The Shamefulness of Fat-Shaming
This past week was set aside by the masculists over at Return Of Kings as a time to focus on making women feel ashamed of being overweight: Fat Shaming Week. They published articles with titles such as “10 Tell-Tale Signs She’s A Secret Internet Fatty” and “5 Reasons Fat Girls Don’t Deserve Love” and “5 Ways To Bully Fat Sluts On A Date” and (oddly enough) “Atheists Are Fatties” all of which read like deliberate mid-level trolling.
Of course, fat-shaming is not limited to the dedicated misogynists of the pick-up artist community, there are actually atheist communities that celebrate shaming people for being fat, such as the SlymePit. Stephanie Zvan has collected several examples of their fat-shaming tactics here, although she was not nearly comprehensive. They also target men, particularly PZ Myers and Ed Brayton, and at least one of them likes to joke about how feminists are generally fat.
As a humanist I value compassion; as a consequentialist I care about the effects of our behavior on other human beings. While it seems fairly obvious to me that mocking people for their weight does more harm than good, this is perhaps because I was conditioned to believe this from a fairly young age. There are those who have argued that fat stigma is necessary to help keep obesity rates down, and this is ultimately a scientific question.
At the forefront of pro-stigmatization thinking in academia is this recent article from Daniel Callahan, in which he advances the notion that fat-shaming might actually be an effective way of fighting obesity. I’d like to point out here that Callahan has been rather comprehensively refuted in the following articles:
- “Enhanced, Edgier”: A Euphemism for “Shame and Embarrassment”?
- If Shaming Reduced Obesity, There Would Be No Fat People
- Obesity Stigma: A Failed and Ethically Dubious Strategy
- Good and Bad Ideas in Obesity Prevention
- National Obesity Rates: A Legitimate Health Policy Endpoint?
- Obesity and Blame: Elusive Goals for Personal Responsibility
- Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity
These are all worth reading, but I’d like to focus especially on the last one, an article in which an expert in the relevant field attempted to quantitatively assess whether experiences of weight stigmatization lead to weight loss or weight gain. Their results were fairly unambiguous, even after controlling for baseline BMI, people who perceived themselves as being stigmatized were significantly more likely to become or remain obese than those who did not subjectively experience such stigmatization. Here is the table of odds ratios:
These results are susceptible to various interpretations, naturally, but there is no way to look at these data and conclude that stigmatizing weight is actually an effective way to encourage people to lose weight. Here are the succinct conclusions of Dr. Sutin:
Given the complex etiology of obesity, creative approaches that span diverse disciplines are needed to combat its spread. Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight, can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity. Such discrimination is one social determinant of health that may contribute to inequities in employment, relationships, healthcare delivery, and body weight.
Given that the such stigmatization has no positive effects, and has distinctly negative psychological and physiological outcomes, I cannot see what possible reason there is to justify this sort of behavior. To quote my twelve year-old on the subject, “That’s just bullying, and bullying is wrong.”