Shaming the overweight
A screen grab from the Livelighter website.
If fat shaming were an Olympic sport, then Australia would be a gold medal contender.
Our governments, health professionals, and now personal trainers-cum-TV-celebrities have joined in the fun of detailing the personal failings of fat people.
And where has this united effort of moralising and scorn got us? Well let’s just say that the United Nations has declared obesity to be epidemic and our politicians are bandying around phrases like ‘the war on obesity’.
The latest entrant in the fat shaming contest is the West Australian government’s health promotion body WA Health with its recently-launched LiveLighter anti-obesity campaign.
Piggybacking off the success of the graphic drink driving and anti-smoking campaigns, the LiveLighter campaign features graphic images of fat, labeling it toxic and portraying it as disgusting.
One poster features a man grabbing his gut alongside organs covered with fat emblazoned with the alarming message ‘GRABBABLE GUT OUTSIDE MEANS TOXIC FAT INSIDE’.
The campaign booklet notes ‘At times, it’s graphic and confronting, but it has to be. We need everyone to realise that achieving and maintaining a healthy weight should be a priority right now — and not something that can be put off “until tomorrow”.’
While urgency is all well and good, WA Health, along with their campaign partners The Heart Foundation and The Cancer Council might have taken the time to look at some evidence. If they did, they’d have realised that these kinds of shock campaigns, which have been running all over the developed world for decades, have not led to long-term weight loss. In fact, as we are repeatedly told: we’re getting fatter.
As Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani, both senior residents at Massey College, University of Toronto, write in their book XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame, ‘[shaming] public health policies have clearly worked in reducing levels of smoking, as an example, but they won’t work in the case of obesity [because] the amalgam of psychological determinants of obesity is far more complex than that for smoking or drinking.’
For starters, unlike smoking and drinking, it is not possible to simply abstain from eating or avoid situations where food is consumed. People have to eat. Eating is a complex mix of culture, social rituals, food availability, economics, appetite, fashion and peer pressure, pleasure and emotion.
LiveLighter is also an example in spruiking the bleeding obvious. Does anybody not know that it’s a good idea to eat well and exercise? It’s hard to imagine that there is a single person in Australia who hasn’t internalised the message that thin is good and fat is bad.
But LiveLighter is not just guilty of wasting taxpayers money repeating the same messages people have heard hundreds of times before. To the extent that the campaign engages in shaming, its effects are likely to do more harm than good.
Fat people are already shamed in our culture. Studies show that fat people – particularly women – are discriminated against in the workplace, receive inferior medical care, and are more likely to be denied a bank loan and given longer prison sentences.
And research shows that the prejudice can persist even after people lose weight. A study published in the journal Obesity, by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, The University of Manchester, and Monash University found that people were more biased against people after learning that they had lost wright. According to Science Daily, the researchers also found that ‘negative attitudes towards obese people increase when participants are falsely told that body weight is easily controllable.’
Shaming can also lead to depression, anxiety, self-loathing and self-harm. Feeling bad about yourself is also counter productive in encouraging healthy life choices. Numerous studies have shown that shame is more likely to drive people into the arms of Mr Cadbury for comfort than encourage them to take their kids to the park or go for a bike ride.
Lydia Jade Turner, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders says that the campaign is also likely to contribute to increasing rates of dysfunctional eating and has slammed the campaign for perpetuating the stereotype that all fat people are fat because they are gluttonous and sedentary.
If we weren't so busy tut-tutting at all the fatties perhaps somebody would have stepped back for a moment and realised that the public shaming strategy isn't working.
Rather than shouting the same hateful messages more loudly, perhaps the folks in WA and other government health bodies should start with the principle of ‘Do No Harm’ and focus on the positive, rather than shaming fat people.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child.