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Why Shaming People To Lose Weight Doesn’t Work

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Our society assumes that shaming is an effective strategy to get people to lose weight, in order to, you know, get healthier and take better care of themselves.

(Not true, of course; you don’t need to lose weight to get healthy; you can just adopt healthy habits.)

That we need to be brutally honest with fat people and stop coddling them. They need to know, in very blunt terms, that they’re too big and too unhealthy.

I’ve gotten comments like this here on Weightless. And while I appreciate a difference of opinion, these comments make me cringe, and they make me frustrated.

You’re probably familiar with the latest example of shaming, which targets kids: the Georgia anti-obesity campaign .

(On a side note, my favorite is how this news article compares the potential success of these obesity ads to meth ads in Montana, which curbed use…really, meth? On another side note, the kids in the Georgia ads are actors. For instance, the ‘overweight” girl who supposedly has hypertension doesn’t…she’s perfectly healthy.)

Somehow there’s a pervasive belief that if people know that they supposedly suck, they’ll magically want to take better care of themselves. Because that’s what shaming breeds: a contempt for your body and yourself.

Shaming doesn’t work; it hurts. When you hate your body, the last thing you want to do is take better care of it. I’m sure many of us who struggled with a negative body image can attest to that.

Everyone deserves to love and appreciate their bodies and themselves.

The below experts agree, and offer their astute comments on why shaming doesn’t work.

According to Amy Pershing, LMSW, director of the Pershing Turner Centers in Annapolis, and clinical director for the Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor:

I am always curious how people come to the idea that shame motivates positive change. As a culture, we seem to believe that validation, compassion and acceptance makes for lazy, out of control people, with no moral compass or willpower. Perhaps its our “Horatio Alger” myth, our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” notion of personal success.

We seem to believe this idea despite tremendous evidence to the contrary. Shame does not motivate anything except fear, and not infrequently, rebellion. Shame creates the antithesis of self care or self empowerment; it creates self-loathing and self-destruction. Yet we persist.

Take the example of the “War on Obesity.” Somehow we seem to believe that what “fat” people need is a good swift kick in the pants to motivate them to drop those unwanted pounds (never mind that weight is largely genetically determined, and the longest lived people in study after study are classified as “obese”). It is simply stunning to me that with decades of shaming women (and girls, and increasingly men) and billions spent on diets (which boast a 95% failure rate), we still somehow think a frontal attack will solve the alleged “problem.”

And yet the rates of body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and weight-related bullying are higher than they have ever been. Seems only the dieting industry benefits. Hmmm.

Perhaps our goal needs to be advocacy of health; not a “war” on anything, but instead an invitation to people of all sizes to take the very best care of their bodies possible.

What if we were to value all shapes and sizes, as they are right now, and invite healthful eating (not dieting, but actually re-learning listening to and trusting body cues).

What if, instead of billboards and advertising that invite stigma and shame, we teach our physical education instructors to make movement something every child can do?

What if we demand healthful foods available to everyone? How about we decide, as a culture, to make it “shameful” to shame anyone? How about we intervene to stop the bully, not suggest the bullied child lose weight?

If health is actually our societal goal here (and I’m not convinced it is), shame is the very worst tool we might employ to do the job. I think we would do well to focus our attention not on people in any size category, but on those doing the shaming, both individuals and corporations. How do they benefit? What is their motivation to engage in this attack? Perhaps it has happened to them. Perhaps they fear they might be next.

I asked Pershing what she thinks the societal goal really is, and this is what she said:

I think the bigger goals right now are about supporting a $15 billion/year weight loss and beauty industry. On an individual level, for most people weight loss is about fitting in and not being a victim of weight bias and stigma.

According to Ellen Shuman, an emotional eating and binge eating disorder recovery coach and President of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA):

As a motivator, shaming is not useful on any level. When someone shames us; implies there is something wrong with us, we hear it as someone saying we are “a mistake”… not that we made a mistake, but that we “are a mistake.” How could feeling inherently flawed, how could feeling like there is something wrong with me, at the very core, be motivating?  In my own experience, and in the lives of every single client I have ever coached, shaming has had the exact opposite effect. Why would I choose to take good care of my body, if there is something inherently wrong with it and me?

I’m writing about shaming because I hate knowing that the Georgia ads exist. I hate knowing that this gives bullies — both kids and adults — more ammunition, more fuel to spread venomous messages about weight and inaccurate messages about health.

I hate knowing that many little girls and boys are going to feel shame about their bodies, think thinness is the answer and start to feel guilty about eating and eat less.

I hate knowing that many women and men see their bodies as an enemy. I hate that these people may start seeing their weight as a reflection of their worth and let numbers rule their lives — along with what’s truly unhealthy: yo-yo dieting.

So I hope that if you feel shame about your body, you realize that you deserve better. That the best thing you can do is to take gentle and compassionate care of yourself. That the best way to get healthier is to engage in healthy habits that nourish you.

That no matter how supposedly well-intentioned any anti-obesity campaign is, it’s wrong.

And I hope that if you view shaming as an effective strategy, you’ll perhaps pause and reconsider.

What are your thoughts on shaming?

Why Shaming People To Lose Weight Doesn’t Work

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). Why Shaming People To Lose Weight Doesn’t Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 7 Mar 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Mar 2012
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