Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On Fat Shaming in the Vegan Movement...



I am in the midst of writing an article about the diet industry for this lovely publication and it’s one that will cover many facets of the climate around weight loss and body image. As I often do when I am looking for a variety of thoughts on a topic, I posted on my Facebook page, seeking perspectives on the topic of fat-shaming: Is it justifiable? Is it effective? Although I know this is a sensitive and provocative topic, I was still unprepared for the outpouring of very heartfelt and gut-wrenching responses to my general query.

On the thread, people wrote about the deep embarrassment and estrangement they experienced at the dinner table as their siblings snickered at them for getting second helpings. People wrote about lingering resentment towards parents, grandparents, relatives, classmates and others who pointed out their size in a derogatory way, whether it was intentionally mean-spirited or occurred under the pretext of being well-intentioned. People wrote about this specific kind of stigmatization triggering a response of eating in isolation, where they ate tucked away in their rooms, or fostering a habit of bingeing in the middle of the night with a carton of ice cream in a darkened kitchen, reinforcing their shame and secrecy around eating. People wrote about how they avoided physical checkups to not expose themselves to shaming from their doctors. People wrote about how being demeaned because of their size as children and teens – sometimes just once, sometimes persistently – likely resulted in subsequent battles with serious eating disorders.


Of the dozens of people who responded and well over one hundred comments, not one person said that as a result of being “called out” for their weight, something positive resulted. Yes, this is just anecdotal: Facebook surveys are not done in a laboratory and I am not a researcher. However, the response is strongly backed up by the emerging evidence that underscores how ill-advised it to create a stigma around size, both from the perspective of weight loss and the psychological damage. Studies on the topic are new but they are consistently indicating that shaming experiences are associated with decreased motivation and with the adoption of less nutritious dietary practices. In other words, when exposed to scolding or insulting messaging, many people exposed to it adopted the kinds of behaviors associated with weight gain.


If we know that the act of shaming is not one that offers positive net results, we will have to admit that disparaging someone based on his or her size is simply mean. If it’s not effective, what is its other purpose? It may make those who issue the deriding comments possibly feel superior or helpful, depending on whether or not they are familiar with or accepting of the research, but make no mistake, it is not beneficial. Often, the messaging overflows with the misogyny and objectification of our dominant culture as well, whether it is overtly spoken or not. In fact, the sexism of our mainstream culture is inextricably and necessarily intertwined with the rampant culture of body-shaming that surrounds us. It is estimated that 90% of people struggling with eating disorders are female
and, according to filmmaker and speaker Dr. Jean Kilbourne, the priming for disordered thinking around the female body starts young: a survey of fourth grade girls showed that 80% were on diets. The suicide mortality rate of people with anorexia is thought to be among the highest of all psychiatric disorders.

We know this about the general population engaging in fat-shaming: what does it say about vegan advocates when we participate in the same behaviors in pursuit of some converts? We know that the research affirms that it is not an effective form of advocacy. We know that it contributes to self-loathing in a way that that could prove to be fatal.
Even if it were effective, should a community that is founded on principles of compassion and justice be perpetuating messages that could have such dire consequences?

So a possible mental checklist to ask yourself before you give dietary advice to anyone in regard to weight loss…

1. Was this advice specifically solicited from you?
2. Are you from a professional background in which your advice would be appropriate and expected?
3. Are you knowledgeable in the most current research regarding persuasive motivation? Are you trained as a counselor?
4. Do you have a relationship with the person with whom you’d like to offer advice, for example, a close friendship or a professional engagement, in which you would fully understand the person’s background and challenges?
5. Are you able to give advice without using a fear- or shame-based approach?
6. Everything is moot if you cannot honestly answer #1 in the affirmative.
7. Even if you can answer #1 in the affirmative, you must still tread very, very carefully.


If you answer no to any of these, seriously consider if you should be dispensing dietary advice.

Last, can we honestly present veganism as a panacea for obesity? How about the different iterations of a plant-based diet – low fat, fruit-based, high-carb, whatever: what are the consequences when something that already seemed so difficult and socially isolating to so many just got saddled with a bunch of restrictions? What happens when we intertwine our social justice movement with the language and culture of dieting, something has so many harsh and regressive associations in so many minds?



A plant-based diet can offer some real physical benefits, especially in the realm of cardiovascular health and the many advantages of eating a plant-rich diet that is low in saturated fats. As vegans, though, should we assign ourselves the role of diet coach-slash-drill sergeant? I don't have my answers yet but my thought right now is that unless we are very mindful and sensitive about the misogynistic, hateful messages popular culture saturates us with, we should seriously question if this is in the best interest of individuals and the vegan movement.

22 comments:

Whitney said...

