Shame Can Make Us Cry: What is fat-shaming and how does it affect my child?

Let’s start by being clear about what shame is and how it develops— it is a painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. Shame is a painful, social emotion that can result from comparing your actions with your standards. The roots of the word shame mean "to cover"; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame. When people experience shame the may blush, become confused, look downward, lower their head and slouch. With intense shame a person may become overheated and their skin will blotch around the face and neck.

Shame can also make people cry. One of the key emotions in all forms of shame is contempt (Miller, 1984; Tomkins, 1967). When we feel shame we feel bad and inadequate and experience the affect of shame affect in situations of embarrassment, dishonor, disgrace, inadequacy, humiliation, or chagrin. When we are in a "state of shame" our sense of self is stigmatized like being denigrated by caregivers, overtly rejected by parents in favor of siblings needs, etc. To shame" means to actively assign or communicate a state of shame to another. Behaviors designed to "uncover" or "expose" others are sometimes used for this purpose, as are utterances like "Shame!" or "Shame on you!".

Another way to think about shame is that it can prevent feelings of real concern from developing because the sense of being damaged is so potent and painful that it numbs your feelings towards anyone else. When we feel shame we often idealize other people—they are seen as perfect, the lucky ones who live shame-free. This idealization can then turn into powerful feelings of envy—which leads to comparison and ranking behaviors. Are you allowing people to hold you to a standard rather than appreciating your unique talents and contributions? Are you comparing yourself and your children to other families?

People who don’t experience shame often are raised by parents who encouraged them to develop a reliable sense of self. They were raised to view other people as separate yet they are able to feel concern for them. People who have limited experiences of shame will and do experience guilt—which is painful too, but there is a sense of wholeheartedness to be present, recognize that their own actions may have hurt someone, empathize with that person's pain, feel remorse for having caused it, and seek ways to apologize or make amends. These are are all signs of emotional intelligence that support feelings of worthiness rather than shame. In other words, with guilt, the self is not the focus of negative feelings, but rather the thing that was done is the focus." Similarly, Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.” When we let ourselves, or other people make us feel bad about our size, shape, or weight we are vulnerable to fat-shaming.

What is fat-shaming and how does it affect my child?

  • Fat-shaming is when a person humiliates someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size, shape, or weight. Whether fat-shaming is subtle or overt—the intensity of the feeling of shame is often the same.
  • Earlier we talked about the words we used to describe our and our child’s body types. Here we are diving deeper into the topic of fat-shaming phrases we all have heard and may have even used ourselves, or with, or in the presence, of our children:

    • OMG- I feel so fat.
    • Wow you lost weight? You look great!
    • Do I look fat?
    • I can’t believe I ate that whole bag of chips—they are going right to my thighs—which are huge already!
    • I have nothing to wear—I have gotten so fat.
    • No I can’t eat that—I am on a diet—I have to fit into my dress for the party.
    • Wow—I can’t believe she is wearing that! At her size!
    • Did you see how big that guy was—I hope I never get that big.
    • I can’t believe you ate that whole bag of cookies?

When we use fat-shaming language we are stigmatizing ourselves and our children based on weight, shape, or size. This feeling of great disapproval by a child who is fat-shamed by parents, friends, classmates, or media images can cause future binge eating or other negative eating patterns. Fat-shaming at home can also be considered bullying at home—which is a real problem for many children with too much weight. Feeling vulnerable and unsafe at home because of bullying in the home can increase your child’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke more than children. Fat-shaming can cause children to feel poorly about their bodies, become depressed, and stressed. If you and your child live in New York, Maine and New Hampshire it may be helpful to know that these three states have passed anti-bullying laws that address weight in youth. These laws were passed because of being overweight is one of the most, if not the most, common reason children are bullied.

When we, or our children, absorb fat-shaming messages it can shake our confidence and our ability to make healthy changes. The shame we feel can turn into blaming ourselves which can cause us to criticize ourselves because of our weight. In a study of more than 2,400 overweight and obese women, by Dr. Puhl, Rudd Center, found that “79 percent reported coping with weight stigma on multiple occasions by eating more food, and 75 percent reported coping by refusing to diet.”

Fat shaming is bad for your health and does not, as some people believe, motivate people to lose weight. It will not motivate your child to lose weight. It can even cause you or your child to eat more to self soothe, or just plain give up on trying to live a healthy life. When we internalize fat-shaming messages we turn off our rational selves that knows weight is a complicated issues that is caused by behavioral, biological, emotional, and environmental factors. When shame burns inside us, we can forget that weight is not a reflection of our, or our child’s, personal character.

There are a few ways to help yourself, and your child, fight off the feelings that fat-shaming produce. We can set specific and achievable goals to improve our health and be more confident to ignore, deflect, or reject people who are using fat-shaming language. We can also make sure our child is safe at school. A recent study showed 85% of 1,555 children reported seeing a child with obesity being “verbal teased and victims of physical aggression.” The study also found that “while the majority of students reported willingness to help an overweight peer who has been teased, many remain passive bystanders in these situations, leaving overweight students to cope with these experiences on their own.”

This study raised the question for me: How do we empower ourselves and our children with words and actions to create safe environments for children of all sizes? Which leads to the next topic—how do we talk with with children about weight? There strong arguments for and against discussing weight with children based on recent studies. Many of the findings are contradictory and differ based on the child’s age and gender.