Under the guise of edgy comedy, Bill Maher took on the body-positivity and fat-acceptance movements in a segment on his August 18 show, inferring that efforts to dismantle discrimination and stigma against people living in larger bodies will ultimately harm them. Two snippets of his "fresh" take:
"I'm sorry, but pretending everyone is beautiful at any size is not helping [the obese], it's enabling them."
And, by way of excusing himself:
"There's no middle ground between shaming and Shamu?"
Ouch. Sure, what he said was mean, and illustrates a clear lack of compassion for the sometimes soul-crushing experiences that many fat* people face every single day. But here's the real rub: Comments like Maher's—which he purports are meant to help people's health—are actively harmful to those who live with obesity. Here's how:
1. Direct weight-shame and bullying=worse health.
As the obesity-education experts and researchers of the Obesity Action Coalition recently pointed out, body-shaming leads to worse mental and physical health for people with obesity, not better. And doesn't help them lose weight. A study that followed thousands of people in the U.K. over the course of two years found that overweight people who were teased or shamed about their bodies actually gained weight over that period, while people who did not experience body-shaming lost a couple of pounds. Other studies have shown body shame and weight stigma increases the risk of eating disorders like binge eating disorder—which often leads to obesity—and anorexia, the most deadly of all mental illnesses. Still more research has found associations between weight stigma to psychiatric disorders, avoidance of healthcare, and suicidal thoughts for people living in large bodies.
2. Negative obesity stories in media boost fat-hate in society.
Media stories focusing on negative aspects of obesity do more than inform the public about new health discoveries and considerations—an important service. They also increase readers' and viewers' bad feelings for and prejudice against fat people according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Obesity. Television may be the most influential media of all, according to decades and decades of research on alcohol and tobacco message on TV. Comedians can't hide behind "it was a joke!" excuse anymore, as a very well-reasoned 2015 piece in The Atlantic said: "Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment."
Maher, an intellectual and moral guide on matters of bias, obesity, and health? No thanks.
(*Read a quick note about why I use the word "fat" in my own writing and conversation.)