Fat shaming is ridiculing people who are overweight. As obesity rates climb worldwide, the issue has become more problematic, especially through internet venues.
While those who engage in this harsh behavior may believe it can act as a motivational tool to inspire weight loss, the exact opposite is true. Fat shaming leads to emotional harm, as well as sparking the intake of more calories, resulting in additional weight gain. (1)
Criticism is the first level of fat shaming, and people who are critical are more likely to believe their input could have constructive outcome than those who stoop to downright harassment.
Most people who feel justified in fat shaming aren’t fat and have never been fat, so it’s impossible for them to understand what it’s like to struggle with weight problems.
Fat shaming has become a more high-profile issue lately due to video exposure and response on the internet. Let’s take a look at what science has found in relation to how this problem affects people who are overweight or obese.
While some people who engage in fat shaming behavior, especially on internet forums, are simply horrible human beings, others seem to believe making fun of fat people will actually help them to eat less, exercise more, and begin to lose weight.
But it doesn’t work this way. Targeted individuals can suffer trauma, which is the reason given by the administrators of Reddit’s forum fatpeoplehate, which was closed down last fall after a spate of fat shaming caused an uproar.
Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have also been utilized as venues for fat shaming, and women are most often the victims of these attacks, referred to as “cyber-bullying.” (2)
Overweight and obese people experience stress when they are harassed about their size, which causes them to eat more food and pack on even more weight. (3)
In a study conducted with 93 participants, researchers analyzed the response of female test subjects to weight stigmatizing material; some were overweight and others were of normal size. (4)
Overweight participants ate more calories after exposure, but those whose weight was normal did not.
When 73 overweight women watched two separate videos, the results were equally conclusive; subjects who viewed a video free of weight stigmatizing content consumed 89 calories afterward. Those who watched the stigmatizing video ate 302 calories. (5)
An observational study with more than 6000 participants showed that obese subjects who experienced exposure to weight discrimination were two and a half times more likely to hang onto that weight over the following years than those who did not feel stigmatized. (6)
Other Harmful Effects of Fat Shaming
Not only are people more likely to remain obese or gain more weight when exposed to weight discrimination, other serious reactions and behavior can occur, regardless of age.
These are some of the potential problems documented by studies, illustrating that fat shaming causes both physical and psychological harm. (7)
- Binge eating and other disorders related to food can become more prevalent in victims of fat shaming.
- Mental health issues are more common for those who have experienced weight discrimination; the risk of becoming depressed is nearly three times as high. (8)
- Lower levels of self-esteem have been noted in overweight people shamed for their size.
- The chances for developing chronic diseases increase due to higher cortisol levels, weight gain and stress.
Suicide becomes a greater risk when clinical depression is present; one study with nearly 2,500 participants indicated subjects considered extremely obese were 21 times more likely to display suicidal behavior. They attempted suicide 12 times more often. (11)
Fat Shaming Often Stems from Misperceptions and Misinformation
Obesity is commonly associated with a lack of willpower, as well as laziness and greed, but biological and psychological factors carry more influence in weight than most people realize.
For example, 3-year-old children are more likely to be heavier than normal if their mothers gained a considerable amount of weight during pregnancy. (12)
And if a child’s parents or grandparents are obese, the chances that child will experience obesity during his or her lifetime is much higher. (13)
Studies conducted with sets of twins indicate genetics may also play an integral role in weight gain. (14)
While these factors cannot be fingered as causes for obesity, predisposition is part of the picture. Overweight children mature into overweight teenagers at the rate of about 40%, and three-quarters or more of overweight teenagers become obese adults. (15)
There is even a link between children born by C-section carrying excess weight. (16)
Babies nourished on formula tend to be heavier than those who are breast-fed, and these patterns often carry into adulthood. (17) Scientists believe this may be due to a difference in the character of gut bacteria, which influence fat storage. (18)
Ongoing research on the way gut bacteria affects overall health suggests this factor may play a significant role in weight management and control. (19)
Studies show many obese people have impaired function of hormones and brain chemicals that affect hunger and appetite, leading to overeating and weight gain. (20)
When these hormones are triggered, followed by eating more food than necessary for fueling the body, reward centers in the brain are stimulated, and a destructive pattern similar to drug addiction can be activated. (21)
One recent survey indicated up to 20% of respondents engaged in eating patterns meeting criteria for a food addiction disorder. (22)
People in treatment for certain medical conditions may be affected biologically, resulting in a predisposition to weight gain; these include medications prescribed for those suffering from diabetes, depression and other mental disorders. (23, 24, 25)
Obesity is a medical condition that is more complex than many people believe.
Summary: Fat shaming is not only unkind, but harmful; victims are exposed to stress that can lead to more weight gain, as well as an increased risk of developing chronic diseases or becoming depressed. Anyone who engages in fat shaming is contributing to making the problem worse, not better.