Full disclosure: I am not a professional psychologist, I am a fitness professional. In this article, I will be speaking from experience, as well as referencing common principles of motivation in exercise and studies by appropriate professionals which address this issue.
In light of recent events (namely, Nicole Arbour’s terrible decision to create this video), I thought it may be the time to sit down and talk about fat shaming. I’m not an expert in the psychology behind fat shaming, so I had to do some research before writing this article. I watched and read enough videos and articles to come to one immediate conclusion: it seems to me that very few people truly know what fat shaming actually is. Clearly, I am not completely clear on the concept myself, because I had to google “what is fat shaming” to prepare for this article (and alas, “fat shaming” is not yet in the dictionary).
So, what is fat shaming? Perhaps the better question is, what is not fat shaming? Unfortunately, one pretty rude man from the internet shares the same uneducated opinion as Nicole Arbour, which is that fat shaming is a necessary evil in promoting better health and fitness. In short, he (and many others) confuse fat shaming with that “moment” people often refer to as the starting point to their fitness journey. Examples include: getting on a roller coaster ride and not being able to fit in the extra large seat; not being able to play with one’s kids outside due to physical exhaustion that accompanies excess weight; having to purchase two seats on the airplane because one cannot fit into a single seat; no longer being able to climb stairs without help; et cetera. These moments may cause the person experiencing them to have feelings of shame, but note: not a single one of these experiences come directly from a “fat shamer.” Instead, these moments come from situations that result in a revelation of sorts in the person experiencing them. I can tell you with full certainty that I have never heard someone make a massive lifestyle change as the result of someone else making them feel bad about themselves. Just to be clear, not once have I heard someone say, “I felt so motivated to get into shape when my significant other told me I was a fat slob,” or anything of that nature. Ultimately, a person’s decision to embark on a health & fitness journey MUST come from THEMSELVES: a person who is not ready to change will not be successful. We cannot FORCE anyone into a state of readiness to change through shaming, scare tactics, et cetera.
Clearly, we cannot completely ignore the potential health problems that come with excess weight and obesity. According to the CDC, people who are obese are at an increased risk for many serious diseases and health conditions, including: all causes of death (mortality); high blood pressure (hypertension); high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides (Dyslipidemia); type 2 diabetes; coronary heart disease (CHD); stroke; gallbladder disease; osteoarthritis; sleep apnea and breathing problems; some cancers; low quality of life; mental illness; and body pain / difficulty with physical functioning. Ms. Arbour fails to recognize that fortunately, most obese & overweight people’s doctors have very likely spoken with them about these risks. We fitness professionals are encouraged to educate and inform our clients of the health risks associated with excess weight, but again, a good trainer will not attempt to force someone to change through fat shaming, scare tactics, bullying, etc.
Fat shaming is one of the worst motivational tools that exist. For this reason, in the fitness profession, fat shaming is not considered a tool at all. This is practically group fitness 101: you want your participants to leave feeling successful and good about themselves if you want them to return. As an instructor, I do this by A) designing classes that all or most participants will be able to do, B) ensuring I have appropriate regressions & progressions to reduce or increase intensity, respectively, C) giving positive reinforcement, and D) equipping my students with knowledge about how to execute exercises properly, and how exercise can positively effect their health. Let me be clear: none of these things involve shaming my students into submission. People work harder when they feel like they are doing well and feel that they can make a difference in their health (FYI, this is called self-efficacy); people do not work harder when they feel like they’re a lost cause and when they feel poorly about themselves.
Additionally, we trainers are taught to help our clients set realistic goals, and then help them set “mini-goals” that will get them there. It is our responsibility to help record and celebrate every victory, big or small, along the way. We do this because this positive reinforcement will help them continue to work toward their long-term goals. Again, you’ll notice that nowhere in this description do I mention shaming our clients into making better health choices or highlighting the negative things about their bodies and/or performance. Considering fitness professionals are literally in the business of weight loss, it would be a safe assumption to make that, if fat shaming was an effective mode for weight loss motivation, we would be using it by now.
Instead, fat shaming has the opposite effect. Eric Robinson of the University of Liverpool explains in this article that:
A series of studies have now shown that exposing overweight individuals to stigmatising information about obesity or “fat shaming” is associated with adverse outcomes; this kind of experience is stressful, upsetting and it actually causes over-eating.
Multiple research studies have also shown that experiencing fat shaming or being treated poorly because of your weight is not conducive to weight loss. Instead, it is in fact associated with greater weight gain; it exacerbates obesity.
So unfortunately, Nicole Arbour, your video is being poorly received for a very good reason: not only is it offensive, but science literally tells us that fat shaming is one of the WORST things you can do to “help” someone who is fat. Whitney Way Thore from My Big Fat Fabulous Life’s response (above) is, in my opinion, the perfect rebuttal to Arbour’s shameful video.
Before we conclude, let me make one thing clear: OPERATHLETIC does NOT, and will NEVER, support body shaming in any capacity, including fat shaming. In creating this blog, I wanted to design content and workout gear that would empower our readers to continue working toward their health goals. Shaming and empowering are two concepts that do not work together. It is my hope that, through OPERATHLETIC, singers can learn more about how to A) lead a healthy lifestyle with such a crazy schedule, B) get the scientifically sound information about fitness, nutrition, and wellness they need to feel comfortable and strong in the gym and the kitchen, and C) feel motivated and empowered as a part of a community that works together to reach (and celebrate) our health goals and accomplishments.