Horst D. Deckert

When It Comes To Being Overweight, Bullying Works


It’s not a surprise that Big Food and Big Pharma are pushing anti-diet messaging

So there’s a new study and it shows that, when it comes to being overweight, bullying works. Sort of.

What the new study shows is that “internalised weight stigma”—read: being told by others that you’re a fattie—stays with you throughout life. Here’s how the term is described in a press release for the study.

“Internalized” weight stigma, is when people apply negative obesity-related stereotypes to themselves, such as thinking they are less attractive, less competent, or less valuable as a person because of their weight.

Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, otherwise known as Bristol’s “Children of the 90s” study, the researchers behind the new research looked at differences in “internalised weight stigma” among over 4,000 31 year olds. They considered a wide variety of factors in their analysis, including sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, sexuality and other social influences in childhood and adolescence.

The researchers found that “feeling pressure from family to lose weight, weight-related teasing by family members, and feeling pressure from the media to lose weight as a teenager” were all linked to greater levels of “internalised weight stigma” at the age of 31. This was not necessarily linked to differences in body mass index (BMI).

Particular groups were also identified as being at high risk of “internalised weight stigma”: women and non-heterosexuals, especially. Young people who spent a portion of their 20s as NEETs (not in education, employment or training) and children of mothers with lower educational levels were other high-risk groups.

Of course, the study doesn’t really prove that bullying—I mean, “internalised weight stigma”—really works. To do that you’d have to demonstrate that people subjected to it end up being healthier on average than people who aren’t. The study just shows that you’re likely to remember being told you’re overweight during your childhood and adolescence.

Frankly you’d never get away with a study that went further and tried to show whether this kind of prodding works, and when and how it might become counterproductive. The frame has to be that any expression of disapproval about someone’s weight—so-called “fat-shaming” or “fatphobia”—is, by its very nature a bad thing. That’s exactly how this particular study is framed.

Here’s how the lead researcher, Dr Amanda Hughes, described the study’s importance, again in the press release.

“We have an opportunity to reduce weight stigma and its consequences by changing how we discuss weight in the media, in public spaces and in families, and how we respond to bullying in schools, workplaces, and other settings.

“This is crucial considering how common pressure to lose weight and weight-related bullying, stigma and discrimination are in many cultures around the world.”

I wasn’t surprised to see a detailed exposé in the Washington Post a week or so ago about Big Food’s new strategy to sell more of its processed products. The headline: “Big Food and dietitians push ‘anti-diet’ advice.”

Of course they do.

If you manufacturer sugar-laden snacks and microwave pizza, there’s no money in telling people not to eat those products. Try explaining that to the shareholders. Goodbye, high-paying job!

The Post article reveals, at length, how companies like General Mills are teaming up with so-called dietitians and using social media to promote “anti-diet” messaging. You can eat whatever you want. In fact, you should eat whatever you want. You can be healthy at any size, any weight.

Eat that second bowl of our delicious new cereal. I know it’s 1pm, but you deserve it. And if you want another bowl after that, that’s fine too.

From the Post article:

Amy Cohn, General Mills’ senior manager for nutrition and external affairs, promoted the cereal company’s anti-diet messaging to a room of registered dietitians at a national food conference this past fall. Cohn denounced the media for “pointing the finger at processed foods” and making consumers feel ashamed of their choices.

“You can help derail the cycle of shame,” Cohn told the dietitians.

During the session, Kathryn Lawson, a registered dietitian and director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the food giant Nestlé, tweeted: “People need to feel heard and seen to help break the cycle of shame when it comes to losing weight and eating.”

This is becoming the norm now.

It’s not just conference speeches and social-media messaging. Companies like General Mills are also funding scientific studies to show that, for example, children who eat cereal, regardless of its sugar content, are healthier than children who eat a different breakfast or skip the meal altogether.

This is exactly what’s happening with Ozempic and other weight-loss “miracle drugs”, for precisely the same reason. People are being told that there’s no shame in being overweight, because there’s nothing they can do about it. Diets don’t work. It’s your genes. It’s the environment. It’s hyperpalatable processed food that’s designed to be irresistible so you just can’t stop eating it.

So ditch that “internalised weight stigma.” Why should you feel ashamed of something that’s totally outside your control?

Being overweight is fast being stripped of all moral content. It’s no different to having foot fungus. There’s no moral value to having foot fungus. Foot fungus simply is. You get it sometimes. And when you get it, you reach for a tube of cream and get some powder for your shoes. That’s it. No bad feelings—although maybe you’re a little embarrassed about the smell…

Of course, there’s a tension here, because Big Food is trying to say you can eat what you want all the time, whereas Big Pharma—companies like Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly—still want you to want to be thinner. But both sides are essentially engaged in the same enterprise: weaponising obesity for profit by stripping it of its traditional negative moral labels.

The title of this essay is probably a bit glib. I don’t think that people should be bullied without remorse, especially not for suffering with obesity, which is a complicated phenomenon. People overeat, but they do so for a variety of reasons, and have the odds stacked against them in a variety of different ways.

Hell, there are compounds—so-called “obesogens”—that literally make you put on weight if you come into contact with them, and they’re everywhere. The ubiquitous chemical bisphenol A (BPA), for example, reliably makes zebrafish gorge when they’re not hungry. It probably does the same to people too. There’s a lot of reasons behind why we’re the fattest we’ve ever been.

Having said all that, I do believe, of course, in the maintenance of positive ideals of beauty and competence that people should be encouraged to strive towards, even if they don’t ever achieve them fully. And that’s precisely what we’re abandoning today. It’s only natural, as far as I can see, that we should ask why, and consider who benefits the most from this.

I think I’ve already given you the answers to both of those questions.

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