The shame game: obesity as an indication of an increase in disordered eating and poor body image

by Hannah Szlyk, LMSW on April 12, 2013 · 1 comment

in eating disorders

Every time I hear a media story about “the war on __,” I automatically become suspicious. Considering America’s history of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror,” my skepticism meter perks up, and I feel the urge to cringe.

Despite hailing from the state of “live free or die,” I am usually puzzled by any grandiose display of self-righteousness. Why must we always be fighting these nebulous enemies? How am I supposed to respond to the battle cry if I am dumbfounded by the cause?

New York City & the fight against obesity

At least I can give New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg credit for placing the culprit front and center: On various NYC Health Department advertisements and campaign videos, you can find glasses of “fat” representing the number of pounds one can gain from sugar and soda. Signs ask you if you are “pouring on the pounds” and caution you not to “drink yourself fat.” The city’s war on fat and obesity nearly resulted in a ban on super-size sodas this past month. But will such strict rules and fearless public service announcements really curb the prevalence of obesity?

Research has shown that unhealthy weight control behaviors (dieting, laxative use, purging), as well as body dissatisfaction, have been linked to weight gain, obesity and the development of an eating disorder. This data suggests that obesity and being overweight are not solely products of genetic make-up or uninhibited eating – weighing more can also be an indicator of disordered eating.

Shaming vs. condoning

Unfortunately, society tends to envision individuals with an eating disorder as extremely thin, but the truth is they present in a range of body types and sizes. A person who binges may experience as much distress as a person who restricts food intake, and both individuals are attempting to achieve a similar goal: to regulate emotions and experience a sense of control. Therefore, it is upsetting that our society shames those who are heavier and condones those who are thin, for we are only feeding the disorder. If we idealize the very thin, we are only encouraging the eating-disordered patient to accomplish thinness, be it through restriction or other compensatory strategies.

I would like to set the record straight that I am not blind to the preponderance of fast food and unhealthy food choices accessible throughout the country. Yet, before we banish the super-size cup, isn’t it important to also explore why we are so hungry for bigger portions? Yes, cravings for and consumption of sugar and fat beget additional cravings, but I speculate that we are yearning for something else. If we can look past our focus on food and how it is consumed, we may be able to identify that missing piece.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lauren Silberstein April 24, 2013 at 9:25 am

You wrote that “society shames those who heavier and condones those who are thin.” However, there is another perspective. Often society labels those who are extremely thin as “sick” or “anorexic,” whereas people who are overweight or obese often are not stigmatized as mentally ill. Consider all the rumors about thin actresses being anorexic. We do not hear rumors about heavier actresses suffering from an eating disorder.

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