Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fat Shaming and Bullying: Why It's All About (Mis)Attribution

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article on fat shaming, and the bullying people experience for being overweight or obese. Though - as with many articles recently - they tied it to comments from a certain presidential candidate, fat shaming and bullying have been issues for much longer. In fact, I've blogged about weight management and similar topics before, since this was one of my research interests.

The problem with fat shaming is that it is widespread, and the bullying and negative comments about weight begin early and continue even among adults:
Rebecca Puhl, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and her colleagues find that weight is the most common reason children are bullied in school. In one study, nearly 85 percent of adolescents reported seeing overweight classmates teased in gym class.

Dr. Puhl and her colleagues asked fat kids who was doing the bullying. It turned out that it was not just friends and classmates but also teachers and — for more than a third of the bullied — parents.

“If these kids are not safe at school or at home, where are they going to be supported?” Dr. Puhl asked.
How can parents - who (hopefully) would reprimand their children for being bullies - also participate in this behavior? The issue, I suspect, comes down to attribution: is the person "to blame" for the condition? Though children may tease others simply for being different, as we grow older, we are taught that difference is not always bad. Further, we learn (again, hopefully) not to judge others who are different for reasons beyond their own control. That is, we shouldn't make fun of someone who has a disease that is not their fault.

The issue with overweight and obesity is that many people do not consider it to be a disease, even if the medical community for the most part does. Instead, they view it as a lifestyle choice, and see no issue with judging others they perceive have made bad choices. It's all about attribution. If I believe a person is overweight or obese because they lack the willpower to eat healthy portions and/or engage in physical activity (that is, I attribute the cause of their condition to their own behavior), what's the issue with denigrating them? Attribution theorists would argue that we engage in this kind of thinking regularly - determining whether someone is at fault for their situation - and that our conclusions impact a variety of behaviors.

Errors in attribution lead a variety of negative behaviors, like blaming the victim. There's an additional level here, though, in that people perceive the shaming and bullying as potentially helpful to the individual being shamed. That is, they think it will help motivate the individual to change:
“There tends to be this public perception that maybe fat shaming is O.K. because it will provide motivation to lose weight,” Dr. Puhl said. Instead, she adds, “it is very harmful to health.”
Research suggests that even people who overweight or obese (which amounts to about two-thirds of the general population) share many of these same beliefs. And of course, when we judge our own behavior, we all think of things we should be doing differently to be more healthy. I know I should exercise more, eat healthier, and drink less beer. Would making these changes help me lose weight? Probably, but then there's more to it that. In fact, anyone who has made these lifestyle changes knows (myself included) it is still very difficult to lose weight and even more difficult to maintain weight loss. For many years, I was 20-25 pounds overweight, and despite trying everything I could, was not able to lose much. What finally worked was a complete accident - I was prescribed a medication for a different purpose that had a side effect of weight loss. But as with other treatments for overweight and obesity, like bypass surgery, it's perceived by many to be "cheating." I didn't work to lose that weight.

What we need to do is to change perceptions about overweight and obesity. If the key is attribution, that's where we need to focus our efforts.

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