Why Must Fat Shaming Stop?

“A final message Ellen wanted to share was about the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession.  Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss.  Ellen’s dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”

This is an excerpt from the obituary of Ellen Bennett who died on May 11th this year, aged 64.  Shortly before, Ellen had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given just a few days to live.  According to her family, she was “an unforgettable character” who enjoyed careers in politics, film and TV.

Ellen’s story was featured in The Independent on July 31st and a number of comments follow the article.  Several express sympathy for Ellen and her family, some share their own experiences of being shamed.

And then there’s this: “It is not ‘fat shaming’ to tell a massively overweight person they’re damaging themselves”.  Another reads: “Of course they ‘fat shamed’ her.  Being fat is not healthy and medical professionals are there to do what they can to try to keep people healthy”.

Comments like these are a drop in the ocean – every day there are numerous incidences of fat shaming in public and in private.

I have one question for anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to shame others about their weight.

How does it help?

Please explain to me how it helps someone to diminish and shame them.  What do you believe the result will be?  Will they suddenly “see the light” because of your comment and immediately set about losing weight?

Of course not.

You don’t shame people into better self-care.

Chances are the person on the receiving end of your shame grenade has experienced a lifetime of shame before you came along.  What’s most likely to happen is that they’ll retreat and do the only thing they know how do to deal with challenging feelings – eat.

It’s not just ill-informed comments on the internet like the ones above that are harmful.  It’s also those “well meaning” remarks from friends and family who claim to be “helping”: “don’t you think you should lose some weight?”, “should you really be eating that?”, “I’m just helping you to make better choices”.

It’s not helping, it’s shaming.

As a psychotherapist who works only with people with overeating issues, I’ve heard countless experiences from clients of being shamed by their friends and family as well as by medical professionals. Although there are some doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners who understand that binge eating is a psychological issue and are supportive in this regard, they appear to be in the minority.

Many, many clients report experiences, like Ellen Bennett, of medical issues being attributed solely to excess weight and of being routinely shamed when they go to the doctor.

Some avoid seeking medical help because they fear being shamed.  And their fears are real – one client who went to see her doctor about a matter unrelated to weight was reduced to tears in front of her children because she was shamed repeatedly for being fat.

The experience of being misunderstood, humiliated and dismissed by people who are supposed to care when you’re battling with a complex psychological and emotional issue like binge eating disorder is soul-destroying.

I know, I’ve been there.  It’s a lonely and degrading place.  You’re subjugated into silence as shame floods your body like a tidal wave.

Of course, not everyone who is overweight will have an eating disorder.  Some may have medical issues that make them put on weight, or be taking medication that does.  Others may just prefer being bigger.  The thing is you don’t knowYou don’t know what their experience is, you don’t know if they’re in therapy for an eating disorder and your comment might trigger a relapse.

Working through your overeating issues is challenging.  Counselling requires you to reflect deeply and explore what’s really going on underneath that’s manifesting in a dysfunctional relationship with food.  That’s why I feel privileged to work with my clients.   They have the courage and intelligence to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

How many people who fat shame can say the same?

It’s simpler to condemn than to understand.

It’s easier to attack than to empathise.

There’s no better way of attempting to alleviate your own sense of shame than by dumping it on someone else.

As for the argument that obesity costs our health services a lot of money, I would say this:  what’s the cost to our health services of bullying, narcissism and insensitivity?  “That’s not a thing”, you might say.  Really?  Or are you just unaware?  In my experience, it’s the people who are unaware of the damage they do who do the most damage.

So let’s be clear.

There is no shame in being bigger.

There is never any justification for fat shaming.

Binge eating is as much a sign of psychological distress as anorexia and fat shaming only adds to that distress.

To my clients and anyone else struggling with emotion-driven overeating I want to say this:  you know the truth.  You don’t have to allow shame to diminish you.  It’s OK to calmly and assertively explain your experience and there’s really no better way to heal shame than to talk about it.  If we don’t speak up, how will they learn?

To Ellen Bennett I’d like to say thank you and may you rest in peace – your death matters, your life matters, you matter.

Because we all matter, regardless of what size we are.

How Does Writing Help Us Heal?

Does it sometimes feel as though your thoughts are like a thousand out-of-control driverless express trains simultaneously zipping through a labyrinth of tiny tunnels in your mind?

If so, you’re not alone.

