The psychological impact of fat shaming

Kanono, fatso, fattie, Big Show pronounced ‘Bigishoo’- a few of the endearing nicknames I collected as a child due to my weight. I was a hungry child and ate with relish whatever was set in front of me on a plate, or in a nylon bag (yes viazi karai, I’m about your oily deliciousness).

Contradictory to current societal belief, I was also a very active child. I’d play kati with the girls and run straight into the football field to score goals with the boys to avoid having to sit still when I was ousted from the former. I was rarely sick and never missed a day of school. The kids at school stopped calling me names when they realized I was happy to go along with it adopting the names fully as a coping mechanism, just glad to be included at all. School was where I went to avoid Tub Of Lard, as my family affectionately dubbed me. It was everywhere, the staring, the sneers and snide remarks at my assumed laziness- fat shaming. A few people avoided sitting near me and I was shocked to realize later that it was because they think fat people smell.

I thought I was doing a good job of not giving two shits about weighty matters as they pertain to my body, I really thought I was. I pictured myself karate chopping and kicking down all the negative remarks about my humongous thighs, cellulite, the fat shaming tactics that invoke health as thinness…etc etc Avatar Ang style. That is until I started reading about the negative psychological impact of fat shaming little kids and realized I exhibit all the classic signs of trauma from having been bullied and discriminated as a child.

What are they?

The girls who are told they’re “too fat” before they hit puberty are more likely to be obese in the future, according to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers focused on 10-year-old girls who were called fat by people close to them, and found they were more likely to be at an unhealthy body weight by age 19 compared to other girls who were never shamed about their weight in this way. The weight gain can be exacerbated by the media portrayals of the perfect, healthy human form; catwalk models and movie stars all look pretty much the same from the neck down. Media representations of overweight people are exceedingly rare and are almost always negative. It can be demoralizing and we all know that when people feel bad they reach out for comfort food, fueling emotional eating.

An analysis by the Centre for Advancing Health indicated that high school students who believed themselves to be overweight were much more likely than their classmates to suffer from depression or to attempt suicide. Anorexia is the most fatal mental health issue in the US, largely because the rates of suicide are higher among people who suffer from disordered eating than they are for people with other psychological disorders.

Negative body image contributes to disordered eating, an epidemic that impacts an estimated 30 million Americans. Bodies don’t all look alike and pursuing what is, for many people, an unrealistic and unhealthy ‘ideal’ can only give rise to eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, which currently impact over 5% of women. (The research into eating disorders in men is sparse at best, with the last major epidemiological study being over a decade out of date.)

Considering how much of the western media we and our children actively consume, e.g the ever-problematic Disney princesses, and how uneasy we have grown to be with our own bodies, the latest fads in diets and fat burning workouts gaining a steady foothold in our homes, becoming a daily part of our routine, embedding itself into our culture, how easy it is to transfer our own psychological problems with our weight onto our children. Do we want to raise a generation of anorexic, perpetually dissatisfied, depressed children whose lives revolve around the measuring scale?

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