Body Shaming: Why Your Unsolicited Advice Is Doing More Harm Than Good

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Have you ever been to a restaurant that has the meal that you’ve been craving all week? You’ve worked hard at work or school and you feel that you deserve a reward. You wait and wait until it arrives at your table, perfectly presented and waiting to be devoured. Just as you’re about to dive in, you can feel eyes staring at you and your plate. You think, “Maybe he or she is just as hungry as I am and wishes this was his or her plate.” But, after a more careful examination of the person’s face, you notice the look is a look of disgust, and he or she is not looking at your plate, his or her eyes are looking straight. at. YOU. Then comes the dreaded comment. “You really don’t need to be eating that. You’re fat enough already.”  Immediately, you drop your fork and become pensive. All of your pride vanishes and you become self conscious. You know that you are overweight and are working to improve it, but all you can think about is how overweight you are. When your friend asks you what’s wrong, you quickly say that nothing is wrong in order to avoid making the situation more awkward than it is.

 

Or, have you been out eating with your close friends at a casual dinner or lunch? Everybody is ordering their favorite meals celebrating your friend’s engagement. Everyone is starving and when the plates come, you start eating without hesitation. You look up and everyone is looking at back and forth at you and your plate. “You should seriously contemplate eating a burger, Sarah. You’re too thin and don’t eat enough. Some people are beginning to think that you have an eating disorder.” Your elated mood is knocked out of you like you’ve been punched in the gut. Why can’t you just enjoy your meal? Yes you’re thin, but it’s definitely not because you have an eating disorder.

 

Maybe you’ve had a stranger say these things to you. Or, maybe you’ve given this type of advice to someone you know. Most likely these words have come from people close to us in an effort to help make us healthier. While it may prompt someone to conform to that person’s beliefs about an ideal weight, neither comment makes a person feel good about himself or herself. So what are the implications of saying these things?

 

FAT SHAMING

People probably assume that telling someone that they are fat and shaming them for it will inspire that person to lose weight. Being overweight and obesity are risk factors for “heart disease, type two diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers and other chronic conditions”. Shame someone into being skinny right? Wrong.  

NPR recently posted an article about a study that Angelina Sutin and her colleague developed.  They surveyed “6,000 American men and women age 50 and older who were asked how often in their daily lives they experienced different types of discrimination”.

“Overweight people who said they’d experienced discrimination based on weight were more than twice as likely to be obese four years later than people who didn’t mention such discrimination. And those who started out obese were three times more likely to remain so if they’d been harshly targeted because of their weight.”

According to this study, discrimination does not motivate a person to change their behavior if they are overweight, it actually makes them more overweight.  

 

SKINNY SHAMING

Just because a person appears to be small, doesn’t mean that he or she is perfectly healthy. A recent phenomenon among teen girls has encouraged them to go great lengths to become smaller in order to have a “thigh gap”. According to a USA TODAY  article, this skinny trend is nearly impossible and potentially harmful to its persuers. 

“Vonda Wright, a Pittsburgh-based orthopedic surgeon and fitness expert, said the spacing between a person’s legs is based mostly on genetics. And even extraordinarily thin people may not have a body type that can achieve a gap. You have to be both skinny and wide-hipped, she said.

Besides, Wright said, it isn’t a goal worth chasing. Most fit people won’t have a thigh gap because their thighs are muscular enough that they touch, she said.

“Skinny does not mean fit or muscular,” said Wright, who works with Division I athletes. “I cannot think of one athlete I deal with” who has a thigh gap.”

 

Because of the obesity epidemic, the health issues of being overweight are well known. Little attention is given to the health issues caused by being underweight. Discovery Health reports that underweight people, not just those who are anorexic, are at risk for “heart disease”, “diabetes”, “lowered immune system”, “anemia”, “fertility issues”, and “osteoporosis”. 

 

SO HOW SHOULD WE TELL A LOVED ONE THAT WE’RE CONCERNED ABOUT HIS/HER HEALTH?

This is a great question that is not so easily answered. A person’s health depends on a lot of factors. Size is just one of them. Health depends on genetics, diet, environment, socio-economic status, access to healthy options, physical activity, knowledge of healthy options and attitude/beliefs about health. There are many factors that affect one’s health status and someone could teach a whole class on how each factor affects health. As one starts to learn about all of the different puzzle pieces that encompass health, shaming someone based on size doesn’t seem as helpful as one initially thought.

Cook for a loved one. Find out what their favorite meal is and find an alternative way to cook it, without as much salt, sugar, or fat.

Tell your loved one that you love them and want to enjoy a long life with them. Have a heart to heart with that person. Explain to them that you want to be able to enjoy life with them and don’t want bad health to get in the way. Make sure that your love and concern for the person is evident. Don’t be too critical.

Workout with a loved one. Sometimes all that person needs is a buddy, someone to be with them to keep them accountable.

Be supportive. Becoming healthy is difficult. Let that person know that they you are willing to help them along the way.

 

BOTTOM LINE

Shame should not be a part of any motivation for becoming a healthier person. Telling someone that they are doing something bad without presenting viable options for a better lifestyle can result in extreme behaviors that could make the person even more unhealthy (i.e. eating disorders, depression).  Help encourage that person to work toward feasible health goals. Demonstrate what healthy behaviors are and aren’t through your own actions. Everyone is different and requires his/her own unique plan that is tailored to his/her lifestyle, body type, and desired health goals.

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