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Dear Kirstie Alley: Why Fat Shaming Doesn’t Work, Even on Yourself ["I'm fat but at least I'm not circus fat"]

Posted Apr 09 2014 12:52am

Dear Kirstie Alley,

I got your press release about how you’re going back to your first diet love, Jenny Craig. (I really appreciated the personal touch of including the pictures of all your diet products. Apparently JC will now be carrying your line of diet drinks in their stores so, um, way to play it from both sides?) I wish I could say that I’m happy for you but watching you publicly yo-yo your weight up and down for years is starting to make me deeply uncomfortable. Not because your weight is fluctuating – that’s a totally normal part of the human experience – but because of how uncomfortable it seems to make you. 

Take this statement you made in a recent interview in People where you explained the reason for your returning to Jenny Craig, after a 7-year hiatus: ”I was good for awhile and then I wasn’t good, and the weight crept up. Like I say in the ad, I’m not circus fat. I didn’t hugely screw up. I didn’t gain 75. I gained 30.”

Whoa, girl. You’re good! You are. I don’t know you personally and may be the only person on the planet to have never seen an episode of Cheers but I think I can state definitively that when it comes to being a human being, you’re doing just fine and that has nothing to do with what you weigh or what you ate.

Second, I’ve worked out with quite a few circus folk and I can tell you that they are remarkably strong and fit regardless of their size. After watching my not-Hollywood-sized teacher dangle by one leg entwined in a piece of silk 80 feet up in the air, all I can say is if that’s circus fat then sign me up! But of course you didn’t mean that kind of circus fat. You’re talking about the poor woman who sat on a chair in the sideshow of turn-of-the-century circuses. You mean this:


I’d like to introduce you to Celesta Geyer (a.k.a. Dolly Dimples) who was considered to be the premier “fat lady” of her day. You shouldn’t be so quick to judge her, especially as you two both make a living based entirely on your ability to gain weight and lose it. Frankly you kind of are the Dolly Dimples of our day and not because of what you weigh.  She was “The World’s Most Beautiful Fat Lady” in the Barnum and Bailey circus. You had a show called “Fat Actress” (which I’ve also never seen). You’re both seasoned show-women who use their weight as their celebrity. And of course there’s the weight-loss gig — at 40, she lost 440 pounds in one year (I swear I did not make that up) — and, like you, wrote a diet plan about how she did it and made a living selling it to the public. 


 Okay so her promo pics aren’t as cool as yours. 

But this is what I really want you to know about Celesta/Dolly: By all accounts, while she was sad as an overweight child (she was relentlessly taunted), as an adult she managed to make a very happy life for herself both as the world’s fattest lady and as one of the world’s slimmest. But this is my favorite part: her husband Frank loved her devotedly through both thick and thin – literally. I tell you this Kirstie, to point out two things that can be as true for you as they were for her: You can be happy regardless of your weight. And those who love you will love you no matter what you weigh.

You don’t have to lose weight to be “good enough .” But, that said, if you want to lose weight then good for you – I’m not going to tell you what to do with your body (or your endorsement deals – mama’s got a mortgage!). I hope this old-new Jenny Craig deal goes great. I hope you get what you need as much as what you want. I hope you find a way to exercise and eat heathfully that makes you as happy as Miss Dolly.

I would only offer one piece of advice: Drop the fat shaming. 


 Seriously, if a picture tells a thousand words, this one is an entire term paper for Women’s Studies 101. 

Despite what shows like  The Biggest Loser  contend, shaming people – no matter how politely or well-intended you do it! – is not an effective weight loss tool. And yet books, talk shows, diet gurus and more magazine articles than I care to count advocate shaming your loved ones, friends, perfect strangers and even yourself into losing the extra poundage. And these days the more public the self-flagellation, the greater the absolution, right? (It’s not legit weight loss until you’ve got a magazine cover in a bikini!) It’s gotten so bad that one ethics professor, Daniel Callahan,  published an editorial  detailing his three-pronged approach to curing obesity – one of which was “increased social pressure on the overweight”, a tactic he likened to the campaign against smoking.

But fat shaming – whether we do it to others or ourselves – has one huge downfall: people are only temporarily motivated by negative consequences. Psychologists have long known that while punishment can bring about quick change, it isn’t often lasting change.  And in the world of health and weight loss, lasting change is the only thing that matters. In fact, riding the weight roller coaster is actually worse for you than just staying heavy. If you want people to make a life-long change, positive reinforcement – most powerfully in the form of love – is the only thing that makes sense. How do I know this? Because science.

A study  published in PLoS one showed that people who felt they were being shamed about their weight not only didn’t lose weight but ended up gaining more weight than their similarly sized peers who didn’t feel shamed. The researchers looked at 6,157 Americans over four years and found that people who experienced discrimination due to their weight were 2.5 times more likely to be obese by the end of the study (or 3 times more likely to stay obese) than their non-shamed peers.

Fat people (just like infant people and sick people and disabled people and cranky-on-airplanes people) are people first. For some reason, especially when it comes to weight and appearance, we seem to focus on the adjective before the personhood. This is evidenced by the multitudes of letters to various advice columnists asking some incarnation of “I’m not attracted to my significant other anymore because they’ve turned into a fat cow so how do I make them lose weight?” I hate these kinds of letters because they reduce a person – a person that you once loved enough to make some level of commitment to – to one single attribute. I’m not saying that it isn’t okay or even loving to want a loved one to lose weight for their health and happiness and I’m not saying that it isn’t normal to have your attraction wane as physical appearance changes. But that isn’t the end of the story – it’s the beginning.

Like any elderly couple can tell you, everyone loses their youthful beauty through some combination of illness, age and life circumstance (yes, even the Hollywood botox queens) so if that is all your love is based on, then it was never love in the first place. “But what if she dies young from being so overweight?” a concerned friend once asked me about his beloved and overweight spouse. “What if she dies thin, thinking your love is conditional?” was my reply.

Let me be clear, I’m not blaming you. In a world wallpapered with tabloids and paparazzi hiding in the bushes, I’d want to look perfect all the time too. I just want better for you. And while I’m being totally honest here, I’ll admit that I’m telling myself this as much as I’m telling you. I too have bought into the idea that to be loved one has to be thin and beautiful. But the truth is, you are beautiful when you are loved.

In the end you’re a businesswoman, Kirstie. And perhaps all of this is just one more way to hock product by playing on our insecurities. But either way you need to know your words have meaning. Don’t shame yourself. Don’t shame us either. (What about all the women reading your words who are bigger than you? Are you calling them freaks?) And while I’m at it, don’t shame circus people either. Fat shaming doesn’t work.




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