Why Fat Shaming Doesn't Promote Health And What You Can Do Instead

By Erin Brown

fatshaming-healthy-vibrant-woman-sittingoutside-450x338Your body is your home, with scars, triumphs, tragedies and countless stories.  Fit bodies don’t necessarily tell the story of a healthy person, nor do overweight bodies tell the story of a lazy person.  You can’t know everything about a person’s behavior or life by simply looking at her body.

When I was a morbidly obese person I was the picture of poor treatment of my body.  I ate primarily pizza, nachos, and mac and cheese.  I mostly sat, and I got winded if I had to go up a flight of stairs.  I was oinked at, was regularly told to lose weight or that I would be “so pretty if I just lost the belly.” The feedback swirled around in my head, adding another layer to the (much worse) track I already had playing on repeat in there. The one with my own judgments and self-despair.

Occasionally I would “get serious” and eat in ways I believed would result in weight loss.  I starved for days. I would eventually “fail” as my hunger became overwhelming, and it “wasn’t working” anyway.  I would work out to punish myself and pray that the weight would go.

fatshaming-sad-woman-head-down-450x338These bouts didn’t last long. Even healthy behaviors when taken on as punishment are not positive or lasting.  While choosing to eat a salad or going to the gym are good practices in theory, if you’re saying the most nasty and horrific things to yourself the whole time, they register as yet more punishment and bullying.

Negative commentary from others about my body only fueled the punishment I was already providing for myself.  It didn’t encourage me take loving, earnest steps toward improving my health and changing my body.  It didn’t give me a new “drive” to work on myself.  It only deepened my sense of unworthiness. It made me want to never leave the house. It made me desperate, instead of hopeful. It all came from the belief that my body was an object for judging and not my home, deserving of my care.

Whenever I’ve said that “all bodies are good bodies,” I have received comments from people who proclaim to be health crusaders accusing me of celebrating gluttony, laziness, and poor health.

On the contrary—I love my health practices.  I make it a point to share them and how they make me feel so that others might consider starting their own.  I aim to role model them instead of beating others over the head with them, because that never worked for me.

fatshaming-woman-poiting-450x338In order to begin to value my body in such a way that I would take care of it, I had to know that I didn’t get a “bad” one.  Nothing was “wrong” with me.  I wasn’t taking care of myself, and in the case of my story, that resulted in a morbidly obese, out-of-shape body.  My behaviors deserved examining and changing, but my body wasn’t “bad.”

No one pointing a judgmental finger at me helped me make positive changes.  In fact, I had to do some serious digging within myself to let those voices go.  I had to forgive them and put them out of my head so that I could love my home enough to take care of it.

These are the experiences I looked to for inspiration instead:

  • I thought about friends who were athletes, who talked about what their bodies could do.
  • I thought about people who I knew ran races, and how proud they were of their accomplishments at the finish line.
  • I thought of how my fitness enthusiast friends ate healthfully to fuel their training, and to feel good.
  • I looked to the few experiences I’d had with women who didn’t hate their bodies.

fatshaming-woman-at-gym-450x338I used to bully the hell out of myself, and I know that I am not alone in that.  Self-bully-ers are everywhere!  Almost everyone I speak with believes they are still a few or many pounds away from being socially acceptable.

“I’m a work in progress,” we all say. We work tirelessly toward a goal that seems forever unmet.  Even when a “goal weight” is achieved, there is always further to go.  I’m not suggesting one can’t enjoy making those kinds of changes, or that working on muscle definition is the worst thing ever.  But I do know that when it comes from a place of determining your worth as a person, your focus on not being good enough just makes it easier to “find” more ways in which you aren’t good enough.

Proclaiming that someone’s body (or your own) is disgusting is bullying.

It doesn’t help. It is not motivating.  And even if someone does get bullied into the gym, under such circumstances their self-talk is likely not positive and compassionate. It’s all punishment and negativity.  Plenty of people bully themselves into a smaller body, yet carry on with the same (or worse) self-criticism and stress they had when they lived in a bigger body.

fatshaming-woman-sad-scale-450x338That’s still not health.  Judgment and bullying are not effective as catalysts toward improving health.

Are you saddened by the lack of healthy movement and whole food eating behaviors in someone you care about? Are you discouraged by how few people in your life share your values when it comes to health?

Judgment, bullying, and shaming are counterproductive and short-sighted, even when coated with well-meaning intention. Body policing further promotes shame and self-judgment—nothing more.  If you are passionate about health, seek to make a positive impact for others.

Here are five things you can do to be a positive and thoughtful health activist:  

  1. Start a walking group at your job.
  2. Get your company to provide healthy snacks in the break room as a part of a employee health initiative.
  3. Become the kind of group fitness instructor that encourages and welcomes all body types to join in, work hard, and have fun.
  4. Be the kind of person who promotes wellness and not shame.
  5. And the primary thing you can do — the thing I looked back to as I began this journey — is love people where they are today and role model healthy behaviors in yourself.  This includes working on your own inner voice and turning off the judgments that contribute to others’ personal body-hell.

At the end of the day we’re all just trying to figure out how to live a beautiful life.  We have stories and excuses and reasons and struggles that contribute to the state of our homes.  Let’s promote health in a way that isn’t about shame. We can all benefit from being and having positive role models and compassion, but never judgment.

So often when we feel the need to point our fingers at others—whether it's fat shaming, fit shaming, or any other method of putting others down—it's important for us to examine what's really going on inside ourselves. More often than not, that need to tear others down exists side-by-side with a need to build ourselves up in some way. We need to ask ourselves, "What is it about this person that's making me uncomfortable with me?"

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  Erin Brown

Erin Brown is a writer, speaker, feminist, and activist. Her work focuses on women and autonomy, which includes sharing her personal narrative and helping women own the power of their voice. Erin is the author of Showing All The Way Up: A Guide To Confidence and As Is: A 21 day practice for finding a home and peace in your skin. Learn more about Erin on her website and connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

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