Friday, August 27, 2010

The Body-Shaming Epidemic

We suffer from a shaming epidemic.

Over the years, as a society we've shamed people for sexual choices, drug use, racialized identities, choices that aren't consistent with the rigid gender roles they've been assigned, and many many more things. In most of these cases most of us have come around to realizing that the problem isn't who people are or what they're doing, but instead a culture bent on shaming us all into conformity and/or submission.

All we have to do is look at the raging success of abstinence-only education to see the effects. My favourite anecdotal (and yes, fictional) example is in Glee where Finn believes Quinn that he impregnated her by ejaculating while they made out in a hot tub. Shaming doesn't change people or our desires, it just makes things more hidden, ill-informed and in this case, confusing.

Cue the raging, inflamed and unstoppable Obesity Epidemic Debate.

It recently came to my attention again in a Twitter discussion between Dr. Brian Goldman from CBC's White Coat, Black Art, and Melissa Travis, a writer/comedian from the States. I was writing for a deadline at the time and while feeling that I couldn't wade into this conversation with 140 characters I also knew that blogging about it would be deadly for my deadline.

Dr. Goldman re-posted an article that another doctor posted about how shaming people for being “fat” could be as effective as shaming people for smoking supposedly was:

RT @sandnsurf Reading: Being harsh on smokers worked, how about the fat?

And re-tweeted another doctor asking:

RT @kevinmd Obesity in American children and adults continues to grow. Why is this problem so hard to tackle?

Melissa, known on Twitter as @DrSnit, responded to these posts by pointing out that not all weight gain is a choice, and that having these conversations with doctors can be painful. Dr. Goldman agreed. Others weighed in about smoking being a behaviour, while body weight isn't. This was weeks ago now, which is a lifetime in Twitter-feed land, so I might have missed some of the dialogue here. Please feel free to wade in @WCBADoctorBrian and @DrSnit.

The premise in the first article is that being really mean to smokers saved us from one public health epidemic so why can't we just be really mean to fat people? First of all, I question the data that shaming people about smoking “worked”. We all engage in some degree of addictive behaviour. This is endemic to our culture. For an excellent read on this, check out Dr. Gabor Maté's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Addiction by it's very nature is compulsive and not rationally linked to the thing itself, whatever that thing is. It doesn't make sense to me then, that shaming smokers made anyone less compulsive or addicted. Maybe they stopped being addicted to cigarettes. Maybe that was great for certain individuals. For others I'm sure that it meant picking up equally or more problematic addictions.We also socially support and prop up equally unhealthy addictions, like workaholism, to name just one, that is almost entirely driven by guilt and shame.

Also, using shaming as a tactic means that "success" is people feeling really really bad about themselves. On a purely human level, that will never be a win to me.

And now on the “Obesity” question. On a basic Public Health level, the framing of this debate in the mainstream media is completely inaccurate. The biggest factors that determine our health are NOT lifestyle choices. Ranked by Juha Mikkonen and Dennis Raphael in their new book, The Canadian Facts, here's what creates conditions for sickness or wellness in Canada right now:

    1. Income and Income Distribution 2. Education 3. Unemployment and Job Security 4. Employment and Working Conditions 5. Early Childhood Development 6. Food Insecurity 7. Housing 8. Social Exclusion 9. Social Safety Network 10. Health Services 11. Aboriginal Status 12. Gender 13. Race 14. Disability

Any epidemiological study worth its salt points out that poverty is the biggest health epidemic facing us globally, and I would add to this list for many other nations around the world, war and state-sanctioned violence.

The first time I wrote publicly about my views on this ended up being the only time. In 2004 I wrote a review of the film Supersize Me (I hated it) which someone posted without my permission on New York City Indymedia and started a vile flaming war about my apparent fatness and inability to get laid. Because it was the same year I'd had my third bowel operation I was so thin at the time that one of my friends suggested I post naked pictures of myself in response. But this was besides the point. I rose above it and responded politically on Canada's Rabble. And despite many warm, lovely and astute responses, I've never written publicly on such matters again.

It's just too painful. People have made political aspects of this debate incredibly personal at the same time as blanketly and inappropriately attacking people and our body-shapes while pretending to just state objective “health” facts. And somehow people use our personal histories to discredit our political points. Yes it does hurt that the same kids who called me “blowfish” in grade five because of my chubby cheeks also frequently threatened me with violence as they spent entire days letting me know how many kids would be waiting at the gym doors to beat me up after school (p.s. if you're wondering why I never answered your Facebook message about how excited you are for my success in life, now you know). It's also infuriating, because when I look at childhood pictures, the assertions of my classmates were absurd. Some of the worst bullies were much bigger than me. But of course I didn't see that at the time. Instead I started obsessively reading up on how to develop my first eating disorder at age 11. As an aside, this is why cautionary teen fiction tales about why eating disorders are bad and dangerous don't work. Girls just scour them for tips and tactics.

