Psychologists Confirm: Shaming People Does Not Encourage Weight-Loss

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Sep 24, 2019

Psychologists Confirm: Shaming People Does Not Encourage Weight-Loss

A report by top psychologists has put it in black and white for us, fat shaming does not work

Recently there have been opinions and debates flying around the media questioning whether or not making people feel ashamed for their weight helps them to lose weight.

Many people in larger bodies already know the answer to this - as James Cordon said in response to Bill Maher’s call for the return of fat shaming, “If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there’d be no fat kids in schools.”

The British Psychological Society have put together a report that confirms this.

“It is not simply down to an individual’s lack of willpower.”

The truth is, weight is a complex issue with many different factors at play - including genetics and what a person’s natural set-point weight is. The report cites environment, stress and trauma as key factors.

“The people who are most likely to be an unhealthy weight are those who have a high genetic risk of developing obesity and whose lives are also shaped by work, school and social environments that promote overeating and inactivity.

“People who live in deprived areas often experience high levels of stress, including major life challenges and trauma, often their neighbourhoods offer few opportunities and incentives for physical activity and options for accessing affordable healthy food are limited.”

Difficulties in childhood also have a part to play according to the report, as well as stress caused by fat shaming by public health campaigns, GPs, nurses and policymakers. Shaming in this way often leads to further weight gain.

Speaking to Happiful earlier this year regarding Cancer Research’s highly criticised obesity campaign, counsellor Beverly Hills highlighted the dangers of using shame in this way.

“When companies prey on the stigma of shame and fear, the damage they could do to a possibly already fractured psyche may well have untold repercussions. It’s a form of crowd control, a condition of worth: ‘you are not worthy of validation unless you do such and such’ and a method that has been employed by perceived figures of authority for centuries.

“Shame leads to blame - often people blame themselves for their illness, or addiction, and do not see themselves as worthy of the help they need and so it is a very dangerous, ill-considered tactic indeed. It also doesn’t work, not in the long term, because when people do get proper support they can see it for what it is: exploitative rhetoric designed to manipulate. Shame-based campaigns ought to include information about where to go for help.”

The report calls for a change in the language used around obesity, saying ‘a person with obesity’ rather than an ‘obese person’. It also states that health professionals should be trained to talk about weight-loss in a more supportive way.

Psychologists say, “We can help, not just by devising ways of helping individuals, but also by advising on public policy which will help create an environment in which people find it easier not to become obese in the first place.”

Here at Happiful we believe mental health should be treated with the same gravitas as physical health and it’s important that people understand the harm that comes with shaming people. Research by social enterprise charity Better found over 50% of women in the UK are not happy with their bodies, with 69% saying this has a negative impact on their mental health.

We hope that this report from the British Psychological Society offers a step forward in understanding that shaming is not helpful to either physical health or mental health. We also hope that those who currently fat shame others take this into account and maybe (just maybe) stop commenting on other people’s bodies and choices.

Being physically healthy does not make you any more worthy than someone who is not. Let’s change the narrative, shall we?  

If you've been affected by weight stigma and think you would benefit from speaking to a counsellor, you can use Counselling Directory to find a counsellor near you, or use the search bar below.

Kat Nicholls

By Kat Nicholls

Kat Nicholls is a content creator and strategist at Happiful.

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