Being overweight is often not a choice. Being ashamed is.
Posted October 31, 2018
by Robin Young, L.C.S.W., Ph.D
People who are fat are routinely shamed for their “weakness,” lack of willpower, and laziness. For those who are not HWP (height/weight proportional), the contempt directed toward them can feel like a relentless barrage of vicious criticism. And yet, the research is clear: Being fat is not a choice. We must confront our culture’s endorsement of fat-shaming, the internalization of which causes so many to suffer.
Shame is that feeling of failure, worthlessness, and defect that convinces us we are different and unlovable. Shame can be one of the most painful feelings we will ever know.
Shaming is what you do when you call someone fat. (“Obese” and “overweight” are less overtly disparaging, but everybody knows they refer to someone being fat.)
Of course, we don’t have to meet the medical standard for obesity to shame ourselves for being fat. Our society is obsessed with fitness and thinness to the point that any deviation from the ideal – no matter how small — can trigger feelings of shame, which then cause us to frantically redouble our efforts at dieting and exercise.
The Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice
Speaking in a derogatory fashion and shaming the obese is the last acceptable prejudice. When you shame someone who is obese it is no different than attacking someone for the color of their skin, their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. Most of us frown on those prejudices, while verbally attacking fat people remains socially acceptable.
Maybe someday our society will protect us from the hate of others, but it will never protect us from ourselves. The reality is, for most of us, the attack is also self-inflicted. We hate and shame ourselves for failing to live up to our society’s ideal. We have so thoroughly internalized social norms that we are terrified to slip up and gain that extra five pounds.
For Most There Is No Cure
For a sizable portion of the population (pun intended) there is no cure; the battle is already lost. Since 1959 research has shown that 95% to 98% of attempts to lose weight fail; two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost.
Since 1969, research has consistently demonstrated that failed attempts to keep weight off have a biological basis. Losing just 3% of your body weight results in a 17% slowdown of your metabolism, and an intense blast of hunger hormones causes you to feel like you are literally starving. This continues until you rise back to your highest weight. This is not the feeling of hunger that reminds you to eat – it is the feeling that you will die if you don’t.
Keeping the weight off means fighting this energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life. In spite of more then 50 years of scientific research clearly showing that obesity is a human condition that has no "cure" – not unlike homosexuality – socially sanctioned oppression remains. And obese people suffer from the resulting shame and all the psychological fall-out that accompanies it.
Bonnie is a very successful business woman who came into treatment with me post-bariatric surgery. She has never been diagnosed with obesity. She had the surgery because she was terrified of becoming like her mother, who had been taunted and teased for being obese.
When Bonnie would gain 5-10 pounds, she would go into hiding. She isolated out of fear that people would ridicule her. The hope that bariatric surgery would put an end to her shame led her to submit to this highly invasive and risky procedure.
Harriet is a charming, very engaging and successful professional woman in her early 40’s. She gained and lost weight her entire adult life. Each time her weight was down, she would date men hoping to meet someone to love her. As her weight would inevitably climb back up, she would be so full of shame that she would isolate herself in a world of self-loathing. She could not imagine any man would want her as she was—her shame was paralyzing.
Both of these patients entered treatment with deep-seated shame about obesity—imagined and real. Their shared fantasy was that weight loss would once and for all free them from shame. They hoped to escape the shame instead of facing it head on. Only through the recognition and working through of their paralyzing feelings of shame were they able to move on with their lives.
Facing the Shame Head On
To lessen the crippling effects of shame, concentrate on being healthy:
- Instead of dieting, focus on eating healthy food.
- Instead of exercising to lose weight, exercise for health
- Instead of focusing on how you look, start a meditation or yoga practice to focus on yourself in a positive way.
- Work with a therapist who is attuned to the impact of fat shaming.
Just as people who were ostracized for being black or gay have had to develop pride in who they are, fat people have to find pride in being big and beautiful. If being like Emma Stone is not an option, how about taking Adele as a role model?
Robin Young, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., has been practicing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for more than 40 years. She is a senior member, training analyst, and supervising faculty at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. She is also an adjunct instructor at the NYU School of Social Work. She also has a private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. robinyoung.net