Why Fat-Shaming Is Bad for Personal and Public Health
I'm fat. So what?
I was always picked last in PE classes. “Nobody wants the fat girl in their team,” my classmates told me. “We’ll lose if you’re with us.”
I hated gym class. It was a 45-minute-long hell that I had to suffer through twice a week. It included my two least favorite things: mean kids who would call me names and bully me because of my weight, and the unrelenting mid-morning heat of a small town near the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve Been Getting Fat-Shamed My Whole Life
I’ve been fat for most of my life, except for some bits here and there where I fell prey to toxic diet-pill culture and made myself lose weight in a quick and very unhealthy manner. While I can now say the word “fat” with confidence, there was a time where I would do anything I could, no matter the consequences, to be skinny—not because I actually wanted to be a size (or five) smaller but because of the constant hate and stigma I had to deal with from everyone around me. My parents, my grandmother, my aunts, my so-called friends—people around me took every opportunity to tell me how “unhealthy” I was because I was a size 14 as a teen instead of a size two and how my size would most definitely have fatal consequences later in my life. I was bullied, by friends and family members alike, into believing that my fatness would automatically cause diabetes, cancer or some other life-threatening illness.
The number of times I’ve been told that “fat people are a strain to the public health system” is obscene. (Much more so than my size 22 ass in leggings and a crop top, if you ask me.) The truth is, we live in a society that makes it easy to get into a “fat stage,” with our cultural emphasis on convenience and the easy availability of highly processed foods, but also shames us fat folks for trying to “do better” by society’s twisted health expectations.
Having Fat-Shaming Parents Certainly Doesn’t Help
I know that if I ever get injured, my parents’ first reaction will be to tell me that my injury, no matter how minor, is somehow related to my weight and size and not to the fact that I’ve always been clumsy. I can’t ever complain about ankle, back or knee pain without my parents immediately attributing all my ailments to my fatness and not to the fact that I injured my knee when slipped over my long skirt at a dance recital when I was 11. I know that if I ever dare to think about stepping into a gym, finding workout clothes that fit me will be a nightmare, I’ll get shady looks once I’m there, and I’ll have to hear people make fun of me when they think I’m out of earshot.
Not once in my almost 30 years has anyone taken the time to explain to me what a balanced diet is or to help me understand that exercising and moving my body weren’t just a punishment for what I’d eaten. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized I had to do the work myself and slowly unlearn the toxic ideas I’d been fed—pun absolutely intended—about fatness and health. As a child, I was simply told to avoid sweets and junk food and “eat as little as possible.” I was bullied into hating PE class (or really any form of exercise) while I watched family members go through a constant rotation of fad diets, “miracle” products and weight loss surgery—some that almost cost them their lives.
How to Avoid Fat-Shaming at the Doctor’s Office: Don’t Go
It’s taken me a very long time to understand that the only person who can make an accurate comment about my health is my doctor—and no, not just anyone with a medical degree. (And especially not anyone with a social media account and too much free time who’s read a bit about fitness.) One that actually knows me, my body and my medical history. Sadly, I’ve found out that coming across a doctor who will take the time to listen to what I have to say isn’t the easiest thing to do. The pursuit of health is no easy thing for us fat folks.
As a fat person, I know that the first thing health care providers will ask me at any given consultation, without first bothering to ask what my appointment is for, is whether or not I’ve tried losing weight to fix my problem. Every single doctor I’ve been to in my life has asked this—even my eye doctor. I want to be able to have a regular doctor’s appointment where I can address a specific health concern of mine. Instead, I end up being subjected to an unsolicited nutrition lesson.
As a result, I started avoiding hospitals and doctors as much as I could. I thought that, since the people who “knew best” were quick to suggest my body and my weight were the roots of every problem (again, without even asking what the actual problem was), maybe my family’s toxic approach to health was right after all. I thought as long as I was skinny, I’d be healthy. But even at my skinniest, it wasn’t enough. I was never “healthy” enough for the people around me, so I simply gave up on caring about it.
After developing a mild eating disorder, then starting therapy and finding a very supportive body positivity and self-love online community, I realized my approach to “not caring” about health wasn’t sustainable. At some point, I’d need to address it, and I decided I would rather it be sooner than later. Slowly but surely, I learned how to respond to fat-shaming, how to ignore the negative external input on my body, my weight and my size and how to listen to what my body was trying to tell me.
Fat-Shaming in Public Health Is Simply Not Effective
The sad part is, I’m not alone in avoiding medical care for that reason. People all over the world constantly face shame, both from those close to them and from the doctors and nurses who are supposed to be caring for them. A recent study for the International Journal of Obesity found that around three-quarters of Weight Watchers users, out of nearly 14,000 surveyed, had been fat-shamed by friends or family members at some point in their lives. Many of them specifically mentioned that these instances occurred during their childhood and early teens, and it usually came in the form of harsh criticism and mockery—not honest attempts at helping. The study also shows that they also experienced name-calling and being made to believe fat people can’t be worthy of love and affection.
Why do fat people have to process and overcome such a huge amount of trauma to even try to be healthy? In allowing this to be the status quo, we have failed as a society. Our simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach to health has done little to welcome certain members of the population. Alienating, shaming and insulting those who are fat, or who don’t fit an outdated image of “health,” is not the way to go. We still have a chance to change this, to become more aware of the dangers of shame and bullying and the negative effects they have on people’s minds and bodies. Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, said it best: “Stigma is an enemy to health.”