Don’t Be Shamed by “The Weight Talk”

I recently had my annual physical, and I got The Weight Talk for the first time. Luckily, I had come prepared.  While driving to the appointment, I even rehearsed in anticipation.

When I got The Talk, I responded by saying that I will never count calories.  I asked the doctor in earnest why he would care about my weight if I had good health, good blood pressure and so on. I listened to his answers. And a week later, I sent him a copy of Health At Every Size (a book which also has a website).

After all this time, fat is still a feminist issue, and so is the national hobby of dieting, especially for women. We subject each other, and sometimes ourselves, to contempt when all our extensive efforts yield insufficient or short-lived weight loss.  But, as I’m pleased to report from experience, The Weight Talk doesn’t have to include contempt and shaming.  Here is what I’ve learned:

The correlation between obesity and ill health is much weaker than most people believe.  Weight is often used as a stand-in for health, but it’s a poor substitute. We know intuitively that thin people can be unhealthy; it’s also true that people can be both “fit and fat.”

When followed for five years or more, diets–all diets, including the Weight Watchers program–have an enormous failure rate (see research here and here). If one accepts the premise that bodies have differing natural set-points for size, this makes intuitive sense.  Dieting can be very taxing on one’s money, time, emotions and even health: Ironically, dieting can be just as risky to health as stable obesity.

According to critics like sociologist Abigail Saguy [PDF], our national obsession with weight could also be viewed as a “moral panic,” where public attention is focused on people who symbolize a violation of moral values. In the case of obesity, overweight people are characterized as gluttonous and lacking in judgment, especially if they are people of color or poor.

When concern about obesity sounds like, “why can’t they make better choices,” sometimes the underlying message is racism and classism, as when food activist Alice Waters lamented on 60 Minutes that some people would rather buy Nikes than organic foods. The fact is that the current economic recession is forcing some people to prioritize thrift over nutrition. It’s an especially inopportune time (though I doubt there’s any good time) to be judgmental about the way people eat.

As an alternative to the judgmental messages about eating and weight, there are books like Health At Every Size and Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere. There are several online communities and blogs where women (and men) remind each other not to fall for the mainstream, self-critical, shaming messages about weight loss.  “Don’t You Realize Fat Is Unhealthy” at Shapely Prose is a great starting point.  I share that link with people all the time, since I can’t buy and mail everybody a book.

Image courtesy ofgaelx// CC BY 2.0


  1. Nice article… you made a bunch of good points throughout. I’m glad I stopped by for sure!

  2. Shame is never a good approach for any choice to make a change in life. That said: Paying attention to the quality of food we eat in addition to the quantity of food we eat is worth doing. Slowing down before a meal and eating in a slow and conscious way can help to minimize overeating b/c we actually take time to taste and enjoy the food and to notice when we are getting full. There are different body/mind types that range from naturally thin/angular to naturally padded/curvy. The most important part of this issue, in my opinion, to make moderation a habit in all things and make your own physical/mental/emotional/spiritual health a priority. Every thing else will then fall into place. Our bodies also vary according to age and amount of vigorous exercise we do regularly.
    We, as Americans, would do well to pay attention to the marketing tricks we are subjected to on a regular basis and to be able to resist some of the tendency to “super-size” everything. Greed is latent in all of us.

  3. Since you claim that the link between obesity and ill health is weaker than we think, perhaps you can provide evidence to back that claim.

  4. PioneerGrrrl says:

    There are good points. But the flip side is that I do coupon clip and I get excercize clothes from local thrift stores.

    Balancing thrift and nutrition against each other is always possible, it’s just a matter of learning about the locally available resources in one’s community.

    And I did need to be aware that a prescription drug I used to take did balloon my weight. I became unfit–and fat litterally because I had wanted to stay alive.

    But in an irony, that medicine’s side effects could have hindered my living.

    I now believe that the tremendous weight gain placed me at risk of developing diabetes.

    Since maintaining a healthy body weighy for my height, I no longer experience problems with blood sugar. That problem at last went away.

