Passing the paper shop on St. Valentine’s day, my eye caught a headline on the cover of the popular magazine ‘Bella’.
‘I lost 7 stone after my hot tub facebook shame.’
Inside, over a double page, Charlotte told her story: how she’d put on weight after the birth of her child, how during an anniversary break with her partner she didn’t want him to see her change into a swimsuit, and how she forced a smile for a photo, hoping her body wouldn’t be seen under the hot tub water. Her hope was in vain. A few days later the now tagged photo appeared on her partner’s facebook page, leading her to demand that he delete it: ‘”I look like a whale” she sobbed.’

Exacerbated by the public gaze, the intense negative emotion which led to the tears – the shame of the headline – gave her the motivation she needed to do something about her weight, and she lost 7 stones in as many months. Her partner now teases her: ‘If I hadn’t posted that photo you wouldn’t have achieved all this’. Charlotte is happy now, working for a diet company and says that he can post all the pictures he likes of her because she’s proud of her new look.

Though she felt shame, this wasn’t deliberately inflicted on her, but it often is. When we shame someone, what we really mean is that we blame them. We hear of politicians ‘naming and shaming’ reluctant fathers, and wild game hunters are pilloried on social media. It’s hoped that the shame induced by blaming will change behaviour or serve as a warning and a motivation for others. In other cases it’s done from sheer malice or schadenfrude. Charlotte’s partner wasn’t doing any of these things but simply trying to show that they’d had a great time. She was already self-conscious about the weight she’d gained since the birth of their son, and was also feeling physically worse for it, but it was the shame from the public gaze which proved pivotal in her story. It’s this perceived public scrutiny of perceived personal failure which can cause or exacerbate that horrible sense of shame.

The same issue of Bella also contained a story about the ‘struggles’ of actress Linda Robson. Luckily for her, journalists are on hand to monitor and report her eating habits: ‘…a Bella mole saw her tucking into macaroons at a swanky press event last week.’ Fellow shoppers have been known to check for wine in her supermarket basket, but on a trip abroad ‘…Linda was well behaved and stuck to her healthy regime…’

Maybe I’m reading too much into these stories but to me they represent society’s and government’s attitude to obesity, rightly considered as a considerable public health challenge: Obesity is bad, but if only you are well behaved, you can beat it. If you won’t behave yourself, or can’t, you’re bad or you’re not trying hard enough and you deserve to be blamed for it and feel the shame that follows. It’s a personal failure.

It’s this public judgemental environment which leads to feelings of shame and stigma. In few cases it results in action, and these are the stories that grace the magazines and influence opinions. But this is far from a complete picture. Oversimplification and the resulting emphasis on the badness of obesity and the behaviour which contributes to it itself causes much suffering through perceived failure and threats to self-esteem. As well as failing to treat people with dignity, denigrating those who fail to conform to what are often unrealistic standards will not, in most cases, help those who want to lose weight, nor deter those who are gaining it. It just makes them feel worse about themselves.

So I’m pleased for Charlotte but also mindful that praising her implies blame for Linda and many more like her. If fewer people checked on her shopping and resisted the temptation to tell everyone what they’d seen, we might avoid the public shaming that is apparently motivational for a few but debilitating for many.

Paul Snelling is Principal Lecturer in Adult Nursing at the Institute of Health & Society, University of Worcester.