When Tim Berners-Lee first put forward the idea of a World Wide Web, his hope was to connect scientists around the globe and open up immediate access to information for all. Twenty-five years on, one could be forgiven for thinking that this promising tool has been used for nothing but spam and cat videos. In actual fact, one of the most profound contributions of the Internet has been to spread equality and awareness. Groups that were previously minorities can now connect with people in a similar position, sharing information and defining their community. For many different demographics this has been invaluable as it is much harder to oppress someone when they no longer feel alone, even if their support group is almost entirely virtual.
One of the most interesting groups to come out of this new wave of online activism is the ‘Healthy at Every Size’ movement. Their stated aim is to challenge and remove stigma surrounding being overweight or obese, helping people to be happier at whatever size they are. Unsurprisingly, their mere existence has caused controversy, with many groups chastising them for “making it OK to be fat”. One of the more scathing criticisms came from Carolyn Hall in her article “6 Things I Don't Understand About the Fat Acceptance Movement”. In this piece, Hall accused online support groups aimed at encouraging body size/shape acceptance of “using rhetoric to cover up the real danger [of being overweight]”.
There are numerous problems with Hall’s approach and they illustrate the real issues that affect people of any body shape in our society.
1. ‘Fat Shaming’ is Dangerous
Whilst bullying and negative portrayals of overweight people are often overlooked or implicitly condoned on the grounds that ‘it might help them to lose weight’, you probably need only look back to your school days for examples of bullying crushing confidence and isolating people.
An analysis by the Centre for Advancing Health indicated that high school students who believed themselves to be overweight were much more likely than their classmates to suffer from depression or to attempt suicide.
It is clear that pressure to conform to some notion of desirability is present from a young age and to not fit into that can cause serious mental health problems. The NHS has, in conjunction with the National Obesity Observatory, produced a sizeable document on obesity and the social factors that give rise to psychological disorders.
2. ‘Healthy at Every Size’ Does Not Encourage Obesity
On the contrary, HES groups tend to rally around the notion that positive changes made for the sake of being healthier and more active are more likely to be successful and permanent. So-called ‘crash dieting’ arises from shame and isolation, and therefore may be less likely to be a lasting change or to take into account general wellbeing rather than simple aesthetics.
3. ‘Fat Shaming’ Risks Creating Eating Disorders
Media portrayals of overweight people are exceedingly rare and are almost always negative. This is true of people with almost any body shape as catwalk models and movie stars all look pretty much the same from the neck down. Even animated figures, such as the ever-problematic Disney princesses, are shockingly composed. Illustrator Loryn Brantz recently edited stills from well-known Disney films to demonstrate just how bizarrely proportioned they are.
Bodies don’t all look alike and pursuing what is, for many people, an unrealistic and unhealthy ‘ideal’ can only give rise to eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, which currently impact over 5% of women. I give this statistic for women not because I am focussing on a particular gender, but because the research into eating disorders in men is sparse at best, with the last major epidemiological study being over a decade out of date. Emily Frank's 2010 study of 94 American college students, despite a small and homogenous sample size, went some way to demonstrating that feelings of shame and guilt are experienced disproportionately by people with eating disorders.
4. ‘Fat Shaming’ Doesn’t Work
Even if everything mentioned above weren't true, it is becoming clear that victimisation and discrimination against people who are overweight isn't a motivator in reducing their weight.
A recent paper from Jane Wardle’s group at my own institution, University College London (UCL), reports observations from a cohort of 2944 people over the age of 50. Those who reported discrimination or bullying not only had a greatly reduced chance of weight loss, they actually tended to gain weight and become obese.
When almost every country in the world has a burgeoning health crisis due to the availability and low quality of food and the increase in sedentary lifestyles, it can be very tempting to blame individuals for their weight.
All the evidence from decades of research has demonstrated that obesity is not a choice. It is a complex socioeconomic, psychological and physiological phenomenon. We can all do things to influence our body weight, but the most important thing is to make sure that we are happy with whatever our healthy body looks like. Obesity is an issue, but the problem is regarding the health of the individual, not whether a given person happens to find them attractive or not.
Instead of an overwhelmingly negative approach to the issue, which would seem to do more harm than good, encouraging lifestyle change on the basis that it is better to be healthy than unhealthy appears to be the key, whatever size or shape that might mean you are. The idea that only one possible incarnation of physical health can exist is rapidly proving to be a myth, one that has been lethal for many people.