Now We're Talking 3: Fighting Obesity with Shame

>> Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There is a loud and sizable group of people out there who seem to think the best way to combat our current obesity epidemic is to dole out the shame, preferably by bucketfuls. No slur is too harsh, no joke of too poor taste, no belittling over the top. After all, if "you had any self-respect, you wouldn't look the way you do." That last would be a direct quote from my ex-husband.

Now, let me be clear, before someone thinks I'm saying something different than I'm saying. For nearly all of us fat folks, we got there through our own neglect and bad habits. And, to remedy this situation, we (and we alone) will have to fix it. True, some people have contributing ailments or circumstances that acerbated the situation, but, in most cases, if we were diligent and never let up, we might be able to control it anyway. Try, however, if you've always been skinny, not to think you know the level of sacrifice required just by looking.

Anyway, because the disease is perceived as self-inflicted, fat people don't tend to get much sympathy. Many see it as a narcissistic and self-indulgent malady without even the physiological impetus of addiction. This mindset has led, in many cases, to the thinking that, if we could just convince fat people how ugly, horrible, repulsive, and disgusting they were, how selfish, how destructive, they'd change their ways and reverse this obesity epidemic.

Well, in my opinion, there are a few things wrong with that line of reasoning. First, I think they're reading most fat people all wrong. In my experience, most people don't get fat because they feel empowered, because they want to show off their stature (as powerful Hawaiians once did). Perhaps there are a few who hold their fat as a badge of honor...naw, I just don't buy it.

No, I think most people end up fat because they already feel like a failure or feel ugly, because they're stressed, because they have low self-esteem. For some, they struggle to attain an unattainable goal (often a foolish one), like supermodel size. When they fail, even if they are healthy and beautiful, all they can see are the pockets of unsightly fat, the failure, the flaws. They give up. When they do, they eat whatever, stop exercising, get fatter, feel worse, and the cycle continues. It's one reason I hate (and have always hated) the focus on looks and slenderness - I think far too many of the "failures" end up obese because they can never be "good enough."

Or they're busy and stressed and the fat just sneaks up on 'em. They're chasin' babies while working full-time and running all their friends lives, and they turn around and realize that they never lost the baby weight and they've even packed on a couple dozen other pounds. They want to fix it, but they're loaded down with things to juggle. They sign up at the gym and or with classes but they can never make it. Then, when they drop that ball, they come up with rationalizations, or reassure themselves they'll deal with it soon as they sew up this account or Suzy goes to kindergarten. By the time Suzy's graduating, 30 pounds has become 90 pounds and it's going to take more than a few afternoons in the club to get it off.

You don't even have to be insecure about your looks. It could be that you feel you're stupid or worthless or lonely or miserable, and food is your solace.

But, the bottom line, people already know they have a problem (even if they didn't see it coming) and telling them they're failures or ugly or miserable people isn't telling something they didn't already know. Might as well tell a manic depressive to snap out of it.

It's the sense of powerlessness that makes obesity so pervasive and challenging to overcome. Last time I lost a lot of weight, I had decided to leave a truly poisonous marriage finally. I lost 80 pounds in 6 months. And then I went through the three year divorce from hell, where I felt powerless to protect my daughter, to prevent financial ruin. It's an explanation not an excuse, but all that good was undone. And I'm going to have to take it off again.

And that's the thing, shame is wasted. We're not like a drunk insisting on getting in his car because he has rights or like a junkie who thinks he's invincible. We know we've failed, failed ourselves and, as others have noted, failed them too. We know our health is at risk and that many can't stand the sight of us. 'Cause you've told us.

Don't believe it doesn't work? Well, that's been the method of choice for decades. And obesity is more prevalent, not less. Just sayin'.


  • Anonymous

    I know the point you are making about excess weight being such an obvious thing for people to zero in on. It's hard to hide being overweight and an easy thing for people to point at and judge.

    There will be no solace in this, but alcoholics, drug abusers, prozac and xanax chompers, and even smokers, probably all suffer, to some degree, from the same need for some kind of self-medication or comfort (I'm not sure either of those is the term I want) that fat people are seeking with food. But, most of those addictions can be hidden for years if a person is so inclined.

