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Trump’s fat shaming brings attention to myths about willpower and weight

Donald Trump and Alicia Machado
REUTERS/Peter Morgan
Donald Trump and Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado
photographed during a staged workout at a New York gym.

Donald Trump’s comments both 20 years ago and again this week, about the weight that Alicia Machado gained after being crowned Miss Universe in 1996 raised — yet again — the issue of fat shaming.

Trump has a long history of ridiculing and humiliating individuals — both celebrities and noncelebrities alike — about their weight, but he is by no means alone in such behavior. Whether it’s Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s mocking of singer Kelly Clarkson’s weight just months after she had given birth, or Playboy model Dani Mathers’ posting of a photo on social media of an unsuspecting naked woman at her gym with the caption, “If I can’t unsee this, you can’t either,” such incidents are all too common.

Yet plenty of research has shown that fat shaming is not only cruel, it often backfires — at least, if the intent of the person doing the shaming is to motivate the other person to lose weight. A 2013 study found, for example, that people who experience repeated discrimination for being obese tend to gain rather than lose weight.

To learn more about why obesity continues to be so stigmatized — and about the myths that perpetuate the practice of fat shaming — MinnPost spoke with Traci Mann, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota and the author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab.” An edited and condensed version of that interview follows.

MinnPost: What was your reaction when you heard Trump’s comments regarding the weight of Alicia Machado? 

Traci Mann: I was as horrified as I am at all other instances of weight stigma, with a little extra thrown on top because it was so public and because he had hurt her so much, by all accounts. … [It also points out that] the societal standards for acceptable weights are ridiculous and unattainable for most women. She looked fabulous even after gaining weight.

MP: She has said her humiliation from being so publically shamed led to years of eating-disorder problems. Is that a common reaction?

TM:  I’m not an eating-disorder person, but certainly being insulted for your weight could lead to unhealthy eating practices. And it sounded like after he insulted her, she did some extensive dieting. When you diet in an extreme way like that, it does often lead to binge eating.

MP: You’ve written that “if shaming reduced obesity, there would be no fat people.” Yet we continue to think it’s OK to openly stigmatize individuals for their weight. Why?

TM: People think it works. At least, I’m hoping that’s why they’re doing it. I’m hoping they’re not just doing it to be nasty. But they’re wrong. It doesn’t work. The research shows that stigmatizing someone for their weight makes them eat more and makes them less likely to exercise. It does exactly the opposite of what, perhaps, people might expect when they say harsh things to obese people.

MP: Many people who think fat shaming works also seem to assume that obese people don’t know they’re obese.

TM: I don’t even know why they think that. Obese people know they’re obese — partly because everyone is constantly telling them so, including their doctors. 

MP: We have so many myths and misunderstandings about weight and eating. One has to do with willpower. Would you explain that misunderstanding?

TM: People think that when someone loses weight and then regains it, it’s because that person has no willpower. But having good willpower isn’t why people lose weight, and having bad willpower isn’t why they gain weight.

Traci Mann
University of Minnesota
Traci Mann

You can measure a person’s overall level of willpower and self-control. Researchers do it all the time. What they find is that people’s level of willpower relates to other things in their lives, but not to their weight.  If you’re a student, for example, you need willpower to focus on your studies. But if you have one moment of weakness and stop studying, you might lose a few minutes of study time, but you don’t lose all the studying that came before.

For willpower to work for eating, it has to be practically perfect. You could have willpower for four hours, and then, in one moment of weakness, eat several donuts. That will erase all the impressive willpower that you demonstrated all day. So, in a sense, willpower, when it comes to eating, is so unforgiving as to be not at all useful.

MP: And we see that in how easily weight is gained back.

