Here’s What Happened When 50 Women Documented Fat Shaming for a Week

They wrote down every incident in which they were stared or pointed at or received rude comments.

(Photo: Metia Peliizzari/Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

You know body shaming of women is out of control when even Sports Illustrated cover model Chrissy Teigen gets fired for being “fat.” But what’s daily life like for the average overweight or obese woman? A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology reveals just how vicious the bullying and harassment they experience is.

The researchers asked 50 overweight or obese women to keep a diary for a week, writing down every single incident in which they were insulted, humiliated, or bullied by others because of their size. During those seven days, the women reported a shocking 1,077 weight-stigmatizing events.

Eighty-four percent of the study’s participants reported incidents involving some kind of physical barrier, such as a narrow turnstile or a too-small bus seat. Another 74 percent reported being on the receiving end of nasty comments from strangers, friends, and family members. Seventy-two percent of the women documented being stared at in an unfriendly way and others making negative assumptions about them.

One lady had teenagers mooing at her in a store, and one had a dentist express concern that she might break his chair. Yet another participant reported that her boyfriend’s mom refused to give her food and “also stated that I was so fat because I was lazy.”

The women also hid their food consumption so that they wouldn’t have to hear nasty comments while eating. “With friends at a baby shower. Went to McDonald’s first so people wouldn’t look at me eating more than I should,” wrote one participant.

“Obesity is connected to numerous social stereotypes in our society: having less stamina and drive, being less competent, and seeming less likable,” Jason Seacat, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., told U.S. News & World Report. “The heavier an individual, the more stigma they face.”

All that humiliation and mistreatment often keeps women from getting healthier. Seacat said he first became interested in the issue when he observed a bunch of teenagers at his gym laughing and pointing at an obese woman. The harassment caused the woman to walk out of the facility.

“I thought it was sad that we have well-intentioned people who want to do the things that are healthy, and people are making that difficult,” he said.

Seacat and his team found the study participants in online forums and websites about weight. Most of the women were white, and their average age was 38. Along with listing the mortifying incidents, the women kept detailed records of their daily activities. Seacat believes women who have these horrific experiences need “the skills and the courage to face those daily barriers they encounter and keep going.”

Fat-shamed actors such as Gabourey Sidibe certainly have found that inner strength.

“If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable,” Sidibe said in May at the Gloria Awards and Gala.

While it’s inspiring to know that some shamed folks use their experiences as motivation, we can’t put the responsibility on the victim to fix the problem. In a society that revels in mocking overweight people, the onus to change shaming behavior really lies with those who feel they have the right to point, stare, or open their mouths to say something rude.