Weight loss transitions: dealing with the ‘fat’ stigma

September 25, 2013 - Psychology

92361705Overweight people are often singled out because of their size and, while for some it might spur on their weight loss, for others it only makes things worse. Here, we look at how to deal with negative attention when you’re conscious of your weight.

The prospective employer who suddenly loses interest when he meets you face to face, the person who squeezes into the seat next to you at the cinema with evident disgust, the doctor who tells you that you’re greedy, lazy and stupid… These are all situations that obese and overweight people are subjected to every day, and can often bring about a sense of guilt and shame. Here, we explore the stigma attached to obesity, and look at how society’s obsession with being big could actually be making the problem worse…

Four years ago, comedian Ricky Gervais caused uproar when he called for more stigma around obesity. He said, ‘I laugh about being fat, but I should be ashamed. 
I should walk down the street and have people shouting “Fatty”. That’s what 
I want, to get me out of it.’

No stranger to provoking controversy, Ricky may well have had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he made the remarks, but it did raise the question; is creating a stigma around obesity really the answer to fighting the global obesity crisis? Does publicly shaming people 
about their size motivate them to do something about it?

This issue was compounded last year when the US-based health body, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, launched a controversial ad campaign using images of obese children. The ads showed the children looking sad above taglines such as ‘It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not’, 
‘My fat may be funny to you but it’s killing me’, and ‘Chubby isn’t cute if it leads to Type 2 diabetes’.

Shock tactics
The body behind the campaign argues that it needed to be hard-hitting because Georgia has the second-highest obesity rate in the US. ‘When we looked at how do you get awareness, really the most effective means are to use techniques that some might say are controversial,’ says Dr Mark Wulkan, surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

However, critics condemned the campaign, saying that shock tactics like this do nothing but make people feel worse, which is especially dangerous if the people in question are vulnerable children. ‘Stigma is not an effective motivator. Whether children or adults, if they are teased or stigmatised, they’re much more likely to engage in unhealthy eating and avoidance of physical activity,’ argues Rebecca Phul, 
a Yale University psychologist.

Already feeling bad
This is something, Jenna Reid, 26, from Halifax, and a size 24, can relate to. She says, ‘People who are big know they’re big – they already feel bad about themselves, they don’t need someone to point it out to them. Calling me “Fatty” or laughing at me behind my back won’t embarrass me into losing weight. In fact, it’s more likely to end with me reaching for the biscuit tin to cheer myself up.’

Dealing with it
LighterLife’s Mandy Cassidy gives her advice on handling weight-related negative comments and attention:

‘If you feel you’re being stared at or spoken about, you need to think about what you’re making that look or comment mean. When you assume someone is staring at you because of your size, you’re likely to end up thinking, ‘No wonder they’re looking at me. I’m a horrible person. I’m disgusting.’ You feel bad about yourself, and when you feel like that you’re more likely to reach for a bag of crisps.

‘The way to deal with these negative feelings is to start to interrupt them. Recognise that, yes, you are overweight, but what other qualities do you have? You shouldn’t let your weight define you. You need to be in a place where you think, ‘I may be overweight, but I’m a worthwhile person.’ Avoid falling into the trap of labelling yourself and putting yourself down because of your size. When you can define yourself in a realistic, valuing way, you’re much more likely to take action to support yourself and start living in a healthier way.’