Women still try to draw me into conversations with alarming frequency where we're supposed to hate on skinny women. The premises of such discussions always appall me. First, that because I'm not skinny I must hate my body. Second, that because a woman is thin, she's either way more disciplined or lucky than “us” or way more oppressed, depending who's engaging me in this conversation. Can we all please turn the gaze back at the mass marketing machines that sell us shame simultanously wrapped in fast-food drive through containers and in magical herbs that promise infinite waifishness? The shame needs to be pointed squarely back where it belongs.

At the same time as these matters play out personally all the time, that doesn't make them any less political. It probably makes them more so. Using mean and mocking images of people's bodies (as the above articles as well as every single news report on this does) individualizes social health issues as a feature of our bodies, rather than a problem of world that perpetuates the conditions of poverty and oppression I listed above.

Bullies everywhere and of every age use body-shaming as a technique. The resulting emotional pain, self-loathing and stress are really bad for our health. How is the suggestion to be “harsh” and bully people about their weight possibly legitmate public health policy, medical practice, or even remotely socially appropriate or desirable in any context?

We need solidarity, not shaming. We all have intrinsic value and deserve respect. We are all more than the sum of our parts, regardless of the substantiveness or sleekness of those parts. So to anyone waving that Obesity Epidemic Flag, either because you're genuinely concerned about people's health, or because it's the last socially-acceptable way to get your rocks off being nasty to other people, please, please, please, please STOP. 


  1. Right on. And please, women, how about THINKING before you ask another woman if she's pregnant? My belly is my business, not your, My years with anorexia and a strong hatred towards my body have gifted me with acceptance. I LOVE MY BODY and I LOVE MY LIFE. Perhaps you can achieve that unconditional body love and acceptance too? Go ahead, I dare you.

  2. Agreed, Julie! ...and thanks for writing this!

    Shame is such a toxic emotion, driving people into all kinds of unhealthy behaviours. To quote Audre Lorde: "The master's tools will never bring down the master's house."

    In my experience it's never shame helping me or those I know to become more healthy or happy. It's the opposite of shame -- self-care and self-acceptance, compassion for ourselves and others that supports us to live better.

    Shaming us into believing we're fundamentally unlovable without the right deodorant, car, or shoes probably sells a lot of product -- marketing terrorism, i'd call it, and that IS a shameful thing.

    Just thinking about it makes me wanna go eat another chocolate chip muffin...

  3. Jenn, totally, people project the strangest things onto our bodies and feel strangely entitled to comment!
    I love the Audre Lorde quote. So true
    And, I love you two.

  4. The American's have lost themselves in a culture of shame which feeds into their governments political agenda of victimizing groups and individuals who don't support it.

  5. A powerful blog! Well done Julie! I applaud your views and your articulated anti-demonizing of the weight "problem" right now. I've seen too many people mock fat right now and I'm over it. OVER IT.

    I've seen too many people going in for weight loss surgeries that will forever alter their lives and create horrific medical complications later in life (worse than if they were a little over weight even) BECAUSE of the demonizing effects of weight and the witch hunting that is going on.

    There's a great book out right now called, FatSo... powerful read... It is HARD to resist the sirens call to weight right now - even for thin people... put an already chubby person in the line of fat and wow.

    And "health professionals" are the meanest most judgmental, LEAST SUPPORTIVE people I have ever met when it comes to weight. They will gladly make people fat with their drugs and KEEP YOU ALIVE with metyl pred and anti-seizure meds... but they will turn around and mock your "back fat" (I just saw several doctors literally mock someone's back fat and another someone who was 7 pounds more than BMI (which could be b/c you were on your period or drank a coffee before you went in to be weighed. Their smug hateful attitudes toward weight made me dry heave in my mouth).

    MANY "healers" in this world are MORE BROKEN THAN THE SICK PEOPLE they profess to heal. They just are. Your own beautiful art has shown this.

    Beautiful post. Well done. Lovely work.


  6. Dictionaryhound -- I agree, Canadians too. Also, Brits. Can't speak for anywhere else but probably almost everywhere.

    Thanks Melissa/Dr. Snit! Well-put, as always! After being pumped intravenously with prednisone over the course of 8 months, as well as oral at home, I had a doctor describe my abdomen as "obese". I was practically withering away from the Crohn's at this point, had lost tonnes of weight. But medically-induced puffiness = obese??

  7. I agree, the personal level on which this plays out is always so distressing to me. The large lady on the subway glaring at me (also a large lady) for daring to wear a tank top on a hot day, or the coworker talking about how she "hates" another coworker because she's beautiful and therefore 'slutty' and out for herself, I just. I find it so distressing.

