Now there's proof that fat-shaming doesn't work, it's time to change our attitudes towards obesity

People who are addicted to food should be treated with the same compassion we offer to those suffering from anorexia or bulimia

Natasha Devon
Monday 15 September 2014 15:19 BST
Scientists have discovered the origin of the “bad” kind of fat found in the body which is linked with heart disease, cancer and other serious obesity-related illnesses, even though people carrying it can look slim
Scientists have discovered the origin of the “bad” kind of fat found in the body which is linked with heart disease, cancer and other serious obesity-related illnesses, even though people carrying it can look slim (Rex Features)

It really is terribly gratifying when science proves what one has been insisting is true for ages.

Last week, researchers from the University of London released the results of a study which showed conclusively that so-called "fat shaming" is totally ineffectual, if the goal is to make the shamed lose weight.

In fact, the "school of tough love" approach to encouraging overweight friends and family to shed pounds has been proven actively to encourage weight gain. This will surprise no one who has any common sense, since guilt and shame are primary motivators in making a subject seek solace in comfort mechanisms (and food is one of these).

The study is likely to upset sectors of the media and medical community, since it proves what sensible people have long known — that body image discussions need to be handled with sensitivity. For the past eighteen months, the press has been awash with statistics relating to Britain's so-called "obesity crisis", with "experts" advising us to take a direct approach by telling our friends, colleagues and even our children in no uncertain terms that they are fat and need to address the situation.

There are a number of glaring generalisations being made when it comes to discussions about the UK's obese population. First, the most often quoted stat is "one third of the British population are now overweight or obese" (most usually spoken over a visual of a morbidly obese person, filmed from behind, struggling to walk along the street). To be defined as "overweight" one must have a BMI of between 25 and 30 points.

Most professional athletes, black and mixed race people fit into this category owing to their natural muscle density, which of course doesn't render them any unhealthier. Indeed, having a BMI of 26.5 I am condemned to spend my existence in this category (often receiving substandard NHS healthcare as a direct result) but am in tip-top physical condition (thanks for asking).

The frequently quoted health risks associated with obesity, like increased likelihood of developing diabetes or heart diseases, do not apply if your BMI is between 25 and 30. So, lumping "overweight and obese" people into the same category for the purpose of demonstrating these medical risks is as misleading as it is unhelpful.

Furthermore, I'm instinctively distrusting of evidence relating to the amount of money obesity related health issues supposedly cost the NHS, since every health complaint I've had since I was 18 years old has been dismissed by various GPs as relating to my weight, even when there is no empirical medical link.

There is, in general, too much emphasis placed on weight, shape and size in discussions relating to health. How healthy we are is determined by the lifestyle choices we make.

If we eat well, exercise regularly, drink enough water, get enough sleep, do not smoke and drink within the recommended guidelines then we are healthy. Our weight is a completely accidental and largely irrelevent bi-product not only of these choices but of our genetics, ethnicity, medical history and environment.

"Fat shamers" tend to base their moral position (ie believing that they are benefitting society by pointing out the blinking obvious) on the assumption that all obesity is caused by over-eating. There are myriad medical and circumstantial factors that can cause obesity, not least of which Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which affects around 5 per cent of women in the UK.

For those whose obesity is caused by overeating, it is worth noting that "binge eating disorder" was last year acknowledged by B-eat, the UK's largest eating disorder charity, as a bona fide mental illness. Binge eaters have an addiction to food and deserve to be treated with the same compassion we offer to people suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

However, none of the above should affect the individual's right to celebrate their body, any more than we would tell smokers they have no "right" to wear a bikini because they don't technically live what is deemed to be a "healthy" lifestyle. If someone is overweight and perfectly happy with their situation then, frankly, that's none of our business.

Having been a body image campaigner for almost a decade now, the most important thing I have learned is that body image is a topic fraught with people's sensitivity, prejudices and egos.

Human beings are complicated creatures. We are the only mammals capable of "cognitive dissonance" which is the ability to hold two completely opposing ideas in our heads at the same time. That's why we continue to drink, smoke, practice privation (overeating), use sunbeds and undergo unnecessary purely cosmetic surgical procedures, despite knowing with absolute certainty that all of these things are detrimental to our health.

Who of us has not put their health at risk at some point, even by allowing ourselves to become excessively stressed? Yet the media-led obesity witch hunt means that the overweight face a disproportionate amount of judgement, something which we now know will exacerbate the issue.

What people need, in my experience, are the tools which will allow them to reconnect with their bodies and make their own rules in a society which relentlessly and aggressively tells us on the one hand that we should be thin and fetishises food on the other. This is a complex and often lengthy process, which cannot be achieved simply by screeching at someone that they are fat.

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