There has been a lot of talk about “fat shaming” on the internet in the past few weeks.
This was sparked by a couple of viral videos, one serious and the other a (bad) joke, that harshly criticized overweight people.
Some believe that making overweight people feel ashamed of their weight or eating habits actually helps motivate them to lose weight.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. Psychologists have done a lot of research on this, and the evidence is very clear.
What is Fat Shaming?
Fat shaming involves criticizing and harassing overweight people about their weight or eating, in order to make them feel ashamed of themselves.
Apparently, some people believe that making overweight people feel ashamed of themselves will motivate them to change their behavior so they start eating less, exercising more and finally start to lose weight.
Others are just horrible human beings, plain and simple. Horrible people often feel comfortable saying things over the internet that they would not say in real life.
In the majority of cases, the people who do this are skinny. They have never had to struggle with a weight problem themselves and don’t understand what it is like.
There are actually entire communities on the internet where people gather in order to make fun of overweight people. Often it turns into downright group harassment.
A high-profile example is Reddit’s fatpeoplehate forum, which was recently closed down because their members would storm pages and videos from overweight people in order to harass them.
Research shows that a very large percentage of discussions about obesity on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, are of a fat shaming nature. This often turns into downright harassment and cyberbullying – especially against women (2).
Whatever your opinion of fat shaming is, the research is very clear that stigma and discrimination against overweight people causes major psychological harm and makes the problem worse.
Bottom Line: Fat shaming is the act of criticizing and harassing overweight people about their weight or eating behavior. It is often justified as a means to motivate people, but research shows that it has the opposite effect.
Fat Shaming Causes Overweight People to Eat More
When people are discriminated against, it causes stress and makes them feel bad.
In the case of overweight people, this stress can drive them to eat more calories and gain even more weight (3).
In a study of 93 women, exposure to weight stigmatizing information made overweight women, but not normal weight women, eat more calories and feel less in control of their eating (4).
In another study, this time in 73 overweight women, those who watched a stigmatizing video ate 3 times as many calories (302 vs 89) afterwards compared to women who watched a non-stigmatizing video (5).
This is supported by numerous studies showing that “fat shaming” in any shape or form causes overweight people to become stressed and end up eating more calories and gaining more weight (3).
Bottom Line: Many studies show that weight discrimination (like fat shaming) causes stress and leads overweight people to eat more calories.
Weight Discrimination is Linked to Increased Risk of Obesity
Many observational studies have looked at weight discrimination and the risk of future weight gain and obesity.
In one study of 6,157 people, non-obese participants who experienced weight discrimination were 2.5 times more likely to become obese over the next few years (6).
Additionally, this study found that obese people who experienced weight discrimination were 3.2 times as likely to remain obese over the next few years (6).
This shows that fat shaming is certainly NOT likely to motivate people to lose weight.
Another study in 2,944 people found that weight discrimination was linked to a whopping 6.67 times greater risk of becoming obese (1).
Bottom Line: Many observational studies show that weight discrimination is linked to weight gain and a drastic increase in the risk of becoming obese.
Fat Shaming Has Various Harmful Effects on Obese People
The harmful effects of fat shaming go beyond just increased weight gain, which is serious enough as it is.
- Depression: People who are discriminated against due to weight are at higher risk of depression and other mental issues (no surprise there).
- Eating disorders: Fat shaming is linked to an increased risk of eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder.
- Reduced self-esteem: Fat shaming is linked to reduced self-esteem.
- Others: By causing stress, weight gain, increased cortisol levels and mental problems, weight discrimination may raise the risk of all sorts of chronic diseases.
Looking at the literature, the research is very clear that fat shaming harms people, both psychologically and physically (8).
Bottom Line: Weight discrimination can cause depression, eating disorders, reduced self-esteem and raise the risk of all sorts of mental problems.
Can Fat Shaming Literally Kill People?
As mentioned above, studies show that weight discrimination is linked to increased risk of depression.
For example, one study found that those who had experienced weight discrimination were 2.7 times as likely to become depressed (9).
As is common knowledge, one of the consequences of depression is suicide.
In a study of 2,436 people, extreme obesity was associated with 21 times greater risk of suicidal behavior and 12 times greater risk of suicide attempts (12).
Could fat shaming drive a vulnerable and depressed obese person to suicide? It’s a speculative leap, but it seems plausible.
Fat shamers are not only making obese people gain more weight and making them feel horrible, they may literally be killing them.