This is much needed! I totally agree. I think the focus on weight loss began as a convincing reason to entice animal-based eaters to go vegan, however, in the process it has promoted vegan elitism, reserving veganism only for the thin. One thing I noticed in my own vegan journey, though I have lost weight since my transition, veganism doesn't give you a thin body, but a healthy body! All healthy bodies do not look the same!

I plan to speak more to this on my blog WePigOut.com, launching Sept. 5, 2016!

Anonymous said...

Shaming people for making shitty life choices like being obese, The number two cause of preventable death outside of smoking, is a good deed. Shaming people for things they are not responsible for or can change is wrong. But there's no such thing as a fat person who became fat that they didn't have a say in. Hypothyroidism is NOT a valid excuse when it is easily treatable. Fuck fat people I hope they all die painfully and miserably and goddamnit, that's just what they're likely to do.

Sarah said...

Thank you for this post. I began the vegan transition in June and find material like this both helpful and motivating. As a UK size 18 I don't fit the stereotypical appearance of the skinny vegan, and even so soon into my journey I am already feeling the pressure. Surrounded by million pound marketing campaigns for meat and dairy, and the overtly omnivore opinions of close friends, remaining committed to a major change in lifestyle requires strict focus and discipline. Bringing in a further level of control at this stage with a view to weight loss may become just too great a challenge. For me though, this comes down to a matter of priorities; I began this journey out of concern for the welfare of billions of animals. If I also become healthier during the process, then this will be a wonderful bonus, but ultimately I am making the change for their lives, not mine. It would be truly amazing if vegans of all shapes and sizes could feel as compassionate towards each other, as they do about other animals.

Jenny said...

This is something that fat vegans are trying to have a voice about in the vegan movement (which can be tough). Check out my Big Fat Vegan Zine project, which is still taking submissions: http://bigfatveganzine.tumblr.com (also check out http://rachelecateyes.weebly.com/ aka Rad Fat Vegan, who is amazing).

Vyvyan said...

Science: 'Fat shaming does not work and has the opposite effect' Anon: 'Fat shaming is a good deed and makes me happy and smug!' Thank you for your wonderful contribution, anonymous.

I'm against fat shaming for the harm it does, and even more against the spruiking of veganism as a panacea for the harm THAT does. It's not a diet. You can be vegan on almost any macro/calorie intake, and at any size. Haven't we learned from the recent rash of very visible and depressing 'failed vegans' (scare quotes may need to move one word over) that if you're doing it to hide your eating disorder, you are not only going to give veganism a bad name and come across as a bit, er, obsessive, you are also likely to fail?

It's funny though. As I often remark at times like this, when I first went vegan I was told there was no way to be vegan and healthy - vegans were all either weedy or pudgy, and definitely weak. That narrative is strangely still around in pockets, but warring with the apparently instagram driven radiant health plant-based-whole-foods raw-food yogi stereotype.

Liza Kate said...

So you want to shame people to make them "healthier" but also you hope they die painfully? You're a prime example of the utter lack of logic from fat-shaming trolls.

Rebecca August said...

I wonder why "Anonymous" chose to remain anonymous? Shouldn't he/she be proud of the way they are saving the world from fat blobs like me? By the way, I have hypothyroidism, and it IS treated, but I'm still fat. Judging and shaming have no place in a world we want to be kinder. I also quibble with obesity being the #2 cause of preventable death. I've never heard of anyone dying from fat! Co-morbidity is another thing altogether.

Thank you for this post, Marla.

Anonymous said...

I have witnessed presentations made by well known vegan medical authorities that violate a number of the principles above. They have taken place at well attended, high profile veg/vegan conferences. In some cases, the physicians in question made the comments and presented the offending slides specifically stating they were unapologetic about raising this issue--"too important to remain silent, I subscribe to the Hippocratic Oath, etc". . These people need to be called out when they make their offending presentations. Those physicians who use veg/vegan events as platforms for promoting their "personal responsibility" agendas harm everyone in our community, by promoting a hurtful and ineffectual message.

Marla said...

Anonymous, despite the preponderance of evidence that attributing moral characteristics to size is outmoded, rooted in puritanical values and just plain oppressive, you're going to spout this hate speech? I hope you develop some real empathy one day.

Marla said...

Thank you, Whitney, and I cannot wait to check out your blog. :)

Marla said...

Beautifully said, Sarah, and I along with all the other truly progressive vegans welcome you in whatever size you come her in. :) Thank you for your thoughts and for all you do!

Marla said...

Thank you, Jenny, I look forward to checking that out!

Marla said...

Thank you, Vyvyan, beautifully expressed!

Marla said...

Hahaha! True, Liza Kate!

Marla said...

Rebecca, you are smart to quibble with that because it's not based on fact but misinterpretation. This excellent article goes into more depth.

