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Fat Shaming and Behavior Change

Are you guilty of Fat Shaming?
Are you guilty of fat shaming?

Shame is a destructive emotion. Dictionary.com defines shame as "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another:"

In an attempt to change people's behavior, shame is routinely used as a tool. It's used overtly against some groups of people, like smokers. When someone lights up a cigarette, non-smokers will give them a disapproving stare; they'll cover their nose when walking by or wave their hand in front of their face while making an unpleasant grimace.

It's often used more subtly against people who are overweight. If you're obese (and over 35% of Americans are), you're less likely to be offered a job, given a promotion, or receive as much positive social acknowledgment as a person of healthy weight. But negatively focusing on the weight doesn't seem to do any good. It doesn't do anything to address the underlying problems.

Let's start with the simple matter of survival. You don't have to smoke a cigarette every day to live. That makes programs that take cigarettes away effective because you're no longer surrounded by temptation. That's not an option if you're overweight. If we don't eat regularly, we die. There is no such thing as a person who was able to successfully "kick the food habit."

Then there's the corporate attack. The primary goal of a for-profit corporation is to make money. If you sell food, you make more when food sales increase. That means everything you do is focused on how to get people to buy more.

You do that through more effective advertising, by designing more convenient food and food that creates cravings. Instead of making a potato chip that's tasty, nutritious and filling, we get chips so full of tempting flavors, salts and fats that they're marketed with phrases like, "Betcha can't eat just one." (That's the slogan of Lay's Potato chips.)

To make things even more frustrating, our own bodies work against us. As we get bigger, more calories are converted to fat, leaving fewer moving through the bloodstream to satisfy our body's requirements. That leaves us feeling hungrier, eating more and creating ever more fat cells. It's a vicious cycle that's incredibly hard to break.

But it's not impossible. Instead of trying to use shame to try and change someone, help them deal with the underlying issues. Here are some relatively simple things to try with a family member or loved one you want to help.

If you live together, start by removing tempting foods from the house, so they're less inclined to binge. If someone is hungry late at night, they're not likely to open the refrigerator and binge on broccoli. But if the kitchen is stocked with pastries, cookies and candy, they might not think twice about eating junk food until they're stuffed.

Schedule regular mealtimes with them and make a menu. Choose and purchase the foods in advance, so you don't get overly hungry and decide to eat whatever's convenient. It's the lack of planning that can pile on hundreds of empty "convenience" calories a day.

Make plans to do more physically active things.

Losing weight through diet alone rarely works because as the weight drops, so does our metabolism. That means once the weight is off, you have to keep eating very little to keep it off. Fight back by doing more physically active things. Instead of driving a car, ride a bike or walk to places you need to visit. Take a fitness class together, learn to dance or sign up for swimming lessons.

When the weight drops, increase the intensity of the exercises. Resistance training builds muscle and pound for pound; muscle burns more calories than fat. As your muscles grow, your metabolism increases, and you burn even more fat. 

Stop using shame and start focusing on solutions. Even if you're unable to help your friend or loved one, those same actions can surely help you.

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12/20/2014
Updated 5/6/2021