In a lot of ways, half of what theory talks about these days is how our society deals with shame. Or, more likely, how our society discusses what we should or shouldn’t be ashamed of.
But more and more what we come to realize is that not only is the act of shaming often reflective of far larger issues, simply put: it doesn’t work.
In a recent study, Time (if Jezebel.com is reporting accurately) reported that:
researchers looked at 429 news stories about obesity, along with their accompanying photos, published on five major news websites. Of the photos depicting overweight or obese people, the study found, 72% portrayed them “in a negative, stigmatizing manner.”
More than half of overweight people were shown in headless body shots, pictures that centered unflatteringly on the abdomen or lower body – compared with thin subjects, the overweight were 23 times more likely to have their heads cut out of photos. Obese people were also significantly more likely to be pictured from the side or rear, unclothed or in slovenly attire, eating unhealthy food and being lazy.
As Jezebel commentator Margaret Hartman succintly puts it:
The prevailing logic seems to be that overweight people need to constantly be reminded that they’re unacceptably heavy (for their own good, natch). However shockingly enough, shaming overweight people and sending the message that their weight is a personal failure doesn’t do much good. When obese people internalize the anti-fat stigma, they’re more likely to become depressed and suffer from low self-esteem, which can lead to overeating, inactivity, and weight gain.
This doesn’t even touch on the fact that obesity/weight is not always an indicator of actual health issues.
As usual, we, as a society, look for whipping boys. We know that we live unhealthy lifestyles and, despite the fact that there are many “normal looking” people who live unhealthily, it’s easier to focus on those who look different.
We want someone who is obviously worse than us. We want to be able to shame some, so that we can feel better about our part in making ours a more “healthy” society.
But the truth is that there is no easy answer when it comes to health; each new group we decide to shame will only act as an opportunity for us to realize how complicated the human animal is.
Shame doesn’t help. What does help is understanding that we all have a lot of work to do to make healthy living available for everyone.