Blog: We Must Not Tolerate Fat Shaming

We Must Not Tolerate Fat Shaming
In honor of National Bullying-prevention month (October)
By Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D.
You are likely familiar with the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
That is wrong. Words are powerful.  Words hurt.   Verbal bullying causes deep shame, humiliation and pain, and often leads to lifelong self-esteem problems.  
Insulting, criticizing, ridiculing and stereotyping people on the basis of their weight is a form of verbal bullying called fat shaming.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently brought fat shaming to public awareness by referring to former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, as “Miss Piggy”. He has often commented about people’s weight, asserting that an internet hacker “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Fat-shaming occurs with alarming frequency
Unfortunately, instances of fat shaming occur with alarming frequency and can be found in many contexts, not just the publically expressed ideas of Mr. Trump.
Nor are the targets of such verbal bullying limited to women.   New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s size has been the subject of intense scrutiny, including debate on whether his weight should preclude him from seeking higher office.  Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte, who participated in the 2016 Olympics, was derisively called “Robel the Whale” in social media.
Celebrities are not the only ones who suffer from fat shaming.   Many people experience it during their daily lives.  Often, the shamers have no idea that their words are hurtful.
Why do people fat-shame?
People fat shame to elevate themselves by denigrating others.  They feel better about themselves by putting down other people. 
But why?
It is common to see and criticize qualities in others that that one cannot tolerate in themselves. This is called “projection”. For example, Mr. Trump, who is vitriolic in his statements about overweight people, is also visibly overweight.  
Many people see "fat" as signifying laziness, weakness, or lack of control.   By pointing the finger at others, they reassure themselves that those attributes belong to other people but not to themselves.  The communication is, "You're the one who lacks control, not me."  
The impact of fat-shaming
In a recent Twitter campaign inviting readers to share their personal stories, one woman reported that her doctor suggested bariatric surgery so she’d have “better luck with the fellas.”  She had sought medical care for an ear infection.
Another woman reported that she lost 30 pounds due to depression and pneumonia and her doctor encouraged her to, “keep up the good work.”
In my clinical practice and daily life, I hear from people who dread family get-togethers, fearing remarks such as, “Do you really need to eat that?” or, “You sure have packed on the pounds.” 
Such observations facilitate shame, which is the deeply painful sense that there is something wrong with oneself. 
Studies show those who are fat shamed are at a higher risk for depression and eating disorders.  Alicia Machado reported that she struggled with eating disorders for several years after being publicly humiliated.    According to the UK charity Beat (Beating Eating Disorders) as many as 65 percent of people with eating disorders have been bullied or fat shamed. 
Fat shaming is also connected with discrimination.  Robbie Couch, a writer for Upworthy, notes that, “Fat-phobic biases by medical professionals means fat people are more likely to receive poor health care services. Being fat means you look more guilty in jurors' eyes.”   According to the National Eating Disorders Association, weight discrimination is more prevalent than age or gender discrimination.
Fat-shaming yourself
The experience of being shamed may lead people to shame themselves, as Chris Christie did when he went on The Late Show with David Letterman, eating a doughnut and telling fat jokes at his own expense. 
In my capacity as a specialist in eating disorders, I hear countless patients recount the way they attack themselves.  For example:
“I had some pizza at a party,” someone told me.  “Afterwards I thought, ‘You are disgusting.  You have no willpower.  You make me sick.’” Note the switch in perspective from first-person (“I ate some pizza”) to second-person (“You are disgusting”).   And then, for those who lack the ability to self-soothe without food, self-loathing comments leads to eating for comfort, creating a vicious cycle.  I find that many patients use food to escape their own mean voices and self-criticism.
We as individuals and as a society must take this seriously.   Not only is fat shaming offensive, it causes depression, anxiety, humiliation, pain and a diminished sense of self-worth.    
Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. is a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst and recognized expert in weight, food and body image issues.  Her book on the psychoanalytic perspective on eating disorders will be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year.