THE BLOG
10/03/2016 10:52 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2017

Fat Shaming Is A Presidential Issue

Rebecca Jane Weinstein

Considering I have been talking and writing about fat shaming (and variations on it that are undoubtedly emotional abuse) for years -- for a fairly marginal and marginalized audience -- it is more than a little astonishing to me that fat shaming is becoming a presidential election issue. Those of us who have been fat shamed or care about the consequences, know full well the devastation that can result: eating disorders, increased weight, emotional and mental health problems, physical health problems, passing it on to our children, to name a few. Though the idea that fat shaming -- or more accurately perhaps, fat bigotry, stigma, and bias -- is not a concept widely considered a serious social problem, it is.

Doctor's Puhl and Heuer concluded in their study Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health that "stigma and discrimination toward [overweight and] obese persons are pervasive and pose numerous consequences for their psychological and physical health. Despite decades of science documenting weight stigma, its public health implications are widely ignored." The UConn (formerly Yale) Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity warns that the "health consequences [of weight bias] can include behaviors such as binge eating, unhealthy weight control practices, coping with stigma by eating more, refusing to diet, and avoiding physical activity. Weight bias can also lead to higher blood pressure, increased stress, and an overall poor quality of life."

From 1999 to 2006, hospitalization of children younger than 12 with eating disorders increased by 119 percent, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has reported. Doctors have seen more young children engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as restrictive eating and purging after the children misinterpret messages aimed at fighting "childhood obesity" or observe their parents' weight-control actions, which are often cloaked in concerns about health.

It has been known for a long time that food restriction results in much more than potentially dropping pounds. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was conducted on healthy male volunteers who were conscientious objectors to World War II. The men were fed about 1,560 calories a day. This amount is more than is recommended on many weight-loss diets. As the men in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment lost 25 percent of their starting body weight, they exhibited changes in mood and behavior that eating disorders therapists and people with eating disorders would easily recognize, including increases in depression and severe emotional distress, trouble concentrating, declines in comprehension and judgment, hoarding behavior (of objects other than food), social withdrawal, and, understandably, preoccupation with food.

So, when presidential candidate Donald Trump tells more than 80 million people during a debate that Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe, had a weight gaining "problem," saying also that "Miss Piggy couldn't stop eating" - that is a problem. Since, Jodie Seal, also a Miss Universe contestant, states that Trump fat shamed her as well, and called the pageant women some "pretty horrible names." Trump's preoccupation with appearance and weight is so entrenched in his world view that also during the debate, he oddly concocted a scenario where computer hacking by the Russians could have as likely been the doing of a person sitting on their bed weighing 400 pounds. Why 400 pounds? Because fatness supports the notion that the person is inherently bad.

Although the timing and context of Trumps comments are more than a little odd, his beliefs and attitudes are not surprising. They are not surprising coming from him, and not surprising in our culture. What is surprising, however, is that the public is none too pleased and is speaking out openly. Individuals, politicians, news organizations are angry; making Trump's fat shaming an actual campaign issue. This anger and disgust is not coming from just radical size acceptance activists (who are of course furious as well), but from the mainstream. Certainly there are still those who find Trump's fat shaming comical and even deserved, but this is far less socially acceptable than ever before. It is really a testament of a shift in our culture that is beginning to happen -- that discrimination based on weight is discrimination, and has the same and similar effects as other types of abhorrent discrimination.