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Does Shame Work?

On September 6, Bill Maher’s New Rule was about obesity and eating behaviors, and how they contribute to the national healthcare crisis. He went so far as to say that fat-shaming needs to make a comeback, since “shame is the first step to reform.” He also said that while some people may consider fat to be beautiful, fat can’t be healthy.

To say this pissed me off would be an understatement. I generally like Maher, but on this, I have to disagree.

That made it all the more interesting to then see an article published on September 7 about why we should get rid of the shame about eating certain foods, and that we should stop calling anything a “trash food.”

It got me curious to know what other people were saying about using shame to inspire change. And as you might guess, it’s not clear-cut.

When Shame Works

Does shame ever work? That might depend on who you ask, but some people think so, depending on the circumstances and how it’s used.

Author Joseph Burgo points out that sometimes shame is productive. This is when you point to specific traits or behaviors that someone can change, rather than making them feel ashamed about who they are as a person. In this approach, someone can feel good about who they are while still acknowledging that they could make positive improvements.

Another author, Jennifer Jaquet, comments that shame is problematic when it’s used as a weapon by someone in a position of power against someone weaker. If it goes in the other direction, though, it can be used for good. For example, she talks about “how small groups of concerned citizens could use shame to change the behaviour of big corporations and even governments….”

But Jaquet also points out that shaming doesn’t always work the way you want. It can backfire and end up normalizing the behavior you’re trying to shame. As she said: “That does show the danger of the tool — it’s not a predictable outcome.”

When Shame Doesn’t Work

Trying to shame people into behaving differently may work in some situations, but it also has lots of drawbacks, especially with food and weight.

Toxic Shame

One problem is that criticizing someone’s lifestyle habits often results in toxic shame. This is when someone internalizes the shame and believes they’re inherently worthless and unlovable. This can be the result of trauma, but it can also come from societal expectations and perfectionist tendencies.


As another article pointed out, trying to shame someone in a medical setting is counter-productive. People will avoid going to the doctor if they know it will make them feel ashamed, or they may lie about their behavior. One study found that even patients who didn’t feel like shame was a bad thing “were likely to lie to their doctor in a subsequent visit.”

This isn’t helpful. Instead of promoting change, it simply drives the behavior underground and may even strengthen it.

According to Psychology Today, if the shame is internalized, “the individual becomes both the judged and the judge and experiences self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy.” This can lead to anxiety, depression, and avoidance of social events that might bring up those feelings.

Some Things Are Out of Your Control

Furthermore, there’s the whole question about how much lifestyle changes can even impact weight, as well as how much weight correlates with health. For example, my grandfather had type 2 diabetes, but he wasn’t overweight. Meanwhile, some other people in the family who are overweight haven’t had diabetes. And shaming a person for something outside their control is never helpful.

Which goes back to the Salon article and the discussion of “trash foods.” Not everyone has access to fresh produce, nor can everyone afford to buy organic or be super picky about what they eat. Shaming people for what they eat promotes classism, and labeling foods as good or bad causes other problems.

My Experience

In my experience, I’ve never found shame to work for lifestyle changes. Instead, I internalized it all and hid. This meant eating sweets in secret and hiding my body by avoiding social activities where I thought I’d get negative attention.

This was incredibly toxic, to me, my relationships with other people, and my relationship to food. I can’t think of one useful thing that came out of it, only bad ones.

On the other hand, I can understand the point about productive shame. For example, I got pulled over once because I wasn’t paying attention to the change in the speed limit, and it was in an area with a hyper-sensitive police force. Plus, I’d mixed up the registration date for my newish car with my old car, with the result that my registration was 6 months out of date.

Happily, my clean driving record meant that I got off with a warning, and I didn’t have to show up in court despite my apparent criminal negligence in missing my registration. But I felt so ashamed that this even happened that ever since I’ve paid better attention to speed changes, and I’m very prompt about my car registration.

I think the problem is that eating and food are so central to who we are that it’s nearly impossible to separate those behaviors from who we are. It’s not like driving, which you can distinguish as something separate from yourself. (Or at least, I can.)

No Food or Fat Shaming

Given all that, I stick with my disagreement with Bill Maher. Let’s not revert to fat-shaming, or making people ashamed of what they eat.

What about you? Have you had any experience where shame has had a positive or negative impact? I’d love to hear about it.

And instead of using shame, let’s see how we can make nutritious foods available and affordable, and help people eat more mindfully without judging what they’re eating. I think that would be far more effective in making positive changes.

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