    And I think the fact that SO MANY abuse victims (speaking as one) turn to food disorders as one way of managing their distress has to do with exactly what you're talking about, the culture that encourages and enables eating disorders (and that does not understand the fundamentals of addiction).

    The other thing that people don't talk about is that body type is actually a pretty poor indication of one's health; I was the same shape when I was exercising 3+ times per week and lifting over 100 lbs in weights with no difficulty as I was when I was living a super-sedentary lifestyle, puffing walking up one flight of stairs, and struggling to lift 70 lbs. There are anecdotes and there are doctor's quotes, but in the end people cling to their stereotypes.

  8. Thank you Twig Tea. 100 % agreed. Abuse certainly completes the shame cycle, addiction, disorder, etc. And the tweet-up that's been going on via Dr. Snit/Melissa has had a lot of comments about doctors presuming they know what someone's lifestyle is just by looking at them. So damaging.

  9. Oh my gosh, Julie, it's so karmic that you posted this, because I follow a blog by the obesity and bariatric surgery "head expert dude" in Edmonton, ALB, and he just posted a blog about obesity shame also.

    I hate that this is my truth, but: as an obese woman (who's been overweight my entire life), I can say with total certainty that shame is the DOMINANT emotion I feel on a daily basis. Shame gets programmed into overweight individuals via bullying, taunting, judgment and social ostracism (ie, direct human interaction), and via the indirect messages in all our forms of entertainment (movies like "Shallow Hal", the "Fat Monica" episodes of "Friends", and the billions of other occasions on which obese bodies are used as sources of disgust, repulsion, lower status and mockery). We all know that already, yes. I think what's horrible, though, is that even for those of us who should be "smart enough" and "empowered enough" to get past that shame -- even when we know, cognitively, that shame, like guilt, is a useless emotion -- we can't. I know I can't! I'll speak for myself, here: the sense of being an utterly unworthy human being is so strong, and the FEAR of the continuous, relentless judgment and hatred I'll continue to incur is so strong, that I find myself backing away from many life situations -- for example, I HATE eating in public...I hate going ANYplace in summer, because it means either showing more of my body, or covering up my body and being horribly uncomfortable...I LOATHE having to see doctors and specialists, for fear of how they'll react to my weight, and have had experiences of putting off necessary doctor appointments for as long as humanly possible to avoid the shame I'll be made to feel...and, while I love working out at the gym, going there means getting past the hurdle of knowing that I'll probably be laughed at, snickered at, stared at, sneered at (several weeks ago, a pack of boys on the sidewalk outside the gym window saw me on the treadmill, started laughing uproariously and snapping photos of me with their cell phones). Furthermore, when one is living with this much shame around one's body, it means that there is no "room" for any other self-esteem lowering events. For example, on top of being obese, I am now losing my hair -- and the potentiality of being BALD on TOP OF being fat is, I've got to tell you, so alarming and devastating that all I can imagine is locking the door to my apartment and never going outside again.

    Now, if I'm an extremely extroverted, outspoken, active and impassioned person (er, I am -- not just person, but actor/writer) and I feel this vulnerable and this inclined to retreat from life, think of how much more vulnerable other overweight people are who AREN'T bold, outgoing loudmouths.

    My point is, many many fat people get caught in a vicious cycle created by the effects of lifelong shame, ostracism and bullying. If our efforts to be active, social, healthy individuals living full, happy, colorful lives are thwarted by the public's response to our bodies (the laughing young men photographing this fat lady walking on the treadmill, for example), we are NOT going to continue to do the activities that might elicit that response. And if we retreat from the world, and from life...stay home, where there are no mocking voices, no sneering people, no doctors to admonish us, no salespeople staring as we search for clothes....then we increase our isolation, and very likely, our weight. We get more ashamed. The next time we try to participate in life, the reaction to our bodies is even WORSE. We retreat, eat more, grow more ashamed. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

    This is no way to live. This is horrible.
    Something has to change.
    I'm just not sure how to make it happen....after decades of trying, via art and writing and activism, I'm not sure what the hell happens next.

  10. Amy! So sorry it took me so long to respond. I don't get notified when ppl post (cld probably change that, not sure how) so didn't see this until I came back to this post to pull stuff for other writing.
    Thank you so much for your comment. Exactly! It's shame that's toxic and unhealthy!! This is one of the last social matters that all kinds of people still feel entirely justified in being complete assholes about in ways that they would never be so open about on other matters.
    I'm hoping for you that you encounter more solidarity than you're ever expecting and new people to counter the absolute cowardly, patronizing and disgusting attitudes you've been subject to. Failing that: perfect the art of the Italian death-stare, or find a friend like me to accompany you and apply it liberally to all fat-shaming assholes in all contexts!
    Sending you love, solidarity and acceptance xoxoxo