    I would venture that eating too much and carrying some excess weight (unless it approaches morbid obesity) is the least damaging of the addictions that are most common in our society.

    I wish I could lend you some of my "stuff it where the sun don't shine unless you're a real pervert" attitude. I think sensitive people suffer more than people like me.

  • Stephanie B

    In many ways, I'm very lucky. It was my husband saying the quote above that woke me up to how unhealthy my relationship was. He had no idea who I was. I happen to think I'm a GREAT person (if lazy) and I'm fortunate to work in a job where my worth is valued no matter what I look like. Few people have the moxy to try to use my size against me cause I'm a cast iron bitch.

    Many, however, are not so fortunate to know their worth in at least some categories.

    I don't doubt addicts do suffer nor am I trying to make light of that. But I'm not sure it has the same stigma (though I'm sure that depends on where and when). I don't understand why being fat is so reviled, as much or more than drunk driving. People rarely kill other people (or hurt others) by being heavy.

  • Melissa

    We live in a judgemental society. If they didn't pick on fat people, they would pick on someone else. Now I will say obesity is definitely an epidemic in this country. However it also seems to be more acceptable than it probably should be. Way oversized portions, is a fixable problem. We all over eat, it is just our culture, it should be changed. Video games, cable TV, cell phones,and computers, these things all contribute to our lack of activity. Why go outside in the heat, or cold, when you can plop on the couch play a video game, talk on your phone, and check email pretty much all at the same time. We as a culture need to educate each other, not criticize, and poke fun. Some people who are obese need a lot of help, the rest of them just need some better choices, and education.

  • Project Savior

    80 lbs in 6 months, wow.
    As far as waking up and finding that a few lbs has creped up on me, I had a picture taken of me and I saw I was about 50 lbs overweight. I was real proud that I lost 35 lbs of that in 6 months.
    In order to lose it, part of my plan was to do a lot of walking. If I were observant (which I'm not) and noticed people picking on me I would have just stayed indoors and packed on more lbs.

  • The Mother

    Many "addictions", even to food (and sloth), are really self-medicating psychological disturbances. Depression, generally.

    So shaming someone isn't going to help the problem, it's going to hurt.

    I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but the number one, virtually free pick me up (and this INCLUDES organically depressed patients) is EXERCISE.

    Exercise works on the cortisol axis, which has some central action in depression. For a while, we used morning cortisol levels as a marker for depression.

    Get out and do, and you'll feel better. And as you feel better about yourself, you might lose that addiction. Or weight.

  • Stephanie B

    I agree, there's something about exercise that can be very rewarding and motivating However, I'm not an advocate for doing something you don't enjoy. If you feel like all your exercise sessions are torture, try something else.

    Do keep exercising; just find a different activity.

    Because of trick(and subsequently trashed) knees, most exercises that involve running, jumping, climbing, squatting, twisting my legs or standing won't work for me. Aerobics are hell. I can do weight training (as long as I skip certain exercises). However, I have no trouble walking, biking, and swimming. Also, I suspect because of stretching, I never seem to have trouble with martial arts, which is also the least boring of them for me. That's what I was doing when last I lost weight.

  • flit

    A very good article.

    I competed in gymnastics and martial arts back when I was a teenager- and was absolutely convinced I was HUGE back then... now when I look at the pictures I can't getover how wrong I was.

    Sure would like to be that "huge" again LOL But I'm on my way.

    Funny how just walking/bike riding has never worked for me just to do it for exercise' sake. That's one way Ross & I differ. I hate to walk without a destination - but if I make a point of going to the mail or the mall or whatever, then it's okay. Still haven't driven the van even though I can no - better to keep walkin'

  • Jeff King

    I am luck i work in a very physical demanding job, or i would be in trouble {BIG TIME}

    as of right now i am around 20 lbs over weight, and don't care.

    6-ft tall and 210 i can live with that for now... maybe being married for 14 years has somthing to do with it.

    if i was still in the game maybe i would take action to eat better and not allow myself 3rd and fourth helpings at dinner...

    good topic.

  • Aron Sora

    Yea, I remember once someone cursed me out for not going to some party. Then I went to the nearest place to get fries, orders 4 largest ones, and inhaled them. Only, I felt worse after because people where judging me in the fast food place. I'm glad I go to a school where everyone is nice.

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