• Shaming someone because of their weight isn't going to help them slim down. (Getty / siphotography)
Fat shaming – abuse and discrimination directed towards people who are overweight or obese – can harm a person’s health and interfere with his or her efforts to lose weight.
By
Nicola Heath

6 Sep 2017 - 9:27 AM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2017 - 10:28 AM

“Beached whale…”

“It should be illegal for you to be out in public because you’re disgusting.”

“You should do us all a favour and go [...] yourself.”

This is some of the abuse that Flick, 26, has suffered during her lifelong struggle with obesity.

Flick is a patient at the Weight Control Clinic at Austin Health in Melbourne and appears in the new television series The Obesity Myth.

“Being the biggest person in the whole school, especially when you’re four or five years old, it’s excruciating,” she says on the show. “My whole school life I never had more than one or two friends and it was very hard for me to make friends because no one wanted to be friends with the fat kid.”

If you are overweight or obese, there is a good chance you have suffered abuse or discrimination because of your weight.

Fat shaming is pervasive in society today in the form of anti-obesity campaigns that perpetuate fat stigma, and the discrimination obese individuals experience in the workplace and the health care system.

Anti-fat sentiment is disseminated in popular culture via television shows like the Biggest Loser, while fat shaming is endemic in Hollywood

“Being the biggest person in the whole school, especially when you’re four or five years old, it’s excruciating ... my whole school life I never had more than one or two friends and it was very hard for me to make friends because no one wanted to be friends with the fat kid.”

What many people don’t realise is that some experts are no longer viewing obesity as a lifestyle choice – but as a chronic health condition.

Professor Joe Proietto is an endocrinologist and Head of the Weight Control Clinic at Austin Health. He says that it seems self-evident that people get fat because they eat too much and they don't exercise.

But according to Professor Proietto, that assumption is false. “It's true that people who are overweight eat more, but why do they eat more? They eat more because they're more hungry,” he says. “Of the five main genes that have been discovered that lead to severe obesity, all of them cause increased hunger.”

Managing that hunger without medical intervention can be an impossible task. “You can't choose not to eat in the long-term. You can for one meal or two, but in the long-term if you're hungry you'll find that your brain will drive you to eat, pick things up as you pass the table and things like that.”

Many of Prof Proietto’s patients have experienced fat shaming. “A lot the younger ones tell us how they were abused at school,” he says. “There's a lot of discrimination at all levels, even among the medical profession.”

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Anti-fat prejudice can leave individuals traumatised, says Prof Proietto. “Depression is very common in our clinic. 20 per cent of the patients attending our clinic are on antidepressants. There would be another percentage, I don't know how many, that are depressed but they're not taking antidepressants.” 

The bullying and abuse Flick has experienced has left her with anxiety. “I feel like the whole world is watching me and I know how judgmental people can be and that’s too much for my anxiety,” she says.

Mental health issues like depression and anxiety can make it harder for an individual to lose weight. Research has found that people who experience weight-based discrimination are more likely to gain more weight than lose it.

“If you're really low in mood it's hard to motivate yourself to make the changes that you need to make to your diet and exercise habits,” says Prof Proietto.  

The professor often prescribes medication to help his patients at Austin to manage their hunger. “Following weight loss, there are long-lasting changes in your hunger hormones to make you more hungry. We first showed this at one year, now we have evidence at three years, now there's evidence at six years,” he says.

“I feel like the whole world is watching me and I know how judgmental people can be and that’s too much for my anxiety.”

“These changes do not give up until you regain all the weight. Medication is medically justified, scientifically justified, and it has to be lifelong, much like any other chronic illness.”

However two of the three available medications cannot be prescribed with antidepressants. “We're only left with an injectable, so we have even fewer tools to treat obesity” says Prof Poroietto. 

Reducing the incidence of fat shaming relies on changing community attitudes towards obesity. Prof Proietto hopes The Obesity Myth will contribute to this shift. “The way to do it is to educate the public on the real causes of obesity, which are predominately genetic. But it's very hard to change people's ideas,” he acknowledges. “It will have to be a gradual process.”

Ïf you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.

Watch 'The Obesity Myth' on Mondays from 4 September at 7:30pm on SBS.

 

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath

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