The Misuse of Shame?

The current Cancer Research campaign* to alert people to the dangers of obesity has had a mixed response. Odd though it may seem, many people in Britain today are apparently unaware that being overweight/obese heightens one’s risk of developing cancer. The Government’s attempts to lower our consumption of sugar and salt, warning of the dangers of diabetes and heart disease, and the recent announcements about controlling portion size and cutting back on calories, should mean that everyone is aware of the risks they run by overeating; but it seems we aren’t. So shame tactics are being used, and that is where a problem arises. No sane person would doubt the wisdom of trying to alert people to the dangers of certain behaviours, but the way in which we choose to do so is as much a matter of concern as the behaviour itself.

To shame someone is to humiliate or distress them, and the trouble with campaigns that involve elements of ‘fat-shaming’ is that they fail to distinguish between those of us who are overweight because we are greedy and eat too much and those of us who are overweight because of ignorance, poverty or illness. Ignorance can always be enlightened, I suppose, though I am not sure that shaming techniques are the best means of doing so. Those whose diets are poor because they are unable to afford the variety and choice that most of us have are simply going to feel angry or guilty: they are not going to be able to change just because they know they should. Finally, there are those who are fat because they are ill and the treatment they are receiving contributes to their weight. That is where the Cancer Research campaign is particularly double-edged. Many cancer patients are on large doses of steroids or find that they are unable to be as active as they would like or both. It doesn’t help to be told that being overweight is risky, and it especially doesn’t help when those who are not aware of an individual’s circumstances chime in with their censures.

Any campaign needs support to be effective, but we all need to think before we repeat its slogans or attack others on the wrongs of their behaviour. As it happens, I am much fatter than I would be had I not had fifteen years of chomping through mounds of prednisolone and have become less active since leiomyosarcoma took hold, but because I don’t usually look ill, even perfect strangers sometimes feel it is acceptable to make negative comments (the Friar Tuck model is more acceptable for monks than nuns!). I can therefore relate to those who find the Cancer Research campaign hurtful rather than helpful. As always, it is better to start with oneself than with others. If we regularly eat more than we should, we need to address our own greed/stupidity; and if we see someone eating something with an enormous number of calories in it, pause. It could be they are enjoying a rare opportunity to eat something without experiencing nausea. I can’t help feeling Cancer Research should know that and at least allow that what meets the eye may not be the whole story.

*Cancer Research has highlighted the dangers of obesity here: I don’t disagree with what they are saying at all, but in the hands of the general public ‘fat-shaming’ becomes a blunt and sometimes cruel instrument.


5 thoughts on “The Misuse of Shame?”

  1. You are absolutely right to make these points. There are so many reasons why people can be overweight and shaming them can make matters worse. And “losing weight ” is not always as straightforward as experts suggest.

  2. Complex issues. Waiting for a new knee because of arthritis, I’ve become immobile, immobility has caused me to gain weight, increased weight on my knees and hips…the softer, kinder word is the better carrot

  3. Oh I know the sheer hell prednisone plays in your life hav8 g been off and on them since 1979 with extra weight, tbe thickening neck, the skin thinning and the mess it leaves in your head. Yet one can appear to be glowing.

    I understand.

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