I’m hypersensitive to the word fat. I cringe when people say it, even if they’re talking about my zaftig cat, Possum. It’s just not a nice word, and it’s so damaging. I was first called fat in the fifth grade. A boy walked up to me and said he knew my phone number. He proceeded to recite Jenny Craig’s 800 number. I was crushed.
That was 26 years ago. I’ve battled my weight for two decades and have an eating disorder. It hasn’t been an easy road. What I want to know is why is it okay to fat shame people?
One of the things I do for comfort is re-watch episodes of “Friends” and “Gilmore Girls.” It’s a comfort thing, and I never get sick of it. However, I can’t help but notice how fat phobic my beloved shows are. It’s blatant and gross.
I suppose people who fat shame think they’re helping in some way by motivating others to be healthy, but it doesn’t work. It makes people feel terrible about themselves, causing psychological harm, and it creates a breeding ground of unhealthy coping mechanisms. And women are usually the target. It’s expected of women to be slim, beautiful and perfect, so when you don’t fit that mold you’re shamed, sometimes punished, for it.
Also note that 28 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that the more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to become obese, even if they’re thin to begin with. NIH also reports that the harm of fat shaming is well documented, showing that exposure to weight stigma triggers behavioral changes linked to poor metabolic health and increased weight gain. Stress levels spike, self-control drops, and the risk of binge eating increases.
I also read that a lot of the time, it’s health professionals doing the discrimination. That has happened to me — I had a doctor tell me my health problems were because I was fat. It didn’t matter what I brought up, he’d tell me to lose weight and it would go away. He wasn’t my doctor for long.
But it’s not just health professionals who do this. Other studies show that family members do the most harm. A study by the International Journal of Obesity says between 76 and 88 percent of people surveyed experienced weight shaming from a parent, sibling or other family member. About 22-30 percent of people reported their first experiences of weight stigma happened by age 10. That’s crazy.
I feel like it’s getting better now that we’re seeing body positivity or body neutrality movements become popular, but we still have work to do. Some people argue that “accepting” overweight or obese people is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, but I would argue that weight stigma is more harmful than being overweight. Not everyone overweight or even obese has health problems. Believing otherwise just fuels the stigma. There are other things to consider, but I’m not going to defend those who struggle with their weight. I shouldn’t have to.
Another person’s weight (and health) is none of anyone’s business.
If I could go back to fifth grade and stand up to that boy, I would. Instead, I just accepted his words as fact, and my life since then has been defined by my weight. Not anymore.
The weight of other people’s opinions is the best weight I’ve ever lost.
For more than 20 years, Heather Loeb has experienced major depression, anxiety and a personality disorder, while also battling the stigma of mental health. She is the creator of Unruly Neurons (www.unrulyneurons.com), a blog dedicated to normalizing depression and a member of State Rep. Todd Hunter’s Suicide Prevention Taskforce.
Now more than ever we need to take care of our mental health. Guest columnist Heather Loeb discusses why and explores other important mental health topics in this special series.