It's Time to Shame the Fat Shamers

Yoni Freedhoff, MD


April 28, 2022

Yoni Freedhoff, MD

Fat shaming doesn't work. If it did, obesity as we know it wouldn't exist because if the one thing society ensures isn't lacking for people with obesity, it's shame. We know that fat shaming doesn't lead to weight loss and that it's actually correlated with weight gain: More shame leads to more gain (Puhl and Suh; Sutin and Terracciano; Tomiyama et al).

Shaming and weight stigma have far more concerning associations than weight gain. People who report experiencing more weight stigma have an increased risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, substance abuse, suicidality, unhealthy eating behaviors, disordered eating, increased caloric intake, exercise avoidance, decreased exercise motivation potentially due to heightened cortisol reactivity, elevated C-reactive protein, and elevated blood pressure.

Meanwhile, people with obesity — likely in part owing to negative weight-biased experiences in healthcare — are reluctant to discuss weight with their healthcare providers and are less likely to seek care at all for any conditions. When care is sought, people with obesity are more likely to receive substandard treatment, including receiving fewer preventive health screenings, decreased health education, and decreased time spent in appointments.

Remember That Obesity Is Not a Conscious Choice

A fact that is conveniently forgotten by those who are most prone to fat shaming is that obesity, like every chronic noncommunicable disease, isn't a choice that is consciously made by patients.

And yes, though there are lifestyle means that might affect weight, there are lifestyle means that might affect all chronic diseases — yet obesity is the only one we seem to moralize about. It's also worth noting that other chronic diseases' lifestyle levers tend not to be governed by thousands of genes and dozens of hormones; those trying to "lifestyle" their way out of obesity are swimming against strong physiologic currents that influence our most seminally important survival drive: eating.

But forgetting about physiologic currents, there is also staggering privilege associated with intentional perpetual behavior change around food and fitness in the name of health.

Whereas medicine and the world are right and quick to embrace the fights against racism, sexism, and homophobia, the push to confront weight bias is far rarer, despite the fact that it's been shown to be rampant among healthcare professionals.

Protecting the Rights of People With Obesity

Perhaps though, times are changing. Movements are popping up to protect the rights of people with obesity while combating hate.

Of note, Brazil seems to have embraced a campaign to fight gordofobia — the Portuguese term used to describe weight-based discrimination. For instance, laws are being passed to ensure appropriate seating is supplied in schools for children with obesity, an annual day was formalized to promote the rights of people with obesity, preferential seating is provided on subways for people with obesity, and fines have been levied against at least one comedian for making fat jokes on the grounds of the state's duty to protect minorities.

We need to take this fight to medicine. Given the incredibly depressing prevalence of weight bias among trainees, medical schools and residency programs should ensure countering weight bias is not only part of the curriculum but that it's explicitly examined. National medical licensing examinations should include weight bias as well.

Though we're closer than ever before to widely effective treatment options for obesity, it's likely to still be decades before pharmaceutical options to treat obesity are as effective, accepted, and encouraged as medications to treat hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and more are today.

If you're curious about your own implicit weight biases, consider taking Harvard's Implicit Association Test for Weight. You might also want to take a few moments and review the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent Obesity Alliances' Weight Can't Wait guide for advice on the management of obesity in primary care.

Treat patients with obesity the same as those with any chronic condition.

Also, consider your physical office space. Do you have chairs suitable for patients with obesity (wide base and with arms to help patients rise)? A scale that measures up to high weights that's in a private location? Appropriately sized blood pressure cuffs?

If not, do you know who is deserving of shame?

Doctors who fat shame or who treat patients with obesity differently than they would any other patient with a chronic medical condition.

Examples include the family doctor who hadn't checked my patient's blood pressure in over a decade because he couldn't be bothered buying an appropriately sized blood pressure cuff. Or the fertility doctor who told one of my patients that perhaps her weight reflected God's will that she does not have children.

Finally, if reading this article about treating people with obesity the same as you would patients with other chronic, noncommunicable, lifestyle responsive diseases made you angry, there's a great chance that you're part of the problem.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, a nonsurgical weight management center. He is one of Canada's most outspoken obesity experts and the author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.

Follow Yoni Freedhoff on Twitter: @YoniFreedhoff

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