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July 28, 2013

Do Obese People “Have No Shame?”

This is a sensitive topic that most people already have an opinion on–are obese people just lazy gluttons? Or is there more going on with people who struggle with their weight AND as a community, might it serve us better to practice empathy and understanding instead of judgment and disgust?

I am in the latter camp.

I recently went on a min-rant on Twitter regarding the new study that came out showing that people who are discriminated against because of their weight are 2.5 times more likely to become obese. Frankly, I find belittling others and discrimination against those who struggle with their weight absolutely abhorrent.

Now, if you are reader of JillFit, you know that I am all about personal responsibility and not being a victim, so I don’t ever believe that the answer is to give up and allow yourself to become a victim of circumstance. HOWEVER, I do believe that using ANY kind of negative motivation, fear tactics or cruel/distasteful rhetoric to try to “motivate” overweight people to get thinner is 100% useless and basically makes you an asshole. #sorrynotsorry

This reminded me of something mentioned to me a while back–at which I time I also went off–when someone said to me, “People are overweight and obese because there is no shame in it anymore.”

Is this true?

a) Do obese people have no shame?
b) Does shame “prevent” obesity?
c) Even if it did, do we really *want* people to feel shame?

Uh, I’ll argue ‘no’ to all of the above.

And here’s why:

First off, to qualify–the answer to why someone is overweight or obese will always be multi-multi-faceted so to distill it down to lack of shame is incomplete and short-sighted. Besides, overweight people have a very different metabolism than those who are healthy.

So, with this being a very complex question, here is my semi-complex answer (and don’t miss the Tweetables at the bottom):

Most people who are overweight/obese are probably more shameful than anyone can imagine.

Sure, there are some people who have simply decided to be happy at any size. And good for them. I wouldn’t wish unhappiness on anyone. But for the majority of people dealing with weight issues, I think that for the normal-weight among us, we can’t fully comprehend the amount of stress, shame, guilt and discomfort that can cause.

The follow-up question here is usually, “If they feel that way, why don’t they do something about it?” I go into this further below, but the bottom line is that many *are* trying, but when you have a lot of weight to lose, it can get discouraging very quickly, and some simply don’t have the tools/education they need. I blogged on this here.

The current mainstream perception of the weight loss process does not help either. The “dieting culture” romanticizes “rapid weight loss” and the consistent stream of “unbelievable” before & afters in magazines does anything but encourage a patient, slow, steady fat loss journey over YEARS, which is what it actually takes.

Perception is skewed to the point that most people think fast weight loss is the norm and we have zero patience for anything else.

And as a professional in this industry, I can attest that we–the professionals–have largely created this rapid weight loss culture in order to sell more weight loss products and make more money.


This is an issue of priorities, and I say that without judgment. 

I have no kids, I live a fairly simple life where I get to create my own schedule, I have higher degrees in nutrition and exercise, and I have always valued fitness highly, from an early sports background. So, it would make sense that one of my top priorities would be to do whatever I needed to do to be thin, fit and healthy. However, I don’t prioritize other things like cleaning, cooking, staying in touch with family & friends like I want to (which I feel immense shame about), or even doing as much with my career as I’d like. My workouts are my priority. Every morning. And often it can be to the detriment of other things.

But who’s to say that a priority to be thin is any better than a priority to be a great mom, or a good friend or a successful businesswoman? So I don’t judge people’s priorities. But I *would* add that I believe being healthy and fit can help with these other priorities. I heard Dr. John Berardi from Precision Nutrition say once, “Everyone is motivated, they just may or may not be motivated to lose weight.” I agree 100%. Being overweight/obese doesn’t make someone automatically ‘less than’ or lazy or useless.

I don’t want people to feel shame in general.

Shame is a negative motivator. Like self-disgust, guilt, remorse, etc. And in general, negative motivators don’t last when it comes to long-term success. For example, shame might motivate us to workout every day for a week, but eventually it doesn’t feel good and we give up. Same with guilt over a big cheat meal. Might keep us from eating another one the next day, but in the end the feelings of self-disgust keep us imprisoned in a cycle of self-loathing and compensatory reactions. I don’t believe that self-disgust helps us make long-term change and it certainly doesn’t keep us “in line”–at least not long-term.

In fact, recent studies have shown that self-compassion (ability to give yourself the win) actually makes us MORE motivated to stick with it. I recommend Kelly McGonigal’s “The Willpower Instinct” if you are interested in it. Also love Brene Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”–talks a lot about how feelings of shame and guilt can keep us trapped in INACTION. I have to agree.

My personal opinion is:

No one should feel bad about who they are.

That may sound naive or too “accomodating,” but when the alternative is to make people feel bad for who they are, and guilted into action (which doesn’t even work), that’s simply not an option. How does that help anyone? Personally, I can’t get on board with that.

So my bottom line… people need to take responsibility for their own lives. Their own actions, their own thoughts, their own choices. BUT I don’t believe that going about it using negative motivators helps anyone. Watching the Biggest Loser and seeing all the screaming, puking and crying does not motivate anyone. If anything, it discourages people from trying because … who would want to endure that?

Making fat loss seem doable, attainable and POSSIBLE for anyone is key, no matter what. And I believe people are most motivated when they feel like someone believes in them and they feel a sense of possibility. Shame does not accomodate possibility.

I believe that the answer lies somewhere between personal responsibility and self-compassion. And the more you have of the latter, the easier it is to practice the former.

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Teach, Practice

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