TM: Yes. One of the reasons people stigmatize overweight people is because they think they should be able to lose the weight and keep it off. But 95 percent of people who go on diets regain all the lost weight within three to five years. So if willpower worked, [gaining back the weight] wouldn’t happen to just about everybody. Things that happen to everybody are not to due to human failing. They are due to something bigger. In this case, our bodies are just biologically set up to keep us from taking off a lot of weight and keeping it off, because to our bodies, that’s us starving to death. And when our body thinks we’re starving to death, all sorts of physical changes happen that make it much, much harder to keep that weight off.

MP: That’s our metabolic set point.

TM: Exactly.

MP: You recommend that we not try to go below that set point.

TM: That’s right. Because when you lose weight and get below your set range, that’s when your body undergoes all these changes that are going to make it hard to stay there. Your body is essentially going to bump you back up to above your set range once you’re below it. So why get below it just to get bumped back up?

The things that bump it back up are those physiological changes I mentioned: metabolic, hormonal and neurological changes that make it impossible for you to stop thinking about food. They are also why you gain weight if you keep eating the same amount of calories that you were eating to lose weight. You have to eat fewer. It’s really cruel. It makes it extremely difficult to keep off the weight that you lost.

But when people gain weight, they don’t blame those physiological changes. They blame themselves. They said, “Oh, I must not have had the willpower.” But it’s not about willpower.

MP: But we also have all this research linking obesity with serious health problems. So what can people who are overweight or obese do to be as healthy as possible?

TM: If you behave in healthy ways, it will make you healthier even if it doesn’t make you thin. So, people can stop looking at the number on the scale and, instead, do healthy things. The numbers that matter will change: blood pressure, cholesterol, those kinds of things. Eat a reasonable diet. That doesn’t mean a strict low-calorie diet. It means a reasonable diet with healthy foods. It means engaging in a reasonable amount of exercise. It means keeping stress down. When people do those things, they don’t necessarily see themselves getting thinner, so they think [the strategies] aren’t working. But they are working, because what they’re doing is making them healthier.

MP: Do you think any good will come out of Trump’s fat-shaming comments?

TM: Perhaps by spreading awareness and helping people understand that this is not acceptable. It’s nice to see people being outraged by it. I don’t think it would have been possible to outrage people 10 or 15 years ago. People were not quite seeing that stigmatizing people for their weight is a problem. They’re seeing it now, and that’s good. … This is Weight-Stigma Awareness Week, by the way. So thanks, Donald, for bringing people’s attention to this problem.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 09/29/2016 - 09:39 am.

    Post-obesity

    “…why you gain weight if you keep eating the same amount of calories that you were eating to lose weight. You have to eat fewer.”

    It is astonishing that at sixty years old I didn’t know that. I first read it in the NYT and now here, both in 2016. A piece of fruit, a yogurt and a dinner salad plus peanut butter toast ad lib is not really that much to go on.

    Anyway, thanks to Ms. Perry and Dr. Mann for this article!

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/29/2016 - 09:46 am.

    Generally a good interview

    but I’ll contest a couple of points:

    First, while I certainly wouldn’t condone fat-shaming, I find the current notion of “Hey, I’m OK just as I am” to be equally alarming. From an individual and public health standpoint, obesity is a huge problem.

    Sorry, but her second claim on willpower is nonsense. When one person studies for exams, but then stops for a short time, that’s no different then somebody who takes a reasonable “break” from their diet on a Saturday night. Claiming that dieting for 4 hours, then falling off the wagon, is somehow related to willpower is a poor example. Willpower, determination and a desire to change are crucial to any type of behavioral change, weight loss included.
    .

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/29/2016 - 10:34 am.

      Consequences

      Read it again, as it appears you missed her point.

      She was talking about the consequences of that lapse in willpower.

      For a student who studies all day and then stops studying for a while because of a brief lapse in willpower, they simply lose any progress they may have made during that period of time. They can resume where they left off and continue on forward. What they have “lost” is relatively minor.

