The conversation with a family member started innocently enough:
“So, what is your thesis about?”
I explained, briefly, that I was using secondary data from a larger childhood obesity family intervention study to investigate whether there was an association between parental praise for healthy eating and activity behaviors (not for weight itself!) and healthy weight outcomes.
“How motivated do you think these families were?”
I said I expected their motivation was fairly high, since they had self-selected into the study (i.e., chose to participate of their own volition). Things got more interesting with the next question:
“Do you think some of these kids were being teased or bullied at school for being obese?”
I said that was information I was not privy to, but I would expect that at least some of the kids were being teased or bullied.
“Well, if that motivates them to lose weight, then that’s not a bad thing.”
I paused, took a breath, willed steam to not come out of my ears, and calmly yet emphatically said, “Bullying is never a good thing. Bullying is absolutely not an effective motivational tool.” I gave some examples of why teasing and bullying of people who weigh “too much” is counterproductive.
- Someone in a larger body who is uncomfortable about being seen exercising will likely be even less likely to exercise if they are teased about their size, which would be bad for their health regardless of their weight.
- People who tend to use food to cope with uncomfortable feelings will be more likely to binge eat if they are teased, bullied, shamed, ridiculed and ostracized.
- Even if stigma, bullying and shaming motivate someone to try to lose weight, they are at increased risk of using unhealthy dieting practices and falling into disordered eating practices.
- The pain of being bullied and stigmatized is likely to linger long after the person loses weight (if they actually lose weight).
No, I said, weight bullying and shaming does not help anyone, and the science proves it. Here are links to some examples from the literature:
- Food as ego-protective remedy for people experiencing shame. Experimental evidence for a new perspective on weight-related shame
- Weight- and race-based bullying: Health associations among urban adolescents
- Weight discrimination and bullying
- Peer victimization as a predictor of depression and body mass index in obese and non-obese adolescents
- Body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, depression, and weight status in adolescents
- Residual stigma: Psychological distress among the formerly overweight
- The impact of weight stigma on caloric consumption
Photo source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.