It Isn’t Fat Shaming: How Protecting Feelings Hurts Health

It doesn’t help unhealthy people to dance around the fact that they’re unhealthy.

The number one value of modern societies is comfort. We lust for technologies that promise an easier life, while our gadgets ironically accelerate us into overdrive. We seek quick fixes for every inconvenience in the form of pills and lap-band surgeries. We’ve even eliminated the need for people to walk around a grocery store and select their own groceries.

Comfort and convenience drive our lives to such a degree that people have begun to think it is a right to be free from any kind of discomfort, including emotional or intellectual varieties. We are encouraged to censor our public expression to remove any trace of authenticity, and admonished if we don’t.

After writing a billion and one articles about the need for education reform to promote greater physical literacy and health, I decided to turn my attention to parents. I felt my approach was going nowhere, so I asked parents to consider how essential they could be in promoting health to their children. In this piece, I referred to some foods as “poison,” in an obvious use of hyperbole. There were a number of reactions to this piece, most positive, but notable was one woman’s infuriated response:

“No food is poison. I stopped reading at that point. Food is food. Yes, less processing is better, but shaming people who choose to eat differently than you is abhorrent.”

This sort of response typifies the increasingly common mindset that precludes any positive discussions and significantly limits constructive change. As a society, we have developed a pathological fear of being accused of “shaming.” There’s fat shaming, skinny shaming, body shaming, food shaming, skin-tone shaming, and probably several I’ve never heard of. Now, I’m the pastiest ginger that ever lived, and it’s comical to think I’m supposed to be offended by you noticing that.

The shaming police have taken good intentions and gone too far. We’ve created an environment where even constructive criticism is recast as some flavor of shaming, and the dogma of neutrality and inoffensiveness reigns at the expense of real progress.

Avoiding the Truth Helps No One

To be sure, one must concede that there is a shortage of kindness, especially from those who hide behind the anonymity afforded by their keyboards. The internet is a fertile ground for insults, rudeness, and mean-spirited commentary. Still, honest, critical stances are more necessary than ever, particularly in regard to health.

For example, the standard model we’ve given kids is ridiculous. No, they shouldn’t have chips every day. No, they shouldn’t have cookies in their cereal or Pop-Tarts for breakfast. No, fast food should not be a daily occurrence. This all sounds like common sense, but try to get people to follow this advice with their kids, and watch the push back you get.

Saying that kids shouldn’t eat garbage isn’t food shaming. Pointing out that kids shouldn’t be obese isn’t fat shaming. It’s a plain truth. I’m not saying to openly call kids fat or criticize their food choices. But neither can we stand idly by, for fear of hurting their feelings.

It is debilitating to shield unhealthy people from any view that might cause them to question their choices.

I empathize with people who struggle with their weight. I’ve witnessed some of my favorite people go through these struggles for years. There are intense emotional and biological reasons that it’s hard to change unhealthy patterns. Struggling with weight is a painful experience that can dominate your life, and positive health change has to happen against the tide of all our culture. Every effort has to overcome the daily invitation from work friends to get fast food and the daily box of donuts in the staff lounge.

It’s because I’ve seen the dissatisfaction and angst poor health causes that I am so passionate about helping people change it. Avoiding the issue for fear of hurting someone’s feelings only serves to perpetuate the cycle. Addressing the growing rate of obesity requires honest, empathetic dialogue aimed at positive change.

Let’s Call a Spade a Spade

No growth can happen if we make maintenance of your comfort zone the top priority, so set aside for a moment what might be offensive to who. What discussions and actions are most likely to spur positive, long-term change?

We could start by acknowledging that our bulging waistlines are not normal or healthy. For example, when data comes out that the average woman’s dress size has risen from a 14 to a 16 in just the past decade, the general reaction was some variation of: “this should be celebrated and promoted so that people evolve to the new norm, and so that people upset about being size 16 or more, feel better.”

We are not even allowed to mention the elephant in the room: rising average dress sizes are yet another indicator of our country’s continued slide into epidemic health disorders. It is not cause for celebration, but rather shows that public health is getting worse, and the consequences are far more dire than mere aesthetics. There are quantifiable health ramifications of creating an environment that demands we all accept size 16 as the new average, without critique.

No one is less of a person for being overweight, but it is a problem to support an environment that normalizes it. Dress size, like BMI, is by no means the best metric. But it is one metric, and for most people, being size 16 isn’t an indicator of good health. Likewise, being size 0 is often not healthy.

There Are No Solutions Without Open Conversation

When children are already morbidly obese and physically broken by second grade, it is not the child’s fault. But the fact they aren’t to blame for their condition won’t stop it from creating a tremendous obstacle to their happiness and success in life. If we are to reverse this trend, we will be required to discuss it frankly and openly.

To promote a free marketplace of ideas where challenges and solutions are openly explored, we must feel at liberty to make some value judgments. This is far from the environment created today. Self-proclaimed social justice warriors scour the internet, seeking out anyone they can label and ostracize. They sling insults and promote an environment where dialogue is discouraged.

Tim Ferris calls this “bigoteering,” while Mark Manson refers to it as “outrage porn.” I think Ryan Holiday describes it best by illuminating the warnings you probably didn’t notice when your 11th grade English teacher made you read Fahrenheit 451. Captain Beatty, the oldest firefighter, explains to a young Guy Montag:

“We do this because the public doesn’t like to be offended or upset. That’s why we burn books. Its not a government mandate, it’s a mandate from the people to get rid of ideas that are unpleasant.”

Whatever you call it, the result is polarization that paralyzes our efforts to correct a real problem. 

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