“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 know. You 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.