What shame can’t accomplish

This is not an article about the new Cancer Research UK billboards. Not really, anyway. It’s more about shame.


If it was possible to shame people into being thin, I would be thin. I would be thin because I’ve been pressed to feel shame about my fat body on the tube, at the cinema, at work, at family gatherings, at the theatre, in romantic relationships, in (former) friendships, when I’m watching TV, when I’m shopping for clothes. And now I’m being pressed to feel shame about it when I’m walking down the street and I catch sight of one of those huge billboards telling me I’m definitely going to get cancer. That billboard won’t make me thin either.

What it might do, though, is reinforce a belief that a lot of fat people have that health is another country. It’s completely unreachable to them. It’s for other people. Shame will probably make you so self-conscious of the way that people are looking at you, thinking about you, talking about you that you’re too embarrassed to be seen working out in public, even if you’d really enjoy going for a swim or trying out that weird new exercise class. It might make you too scared to join a gym because of all the intrusive approaches by personal trainers. Or worse, it might make you too scared to go to the doctor if you’re worried something’s up with your health. I’ve had an eight-year career as a fat-positive internet loudmouth, I’ve published books about fat bodies, appeared on TV multiple times talking about fatphobia and associated issues, and I’m too scared to register at the GP that’s literally across the road from my flat. Shame won’t make me thin but it might make me sick.

Oh, and if you’re really¬†committed to the idea of making people lose weight, shame isn’t the way to do it either. And that’s not just according to me, fat and furious sitting at my laptop. That’s according to Cancer Research UK’s own 2014 study with my esteemed alma mater UCL (http:// https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2014/sep/fat-shaming-doesnt-encourage-weight-loss) which shines a rather questionable light on Cancer Research UK’s partnership with multimillion pound company Slimming World, but that’s another story altogether.

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The 2018 billboard

So if Cancer Research UK know, factually, based on actual evidence that they themselves found, that fat shaming will not encourage weight loss, what’s the endgame here? Could it, maybe, be to pin all the woes of the NHS on the fat people who end up being too scared to use it, instead of on years of austerity and privatisation? Could it be to encourage donations by appealing to a fatphobic population? Could it be to shove panicked fat people into the arms of their highly profitable partner Slimming World to begin a cycle of extreme dieting that won’t last? I don’t know the answer.

But I do know that the one outcome won’t be a nation of suddenly-thin, suddenly-healthy former fat people.

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