After US talkshow host Bill Maher called for fat shaming to “make a comeback”, fellow host James Corden’s impassioned response won widespread support online.
“It’s proven that fat shaming only does one thing,” he said. “It makes people feel ashamed and shame leads to depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour – self-destructive behaviour like overeating.”
“If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there’d be no fat kids in schools.”
But does Maher have a point? Almost two thirds of adults in England were overweight or obese in 2017. The NHS recorded 10,660 hospital admissions in 2017/18 where obesity was the primary diagnosis.
In the US, the situation is starker still. More than 70% of adults over 20 are overweight or obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
On Twitter, the former professional baseball player, Kevin Youkilis, claimed he owed his “whole entire career” to fat shaming, having initially been overlooked by scouts because of his weight.
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That experience, though, is atypical, says Jane Ogden, a professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey.
“Shaming is the wrong way forward,” she told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on Monday.
“All of the evidence is that fat shaming just makes people feel worse. It lowers their self-esteem. It makes them feel depressed and anxious and as a result of that what they then do is self-destructive.”
A study by behavioural scientists at University College London found rather than encouraging people to lose weight, fat shaming led people to put on more weight.
Victoria Abraham, 19, lives and studies in New York city, but grew up in Florida.
She says that her first hand experience shows Mr Maher is wrong about fat shaming.
“I have been shamed my entire life for my weight and I am still fat. When nasty comments were made to me as a child I used to go home after school and eat food to make myself feel better.
“It’s not like people were saying these comments from a place of caring. They just wanted to make me feel small and negative about my body.
“The people who cared about my health were my parents and my doctor and that’s it. They were the only people who had the right to talk to me about my body. The kids on the street were just teasing me for being different.”
Victoria stresses that she is now very confident about her body and reflects that if her younger self could have seen her now then her childhood would have been much happier.
“Back then you weren’t allowed to be fat and happy,” she said. “You weren’t allowed to love yourself no matter what you looked like”.
It was changing the media she consumed that made all the difference.
“After I finished middle school I started reading books with fat characters and watching TV with fat women which started to change the way I viewed myself. If you only see media with thin white women then you think something is wrong with you. But when you see beautiful fat women you start to see the beauty in yourself.”
Victoria also acknowledges the health impacts of obesity.
“Losing weight is good for your health but I am anti-diet. I have tried most of them and you just put the weight back on after the diet. Now I just try and do more exercise and eat healthier things.”
“It’s a very hard conversation to have,” Professor Ogden told the BBC.
“The evidence out there for the impact of excess bodyweight and obesity – on cancer, on diabetes, on heart disease – is very clear. And that’s education we need to have out there.
“But because the line between getting that message out there and then actually making someone feel ashamed of who they are is so fine, those conversations are very difficult.”
Even if you do lose weight, fat shaming can negatively impact health in other ways.
Will Mavity, 25, lives in Los Angeles. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he was, he says, “extremely chubby”.
It is not a description you would use about him today.
“They would call me double d, and this stuff added up. When I started high school I decided the only way I could avoid this was to never be fat again,” he told the BBC.
But Will developed an eating disorder.
“Fat shaming caused me to lose weight, but not in a healthy way. I started to purge after every meal,” he said.
“I injure myself over and over again because of over-exercise. I feel I have to. I start getting angry whenever I cannot work out. I can’t shake it. Because of the fat shaming, I associate my value as a human being with the way I look.”
“Shaming anybody for anything doesn’t help you – whatever the thing is that is being shamed,” Professor Ogden explained.
“It’s just not a positive way to run a society.”
Read more: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-49714697