  5. Doug H asked for some evidence regarding the association of weight and health. Most scientific studies actually show that poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are the largest contributing factors to disease regardless of the size of your body. Unfortunately our current culture misleads us to believe that only larger people don’t eat well or are inactive. And that is simply not true. Health and disease both come in every size body. To take a look at the science you are welcome to visit The Association for Size Diversity and Health at

  6. Joy Sayler says:

    As a cancer survivor, I can tell you that weight IS an issue. A big issue. Maintaining a lower body fat on one’s body greatly reduces the risk of recurrence. What is difficult is when a person who is normally thin and gains weight after medical treatments. Doctors will often rebuff a patient if she is still within the normal range according to the almighty charts. It is an awful feeling to go from being very thin and athletic to “curvy” but still thin. Maintaining a normal weight is very VERY important and an extra ten pounds IS indeed a big deal. We get NO help from doctors. It is scary to feel like your living in someone else’s body after being a certain way all your life.

    Tired of being criticized for not “being grateful’ for the body that I have.

  7. i don’t think we need to politicize weight. there’s enough evidence that shows that being overweight–even 10% overweight–can have negative consequences. and certainly, eating poorly can exacerbate that problem. watch ‘supersize me’ and then decide if consuming junk food and ‘never counting calories’ is the way to go.

    we are a diseased nation of overeaters and underexercisers. while i don’t advocate yo-yo dieting, model-thin bodies, or obsession with fitness, i absolutely believe we have to eat healthy foods, take in sensible portions and exercise on a regular basis. sure, you can be healthy and a few pounds heavier. but if you don’t make some effort to keep that in check, you will–especially if you’re a woman–continue to put on pounds. and that will definitely put you at risk for developing a host of preventable diseases.

    also, eating right and exercising can stave off depression and low self-esteem, which is a huge problem for so many women, and now, even young girls. i see so many obese young girls in my lower-income neighborhood who are walking around in a daze. they get no exercise and chips and soda for breakfast.

    NOT GOOD!!!

  8. “there’s enough evidence that shows that being overweight–even 10% overweight–can have negative consequences.”

    There’s also evidence that the morbidly obese people like me have the exact same mortality rate as the people who are in the “underweight” category. And the people with the longest life expectancy? Are in the “overweight” range.

    Not to mention, the BMI is utter crap. It’s a statistical tool with no basis in medicine.

    “i absolutely believe we have to eat healthy foods, take in sensible portions and exercise on a regular basis”

    Great. How many areas around where you live are food deserts and what are you doing to bring grocery stores into those areas? What about changing the way in which our government subsidizes corn and soy, which lowers the cost of calories in “processed” foods? Do you shop on a budget? Do you have a good idea how many more calories you can get for $1 buying corn chips compared to bananas? Are you lobbying Congress to add subsidies for fresh fruit and vegetables to make them more affordable? And how are you proposing people who work overtime or work more than one job in order to make ends meet find a way to take an hour off from life to exercise daily, particularly if they live in an urban environment without safe and easy access to open spaces for exercising?

    It’s real easy to sermonize about what everyone should do until you start engaging with reality.

    “but if you don’t make some effort to keep that in check, you will–especially if you’re a woman–continue to put on pounds”

    Actually everyone gains weight as they get older. This is the natural order of life, and studies like the Buffalo Heart study indicate that fat we gain as we age may be there to protect and sustain us when we face down the diseases of aging.

    “eating right and exercising can stave off depression and low self-esteem, which is a huge problem for so many women, and now, even young girls”

    And people like you shaming everyone for not eating and exercising according to your personal specifications is really doing a huge world of good for those women.

  9. Perhaps one should consider the skinny white girl in the picture chosen to accompany this article when thinking about how to stop sending judgmental, fat phobic messages.

    • As a skinny white girl, I actually appreciate seeing a body that looks a little more like my own on a body acceptance article. Though I understand that this article is specifically about the “weight talk” given to larger people by their doctors, I would like to point out that the “are you anorexic? there’s something wrong with you, you’re too skinny” talk does also hurt. Especially when there’s nothing wrong and you are just as otherwise healthy as the person receiving the “weight talk” is. Even those of us who fall closer in line with cultural expectations are taught to feel bad about ourselves.

  10. Great that you are raising these issues. Just wanted to correct the link to my book’s website, Health at Every Size; it’s The link you have is to the HAES Community Resources (, where people can go to register their support for the Health at Every Size concept, get information, and connect with others with the same commitment. It is interesting in the comments to see some people’s resistance. We’ve heard for so long that fat is killing us and that we need to control our eating, that it is really hard for people to believe that these are just not supported by the evidence. I do hope people who hold the cultural bias will challenge themselves to learn a little more.

