Some people think that “fat shaming” obese people is a good way to motivate them to lose weight, but a new study shows that it not only does just the opposite, but may cause serious psychological harm. In fact, blaming and criticizing people because of their weight produced the opposite effect — it causes them to engage in behaviors that resulted in even more weight gain.
Researchers at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania looked at 159 obese adults. The subjects were enrolled in a larger study that was testing an experimental weight-loss drug. Each person completed a baseline questionnaire which determined how depressed they were about their weight, and how much they had internalized negative self-images based on weight.
The results of the study show that the more depressed they were, and the higher degree to which they had internalized bad thoughts about obesity, the more they tended to engage in increased eating. They also lost motivation to exercise and become more active in general. People who are depressed about their weight and who have “internally accepted” their condition as hopeless tend to sleep more and avoid physical activity.
The Psychology of Internalization
In psychology, internalization is the process of integration of the attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of other people into one’s own identity or sense of self. Note that this can be both positive and negative. For example, when a parent repeatedly praises a child, telling him or her that she is smart, good, and valuable, the child will internalize these qualities because they have heard it frequently from a trusted authority figure.
The Opposite Effect
In fat shaming, the opposite occurs. Fat shaming is often done by a well-meaning loved one, or an authority figure, such as a parent or spouse. If such a person tells another that they are unattractive because of their weight, too lazy to exercise, or have poor discipline with overeating -– the person may internalize these qualities and then struggle even more against them.
Researchers said that even when well-meaning people fat shame a friend or loved one, the effect is to put pressure on that individual which in turn increases their level of stress. Many people with weight problems became fat in the first place because they used food as a way to “comfort” themselves when experiencing stress.
A Biological Connection
But there seems to be an even deeper mechanism at work. Fat shaming may also trigger biological changes in the body of an obese person. The Perelman study showed that people who have internalized the negative weight opinions of others are three times more likely to have metabolic syndrome, and six times more likely to have high triglycerides as compared to those who have not internalized these opinions.
It’s important to note that fat shaming is both biologically and psychologically damaging, researchers said. The situation becomes a vicious circle of weight gain, self blame, and an ever-increasing descent into depression, anxiety, low self esteem, and other factors.
Society Forces At Work on Fat Shaming
Another significant source of fat shaming is not people, but larger entities like the media, advertising, Internet bullying, movies/TV shows and other public sociological-cultural influences. Advertisers’ emphasis on skinny models and the dominance of “beautiful, slender people” in entertainment venues presents unrealistic images to ordinary people living in the real world.
Scientific research indicates that nagging, criticizing or shaming a person into weight loss is a dead-end approach, but that offering love, support and encouragement will produce positive results. In virtually all cases, the person struggling with extra weight already knows they have a problem, and communicating that to them through fat shaming won’t be helpful at all.
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