When I was growing up, my father stood six feet tall and weighed 300 pounds. I never thought of him as fat, but clearly he was a “large man.” He always reminded me of Raymond Burr, best known for his role as Perry Mason. But it was obvious my mother constantly worried about the toll his weight would exact. It wasn’t a specific comment, she adored my dad, instead it was the way she had him fit a suit “to cover his girth” or the look she gave him when he ate foods that should have been “off limits.” Regardless, he always found a way to eat what he wanted. In that day and age, the house and kids were her domain and she made it abundantly clear her 5 children would never have to deal with this harsh reality. Habits that instilled health and fitness became the priority. A signal my father couldn’t possibly have missed.
He used to tell a story of when he was 8 and on stage in a school play. At one point he was on the edge of the stage and teetered a bit. As he was regaining his balance a women up front cried, “That fat boy is going to fall on me!”
It was meant to be funny, but all I heard was the anguish and heartache he must have suffered his entire life. It didn’t stop him from believing in himself and achieving success, but it must have always been in his head what he believed people really saw or thought. How could this not color his own perceptions?
When I was 20, my parents were invited on a 7 day cruise. Awake hours before my mother, he looked for ways to keep busy. Irony of irony, that’s where he joined a group of early bird risers and started walking a mile every day, after they shared breakfast. He later admitted it was the first time he talked openly about his weight and the impact it had on his life. Why not, they were all strangers, never to meet again. He lost 5 pounds!
Back then physical activities like jogging were just becoming mainstream via James Fixx’s book- The Complete Book of Running. Before this, the idea of running for fun or exercise sounded ludicrous. “Gyms” started popping up in every neighborhood. Once home he joined a local racket ball facility and trimmed down to 200 pounds over the next year.
As an adult my father shared with me his constant battle with weight. It was never easy, he struggled to keep it in check every day. My fondest memories are of the times we shared our lives over a competitive court game and the meal afterwards.
Bill Maher did a despicable tirade against obesity last year, claiming we should bring back shame since it’s a great motivator. He’s wrong. When someone in such power so callously denigrates and attacks a group of people, he does nothing to help but everything to destroy what little has been accomplished. He once lashed out at critics who felt they could shame him for choosing to be single and not have kids. The difference is that is a choice, one he has the absolute right to make. But obesity, as I’ve stated in numerous posts, encompasses far too many contributing factors to blanket all overweight people with shame for “not just fixing the problem.” It‘s inexcusable and callous.
This has to stop. James Corden made a great response:
As he so beautifully put it, “while worrying what others put in their mouth let’s be better at what comes out of our own.”
Shaming is never the answer. If it was, every child bullied and shamed growing up would be fit and slim today! Those who are obese are their own worst critics, they don’t need the additional slams. Study after study shows shame and being told obesity is nothing more than a personal failing that shrinks our GDP, strains our health care system and work force just sabotages healthy life-style changes. It’s an excuse to bully overweight people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good.
That’s why the fear of becoming heavy, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time- an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat!
A 2017 analysis of 33 studies on weight stigma found that people experiencing consistent shaming were more likely to have depression, anxiety, eating disturbances and disorders, high cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and other biomarkers of high stress. They had low self-esteem and were more likely to binge eat. And the greater the stigma felt, the worse their health status.
Too many factors impact weight, not just diet and exercise– poverty and access to healthy foods, genetics, circadian rhythms, sleep, the perception of body image based on those you socialize with, and those pesky hormones we’ve discussed. For example, losing just 3 percent of your body weight results in a 17 percent slowdown in metabolism, which then causes the release of hunger hormones. Keeping weight off means choreographing a complex dance to fight weight gain and hunger every day, for life. This should be encouraged and empowered, not shamed.
Fat shaming didn’t get my dad to lose weight. It wasn’t until a group of like-minded people met by chance, and together they encouraged each other toward their goals. Still, it was painfully clear my father never forgot the words he heard growing up that defined him solely by how he looked. It’s time we all choose what goes in and out of our mouths more judiciously.