I am in the midst of writing an article about the diet industry for this lovely publication and it’s one that will cover many facets of the climate around weight loss and body image. As I often do when I am looking for a variety of thoughts on a topic, I posted on my Facebook page, seeking perspectives on the topic of fat-shaming: Is it justifiable? Is it effective? Although I know this is a sensitive and provocative topic, I was still unprepared for the outpouring of very heartfelt and gut-wrenching responses to my general query.
On the thread, people wrote about the deep embarrassment and estrangement they experienced at the dinner table as their siblings snickered at them for getting second helpings. People wrote about lingering resentment towards parents, grandparents, relatives, classmates and others who pointed out their size in a derogatory way, whether it was intentionally mean-spirited or occurred under the pretext of being well-intentioned. People wrote about this specific kind of stigmatization triggering a response of eating in isolation, where they ate tucked away in their rooms, or fostering a habit of bingeing in the middle of the night with a carton of ice cream in a darkened kitchen, reinforcing their shame and secrecy around eating. People wrote about how they avoided physical checkups to not expose themselves to shaming from their doctors. People wrote about how being demeaned because of their size as children and teens – sometimes just once, sometimes persistently – likely resulted in subsequent battles with serious eating disorders.
Of the dozens of people who responded and well over one hundred comments, not one person said that as a result of being “called out” for their weight, something positive resulted. Yes, this is just anecdotal: Facebook surveys are not done in a laboratory and I am not a researcher. However, the response is strongly backed up by the emerging evidence that underscores how ill-advised it to create a stigma around size, both from the perspective of weight loss and the psychological damage. Studies on the topic are new but they are consistently indicating that shaming experiences are associated with decreased motivation and with the adoption of less nutritious dietary practices. In other words, when exposed to scolding or insulting messaging, many people exposed to it adopted the kinds of behaviors associated with weight gain.
If we know that the act of shaming is not one that offers positive net results, we will have to admit that disparaging someone based on his or her size is simply mean. If it’s not effective, what is its other purpose? It may make those who issue the deriding comments possibly feel superior or helpful, depending on whether or not they are familiar with or accepting of the research, but make no mistake, it is not beneficial. Often, the messaging overflows with the misogyny and objectification of our dominant culture as well, whether it is overtly spoken or not. In fact, the sexism of our mainstream culture is inextricably and necessarily intertwined with the rampant culture of body-shaming that surrounds us. It is estimated that 90% of people struggling with eating disorders are female and, according to filmmaker and speaker Dr. Jean Kilbourne, the priming for disordered thinking around the female body starts young: a survey of fourth grade girls showed that 80% were on diets. The suicide mortality rate of people with anorexia is thought to be among the highest of all psychiatric disorders.
We know this about the general population engaging in fat-shaming: what does it say about vegan advocates when we participate in the same behaviors in pursuit of some converts? We know that the research affirms that it is not an effective form of advocacy. We know that it contributes to self-loathing in a way that that could prove to be fatal. Even if it were effective, should a community that is founded on principles of compassion and justice be perpetuating messages that could have such dire consequences?
So a possible mental checklist to ask yourself before you give dietary advice to anyone in regard to weight loss…
1. Was this advice specifically solicited from you?
2. Are you from a professional background in which your advice would be appropriate and expected?
3. Are you knowledgeable in the most current research regarding persuasive motivation? Are you trained as a counselor?
4. Do you have a relationship with the person with whom you’d like to offer advice, for example, a close friendship or a professional engagement, in which you would fully understand the person’s background and challenges?
5. Are you able to give advice without using a fear- or shame-based approach?
6. Everything is moot if you cannot honestly answer #1 in the affirmative.
7. Even if you can answer #1 in the affirmative, you must still tread very, very carefully.
If you answer no to any of these, seriously consider if you should be dispensing dietary advice.
Last, can we honestly present veganism as a panacea for obesity? How about the different iterations of a plant-based diet – low fat, fruit-based, high-carb, whatever: what are the consequences when something that already seemed so difficult and socially isolating to so many just got saddled with a bunch of restrictions? What happens when we intertwine our social justice movement with the language and culture of dieting, something has so many harsh and regressive associations in so many minds?
A plant-based diet can offer some real physical benefits, especially in the realm of cardiovascular health and the many advantages of eating a plant-rich diet that is low in saturated fats. As vegans, though, should we assign ourselves the role of diet coach-slash-drill sergeant? I don't have my answers yet but my thought right now is that unless we are very mindful and sensitive about the misogynistic, hateful messages popular culture saturates us with, we should seriously question if this is in the best interest of individuals and the vegan movement.