Marla said...

Ugh, I couldn't agree more, Anonymous #2.

Vegan Chubosaurus said...

As a fat vegan, what I want is to not be othered by vegans like you. As a fat vegan, what I want is to not be health-trolled or concerned-trolled by anyone ever, including by vegans like you. As a fat vegan, what I want is to be speak for myself, not have someone like you speak for me. As a fat vegan, I do not want someone speaking for us who pathologizes fatness. As a fat vegan, I want you to understand that "obesity" is not a disease nor a death sentence, that the idea of "obesity" simply pathologizes a normal human body, that the idea of "obesity" is a medical invention with no solid scientific basis. As a fat vegan, I want you to understand that fatness is a natural human variation, like tallness. As a fat vegan, I want anyone speaking for us - if you can't understand that speaking for and about us is othering and you're going to do it no matter what - to understand Health At Every Size. I want anyone speaking for us to be up-to-date on scientific research about fatness. I want anyone speaking for us to understand that correlation doesn't equal causation. I want anyone speaking for us to understand that fatness and health can and do exist in the same body. I want anyone speaking for us to understand that fatness and health are not the same thing, and that any size body can be healthy or unhealthy. I want anyone speaking for us to understand that you cannot tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them; all you can tell by looking at someone is how they look. I want you to understand that you cannot tell what someone eats by looking at them; I want you to understand that correlating fatness with poor food choices or overeating is a gross and baseless assumption, one that simply furthers fat hatred and weight stigma, as well as an act of oppression against fat people. I want you to understand that taking people to task for what you assume are poor food choices is classist and ignorant about things like poverty and food deserts. I want someone speaking for us to refuse the inaccurate and dominant narrative that fatness = disease, unwellness, unfitness, gluttony, and death - because current studies do not bear that out. I want you to understand that decades of studies have only taught us that science has no way of permanently making a naturally fat person thin - or permanently making a thin person fat. I want you to understand that decades of studies have utterly failed to prove that fat people eat more or differently than thin people. I want you to really, really understand all this. I want you to educate yourself. I want you to understand that insisting on health for ANY body, fat or thin, is completely ableist and a tool for oppression. I want you to understand that noboody else's body is any of your business, fat or thin, healthy or not. I want you to understand unconditional body autonomy for everyone, including fat people. I want you to understand that equating weight and health is not only scientifically inaccurate, it's a tool of oppression. I want you to understand that insisting on health is a tool of oppression.

Vegan Chubosaurus said...


Here's the thing: you don't get most of that, Marla. I've read you for years and actually stopped a few months ago because you don't understand it. I read your book last month and it was not a good experience, because you don't understand these things. You promote the idea of veganism as a tool of health, slimness, shiny hair, etc; these are the negatives I mentioned in my review of your book. Speaking about veganism in terms of health, slimness, etc. erases vegans with health issues, fat vegans, disabled vegans, and more. Until you stop engaging in these erasures - until you, yourself, stop engaging in what amounts to fat-shaming and weight stigma - I don't want you to speak for us, Marla. Until you are more intersectional in your veganism, I want you to take more time to learn and listen. As it stands, you are not a fat ally. Anyone who uses the term "obesity" and still talks about weight in terms of health is not a fat ally. Anyone who conflates fatness with overeating is not a fat ally. You have a long way to go, I think, before you really get it. A lot of reading and learning to do. Until you do that, I really do not want you to speak for us or write about us, particularly for VegNews, an unfailingly fat-shaming and ableist publication.

Jenny said...

Agree 100% with Vegan Chubosaurus. Fat vegans need to speak for themselves, on their own platform.

Marla said...

Hi, Vegan Chubasaurus - there is a lot to absorb here and I appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts. The language around this topic is very problematic; I am trying to learn about to talk about the subject without using the O-word but still in a way that people can understand. Language is a very imperfect tool and I will strive to do my best given its limitations. That said, could you tell me where I promoted veganism as a means to "health, slimness, shiny hair"? Some essays are older and I have evolved with how I communicate veganism so it's definitely possible that I said things I would not have today but I would just like to know when this happened.

Last, to be honest, I was not trying to speak for fat vegans: I was trying to speak up against fat-shaming and discrimination. I will continue to do this and hope to learn how to do it in a way that is helpful. I understand that I will not please everyone but I do promise to do forward with the best intentions always.

606Athena said...

Marla: I agree; language really IS an imperfect tool, as it lags considerably behind our needs in any given generation. I say, as long as anyone is moving in a good direction, it's unwise to get bogged down in the minutiae of language; too many red herrings can knock a seeker of knowledge off of the path to success.

Marla said...

Thank you, 606Athena! I appreciate it.