Tuesday 5 July 2016

The Shift To Health Shaming

The past decade has seen some interesting shifts. The media era created an "ideal" body image that has obviously been cause for mental and social problems that I don't even need to bother getting into. However, just this past decade or so, there's been a backlash against those who would condemn others for not looking ideal and beautiful. Body shaming has become the new social taboo, and now every time that a celebrity or athlete is photographed having gained some weight or lost their muscle mass, the public lights up and rallies to their defence against the scrutiny that's sure to come. As public awareness projects spring up to support realistic body types, it highlights this excellent and refreshing new trend, to say the least.

With the fight against body-shaming being in full-fling, a different trend has snuck up on us without much notice. Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
  • I can't believe you're eating that. It has so much added sugar.
  • Do you know how many preservatives are in there? That's so disgusting!
  • How can you eat something with so many empty calories?
  • Gross, what you're drinking is nothing but artificial flavouring!

Western society is making a transition of people now wanting to be overall healthier now, rather than solely looking a certain way. The beauty aspect will never disappear, but people are now less willing to damage themselves to attain it and strive to find a healthy balance. The problem we're seeing now, though, is the shaming of individuals for poor healthy practices and dietary habits from the few who feel that they have "perfected" their own. The girl at the gym who eats perfectly clean now looks down on her friend for eating a burger. The personal trainer scoffs because his client chose the wrong energy bar that has too much added sugar. It's not limited to food, either. Think of the person who's mocked for not going to the gym often enough. Or even doctors and other health clinicians who get caught in this, putting negative spins on what their patients are doing and creating excessive frustration and anxiety.

To anyone who took a psychology class in school, you'll recognize this as textbook negative reinforcement. The most frustrating examples of this that I see are when professionals start to use this tactic in order to generate business. If the personal trainer can make their client feel self-conscious about what they eat and how they exercise, or if the chiropractor can make his patient feel out of control of their own health, then repeat business is (allegedly) assured.

I asked my friend Alison Quinlan, a Mental Performance Consultan who has a Master's in sport psychology, for her input on this as well.

Although food shaming on the surface appears to be coming from a place of good intent, this type of negative labelling often has an adverse effect causing a person to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty about what they are eating. These negative emotions often lead to disordered eating habits that are becoming increasingly prevalent.
Negative comments towards ones eating habits is a counterintuitive approach to helping them make a change. “Subjective norms”, which refers to the beliefs and values that we perceive other people to have towards ourselves and our acceptable behaviours, plays a large role in our choices. If a person thinks that other people will criticize their choices but they don’t get to the root of why they are making that choice, this can lead to lying or hiding the choices oppose to openly talking about the reasons behind those particular choices. In a 2014 study examining the impact of feelings of guilt versus feelings of celebration in regards to food choices, Kuijer and Boyce (2014) found that feelings of guilt (when thinking about a typical “treat food” such as chocolate cake) were associated with more negative food patterns and less feelings of control in regards to food. Whereas, people who perceived the chocolate cake to be something special and to celebrate and enjoy, were found to eat less, have more control over food choices, and at one year have maintained a healthier weight. 
Instead of judging people for what they are eating or trying to impose a “has to be this way” mentality, there are a few alternative strategies that have shown to have success and result in more positive changes for eating habits. For example, understanding the person first and how they perceive what is a “healthy” or “non-healthy” approach can be helpful. The second step is to focus on pro-active steps that are within a person’s control to make a change. For example, it just may not be feasible for a person to completely revamp their diet in a week. Instead, starting with small changes that are within their control and the person agrees to will help empower the person to make that change. For example, “this week I am going to focus on having two servings of vegetables at each meal”. This is a proactive, clear step the person can incorporate in. Allowing a person who is trying to make a change a safe and supportive environment to share their challenges and perceptions will be the positive empowerment they need to actually start to create change. (Reference)

It's not a complicated concept to grasp. The reasons on why shaming is more derogatory than beneficial should be obvious. Why does it happen then? There are probably a multitude of reasons. Ego and insecurity, perhaps, or maybe simply an overzealous attempt to offer help. It's not really my place to determine those roots. Regardless, some self-reflection for both the followers and the professionals within the fitness and healthcare industries is vital in order to maintain good mental health among those seeking help.

Indeed, society will never be without it's members who hold themselves on pedestals, and this isn't an attempt to knock them down. However, the high-and-mighty attitudes that are becoming rampant need to be kept under control. The moral here is going to sound like an after-school special; negativity is not a good catalyst for change. Demonizing poor habits creates feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Positive feedback helps promote positive changes.

Be kind, everyone.

Alison Quinlan is a Mental Performance Consultant, an avid athlete, and fitness enthusiast. You can find out more about on her website at http://www.kaizenmind.ca/ or follow her on Twitter.

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