Cancer Research UK has recently decided to lead an awareness campaign highlighting the risk of obesity to certain types of cancer.
They have in fact, plastered amongst other places, London Underground with their message, written to look like a cigarette packet. And, this is sponsored by Slimming World. If writing health warnings on cigarette packets worked then, well, most people would not smoke. If commercial diets worked, then there would be no campaign needed.
Will it work?
I wish, that all we had to do to change our behaviour was to read a risk message and stop. We all know that this is not how it works, for most people, most of the time.
I am not going to get into whether this campaign is fat shaming or not… however, it will, if we are to believe the plethora of previous research, increase the feelings of shame in those who identify as being obese, resulting in more of what the campaign is trying to have less of.
We know that the causes of obesity are multi-factorial. We know that for most people, diets don’t result in long term behavioural change and in fact, tend to make the situation worse.
And, when we explore the many underlying reasons for obesity, very few of them have anything to do with poor nutritional knowledge or the need for someone to tell you what to eat. So, surely, we need to be asking ourselves, why, with all our knowledge, research and understanding of human behaviour,are we still looking at obesity through the wrong end of the lens?
The research clearly shows that regardless of the reasons many became obese in the first place, ultimately the continued shame and low self-worth fuelled by chronic dieting, fat shaming and poor behaviour change interventions actually become part of the problem not the solution.
This suggests that the present health awareness message is unlikely to do anything other than make the present situation worse. What is even more frustrating, is that if someone was to read the poster and be motivated to change, the very best they will get offered is a diet and exercise programme. It will be same old, same old.
Time for change
Surely, we need to stop spending time and money on interventions that are not working and instead, become more innovative and creative in our response.
I always get a little confused when we talk about obesity as a “disease” instead of a change in body weight resulting from our behaviours around food. Some of those behaviours and outcomes, may be genetic, some as a result of living in an obesogenic society and our environment. However much of the behaviour is a response to chronic stress, trauma and shame. Some of the reason for these responses are learnt and some are neuro-biological.
Stop dieting & start nourishing
What is needed are programmes that stop making it all about the food…no one needs a better relationship with food… what is needed are more nurturing and nourishing relationships with self. We need to address stress, shame and trauma. Apart from the behaviours attached to the feeling of shame, Brene Brown’s research clearly demonstrates that “it corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
Positive Psychology has at its core, the motivation to research and provide interventions that enable more people to live their good life, to flourish and thrive. So many wonderful learnings are being gleamed and shared about our health and well-being, psychological wealth and how to live a purposeful and fulfilling life.
The world doesn’t need another diet, it needs to dip into the very best of what we know and create interventions that address the real issues. Interventions which are focused on practices that reduce stress and create calm, change self-criticism to kindness and teach people that being fat does not equal being unworthy.
Stop shaming and be thankful instead
For instance, what would it be like, if when you look at yourself in the mirror you offered each part of your uniquely extraordinary body, gratitude and acceptance? A simple, yet powerful thank you, especially to the parts of your body you have been most mean to. And what if you said sorry for being mean, and began to treat your body with care?
What if, instead of beating yourself up for all the food you wish you hadn’t eaten and the normal internal shaming that goes on, you thanked the part of you that has used food in all the ways it has… and begun to see how resilient that is. You may wish to explore how to nourish yourself with more kindness and at the same time acknowledging that all our behaviour comes with a positive intention. It may be counter intuitive…just say thank you.
What actually does work
We know that the practices of self-compassion and shame resilience stand down the stress response, weaken the pathway between body shame and fat talk as well as increase motivation for self-care and health promoting behaviours. There is evidence that the practices enable feelings of contentment, safety and connection.
What if you decided, right now, that enough was enough and you began for instance to:
· awaken with the intention of nourishing yourself with kindness
· to pay attention to how you are feeling and begin to explore how to be with those feelings.
· to listen to how you are talking to yourself and when necessary be kinder.
· to know that your safety and worth are not conditional on the numbers in your clothes, on your scales or eating the “right” foods.
· stop all fat talk, change the conversation with friends when they begin to talk about the latest diet or “being good”.
I am suggesting that the key to an optimal life is to become a much better friend to yourself, accepting your imperfect self along with all humanity…knowing you are worthy of love and belonging regardless of weight or body size.
About the author: Helen Golstein