Letter to Bill Maher: Shame on You for Shaming Fat People
Although Real Time is the highlight of my TV week, I was appalled and disgusted — shocked actually — by your recent misinformed fat shaming rant. As an eating disorders therapist for 30-plus years and a 7-book author, I’m taking it upon myself to educate you on the facts regarding weight and fat shaming in the hopes that you’ll quit doing it.
Like “obesity,” fat shaming is a complicated problem with no simple solutions. But here are five reasons that it happens.
1. Treating high weight as a moral issue
Overeating is not the simplistic, good person-bad person, moral issue you portray. A comedian sermonizing from the bully pulpit about what and how much people eat or what they weigh feels a bit like using religion to tell folks what’s good or bad for them. As you’d say, “Really?”
2. Misinformation about why people have high weight
Not everyone is plus-size due to poor food or activity choices. Our weight can be negatively impacted by weight-loss dieting, weight cycling, genetics, microbia, trauma, metabolism, adverse childhood experiences, neurotransmitter imbalances, parental management style, family food/weight focus, poverty, bullying, early habituation to unhealthy foods, mother’s eating during pregnancy, sleep deprivation, poor coping skills, the food industry, food deserts, self-worth, hormones, medication, unhealthy personality traits, and environmental chemicals.
Abuse and trauma wildly dysregulate the nervous system. Depressed and anxious people seek easily accessible foods to emotionally re-regulate. Too little sleep produces more hunger hormones and less satiation hormones.
3. Misunderstanding weight “acceptance”
Accepting one’s higher weight body in no way implies a belief that everything is hunky dory, so let it be and never mind. Paradoxically, healthy acceptance entails holding the duality that we love ourselves as we are and want to change, or that we love others as they are even as we hope they’ll change. In eating psychology, rather than precluding change, self-acceptance is a precursor to it. Scientific studies tell us that fat shaming (of oneself or by others) not only fails to reduce weight but causes mental and physical harm (which may trigger comfort eating!).
Feeling frustrated and helpless generates the urge to do something. Therefore, we try to mobilize higher weight people to change by shaming them, making them feel worse so that we can feel better. But science says we’re all wrong: that shaming dampens motivation for behavioral change while compassion fuels it. In fact, overeaters beat themselves up mercilessly rather than feel helpless about their eating or weight and are notoriously hard on themselves, rather than easy.
5. Ignorance about how and why people change
People fat shame due to misinformation and misunderstanding of how behavioral change occurs. Our culture embraces the notion that continually bashing someone for “being bad” will eventually wear them down so that they’ll stop. We assume that we can shake them enough to get them “woke.” While the evolutionary function of shame is to help humans stop and think about behaving better (a positive and necessary process), shame overload makes people go numb and shut off the feeling.
Plus, there’s an interesting, unconscious dynamic that can occur with shaming which is part projection and part enabling. When we repeatedly shame people for being high weight, their defenses rise up, and we end up “holding” their shame which feels icky. So, we try to thrust it back on them and they defend against it, ad nauseam. The take-away is that as long as we keep pushing the shame angle, our targets are unlikely to feel much of it.
Here’s the key: If we want people to watch what they put into their mouths, we need to watch what comes out of ours.
Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd