I could spend all day talking about the research linking women’s body shame with a variety of unhappy outcomes. When I tell people that body shame is linked to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction, most people believe me. A lot of people – men and women – know the pain of looking in the mirror and despairing over what they see. They’ve felt that impact. But nearly every time I give a presentation on this topic, I hear some version of this:
“If you’re overweight, it could be good that you feel shame. Won’t body shame help you lose weight and make you more healthy?”
Others are more direct. They ask questions like, “Don’t you think shaming people could help combat the obesity epidemic?” Or, “Aren’t you just encouraging people to be unhealthy?”
Here’s my answer to all of those questions: No.
There is no evidence that fostering body shame is an effective way to maintain a healthy weight or get other people to make healthy decisions. Instead, shame makes you want to hide from the world and lick your wounds. Or perhaps soothe them with your favorite sugary or salty snack. Shame makes you want to withdraw from important activities and meaningful connections with others. Shame can be a threat to your physical and psychological health.
One of the women I interviewed for my book, Beauty Sick, pointed out how anti-fat bias holds her back from her fitness goals. She explained, “People want you to be thin, there’s this idea that everybody wants you to exercise. But if you go to an exercise class, it’s embarrassing and people are not supportive. You know, there is twittering and giggling and it’s uncomfortable.” Her experience fits right in with research on this topic.
In fact, one study found that those who feel stigmatized with respect to their body weight are more likely to report deliberately avoiding exercise. The finding that body shame can impede physical activity isn’t limited to adults. A study of 5th through 8th graders revealed that children whose family and friends criticize their weight are less likely to be interested in sports and other physical activity.
When you’re ashamed of your body, you’re not motivated to listen carefully to what it wants or to give it the things it needs. Instead, that feeling of shame can often lead to unhealthy eating habits. Another woman I interviewed for Beauty Sick called body shame “the worst way to try to lose weight.” As she explained it, “When you feel ashamed and depressed, you’re not bopping out of bed in the morning and taking a walk around the block and eating oatmeal with blueberries on the side. You’re going to Dunkin’ Donuts, because you feel like there’s no hope.”
Regardless of their actual body size, people who feel they are frequently treated badly because of their weight report more over-eating. Once again, this finding extends beyond adults. A different study of several thousand U.S. adolescents found that those who are most frequently teased about their weight were more likely to engage in binge eating.
In an experimental study, overweight and obese women were assigned to view either a neutral video (showing things like boring insurance advertisements) or a video containing scenes in which fat women were mocked for their weight or were shown experiencing weight-based discrimination. Afterward, the women were asked to complete questionnaires and given bowls of high-calorie snacks that they could eat as they worked on the surveys. Overweight women who saw the stigma-filled video consumed three times as many calories as those who saw the neutral video.
Those who promote fat-shaming often appear to believe that shame is the magic ingredient that will suddenly make dieting more palatable and weight loss more sustainable. Instead, what often happens is that the sadness body shame leaves in its wake promotes behaviors like binge-eating.
In the end, feeling ashamed of our bodies makes it more difficult to take good care of our bodies. It is very difficult to take care of things we hate. If you’re hoping to make some healthy changes in order to take better care of your body, start by thinking of it as your home instead of as your enemy. Think about your body the way you think about the people you love: imperfect, but inherently valuable and worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.