Fat shaming is no answer

Fat shaming

A recent comment piece in the Times newspaper by the journalist Matthew Parris, arguing that fat shaming is the only way to tackle the obesity crisis, has – unsurprisingly – caused controversy. It comes in the same week that Diabetes UK warned about an “alarming acceleration” in the number of type 2 diabetes cases among under-40s. There is undoubtedly an obesity crisis, not just in Britain but across the world. See, for example, our recent blog highlighting the WHO warning that obesity is at “epidemic proportions” in Europe. There is no consensus, however, on the best way to tackle the crisis and the measures – or combination of measures – that will have the greatest impact. Fat shaming, far from being an answer, may actually make the problem worse as well as being an odious form of bullying.

Fat shaming is the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size. Under the heading The Bottom Line, the website Healthline.com states that “weight discrimination — including fat shaming — leads to stress and causes overweight and people with obesity to eat more. This form of bullying may not only cause additional weight gain but is also linked to depression, eating disorders, reduced self-esteem, and an increased risk of various other mental and physical problems.”

Matthew Parris is a highly respected, award-winning journalist, writer and broadcaster. He was a Conservative MP during the first two terms of office of Margaret Thatcher, resigning his seat in 1986 and leaving politics to take over from Brian Walden as presenter of Weekend World. His article – headlined Fat shaming is the only way to tackle obesity crisis – was published in the Times at the end of October (behind a paywall). The secondary headline below the main headline reads: Deaths from smoking fell dramatically after it was stigmatised but disapproval of the overweight is still thought cruel.

John Burn-Murdoch, chief data reporter at the Financial Times, was one of those who responded to the article, posting a lengthy thread on Twitter. He made a number of points, including about the connection that Parris draws between smoking and obesity. For example, he wrote that:

  • by far the biggest factor in reducing rates of smoking was heavily taxing cigarettes
  • a smoker who stops smoking immediately stops being shamed, but even if an obese person improves nutrition and exercise they continue to be shamed far as long as they appear ‘fat’, which may be for years

Burn-Murdoch also said that it is too simplistic to say that eating less makes you thinner:

  • The aim should be to get healthier, which may or may not involve getting thinner
  • Eating more healthily and exercise should be goals in themselves, not just ways to lose weight
  • The extent to which reducing food intake and increasing exercise cause weight loss varies hugely from person to person
  • Focusing on weight loss alone can bring health problems of its own

Burn-Murdoch went on to argue that of key importance is the interplay between genetics and the factors in the environment which lead to greater exposure to and consumption of energy-rich/nutrient-poor foods:

  • We have never been more exposed to nutrient-poor, highly processed food than we are today
  • Taxing and regulating the availability of these foods is crucial
  • External factors such as chronic stress, loneliness and lack of fulfilment (especially in the workplace) are strongly associated with weight gain

These final two points link to a central element of the Life-Based Learning approach – that, whether we are talking about physical or mental health, community cohesion or the survival of the planet, action cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. It requires a collective effort, with an active, interventionist government not just setting the direction of travel but also using its resources and powers to effect significant change.

More generally, Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing – and therefore helping to improve long-term health outcomes and turn around the current grim projections – is one such challenge.

Read More

Image at the head of this article by Tumisu from Pixabay.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap