A Look Back at the Year in Fat-Shaming

Note: That's not what brought childhood obesity rates down.

I was surprised to read last week that rates of childhood obesity in some U.S. cities, Philadelphia included, are actually down. According to the New York Times, which cited a September report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the rate of childhood obesity in Philadelphia has dropped five percent. The positive change in Philly, which was seen across demographic categories, was attributed to “a broad assault on childhood obesity,” which has included such efforts as the removal of sugary drinks and deep fryers from the cafeterias in city schools.

With all the usual caveats applying about small statistical sample sizes, I was encouraged by this and fascinated by the Johnson Foundation numbers. It’s good to see some progress in a seemingly intractable public health issue.

Notice, though, that none of those successful efforts involved shaming the kids, getting them to hate themselves, or humiliating them into dropping a few sizes.

This news comes at the end of a year in which discussions of obesity, weight and body-shaming—in regards to adults—have been all over the culture.

There was Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston, who responded on the air to a letter from a viewer who bashed her for going on the air as an overweight person. There were public freakouts about modest weight gains by previously stick-thin celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga. There were legions on Twitter who opined that CNN’s Candy Crowley, after asking a tough question of Mitt Romney in a presidential debate, was too fat to moderate the debate. There were dozens of speculative articles tying Chris Christie’s weight to his political future. And perhaps worst of all, there was a friggin’ licensed OB/GYN quoted in a news story calling Jessica Simpson “an absolute porker” for the unforgivable crime of gaining too much weight during pregnancy.

What a lot of this comes down to is the idea of fat-shaming. Jennifer Livingston’s correspondent did something that’s known in Internet culture as “concern trolling”—he pretended to be concerned about Livingston’s health and her being a poor role model, when he almost certainly just didn’t want to have to turn on his TV and see a fat person. The same with Gaga and Christina—and 10 years ago, wasn’t everyone freaking out about Aguilera being too thin?

If you don’t think fat people are shamed plenty already, you’ve probably never been fat. And if we went to a public health approach of all fat-shaming, all the time, the likely result wouldn’t be healthier or even thinner people; more likely, it would be greater incidents of eating disorders, not to mention depression.

I know a little bit about this. After years of struggles, I lost a whole bunch of weight this year. I decided to make an effort around the time my second child was born, because I wanted to be able to chase my kids around without getting winded or outrun. Weight is something I’ve struggled with for most of my life, and I probably always will. That’s why I have no interest in being judgmental about anyone else’s weight struggles. And I strongly reject the notion that being overweight is a moral failing or character flaw that one needs to be shamed out of.

The truth is, losing weight, should one attempt to do it, is hard. It gets harder as you get older, and it’s harder for women than it is for men. And if you do lose weight, keeping it off is no picnic either. If it weren’t hard, everyone would be able to do it, and the diet industry wouldn’t rake in $35 billion per year.

The ace political journalist Marc Ambinder, who has written eloquently in the past about his own lifelong struggle with obesity, wrote last week that “the dirty little secret among obesity researchers is that many of them will tell you in private that no intervention short of the type of government intrusiveness that is intolerable for most Americans would actually have an impact on the problem.” I’ve heard the same thing said about climate change, although if this fall’s numbers are part of a legitimate trend, then perhaps that’s not quite the case.

What can the government do? Michelle Obama’s most prominent initiative as first lady has been a campaign to combat childhood obesity, one that has mostly entailed guidelines, recommendations, and going on Sesame Street to plant vegetables with Elmo, while not actually enforcing anything with the force of law. What’s the reaction been? “Get the government out of what we eat!” That, and an elected member of the House of Representatives, out loud, stating that the First Lady of the United States has a big ass.

So let’s be thankful that our city has taken steps towards a healthy future. Let’s do more of what led to that, and less of making people feel bad about themselves.