Does Casual Fat-Shaming Lead to Eating Disorders?

Updated on August 28, 2019

The term “politically correct” gets a lot of attention recently; it often comes to dominate the national discourse for a thousand different reasons.   Despite the very real concerns about free speech that PC discussions bring, it’s crucial to remember that in a shared society, offhand comments (even those that have no ill intent) can influence people negatively.  

When it comes to the world of eating disorder recovery, “politically incorrect” statement can have profound effects on people who have distorted body image or need anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder treatment from a quality treatment center, like here.

This isn’t to say people or corporations should be punished for insensitivity – only that a part of being supportive and considerate is considering the effects our speech might have on others.

What Is Fat-Shaming?

The obvious definition of this is a situation where one person bullies or mock another for their weight or body shape.  Of course, no one is defending this kind of behavior; it’s clearly inappropriate in any context. However, casual fat-shaming can be pernicious.  It might be something as simple as a comedy that portrays overweight people as gluttonous, unintelligent, or lazy.  

This kind of fat-shaming can reinforce those forms of negative stereotypes.  Popular culture is powerful; people often subconsciously adopt the attitudes found in entertainment sources.  The issue comes into play when those attitudes bleed out into real-world biases and consequences. For example, overweight people are less likely to be hired for the same positions with identical qualifications, largely due to subconscious biases that the negative qualities listed above somehow relate to a person’s weight.

For people with body-image issues or even those who have undergone eating disorder recovery treatment, these kinds of subconscious biases can trigger or reinforce disordered eating behaviors.  Being seen as fat or overweight is a strong factor in the development of eating disorders, and can lead to excessive dieting as observed in anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder treatment or the defining purging characteristics of bulimia nervosa.  

Fat-Shaming Signals Are Everywhere

It’s easy to see examples of casual fat-shaming and think “They shouldn’t be so sensitive.”  Unfortunately, this mindset is equally insensitive. As with most situations, a little bit of perspective is helpful in understanding the stresses on particular groups imposed by society at large. 

Consider this situation; there’s a person who has body dysmorphia.  That means they perceive their body as flawed or feel unrealistic negativity towards the way they look.  Most often, this means they’re irrationally concerned about weight. Then one day, they’re out with friends and one of them casually makes a joke about a Melissa McCarthy move at the expense of her weight.  Even though it’s not aimed at the person with body dysmorphia, that comment can trigger feelings of anxiety about their weight which exacerbate the body-image issue.

There are daily, casual fat-shaming signals everywhere; it’s not just movies or offhanded remarks by friends.  Advertising, in particular, takes advantage of people’s anxieties about their weight. Think about before-and-after images used in ads for weight-loss pills. Beyond the way the “before” images are shot to make the person look unattractive, they often photoshop the “after” image to make the promised result an unrealistic ideal of “thinness,” which plays on these anxieties.

Even something as simple as a dinner plate can be insensitive in a way that promotes eating disorders and perpetuates the need for eating disorder recovery.  Recently, Macy’s faced controversy over sets of plates which included terms like “Mom jeans,” “favorite jeans,” and “skinny jeans” with smaller and smaller circles on the plate.  The company that produced the plates says they were intended to make a funny joke about portion control; many people in and out of binge eating disorder treatment communities instead felt they shamed people for eating the portions they choose.  

There’s Room for Fun – Just Remember That Sensitivity Counts 

While causal or unintended fat-shaming and body-shaming are certainly not the sole cause of eating disorders, they can exacerbate some of the neuroses that influence them.  And they’re not rare – binge eating disorder alone affects more people in the United States than HIV or even breast cancer. That’s why it’s so essential to remember to show sensitivity when discussing weight and dieting. Being considerate is a great way to show support for the people closest to you.

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