A study posted on Medline this past week about fat shaming not motivating people to lose weight, possibly even causing more weight gain is the impetus for this blog post.
People who are overweight and obese are intimately aware of their body type. Telling people that they are overweight or obese adds insult to injury. I can definitely relate to not being in control of what’s going on in life in quite a few ways, but one of the ways I’ll share here in a blog post, as I realize I’m posting on the internet for everyone to see, so we’ll start with how I look. Maybe another day I’ll disclose other more personal ways I’ve not been in control of my life in the past.
When I was balding in at age 22, people would tell me I was balding. Guess how that made me feel? Sad. Scared. Worse. Angry at family genes. I had different coping mechanisms than many people adapt, as I didn’t become an alcoholic or get on drugs. Since then, I’ve come to terms with being bald and owned it.
I went through stages of feeling embarrassed, wearing hats, growing my hair out, shaving it off, growing it out again, trying Propecia, stopping Propecia because of side effects, trying a different style, shaving it off again, wearing hats, and then just stopped caring. It took me half of my twenties to come to terms with what the gene pool dealt me, especially when you want to date in your twenties. There’s really no cure for baldness because there’s nothing wrong with being bald physically. I am accepting of it now and am a stronger person from having dealt with that already in my life.
Back to obesity. People who are overweight or obese know that they are overweight or obese. They may or may not have tried multiple diets already, obsessively weighed themselves, thrown the scale out, bought another scale, hired a personal trainer who beat them into the ground, still didn’t lose weight (because physical activity doesn’t actually help with the parameter of weight loss itself), etc. It’s a sensitive subject. Clearly, telling people that they are overweight doesn’t help.
Now let’s talk about a darker issue that judgmental people who fat shame may not be aware of. How did obese people get obese? How did overweight people get to where they are now? Have you ever sat down and got to know someone who is overweight or obese? For many people a few extra pounds is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking you’re 50+ pounds overweight and it’s still going up. You’re out of control of your life. It’s not as simple as saying “stop eating, and eat more fruits and vegetables,” which is what many people think I do for a living–if only it were so easy.
It’s not as simple as telling people to go exercise more, while I, as the trainer-dietitian, am silently judged by others while working with an overweight/obese person for not pushing them during a personal training session and instead spending time by sitting down and talking. If you read to the end of this, you’ll understand why I, as a trainer-dietitian, am talking instead of acting as a drill sergeant for a workout.
Our society is not one that is forthcoming with sharing vulnerable emotions, and different people have different ways of coping. If you’re feeling rock bottom depressed, so anxious you can’t sleep, or so mad you think you’re going to bust a blood vessel in your head and have your eyes turn black Dark Willow style, many people have not been taught how to deal with these emotions.
Many people do not want to feel these emotions anymore, having felt them for enough time in their lives. Some people have been taught to hide their emotions all life. This is not uncommon in societies that promote an overly masculine male ideal, in cases of emotional abuse where a child was told they were not allowed to feel emotions they were having, or had to curtail their emotions for the sake of another, among MANY other reasons.
Some people will abuse alcohol to not feel emotions, which as common as alcoholism is, this is not uncommon. Some people will engage in legal and illegal drug abuse. Some people will get “addicted” to video games as an escape. Some people will abuse sex and become “sex addicts.” Whatever their poison is, they all lead to escaping painful emotions and become habit.
Others are able to reach out to others in a healthy way and share emotions in a supportive environment, but this is not as common for a number of reasons, including lack of supportive environments, a person is far enough gone that they are unable to perceive that such environments exist, or they have never had the experience in life of a supportive environment and were never educated on the benefits of one. If you’ve made it this far in this post, you’ll see that overweight/obesity can be pretty dark subjects.
Let’s look at compulsive overeating and binge eating. Did you know that carbohydrates, in particular, can play a role in brain chemistry? They can alter the dopamine/serotonin ratio in the brain. Excessive carbohydrate eating can produce a calming feeling, which results from increases in serotonin. This is exactly what someone who is feeling uncomfortable emotions needs: a calming feeling.
The overeating solves that problem, since society did not solve it for them. Society failed to provide them that comfort. They feel calm and comfortable again…temporarily with the carbohydrate overeating. Unfortunately, food has calories, which lead to weight gain if eaten in excess of what the body physically needs (not emotionally needs).
Add insult to injury, people shame people who overeat instead of figuring out what is going on with the person. This can lead to even more overeating in a feedback cycle. Additionally, people who overeat can get into the habit of using food for comfort. Now, the very thing that gives them comfort is shamed, and they often shame themselves for using food as comfort even when others may not overtly.
The morale of this story is this: overeating is not a logical process. It is more an emotional process. People who are overweight or obese KNOW this and aren’t stupid. They especially will not be wanting to share a vulnerable aspect of their lives with you after you demonstrated that it is unsafe for them to do so.
Overweight and obesity are our problem as a society as well as an individual’s problem, so rather than turn up your nose and shame the person, I encourage you to reach out and connect with them. We shouldn’t have needed a scientific study to tell us this. Overweight/obese shaming is one of the last socially acceptable ways to discriminate, and this must stop.
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