exercise and you, like they, can be sleek and thin.

And even if the overweight do restrict their calories and exercise, hard, they don't necessarily ever become thin.

The simple fact is, however, that overweight people face pervasive discrimination in Western society, in social relationships, on the job, in the mass media, and even at the doctor's office. Weight has become the most common reason for bullying of school-aged children by school-aged children. Among adults, weight discrimination is now more common than racial discrimination.

Only a few "experts" have suggested shaming obese people to motivate them to lose weight. But as social media and constant connectedness to electronic media make weight shame more and more pervasive, obesity has become more common, not less.

The Price of the Blame Game

There is no shortage of blame for the obese. As bariatrics expert Dr. Rebecca Puhl puts it, "These views frequently stem from assumptions that individuals with obesity are personally responsible and at fault for their body weight, and lack the willpower, discipline, and treatment compliance necessary to lose weight. These stereotypes have been documented in multiple segments of the general population, and among healthcare professionals."

Obesity researchers know that the stereotypes don't tell the whole story.

Clinical research confirms that people who are teased or insulted about their weight loss or nagged and cajoled into dieting eat more, not less.

Experimental research confirms that the overweight are more likely to make unhealthy food choices after being insulted about their weight, and one study has even found that 79% of adults who are stigmatized for their weight turn to food to obtain emotional comfort after social rejection.

Stigmatizing obesity doesn't just affect the obese psychologically. It also affects them physiologically. Multiple clinical studies have found that experiencing rejection for obesity raises blood pressure, increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol (which in turn accelerates the deposit of fat into fat cells), and increases insulin resistance (which also accelerates the deposit of fat into fat cells). 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Carels RA, Burmeister JM, Koball AM, Oehlhof MW, et al. A randomized trial comparing two approaches to weight loss: differences in weight loss maintenance. J Health Psychol. 2014. 19:296-311.
  • Lillis J, Hayes SC, Bunting K, Masuda A. Teaching acceptance and mindfulness to improve the lives of the obese: a preliminary test of a theoretical model. Ann Behav Med. 2009. 37:58-69.
  • Photo courtesy of cocoparisienne by Pixabay : pixabay.com/en/thick-overweight-obesity-weight-373064/
  • Photo courtesy of Tony Alter by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/78428166@N00/14268677612

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