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  • Shame is Not an Effective Diet Plan
  • Judith Bruk

The stigma of being obese is so strong that it is assumed that anyone with the condition is (or should be) deeply ashamed. After all, it’s really easy to lose weight, right? Just cut out dessert and walk around the block three times a week. If you can’t even do that, then you are definitely a moral failure, have succumbed to Gluttony and Sloth, and deserve to be shunned by society.

The problem is that shame is not a very effective diet plan; quite the opposite. It’s no surprise that recent research shows that shame leads to depression that leads to isolation, which, in the morbidly obese, leads to a suicide rate twelve times that of healthy–weight people.

Unfortunately, it is indeed true that many obese people feel a great deal of shame, even if we occasionally put on a façade of bravado or seeming shamelessness, e.g., the “large and in charge” sitcom staple trope. The bottom line is that our shame about our weight does keep us from engaging with other people, limits our willingness to participate in physical activities, and generally makes us reluctant to simply exist out in public. None of these are behaviors conducive to positive lifestyle changes.

For years I engineered my life so I would only go out of my house when absolutely necessary: grocery shopping and the occasional meeting at work were pretty much it (I usually work from home). I went for years without going to a movie, shopping for clothes in a store, eating in a restaurant, gardening, or any of the other activities I once enjoyed. I was ashamed to be seen. And since I had tried and tried and tried and tried to lose weight for three decades and only ended up more overweight as the years went by, I finally, truly gave up. I convinced myself my psychological makeup was so flawed (or was missing whatever ingredient it was that made someone succeed at sustained weight loss) that I just hoped my inevitable heart attack would be instantaneously fatal. This thinking is irrational, or at least unhealthy. (I am an otherwise fairly smart person with an advanced degree and am professionally employed.) Yet, it is basically the path that both societal attitudes and medical treatment lead us down at this point in time.

Here are a few examples that illustrate how the path to irrationality evolved for me.

About twelve years ago, I decided to see a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of my subconscious psychological issue that was keeping me overweight. This therapist suggested I see a nutritionist who gave me a list of detailed thyroid tests to take to my doctor so she could order the labs and we could get a full profile of how my thyroid was functioning. Upon presenting the list to my doctor’s PA (my doctor was not available that day), she rolled her eyes, gave a very deep sigh and said to me, “Every fat woman wants to believe it’s because of her thyroid and it never, ever is.” I was so embarrassed for having even brought the subject up that in an effort to save face, I reacted to my shame by replying, “Yeah, I just assume my extreme lack of energy and excess weight is simply because I eat too much.” She said, “Right, so let’s not even bother running these tests.” It was at least ten years later that I finally had the thyroid panel run and found out it was very low functioning.

After about a year of seeing that shrink, she declared me “cured” and sent me on my way, though I had not lost any weight. It was about this time I first began thinking that throwing in the towel [End Page 91] was a good option. That didn’t mean that I went out and ate pizza and ice cream every day. Not at all. In fact, given the fact that I had been vegetarian and general health–food freak beginning in my mid–twenties, I rarely had anything in the house that contained sugar...


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