Whilst bullying and negative portrayals of overweight people are often overlooked or implicitly condoned on the grounds that ‘it might help them to lose weight’, you probably need only look back to your school days for examples of bullying crushing confidence and isolating people.
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.
It is clear that pressure to conform to some notion of desirability is present from a young age and to not fit into that can cause serious mental health problems. The NHS has in conjunction with the National Obesity Observatory produced a sizable document on obesity and the social factors that give rise to psychological disorders.
It doesn’t work anyway.
Even if everything mentioned above weren’t true, it is becoming clear that victimization and discrimination against people who are overweight isn’t a motivator in reducing their weight.
A recent paper from Jane Wardle’s group at my own institution, University College London (UCL), reports observations from a cohort of 2,944 people over the age of 50. Those who reported discrimination or bullying not only had a greatly reduced chance of weight loss, they actually tended to gain weight and become obese.
When almost every country in the world has a burgeoning health crisis due to the availability and low quality of food and the increase in sedentary lifestyles, it can be very tempting to blame individuals for their weight.
All the evidence from decades of research has demonstrated that obesity is not a choice. It is a complex socioeconomic, psychological, and physiological phenomenon.
We can all do things to influence our body weight, but the most important thing is to make sure that we are happy with whatever our healthy body looks like. Obesity is an issue, but the problem is regarding the health of the individual not whether a given person happens to find them attractive or not.
Instead of an overwhelmingly negative approach to the issue which would seem to do more harm than good, encouraging lifestyle change on the basis that it is better to be healthy than unhealthy appears to be the key, whatever size or shape that might mean you are. The idea that only one possible incarnation of physical health can exist is rapidly proving to be a myth, one that has been lethal for many people.