People whose eating is emotion-driven often describe themselves as “overthinkers” – they’re so consumed by their thoughts that eating is the only way they find respite from the turmoil in their heads (that and going to sleep).

But how do you start making sense of your thoughts when they’re whizzing by so fast you can’t grab hold of any of them?  Where do you even begin?

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What Did You Learn About Food Growing Up?

Lunchtime had ended at my primary school.  I sat alone in the dining hall, apart from two teachers who stood over me.  They stared resolutely at me, while I stared forlornly at a plate of cold cottage pie.  Everyone else had gone out to play and I could hear the familiar noises of the playground in the distance.

I was told I couldn’t leave until I’d finished my lunch.

At 10 years old, I truly loathed cottage pie.  It was My Completely and Utterly Absolutely Worst Food in the World Ever, apart from my Mum’s curried egg (sorry, Mum).

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Why Do We Need To Let Other People Own Their Feelings?

You’re about to send an email and you’re re-reading it for the tenth time to make absolutely sure there’s nothing in it that could be misconstrued and cause offence.   Then you check it another ten times after you’ve sent it – just in case…

You bump into a friend in the street.  As you walk away, you replay the conversation over and over in your head trying to work out if you said anything “wrong”.  You’re still rerunning the conversation in your head as you lie in bed that night…

A work colleague seems a bit off with you.  You instantly rack your brain to recall your most recent interactions with them.  You spend the day desperately trying to work out what you did to upset them so you can apologise and make things right…

Sound familiar?

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What’s The First Thing You Say to Yourself in the Morning?

The alarm clock goes off.

Your eyes flutter open.

Still drowsy from sleep, you turn over and glance up to see someone who looks remarkably like Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket” standing over your bed.

He stares down at you, face like stone, eyes cold and unblinking, as he barks:

“RISE AND SHINE, SCUMBAG! TODAY YOU WILL EAT HEALTHY FOOD AND NOTHING BUT HEALTHY FOOD!  YOU WILL EXERCISE FOR PRECISELY ONE HOUR – I DO NOT GIVE A HOOT ABOUT YOUR SO-CALLED TENDINITIS!  YOU WILL COMPLETE EVERYTHING ON YOUR “TO DO” LIST, INCLUDING TAKING YOUR CAT, KATY PURRY, TO THE VET BECAUSE SHE’S TWO MONTHS OVERDUE FOR HER WORM TREATMENT!  I DO NOT CARE IF YOU DID NOT SLEEP WELL OR THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE A CASE OF THE SNIFFLES, THERE WILL BE NO EXCUSES AND NO COMPLAINING!  YOU WILL COMPLY WITH THESE ORDERS BECAUSE YOUR ASS IS MINE!”

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How Do You Handle Setbacks?

Photo by RoadTrafficSigns.com

“It was going really well and now it’s not and I’m just so annoyed and angry with myself.”

This is something I hear a lot.

I understand.  You’ve been doing really well listening to your body about when you’re hungry, what you feel like eating and when you’ve had enough.  You’ve been leaving food on your plate (something you thought you’d never do), you’ve turned down ice-cream because you didn’t feel like it (unheard of) and you ate just one brownie rather than devouring the whole batch (say whaaat?!).

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What Are You Waiting For?

We can spend so much of our lives waiting.

Waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for things to get better.
Waiting for the ideal moment.

I know I did (and sometimes still do).

There was an awful lot of time between acknowledging to myself that I had an overeating problem and healing my relationship with food.

Most of that time I spent waiting.

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How Can Fear Make Us Fat?

Let’s say you’ve managed to normalise your relationship with food.

You’ve been eating in tune with your body for a while – you’re eating when you’re hungry, you’re eating exactly what you feel like, and you’re stopping when you’re satisfied. In addition, you’re getting better at acknowledging your feelings and you’re finding ways to meet your emotional needs directly. Now that you’re no longer overeating, you’re really beginning to work with your metabolism and, whaddaya know, you’re starting to lose weight.

All good.

Or is it?

Continue reading “How Can Fear Make Us Fat?”

Why Am I Doing This To Myself?

After I’d finished yet another secret binge.
After I’d made myself feel sick from the vast quantity of food I’d eaten.
After I’d told myself how weak and pathetic I was.
After I’d said I hated myself with utter conviction.

As I sat alone in physical and emotional pain, this is the question I would ask over and over again.

Continue reading “Why Am I Doing This To Myself?”