By louiseodriscoll, Sep 20 2014 11:54AM
The media has been touching recently, on the issue of 'fat shaming'. A recent study has shown that this technique, of pointing out or criticising overweight bodies, is apparently not a constructive way of helping people to become slimmer and is in fact more likely to have the opposite effect. My reaction to this 'news' was surprise that we needed a study to demonstrate that criticising, mocking or deriding people is not a particularly effective way of motivating them. Ever tried yelling at your children that they are useless and stupid because they can't read and found it an excellent way to persuade them to keep working at it? As a practical example of it having the opposite outcome from the intended one, how does anyone expect someone who is repeatedly mocked for their size to decide to go for a run, a swim or to the gym where they understandably imagine further humiliation and isolation awaits? Not many people have a level of confidence to enter a situation where that is anticipated, least of all those who are repeatedly given the message that they are somehow failing because their body doesn't fit what society has deemed the 'right' one.
Various excuses are offered up by 'fat shamers', mostly based on professed concern for health. The truth is, no one can look at another individual and know anything whatsoever about their health, nor about what possible medication they are on, what their life history is and why they may have gained weight. And when it comes to the 'cost of obesity related disease' to the NHS, there is indeed a huge cost, but blaming individuals is short-sighted and disingenuous. The 'obesity epidemic' is a societal and cultural issue that the majority of us are playing a part in, whatever our size.
All of the emphasis in the news coverage I have read on this topic has centered on why fat shaming usually leads to further weight gain, rather than loss. It deals with the impact on the individual being shamed. But this widespread abhorrence of fat has much further reaching effects than that. What I see is children growing up in a world where the worst possible thing you can be is fat. Where the 'right' shape to be is like the models and film stars and celebrities, with whose images we are bombarded every day. That the way to avoid the former and achieve the latter is to diet. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to then understand why the number of children with eating disorders is on the rise. Nor too, given what the evidence shows about the result of years repeated dieting, why more and more children become overweight and unhappy adults. These children aren't born hating their bodies, we teach them to.
So how do we tackle this seemingly insurmountable issue of the obesity crisis? There are so many different factors at work, not least the abundance of poor quality food, high sugar foodstuffs, the diet industry and the media's promotion of the 'perfect body'. But I believe that parents can make a key difference - you may or may not be guilty of outright 'fat prejudice' but there are a myriad of ways in which so many of us, consciously or not, promote the idea that fat is bad, and that model like proportions should be aspired to. Self criticism, of the 'I feel so fat today', 'I shouldn't be eating this', 'I need to lose weight' type for a start. Consuming media of the sort that subjects celebrities bodies to detailed critique and analysis, as if they were nothing more than a collection of midriffs and thighs and skin with 'imperfections' that all of us have is another. Expressing admiration of slim figures, praising friends for their weight loss or self control and hard work to get it. And dieting yourself, restricting your food intake so as to get closer to the ideal...it is all absorbed by young minds and can develop into a preoccupation if not obsession for them, something that generally leads only to misery;
- misery of never achieving the ideal and battling with food and body for a lifetime, possibly yo yo dieting (which almost always leads to weight gain in the long term), possibly with eating disorders, whatever weight this results in;
- misery of giving up because it is just too hard and depressing, depriving yourself of food to try to fit a mould your body was never designed to fit and, insodoing, giving up on having any regard for health and good nutrition, because what is the point if it doesn't result in a slim body?;
- misery of actually getting the 'ideal' body and living in fear of losing it by gaining weight.
None of these are scenarios I think any of us would want our kids to end up in, two of them will often result in obesity and once that is established, it frequently ends up affecting entire families, however unintentionally - a cycle that is difficult to get out of.
So next time you pass comment on another person's body, fat or slim, catch yourself and think of the effect it is having on children around you. Try and focus on what amazing characteristics and qualities people have, on the incredible things bodies can do and how we can best look after them and nourish them. These are the messages that need to be passed on. Our kids will still have to contend with many other influences out there, but as parents we carry a great deal of power and hopefully, we can start to turn the tide a little. In future posts I hope to provide tips and resources to help with work on positive body image, our own and our children's.