      For a dieter who spends all day abstaining from calorie-filled food and then has a brief lapse in willpower and “stops abstaining” (e.g. eats several donuts), they literally set themselves BACKWARDS with respect to the progress they have made during their day of self-discipline. They don’t simply “resume where they left off” and continue forward. They have literally ERASED some or all of the progress they were able to make during the day. They have lost FAR more than the student with respect to the consequences of their “brief lapse in willpower”.

      She was not saying that willpower is unimportant. Rather, she was saying that people generally don’t understand the difference in severity of the consequences of a lapse in willpower in one situation v.s. the other and how unforgiving a situation that creates for the dieter.

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 09/29/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    Trump’s Fat Shaming and other rude remarks made by Trump

    It is hard to believe (and quite sad!) that someone as rude and clueless as Donald Trump appears to be (have you listened to him for any length of time, Trump supporters?) is the Republican nominee running for election for THE most important office that can be held in the United States of America, that of the office of President.

    For years, I have listened as this man bullied and insulted people, many of whom were women, and he doesn’t seem to have changed one bit. And what about the constant mumbling and chanting words such as “Not True” while his opponent had the floor? Did no one ever teach this man any manners? And what does it say about us as a country, that out of all the nominees who ran for the Republican ticket, that this is the one who ultimately comes down to the show-down with the Democratic nominee, Hilary Clinton, come this November?

    So our children who are watching this election are being taught that being a bully ultimately pays off? That if you insult people long enough, you can wear them down to the place that you can step up to be commander-in-chief of the greatest country that there is – not by being a hero, or a diplomat or a courageous leader, but by simply shaming and criticizing others?

    And since Mr. Trump is so fond of rating others on a scale of one to ten (most famously having been quoted as saying that a certain super model, now a host on “America’s Got Talent” was no longer a ten) may I just invite him to take a look into the mirror himself? Not meaning to stoop to his level, but what number does he give himself on a scale of one to ten? I know what number I rate him as. Hint: it’s less than one.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 09/29/2016 - 02:30 pm.

      What does it say about us as a country?

      I think it’s pretty clear what it says about us as a country. Or perhaps as a species; I’m not going to assume that humans in other lands have, as a whole, managed to pull themselves any further up the Maslow scale.

  4. Submitted by David Koller on 09/29/2016 - 01:56 pm.

    Isn’t Trump obeses?

    At 6’2″ and 267 lbs. isn’t Mr. Trump obese? That is a BMI of 34.7 give or take and anything over 30 is considered obese I believe. Anyway, 6’2″ 267 is big. I’m 6’2″ 210 and need to lose 15 lbs.

    • Submitted by Paul Copeland on 09/30/2016 - 09:00 am.

      Maybe Not?

      The height and weight listed (6’3″, 236 lbs) in the letter Trump’s doctor released result in a BMI of 29.5, which is just barely under the obese classification. His calcium score from 3 years ago was 98 and this is just under the threshold of concern (e.g.: From WebMD: “Any score over 100 means that you are likely to have heart disease.” and from Mayo Clinic: ” A score of 100 to 300 — moderate plaque deposition — is associated with a relatively high risk of heart attack or other heart disease over the next three to five years”. I really wonder if current (or maybe just accurate) Weight and Calcium scores would result in headlines like “Obese Trump Likely has Heart Disease”.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/29/2016 - 02:04 pm.

    One of the cruelest aspects of Trump’s treatment of Ms. Machado was not just his exaggeration of how much weight she had gained as Miss Universe (twelve pounds, not forty). It was that he insistently and repeatedly berated her looks in front of a specially-invited male crew of reporters and cameramen, who came to the gym to see this man–who reminded her that he was her boss and that she had to do exactly as he said–force her to bend her body to his will (it’s as sexual as it sounds, folks).

    It went way beyond fat-shaming!

    • Submitted by Carrie Anderson on 10/06/2016 - 07:18 pm.

      Another facet of the two-dimensional Donald.

      He is unable to move beyond a certain stage of childhood. And thank you for pointing out the story behind the “story.”

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