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

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.

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?

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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.