  11. the problem is not that individual people make bad choices . . . the problem is that billions of dollars are spent annually to promote unhealthy food choices, to make them cool and attractive especially to children . . . and that as a nation our agricultural policies support big agriculture . . . the people who bring you unhealthy food . . . as long as it’s all about the bottom line, and not about producing the best, healthiest food at a price that’s affordable people will continue to eat unhealthy food.

  12. I know that breast cancer is rampant. (And I have to wonder why what with all the walking that is done to find a cure.) I keep hearing that obese women are more likely to get breast cancer than thin women. BUT of all the many MANY women I know (TOO MANY) who have gotten breast cancer not one is even close to fat. I believe what I see.

  13. “Fit” and “fat” like “attractive” and “fat” are NOT mutually exclusive terms ! The only thing a woman can’t be if she’s fit, fat, and justifiably comfortable with her body image is the victim of a propaganda campaign designed to disempower women by telling them that there’s only one objective definition of beauty, and that this ideal is represented by a borderline-anorexic teenager. “Magazine cover” thinness is unnatural for most, and even when attainable, requires the use of substantial amounts of energy that might have been better spent competing with men at work and advancing up the corporate ladder. Youth is inevitably lost, so as pounds and years are naturally gained, women’s confidence and self-image is programmed to conveniently plummet, while even the most physically unfit men are valued for their skills and wealth, which increase with age. Nice to see that some people don’t buy such misogynistic propaganda ! Eat healthy foods, exercise moderately and regularly, then take pride in whatever size your fit body tells you it needs to be !

  14. I agree that everyone has different body size and that thin doesn’t equal healthy. It just equals thin. But as far as the set body point argument goes, the nation has become so much larger over the years. This is not a construction of the media, this is true. We can all see the change and this shift in body size is more than just our natural differences. I agree that the issue is not about willpower or shame, but I do think it has a lot to do with our food on a national level. Many skinny people are unhealthy because they’re eating the same things as everyone else, they’re just not gaining the weight. I don’t think we should blame the poor for not buying organic, but we should AS A NATION think about what industries we subsidize and what they really have to offer our bodies. And on a personal level cutting down on soda (diet soda included) is good for everyone, skinny or not.

  15. Great article. I am a sociologist too. In fact, I said weight obsession was a deviance scare way back in the 1980s before anyone else:) The author was right to stand up to her doctor. I firmly believe that medical science and its weight obsession is responsible for much damaged done to fat people. The pills and surgeries are far more harmful than fatness itself. The reason doctors persist is because every step of their education is influenced by Pharma. And Pharma exists to make money. Don’t risk your health just to help them make a buck!

  16. Trish,

    My former art teacher is overwieght. Several years ago she had lymphoma, and then she got the 1st type of breast cancer a few years later. Just last year she got breast cancer again and this year she had to get a mastectomy. Her name is Tracey Zimmer, she works at the Pulaski Academy in Central NY, Oswego County.

    I believe there is a big link between obesity and cancer.

    I have known more women with breast cancer that are thinner, but that is a matter of probability. I know more thin women than obese women, period. Genetics and smoking is a more common reason for cancer than obesity, simply because that particula gene pool and smoking is more popular than obesity is, but that doesn’t make obesity any less of a danger to cause cancer.

    That being said, there is an unhealthy stepford/barbie complex about weight, BMI is bullshit, and “fat” shaming has to stop.

    • Wow, you post the full name, job location, and medical conditions of your former teacher on the internet? That is an incredibly irresponsible breach of another person's privacy.

  17. David. Marry me?

  18. While it’s true that most diets fail, there are clear reasons for this. Most Diets are based on bad science and improper nutrition. When humans adopt a whole foods plant based diet and get adequate exercise weight normalizes for that individual. Calorie counting becomes unnecessary. After studying Nutrition for 36 years I’m personally convinced that the Diet recommendations in the book The China Study
    (every serious student of health & fitness should read this book, at $10 it’s a bargain)
    are the healthiest, and based on the most accredited science. Being overweight is not healthy, but “overweight” for one person is just right for another. Overeating or binging is not healthy either. We do have the science now to know what is and is not a healthy lifestyle. All the research indicates a Vegan Diet is the healthiest, but getting people to understand that is a challenge.


  1. […] Don't Be Shamed by "The Weight Talk" by Jessica Holden Sherwood at the Ms. Magazine Blog Image courtesy of gaelx// CC BY 2.0 […]

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