Kindness, not judgement, has more impact on weight

There is a recurring comment from readers on stories about body acceptance at any size. The comment, in its various iterations, is that "yes, we should accept different shapes and sizes, unless of course the shape or size is too different".

In other words, overweight people should not accept their bodies because acceptance insinuates inaction or complacency. Unfortunately, what is also implicit in this message is that it is OK therefore to speak negatively to and about overweight people under the guise of "concern" or motivating (shaming) them to change.

Acceptance: Adelaide’s Taryn Brumfitt (third from right) in a shot from her body image documentary Embrace.Credit:Youtube / BodyImageMovement

Criticisms, however, do not make people more likely to eat well, exercise or take care of themselves, they make them less likely to do these things.

A new Australian study of 147 overweight or obese women, confirms the growing body of evidence that weight stigma drives the obesity epidemic, it doesn’t help to solve it.

"When people are stigmatised by others and society about their weight, they internalise those negative beliefs themselves, which in turn leads to them feeling shamed about their body," said co-author, Associate Professor Caroline Donovan of Griffith University's School of Applied Psychology. "They feel less compassion towards themselves, and that in turn leads to greater psychological distress, greater loneliness and poorer life satisfaction."

Previous research has found weight stigma is associated with shame, loneliness and weight gain. When people take on the message they frequently hear – that they are "disgusting", "lazy" or "weak-willed" – are more likely to treat themselves accordingly.

Alternative to self-policing, from a place of criticism, is self-care, not to please others… but because we care for ourselves.

Self compassion, on the other hand, can help to mitigate this effect.

“Strategies designed to reduce internalised weight stigma and develop self-compassion can be considered as part of psychological intervention for overweight and obese individuals,” the authors said.

Weight stigma is the most socially accepted form of discrimination, yet what people with their cruel comments don’t understand is that body acceptance is not a cause of being overweight or obese, but it can be a cure. A cure to the adverse mental and physical outcomes often experienced by individuals who are overweight.

Self compassion doesn’t always lead to a change in one’s body but that’s not the point, says accredited practising dietitian Fiona Sutherland, who was not involved in the study: “The point is to cultivate a kindness and care towards the body.”

Sutherland adds that the Griffith paper “is another piece of evidence” that demonstrates kindness towards ourselves (and each other) leads to healthier behaviours and outcomes.

“A willingness to tune into what the body means that, for example, we’re more likely to go to doctor; we’re more likely to fuel our body with food, whatever food that is, when we need to; we’re more likely to attune to appetite signals; we’re more likely to move the body when we have the capacity and we’re more likely to rest the body when it’s asking for rest,” says Sutherland, who points out that “healthier” behaviours shouldn't be confused with restrictive or policing behaviours.

“Internalised stigma is a form of self-policing … [which ] is really criticism and shame and blame,” she explains. “Alternative to self-policing, from a place of criticism, is attunement and self-care, not to please others … but because we care for ourselves.”

Many commenters use the health burden of obesity as an excuse for cruelty, but we need to consider the mental health burden too.

Many commenters use the health burden of obesity as an excuse for cruelty, but we need to consider the mental health burden, too, which is significant for those with marginalised bodies, Sutherland adds: “If we’re going to be talking about health, let’s take it off the ‘O’ word and to where people are really suffering, particularly around mental health.”

That is a burden we can all help to lift with a little more compassion and a little more acceptance of all bodies.

"Stigmatising obese and overweight women does not encourage them or shame them into losing weight," Associate Professor Donovan reiterated. "In a society where we preach anti-discrimination, it is sad that people cannot apply the same principles to those who struggle with their weight."

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