Solving Unsolvable Problems

Putting science to practice

Dear Abby Attacks Overweight Woman

Advice columnist woefully misunderstands the effect of shame

Fashion and manners question puts Dear Abby on the attack
http://curvyfaith.tumblr.com/post/59737497095/pretty-girl-in-her-plus-size-bikini
It seemed like a straightforward question about family and manners. The letter writer – a 24 year-old woman – said she typically wears one-piece bathing suits in public because “it doesn’t attract a lot of attention.” At home with family, she wears a bikini top and shorts because she feels more comfortable that way.  Conflict arose when her mother asked her to wear something more modest around the house.

Abby sided with the mother on the grounds that in the mother’s house the mother’s wishes should prevail. It was certainly a defensible ruling – and not one that would have turned the Internet all aflutter.

Not content with addressing the actual question asked, however, Abby then went on the attack. The bikini-loving woman had also described herself as “plus-sized,” “60 or 70 pounds overweight.”

Abby could not abide this sort of thing, telling the woman:

While you say you are comfortable in your own skin, it would be interesting to know what your physician thinks about your obesity. I suspect that your mother would be prouder of you if you were less complacent and more willing to do something about your weight problem.

Gulp.

Abby leaps from the words plus-sized to making this woman out to be a health disaster. She takes a sincere disagreement about clothing propriety and suddenly has a few pounds being the difference between the woman being loved and unloved by her mother. To Abby – who doesn’t know if this woman is the most loving, caring person who has ever existed, who doesn’t know if this woman is an astrophysicist, who doesn’t know anything about who she really is and what makes her beautiful – the only thing that defines the woman is her waistline.

But leave aside the unfounded assumptions, twisted logic and anachronisms Abby puts on display here and there is one unescapable truth the advice columnist needs to learn: mean words and shame do not make people healthier.

Studying women in their late teens and early twenties, Lenny Vartanian and Jacqueline Shaprow found a strong relationship between weight stigma and exercise behavior. Which is to say, the worse young women felt about their bodies, the less exercise they did. 

On the other side of the ledger, Carissa Wott and Robert Carels found that weight stigma was associated with binge eating and decreased motivation to follow a weight-loss program.

And, a new study that tracked overweight women over several years found that those who had experienced weight-shaming incidents actually wound up gaining weight during the four-year period. Those who had not felt shamed lost weight over the four years.

In short, even among those of the exact same body type, people who feel more shame about their bodies tend to eat more, exercise less, and do worse.

Abby presumably assumes that shame is where determination and gumption come from. In truth, shame is how bad problems get worse. Shame is a de-motivator because it robs us of hope, makes us feel uncomfortable and incapable. Shame puts the emphasis on our failures, not our possibilities.

Abby, barking insults like a 1950s football coach, spreads shame not only to the letter writer but to anyone who reads her column. If Abby truly believes this young woman needs help, then Abby should be offering love and support toward a healthier life, not insults and mockery.

David Niven, Ph.D., is a social scientist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati. David's books include It's Not About the Shark and the 100 Simple Secrets series.

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