William Anderson was about 7 when he first experienced fat shaming.
It was 1956, and he was in the second grade in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was Valentine’s Day, he recalls, and his teacher brought in a cake for everyone in class — except him.
“I'd really been looking forward to it and of course, I couldn't have any,” Anderson said.
Anderson doesn’t remember how much he weighed then, but it was enough for his pediatrician to put him on a special diet. All that did was give him a lousy relationship with food.
“That was the beginning of the problem for me because food became a lot more important to me,” said Anderson, now 66. “From then on, my whole sense of self was dominated by being overweight and being an outcast because of it.”
Anderson was convinced that if he lost weight, he’d be the version of himself he was supposed to be. Eventually, Anderson lost 140 pounds, which he’s kept off for more than 25 years and authored a book about his approach to weight loss, which he calls The Anderson Method. As both an addiction and weight-loss counselor, Anderson advocates for a healthy diet and exercise for those battling their weight, but he also incorporates a concept he says is absent from the national discussion about obesity: self-acceptance.
“I had to accept and love myself. If we were to accept ourselves and love ourselves, many of us wouldn’t be doing these things that make us overweight,” Anderson said. “A fat body is not the problem we have, that’s a result of the problem we have.”
That might sound simple, but Anderson says acceptance is tricky for the overweight or obese in a culture that equates thinness to both an aesthetic ideal and a core tenant of health. It’s been nearly two decades since obesity was declared an epidemic in the U.S., affecting more than one-third of U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The summer before high school, as his mind started turning toward girls, Anderson, who weighed 225 at the time, buckled down. He spent summer with his grandparents in Florida, swimming daily and choking down a meal supplement called Metrical, a predecessor of Slim-Fast. Anderson hated his body so much he resorted to using swimming nose plugs to drink his meals every day that summer.
And it worked — he lost 50 pounds, putting him at a more svelte 175 pounds. On the outside, his life goal was reached.
But inside, Anderson still felt humiliated about his body — he describes his lean high school years as time he spent “disguised as a normal person.” By the time he was a junior in college, he was back to his pre-high school weight of 225, eventually reaching 320 pounds, prompting a doctor to give Anderson a life expectancy of 40. That shocked Anderson, who was in his early 30s at the time.
“We’ve become conditioned to use food like a drug, for things that have nothing to do with nutrition,” Anderson said. “The problem then becomes, you can’t hide from food. You can’t fix it was rehab. You cannot abstain from it and be OK, because everybody’s gotta eat.”
The cure for obesity, most doctors say, is a nutritious diet and exercise — healthy habits that everyone should strive for. But exoerts say that solution ignores the role emotional and mental health play in achieving a healthy weight.
“The focus has been largely on eating less and moving more and that is a very simplistic equation to a very complex problem,” University of Calgary associate professor and psychologist Shelly Russell-Mayhew said. “If it was as simple as energy in, energy out, we wouldn’t have the levels of obesity and eating disorders we do.”
‘All bodies matter’
The shaming of large bodies is tied to changing ideas about what it means to be healthy, as Dickinson College professor Amy Farrell wrote in her 2011 book, “Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body.”
Before the mid-19th century, Farrell said in a 2015 interview, “having a little plumpness was a sign of fertility, wealth. Diseases like tuberculosis made you thin.”
The 20th century, with its dramatic advances against diseases like tuberculosis, scurvy, cholera, typhoid and other so-called “Victorian diseases” that often led to weight loss, brought with it a new body ideal: Thin was suddenly in. The old notions of a healthy body having more girth became equated with poverty and people who “needed” the fat — people of different ethic and racial backgrounds who couldn’t afford health care or who society didn’t believe “knew any better,” Farrell theorized in her book.
“Fat was the sign of an uncivilized and ‘primitive’ body. Thinness proved one was disciplined, civilized,” Farrell continued. “That became increasingly true.”
The media’s reflection of public attitudes about fat has created a cultural weight bias, Russell-Mayhew said, where the only perceived solution is a discriminatory pressure on fat people to become thin. But that approach doesn't make people healthy.
