‘Dear Fat People’ gets fat positivity and shaming all wrong, health experts say

Sheena Goodyear
Daily Brew

Canadian comedian Nicole Arbour’s viral video Dear Fat People has been lauded as brave and funny, and lambasted as cruel and lazy. But whatever its comedic value, experts say it’s dangerously misleading when it comes to issues of weight and health.

In the video, which was viewed more than 20 million times before being yanked by YouTube and then reposted, Arbour claims that fat positivity is just a way to put a nice label on an unhealthy lifestyle.

“Fat shaming. Who came up with that? Yes, that’s f—ing brilliant. Shame people with bad habits until they f—ing stop,” she says in the video.  “If we offend you so much that you lose weight, I’m OK with that. You are killing yourself.”

But not only does that tough-love approach not work — it’s actually harmful, said Linda Bacon, a University of California nutrition professor.

“We have a lot of very clear research that shows that when people like themselves, they take better care of themselves and make better choices,” she said.

“When people feel a sense of shame, that there’s something wrong with them, they’re more likely to turn to overeating and other behaviours that aren’t so helpful.”

Study shows fat-shaming doesn’t work

Arbour has said on Twitter that her video is getting obese people to turn their lives around.

But according to a study published in the journal Obesity last year, fat shaming doesn’t work.

The study looked at 2,944 people over four years and found those who experienced weight discrimination actually put on more weight in the long run.

“Stress responses to discrimination can increase appetite, particularly for unhealthy, energy-dense food,” lead author Dr. Sarah Jackson said at the time. “Weight discrimination has also been shown to make people feel less confident about taking part in physical activity, so they tend to avoid it.”

Fat doesn’t always mean unhealthy

There’s no doubt that excess weight has been linked to many serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and more.

“Obesity is probably the only risk factor that has such a global negative impact on so many risk factors for the heart,” Barry Franklin, the director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., told CNN.

Franklin is skeptical about the value of the fat positivity movement.

“I don’t want to take on any specific organization…but a social movement that would suggest healthy at any size in many respects can be misleading,” he said. “We can’t say that every overweight person is healthy.”

But nor can we say that every overweight person is unhealthy or that every thin person is healthy, said U.K. dietitian Lucy Aphramor. She said the connection between weight and health is a lot more complicated than people realize.

“Weight isn’t a behaviour. It’s a number on the scale. Weight and health aren’t one and the same thing. Just ask a fat rugby player (or) a thin person living in food poverty,” she told Yahoo Canada News in an email.

You can’t look at someone and tell what they eat, if they smoke, how much they drink, how often they exercise, whether they have a family history of disease, or any of the other myriad of factors that measure someone’s health, Aphramor said.  

“All the evidence strongly supports a focus on health gain for all, not a focus on weight control,” Aphramor said.

“It is very possible to be fat and healthy, and thin and unhealthy. Health behaviours and life circumstances have a greater impact on health outcomes than weight.”

Aphramor and Bacon both promote a “health at every size” approach to nutrition.

They co-wrote two books about it: Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight and Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Leave Out, Get Wrong, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight.

“It’s a new way of transforming the old weight-based paradigm,” Bacon said. “Instead of focusing on weight as a problem, we give good health care to everybody regardless of their weight.”

Sometimes health care professionals can be so focused on weight, they don’t give people the care they need, she said, citing an example from her own family.

“When I went to an orthopedic surgeon, of course weight didn’t come up as an issue in my joint problems. My orthopedic surgeon taught me strengthening and stretching exercises and then eventually recommended surgery when that wasn’t working. And so that was quite helpful to me,” she said.

But when her father, a much bigger man, went to an orthopedic surgeon for the exact same problem, he wasn’t taught any exercises or told about surgical options. He was just told to lose weight.

“And it certainly may be true that my father’s weight was contributing to his joint problem, but that advice wasn’t helpful for him. All it did was trigger his eating disorder,” she said.

“So my father went to death with joint problems. He could have benefitted from the exact same advice I got. But he was denied that information because all his doctor saw was a fat person who needed to lose weight.”

‘Fat positivity is about human rights’

Jill Andrew, who along with Aisha Fairclough runs the body-positive fashion blog Fat In the City and the Body Confidence Canada Awards, says the fat positive movement is about building a community for people who are discriminated against and abused over their weight.

“Fat positivity is about human rights. It’s about acknowledging that there are diverse body shapes, sizes and weights just as there are differently raced and gendered people, different sexualities and different heights,” she said in an email.  

She said Arbour’s video is just another example of “hatred and trolling masquerading as health encouragement.”

“There are many systems of oppression that we need to address and sadly fat shaming, a.k.a. fatism, appears to be one that is largely still allowed and sadly encouraged. Nicole is part of this problem,” Andrew said.  “At the end of the day, you cannot show compassion through hate speech.”

Aphramor agrees.

“The core problem with fat shame is the hatred. The debates on health that have been spawned are ancillary,” she said.

“When we tolerate a lack of respect, we endorse a violation of people’s humanity and dignity, steering a course away from the values that build safe, equitable societies. We cannot allow these truths to be subsumed in a fallout cloud concerned with personal responsibility for health.”