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Shaming the fat shamers

Posted on 11.20.2013

A new, disturbing trend online and sadly, in real life, is the phenomenon known as fat shaming. The idea of fat shaming is that by criticizing others from behind a computer screen, or in person, they will then be embarrassed into action, perhaps quickly getting themselves or their children to a gym and on Weight Watchers so they can fit the current American beauty ideals.

I mentioned children above because some current news stories I’ve seen, and been infuriated by, this past month target children. In Fargo, N.D., a woman called into a local radio station to announce that she would be giving “fat letters” instead of candy to trick-or-treaters she feels are moderately obese. Moving past my annoyance at the oxymoron of  “moderate obesity,” the letter has gone viral. In it, the Grinch decides that it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s her job as a villager to admonish parents of overweight children for sending their “unhealthy” children out for candy and for not being good enough parents.

A second news story from the Huffington Post reports that school districts across the country are now starting to weigh children and send home letters to the parents if their child’s body mass index is over 25, which would put them in the overweight range.  These letters are gentler than the Grinch chick, but still have the same point: your kid is fat, and you need to walk him or her more often.

America does have an epidemic of overweight and obese children, which I do agree is largely the responsibility of the parents, and of the children as they get old enough to handle the responsibility of their own well-being.  However, making overweight individuals ashamed or embarrassed won’t help the matter. Here’s why.

First, being overweight and obese is recognized as a disease, which sometimes can’t be treated with simple diet-and-exercise. There was a study years ago about breast cancer that said women who had given birth to at least three children and had breast fed would have a reduced chance of getting breast cancer. If this were true, one in eight women would not experience breast cancer, but genetics must also be considered. Likewise with obesity, external health factors should be considered. One commenter on the “fat letters” story pointed out that a child could be suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or muscular dystrophy, which limits physical activity. For those diseases, the medicine would be a steroid, which would cause the child to gain weight. Unfortunately, losing it would be difficult and diet-and-exercise might not have that much effect.

Secondly, there is more than meets the eye with weight. Perhaps these children who are overweight are already working with a dietician and are in the process of getting healthy, or maybe they’ve already lost a ton of weight as is. Details like this venture into “is-it-anyone’s-business” territory. While the school letters are well-intentioned, what is appropriate for each family is subjective. Should school nurses be weighing students, or should that be left to a child’s pediatrician? I bring this point up because, frankly, my school nurses were good for giving out Band-Aids but absolutely out of their area of training for determining medical conditions.

Finally, the problem with fat shaming is that it’s not actually going to motivate anyone to fix anything. Thin bodies, flawless skin and “hotness” are in, and children who don’t meet all three criteria are well aware of that thanks to what glosses across magazines and is shouted by schoolyard bullies. If anything, the obesity epidemic is similar to alcoholism. If alcoholics feel like they are being attacked, they don’t stop drinking. They take the problem underground, and it gets worse.

If we’re serious about helping the village children, we need to put down the pitchforks.


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