I am a “moderate” when it comes to social pressure as a mechanism for controlling one’s peers. Basically, I think that shaming and stigmas are appropriate tools for society to deal with problems that don’t lend themselves overmuch to legal solutions; but that such shaming, when it goes overboard into ostracization, does damage to the broader society as well. If you can get fired from your job for holding an “unpopular” opinion on something that’s not even related to the work you do, that’s when “shaming” has gone too far. If the shaming has gone so far as to have people generally violating the rules of common manners – spitting on you, or some such thing – then, yes, society is evidencing a very troubling lack of compassion.
Of course, the feeling that other people disapprove of you is inherently upsetting, to some degree, for most people. (“Most people” being defined as 99.999% of all women and ~80% of men. Statistics made up on the spot.) These feelings are both real, and negative. But that’s the point: they’re supposed to be negative. That’s the stick society is beating you with so that you will conform, and receive the carrot of in-grouping. So I have zero tolerance for groups that agitate for society to stop shaming them on the basis that the shaming makes them feel bad. That is what shaming is supposed to do. The appropriate course, if you feel bad about some stigmatized attribute, is to convince everyone that the stigma is undeserved; that the shaming is not an effective means of achieving the goal.
So here’s my take on one particular aspect of shaming – a link from Insty – in defense of fat-shaming. Here’s my thoughts on that one – full disclosure, I’m overweight, myself.
Fat shaming would be socially useful as Emily Miller states – if, If, IF – the accepted mainstream advice on how to lose weight were correct.
Eat less, move more; calories in, calories out – that’s the dogma of the dietary establishment.
It’s a lie.
Therefore, rather than pouring more fuel onto the “shame fat people” fire, I think we need to freeze it (ha ha) and focus on changing Common Knowledge to actually, you know, be correct. You’re not going to lose weight if you eat a calorie-restricted, whole-grain, low-fat “heart healthy” diet. You’re not going to lose weight if you follow the USDA’s food plate plan. Those regimes were based on political pressure and “bad science” aka deliberate fraud.
Instead of dwelling on disgust for fat people – and the greatly obese are disgusting to look upon, no doubt there, and I’m pretty disgusted some days by myself as well – I pity them instead. Whatever “moral failures” they have, I’m sure I have, too. (*Eyes the can of chocolate-covered peanuts and pops lid back on.*) I’m willing to posit that all of them have tried dieting, probably numerous times. By the time someone gets to land-whale status, in fact, I suspect that their metabolisms are permanently damaged, and slimming down to an attractive form would take not only diet and exercise but a great deal of plastic surgery.
The unattractive will always have a harder time in life, all other things equal, than the attractive. That’s just facts. (Whining about “lookism” makes you an even more unattractive loser. Do your best with what you’ve got. And make enough money for some plastic surgery if it really bothers you.) Being fat is something that society perceives as under your personal control, however, unlike being genetically predisposed to a large nose or protuberant ears – which is why issues of “shaming” even come up. It’s the sum of a person’s everyday choices, moment by moment, that determine if they get fat or not – at least, in the great majority of cases. However, I can fully understand that many obese people are tired of it, tired of trying to measure up, tired of being judged “morally deficient” because of the weight they’ve spent years – decades – fighting to lose.
But instead of saying “That hurts my feelings! Accept me for who I am (as if I weren’t disgusting to look upon)!” I think we need to tackle the misinformation that contributes to the weight of the stigma. (ducks) Because no matter how “accepting” (outwardly) society becomes, as long as the ideal of beauty-appropriate weight remains – and while that ideal is a bit plastic, land whales are never gonna be near it – there will always be the internal shame. The burn of failure, the frustration of “Why can’t I be thinner, if this really is under my control?? I did everything they said!”
I know why I’m not thinner – I eat sugary things when I know they’re fattening. I rationalize and make excuses for myself. My failing IS a moral failing. I lack self-control. May the shame fall upon me, ’cause I kind of need it, even though it hurts. No discipline is pleasant at the time, after all.
But for those still trapped into believing the “experts” – who are eating their bowl of Special K with skim milk and are getting tired of starving themselves when nothing works – more shame isn’t going to help. Shame only works if the path to correct behavior is clear: and the authorities put up a signpost that leads straight into a labyrinth, instead.
So, Emily: let’s get the USDA out of the nutrition advice business, and utterly discredit the idea that calorie counts are what ultimately matter, rather than hormonal responses – and then once that’s done, and everyone knows the truth again (like they did less than a century ago: grains make you fat) – then the path to improvement will be clear, and people won’t be throwing carb-heavy 100 calorie “snack packs” in a dieter’s face anymore. It’s not enough to defend shaming – defend it, and tell people the truth about nutrition and weight gain. Because the truth will make it easier for those who’ve been failing to succeed; and the truth will make those who aren’t grossly obese more compassionate for those who’ve been struggling.
Because the shaming from the doctors, the experts, who say “Do this, and you will succeed at losing weight,” and then don’t believe the fat people when they say, “We followed your instructions exactly and we gained more weight!” … That’s the shaming that needs to go. It’s bad enough, being unattractive. Having the “experts” blame you, when you follow their instructions and the instructions fail to deliver the promised result – well, yes, that’s a problem.
The words “fat,” “obese,” “plus-size”? No, those are not the problem. No whining. Have courage and be brave in the face of adversity. If the experts steered you wrong, look elsewhere for the truth – and then share it! You may “accept” your fat body all you like – but no one else is obliged to alter plain, non-insulting speech in order to avoid speaking the truth. Even if that truth does hurt your feelings. Truth is more important than conscripting others to boost your self-esteem!
And, if the day comes when those who wish to stay thin can manage it because the way to do so is once more understood – there won’t be so much stigma against the remaining fat people. They will be far fewer, and instead of a presumption of moral failing, people are more likely to wonder – does that poor woman have a medical condition? Otherwise she wouldn’t weigh so much…
After all, if we’re going to change society, let’s change it in a useful way that will produce positive results that people are seeking, rather than fighting our own instinctual appreciation for attractiveness! If fighting biology worked, so would high-carb low-fat diets!