“The idealized thinness for women and muscularity for men is such a narrow view of beauty and it almost dehumanizes people in large bodies,” Russell-Mayhew said. “We’ve got to uncouple weight bias and weight loss. It’s similar to saying that the solution to racism is for people to change their skin color.”
Body shaming can thwart weight loss, said Valerie Taylor, University of Toronto associate professor. When surrounded by biases about their appearance, Taylor said overweight people can get caught in a vicious cycle of trying to lose weight and giving in to hopelessness or humiliation that derails healthy practices.
“Subtle biases can have a significant effect. Even the magazines available in waiting rooms can impact whether or not people talk about weight loss with their doctors,” Taylor said. “These aren’t deliberate, but they’re just as harmful as shaming someone to their face.”
For many people struggling with their weight, the stigma starts in childhood and has been linked to serious problems.
In 2012, Russell-Mayhew published a study in Journal of Obesity, reviewing the research available about childhood obesity. The study drew correlations between body shaming and suicide attempts, eating disorders, depression and negative associations with exercise — a key component of weight loss.
Two other studies Russell-Mayhew reviewed explored a perceived link between psychological issues and body fat. Both found that for children, the concern of being fat — whether they were considered medically overweight or not — caused low self-esteem, anxiety and depression in kids as young as 7 through adolescence.
Russell-Mayhew believes that ending obesity shouldn’t be solely about a person’s weight, but on adopting healthy habits that lead to overall individual health.
“People can be healthy at any size. If the goal is weight loss, which I don’t think it should be, stigmatization is working against your goal,” Russell-Mayhew said. “It’s not motivating to make someone feel badly about themselves.”
Russell-Mayhew said promoting body diversity in the media is crucially important for promoting health.
“Body stigmatization is so ingrained that we have no idea we have it,” Russell-Mayhew said. “You rarely see images of people in large bodies enjoying and participating in life. But people aren’t just bodies, they’re human beings.”
'Your body is you'
Looking back at his childhood, Anderson recalls one pivotal moment when he saw an old episode of “The Jackie Gleason Show.” In it, Gleason went to a fat farm to lose weight and instead gorged himself on junk food.
Comedy ensued, but Anderson wasn’t laughing.
“The media perpetuates the belief system that you have to be thin to be OK and that if you are not, you’re lazy, fat, stupid — all that stuff,” Anderson said. “When we develop a self-belief of, 'I am a failure,' that causes (failure) to happen. It’s like hypnosis in the wrong direction.”
The clichéd trope of the comically or grotesquely fat character includes iconic characters like Homer Simpson, Jabba the Hutt or Augustus Gloop of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Russell-Mayhew says overweight people are often depicted as suffering because of their weight. She points to what she calls “fatertainment” shows like “The Biggest Loser” as examples. These shows also yield temporary results, as a New York Times found in its recent analysis of past “Biggest Loser” contestants, with consequeces that rear their heads long after cameras stop rolling.
Novelists Sarai Walker and Mona Awad are hoping to shatter those stereotypes with their books, "Dietland" and “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl," which both feature female characters struggling to be happy in a weight-obsessed world.
“Fat is more complicated than a question of flesh, it’s a psychological place,” Awad said. “How much life gets used up in certain preoccupations that we might not necessarily be able to change? How many hours are spent thinking terrible thoughts about yourself?”
The books are different, but the goal of their authors is the same: To open the doors for depictions of fat people as three-dimensional humans rather than problems to be fixed or ignored.
“Your body is you. It’s inseparable from who you are,” Walker said. “It’s important for people from any marginalized group to see themselves represented in our culture because if you don’t see yourself depicted it’s like you don’t matter and your experiences don’t matter.”
Taylor hopes the next generation will get more body positivity from the media, which could translate into less stigma on the street or at the doctor’s office.
“You can and should be happy with yourself regardless of your weight and we all need to be more realistic in terms of expectations,” Taylor said. “Obesity is a medical illness. It’s not a character flaw.”