On World Mental Health Day, Let’s Stop the Fat-Shaming

It’s World Mental Health Day on October 10th and as a mental health professional, I want to talk about a topic that deserves a lot more discussion: the topic of fat shaming. Many of us have gotten better about not making racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic remarks but we still think that it’s acceptable to shame the overweight.

Interestingly, this appears to be a reflection, in part, of the fact that we’re a body-obsessed society. Everywhere we look people are promoting the latest exercise craze, fad diet, diet pill or fat-melting technology. But at the same time as we obsess about being thin, more and more of us have become significantly overweight.

Here’s how I see it. We’re all so stressed these days. Life is harder than ever and it’s become increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Many of us work extra-long hours just to keep a roof over our heads and some food on the table. We watch characters on TV enjoying luxurious homes, furniture, clothing, jewelry, hobbies and vacations that we know we’ll never even come close to affording. It’s so frustrating.

We overeat to self-soothe:

One thing that we can always do to alleviate our stress is overeat. We go for the comfort food — carbs, fats and sweets — to soothe ourselves and make us feel full inside. While we’re eating, we feel a sense of pleasure or relief but eventually, the calories add up and the pounds pile on. We start to gain weight.

Online, in magazines and on our TV screens we’re bombarded with images of skinny bodies in scanty clothing. Many of us feel inadequate because we just can’t compete. This encourages us even more to turn to comfort foods. We want to dull that sense of shame for not having the “perfect” body.

We constantly observe how this celebrity or that one has been fat-shamed by some online troll. These anonymous haters think nothing of commenting in the most derogatory manner about another person’s physique and somehow, this has become the new “normal,” even though it causes the person on the receiving end a lot of pain.

At the same time, magazines regularly publish cover stories of celebs and regular folks who’ve lost large amounts of weight. These individuals are celebrated and put up as role models for the rest of us. Their weight loss is lauded as virtuous, the implication being that those of us who remain overweight should feel ashamed.

Sadly, though, all the fat-shaming leads to a desire for more self-soothing, and where will an over-eater turn for soothing? Obviously, they’ll turn to food.

Over-eaters are the obvious addicts in our society:

Over-eaters are easy targets for shaming because unlike almost any other addict, their addiction is no secret to the rest of us. A gambler can hide their addiction; so can a shopaholic. A drug abuser or alcoholic can, at least for a certain period of time, hide the fact of their substance abuse. But over-eaters demonstrate their compulsive behavior by being obviously overweight.

The thing that we need to understand is that an over-eater may have a bigger body but they’re not substantially different from a gambler or an alcoholic.

All addicts are doing the same thing: using their addiction of choice in a misguided attempt to deal with unmet emotional needs and unhealed emotional wounds from their past. They’re also using their addiction as a dysfunctional coping strategy for their present-day hurts, losses and stresses.

Some people think that over-eaters are “out of control,” “lacking in will-power,” or “self-indulgent” but they’re craving comfort food in the same way as a gambler would yearn to play the roulette wheel or a compulsive shopper would have the urge to go on a shopping spree.

“The truth about addiction is that all addicts are coming from the same place and trying to achieve the same goals through their addictions.”

Over-eaters are no more “self-indulgent” than a porn addict, workaholic or a compulsive video game player. As World Mental Health Day approaches, we need to be more understanding of all addicts and instead of shaming the overweight we need to understand that they too are struggling with an addiction.

If addiction is someone’s misguided attempt at addressing their emotional baggage as well as a dysfunctional way to take care of themselves today, we need to offer these individuals support not shame.

We can provide addicts of all types with more functional coping strategies and more successful ways to heal their old emotional wounds and meet their residual needs from a difficult childhood.

If we see someone who is morbidly obese, we shouldn’t consider them as having “less will-power” than the average person. We should see them as having a larger store of unmet emotional needs, some deeper emotional wounds and fewer positive coping strategies for their current challenges.

Addicts are driven by their physiology and their psychology :

Many of us today would recognize a hard-core gambler, alcoholic or drug abuser as someone who is emotionally wounded and in need of our help. We ought to do the same with over-eaters.

Being significantly overweight isn’t a sign of laziness but of emotional distress. When we engage in fat-shaming we cause further distress to individuals who are already emotionally vulnerable.

“Every addict is compelled to indulge in their addiction because of deep, inner yearnings for nurturing, soothing and healing.”

Physiologically, addictive activities trigger the dopamine-mediated “reward pathway” of the brain that causes us to feel pleasure and relief while we’re engaging in the addictive behavior.

Sadly the chemical dopamine also causes us to have further cravings as soon as the particular binge is completed. The more we indulge, the more we crave, which gets us caught up in a vicious circle of addiction.

Our difficulty with quitting isn’t due to a lack of will-power, it’s due to the structure and function of the human brain that drives us to keep repeating the behavior until we can go “cold turkey,” and physically achieve withdrawal (in a sense, resetting the reward pathway) from the addictive substance or activity.

We also have a psychological reason for being compelled to overeat, abuse drugs or compulsively surf the net. Within our psyche we harbor a defense mechanism that I call “pathological hope,” or the powerful but false hope that something — in this case, the addictive behavior — is what will finally bring us real relief from our pain.

The hope is that if this much food, say, hasn’t brought us relief, then more food might. That’s why we’re psychologically driven to keep overeating. We figure that if we just eat “enough” food, it’ll finally do the trick.

“This is a real mental health issue and shouldn’t be relegated to the category of weak will or self-indulgence. It should inspire our concern, not our scorn.”

Fat-shamers hate themselves:

I think that people who like to fat-shame the overweight are acting out of their own self-loathing. I mean, why would someone take the time to write online about another person’s body, or go out of their way to comment negatively about a stranger on the street?

I believe that these fat-shamers hate themselves at least as much as they appear to hate the overweight and I believe that they’re harboring their own secret, shameful addictions. They’re probably so mortified by their own inability to control their urges that they feel compelled to hurt others who more obviously demonstrate a “lack of self-control.”

These fat-shamers need to develop some self-compassion and recognize that whatever addiction they have, it comes from the same inner wounds and needs as those of an overweight person.

Self-compassion is the answer:

With some self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, fat-shamers can start their own process of healing. They can stop hating themselves and start being more empathetic toward those around them who are also beset by uncontrollable urges.

As World Mental Health Day approaches, I encourage everyone to have more compassion toward themselves and to see their own powerful urges to engage in counter-productive behavior as a sign of their emotional wounds and needs, not as a sign of their moral failings.

If we can love ourselves more and find some acceptance for our own propensity for addiction, we’re ultimately going to be kinder to everyone else, and that’s exactly what the world needs more of, these days.

Sign up here for my free monthly wellness newsletter. November 2018 is all about healing from addiction.

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series