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Fat shaming does not work against the obesity problem

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

There is no hiding away from the fact that obesity is a health problem. It can lead to diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and strokes. It is not a healthy lifestyle, and results in around 617,000 admissions in NHS hospitals in a year.

In 2016, 26 per cent of adults were classified as obese in the UK - and a further 35 per cent were overweight but not obese. It has increased from 15 per cent in 1993 but has remained at a similar level since 2010. There are one in five children in Year 6 (aged 10 or 11) and one in 10 children in Reception class (aged four or five) who are classified as obese.

In the United States, obesity affects 39.8 per cent of the population - that's 93.3 million adults. "Fat prejudice is a paradox in the United States because, simply put, most people are technically fat," Mic observes. Nearly 71 per cent of all adults in the US over 20 are overweight or obese.

However, fat shaming people is not a solution to this pandemic health problem.

Fat shaming is the act of of humiliating someone who is considered to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size. It is a "pervasive form of prejudice" found everywhere, whether it is online by cyber bullies, or in person at work, school, and public places. "People who are battling obesity face being stereotyped as lazy, incompetent, unattractive, lacking willpower, and to blame for their excessive weight," a report from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania explains.

Fat shaming starts young, far too young. Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the New York Times that weight is the most common reason why children are bulled at school. Nearly 85 per cent of adolescents reported seeing overweight classmates being teased during gym class in the US. Dr Puhl and her colleagues also asked who was doing the bullying. As well as their classmates, it was found that the bullying also comes from teachers and - for more than a third of the bullied - parents.

Women face harsher fat shaming than men. The bullying can begin when a woman's body mass index is in the overweight range, while for men it tends to start when they are obese. Obese women also report more than three times as much shaming and discrimination as men of an equal weight.

This fat shaming is not effective, either. A paper from University College London reported observations from a cohort of 2,944 people over the age of 50, and found that those who reported discrimination or bullying actually tended to gain weight and become obese.

It can also lead to eating disorders. Psychology Today writes: "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 five per cent of women." Feelings of shame and guilt, they add, are experienced disproportionately by people with eating disorders.

Obesity is a health problem, but fat shaming will not solve it. In fact, bullying and discriminating against a person because of their weight could lead to more problems.

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