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Obesity's Emotional Toll: It's a Big Fat Shame

About 35.7 percent of U.S. adults and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most of us know that being overweight or obese is not healthy and increases the risk serious health conditions, but what about the emotional toll?


Overweight children and teens face discrimination and can develop emotional issues that last a lifetime.

While some overweight children have lots of friends and strong self-esteem, many face a cycle of taunting and bullying. This can cause a lack of self-confidence, difficulty in making friends, and poor school performance. In time this can lead to social withdrawal and depression.

Some overweight children end up turning to food for comfort, a pattern that can repeat itself for decades. As they grow into adulthood, overweight people often face a more difficult time in their careers and their social lives.


Aside from the way our culture views overweight people, how they view themselves is an important part of the dynamic.

As a teenager, Michael Prager weighed as much as 365 pounds, and carried that weight into his early 30s. Now that he's passed the 20-year- mark in what he calls a "normal-sized body," he reflects on how overweight people come to view themselves -- and how they may judge others.

"Many larger people judge themselves harshly about their body size, and judge others the same way, perhaps even more harshly than un-fat people who are less attuned to the problem. That ties into self-image."

"I can tell you that its distortions live on much longer than the weight itself."

"For example, I can be in a mall and observe a group of young teens and immediately be seized by a fear that they will snicker and harass me because I'm fat, even though I haven't been fat for 20 years and I haven't been a teenager for even much longer," says Prager, author of Fat Boy Thin Man.

Despite campaigns to help overweight people with self-esteem, being heavy affects nearly every facet of life in a society that worships thinness. Heavy people face judgment and harassment at the hands of strangers, friends, and perhaps most hurtfully, by their own families. Abuse comes in the form of finger pointing, staring, and outright insults.

Overweight people are often viewed as lazy and lacking in self-discipline, with little evidence to back up those perceptions. Prolonged disapproval can lead to emotional scarring, withdrawal, and avoidance of social situations.

NYU Langone Medical Center reported on a study that revealed that 80 percent of severely obese people:

● perceive themselves as physically unattractive

● believe that others make disparaging comments about their weight

● dislike being seen in public

● feel discrimination when applying for jobs

● feel they are treated disrespectfully by their physician

Obesity is a chronic health condition with serious medical and psychological ramifications. If overweight patients feel disrespected -- even by their physicians -- an important link in the chain to better health is broken.

Gail Engebretson tells Natural Choice Directory that she was overweight for most of her life. "When I was only six years old, I had a doctor who wasn't going to help me down off the examining room table -- and told me he was going to leave me there until I lost weight! This is only one of numerous experiences I had feeling that society at large had definite negative impressions of me due solely to my weight problem."

After undergoing weight loss surgery, Gail, author of Fat No More: Long Term Success Following Weight Loss Surgery, began coaching others to help them gain understanding about the surgery and the hard work that must follow. "I help make sure people are mentally as prepared as possible. I can share what has worked for me, make suggestions, and make them accountable for lifestyle changes."


Hate Your Body, Hate Yourself: Why Stigmatizing Doesn't Work

"There is a direct connection between stigmatizing people for being fat and body dissatisfaction," according to Dr. Deah Schwartz, a specialist in eating disorders and body image with an emphasis on Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance.

"There is another direct connection between body dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorders. While any researcher or scientist knows that correlation is not causation, it is common sense that informs us that someone living in an environment where there is an inordinate amount of pressure to look just one way in order to be accepted results in too many people hating their bodies and using food to ameliorate these feelings," says Dr. Schwartz.

"There is a movement on college campuses to heighten awareness of the toxicity of stigmatization of overweight people and to end "fat talk" as the accepted way for girls and women to relate to each other. It's really logical. We tend NOT to take care of things or people we don't care about. When we are taught to hate our bodies, which of course means we hate ourselves, because we are our bodies, then we are less motivated to take care of ourselves. Bottom line -- the only weight problem I have is the problem that other people have with my weight."

About the photos: Photographs in the media tend to portray obese individuals as headless, from unflattering angles, and engaging in stereotypical behaviors (e.g. eating unhealthy foods or engaging in sedentary behavior). In an effort to reduce pejorative portrayals of overweight and obese persons in media reporting, the Yale Rudd Center provides a collection of photographs that portray obese individuals in ways that are positive and non-stereotypical, providing a fair and non-biased representation of people who are overweight. Photo copyright: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

References: End Fat Talk,; The Emotional Toll of Obesity, American Academy of Pediatrics; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institutes of Health; Psychological Effects of Obesity, NYULMC Weight Management Program, NYU Langone Medical Center

Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis." She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.


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