Fat shaming, whether it’s done intentionally or unintentionally, does not help motivate people to adopt healthier eating habits or lose weight. In fact, it ultimately creates more problems, including weight gain, and can lead to a variety of mental health disorders and unhealthy coping skills.
What Is Fat Shaming?
Active or passive fat shaming involves the criticism and harassment of overweight or obese people about their weight and/or eating habits to make them feel ashamed and get them to lose weight, exercise more, and/or eat better.1
While fat shaming can happen anywhere, it occurs most commonly online. For example, you might experience or witness fat shaming and other forms of cyberbullying in online forums or on social media. Fat shaming is also common in relation to online groups that are heavily focused on thinspo, orthorexia and body image.
Fat shaming, meaning weight discriminations, also occurs in the healthcare systems.2 People often report that they avoid medical visits altogether because they feel like their symptoms will be dismissed or reduced to a need for weight loss. In addition, they report feelings of judgement, shame, and even rejection from their healthcare providers.
Does Fat Shaming Work?
Fat shaming does not “work;” in other words, it does not help encourage people to lose weight.3 The reverse effect is actually true: fat shaming often leads to weight gain.4
Examples of Fat Shaming
Fat shaming can present as bullying, teasing, criticizing, or shaming someone online and/or in-person. It can also be done indirectly through fat phobia, weight discrimination, or making negative judgments about someone’s character based on their appearance.
Here are five examples of fat shaming:
- Social media: Weight stigma and fat shaming may be exacerbated in user-generated social media interactions5
- Body shaming: Society puts pressure on how bodies “should” look and this could lead to body shaming of whoever falls outside the norm, including yourself
- Obesity/weight stigma: The obesity stigma contributes to stereotypes that individuals are lazy, weak-willed, unsuccessful, lack self-discipline, have no will power, etc.6
- Weight discrimination: Weight discrimination can happen in a variety of settings, including work and in healthcare; it often results in the rejection or exclusion of someone who is considered obese
- Fat phobia: This is fear (on both an individual and society level) of becoming fat and doing everything within one’s control to not gain weight
6 Effects of Fat Shaming
The effects of fat shaming can lead to a variety of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and the development of eating disorders (e.g., binge eating or overeating). Other effects include low self-esteem, negative body image, lack of confidence, and suicidal ideation.
Here are six effects of fat shaming:
1. Low Self-Esteem
Fat shaming can lead to low self-esteem, which can result in feelings of worthlessness and contribute to negative self-talk or an unkind inner narrative. Low self-esteem leads you to question your value and worth.1
2. Lack of Confidence
Similar to low self-esteem, a decrease in confidence will stop you from stepping outside of your comfort zone. Fat shaming, which often highlights your fears and insecurities, makes confidence plummet.
3. Negative Body Image
This is when people have a lack of peace about their own body and the way it looks. You may feel a constant need to “improve” your body in order to ever love it.8
If you’ve been a victim of fat shaming, you may isolate yourself, which can lead to a depressive episode. Left untreated, depression can lead to suicidal ideation. If you’re experiencing this, seek help from a medical professional.9,10
The effects of fat shaming can increase symptoms of anxiety and cause you to become hypervigilant or fixated on avoiding social situations or any opportunity to experience fat shaming.
6. Eating Disorders
There are a variety of eating disorders that could develop as a result of fat shaming, including binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and orthorexia.11
How to Cope if You’ve Been Fat Shamed
You are not defined by your weight. If you’ve experienced fat shaming, give yourself time and space to process those difficult emotions, but don’t become consumed by them. To cope, have self-compassion, advocate for yourself, and develop a self-care plan.12
Here are six ways to cope if you’ve been fat shamed:
- Educate yourself on resources and self-advocacy: The more awareness and education you have, the better you can communicate, and the more qualified support you can receive.2
- Journal your emotions: When you take the time to journal or write out your thoughts and feelings, you give yourself space to process. Some suggestions for journaling include reflecting on your initial reactions, expressing what you want to say to the person that fat-shamed you, or writing a letter to yourself.
- Develop a self-care plan: Self-care plans act as your overall “toolbox” of coping skills and ways to nurture yourself. Develop an emotional self-care plan with your healthcare provider.
- Shift your mindset and inner narrative: Changing your inner narrative takes practice and conscious effort. Work to replace negative self-talk or negative self-belief with words of affirmation and encouragement. Daily positive affirmations are a great way to improve overall body image and self-esteem.
- Confide in someone you trust: Talking to a trusted, non-judgmental friend or family member can help you feel better.
- Listen to inspiring music: Listening to upbeat, inspiring music can help boost your mood. Create a playlist that helps you feel powerful and confident.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy is a great way to cope with fat-shaming. To find a therapist, refer to an online directory where you can filter for someone in your area who specializes in your specific needs. One recommendation is to select someone who is Health at Every Size (HAES)-certified or HAES-informed. HAES focuses on weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for well-being, and life-enhancing movement.13
Final Thoughts on Fat Shaming
Fat shaming isn’t an effective method for weight loss. Honoring your body in every season of life takes a great deal of self-compassion, patience, and vulnerability, so surround yourself with people who support and love you exactly as you are. Consider joining a support group, talking to a therapist, or trying healthy coping mechanisms.