There are a lot of things you know Jonah Hill from. Perhaps it’s his latest film, Don’t Look Up. Or maybe it’s his classic comedy movies, like Superbad or 21 Jump Street. You could be a fan of his more serious roles, like Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Or maybe he was brought back into your periphery with his latest Instagram post — where he openly spoke about the fat-shaming and “public mockery” of his body that’s perversely followed him throughout his career.
The thing about fat-shaming — the act of shaming a person or group of people, usually those who live in larger bodies — is that, scientifically, it does not work. A 2014 study, which called “negative attitudes towards obese individuals one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice” found that weight discrimination “promotes weight gain and the onset of obesity”.
An article, from 2019, said that “Anti-fat bias is rampant in all parts of society, including medicine.” It spoke about the fact that fat-shaming is linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders and exercise avoidance. In addition to that, there’s “emerging evidence that the severity of harm increases when people internalise weight bias and turn it on themselves.”
As for the place in which fatphobia comes from, as Amber Rules, director and founder of Rough Patch, an affordable counselling and mental health care service, puts it: “Many people’s views of fatness are based on ignorance and cruelty.”
Calling it a complex issue, she does point to “cultural norms” leading people to believe that it’s okay to comment on someone else’s weight. The proliferation of fitness and wellness influencers who flood our culture — and social media — with bite-sized, “often incorrect” ideas about health and wellness, doesn’t help.
Rules calls fat-shaming “insidious” and says that it can be overt or covert. “An example of overt fat-shaming is openly making fun of someone for how they look, what they eat, or what they wear.”
Covert, she says, is more difficult to pinpoint. It could be giving unsolicited health advice under the guise of “being worried about their health”; saying something like “That’s a big plate of food, do you need that much?; or pointing out an outfit or article of clothing as being unflattering.
Fat-shaming not only has mental health repercussions at the time of bullying, but it has life-long effects. When it happens to a child or teenager, it can “cause deep emotional wounds”. There are lasting impacts when a young person is taught that their worth is determined by the way they look, according to Rules.
One impact? “Fat-shaming or body-shaming is the genesis of many disordered eating behaviours for adults,” Rules said. Beat, an eating disorder charity in the United Kingdom, reported that 65% of people with eating disorders say bullying contributed to their condition. 49% were less than 10 years old when the bullying started — and many said it stayed well into adulthood.
For those still under the misguided impression that an eating disorder translates to a severely underweight body, the National Eating Disorders Collaboration says “There is a significant co-occurrence of eating disorders among people living in larger bodies.” In addition to this, “[the] weight stigma experienced by people living in larger bodies increases the risk of eating disorders”.
In addition to disordered eating patterns, other ways it carries over into adulthood includes “exercising too much or too little; frequent mirror-checking; self-esteem issues; confidence issues; depression and anxiety; toxic shame and guilt,” says Rules. As for how it’s different for people with a public persona, like Jonah Hill? Rules tells us, that, arguably, celebrities have “even more unrealistic body standards because of their public persona”.
Oh, and yet another way it may carry over into adulthood? “Any unresolved psychological pain can be passed down to our children,” Rules explains. People who have experienced body shaming might pass on their beliefs about themselves — and larger bodies in general — to their children. This could result in inadvertently shaming them, or passing down “erroneous” ideas about food, eating and exercise.
As for what to do if you’re being fat-shamed? “There’s no right way to respond,” explains Rules, “[But] having a few pre-prepared statements can be useful if you find it hard to respond spontaneously.”
These include phrases like “I’d prefer not to discuss this”; “Talking about this is making me uncomfortable”; “It’s complicated, and I don’t feel safe talking to you about this”; or “I appreciate you’re trying to help, but my doctor is doing a great job of helping me with this.”
If they’re being rude or hurtful, remember “you don’t owe anyone politeness”. You can tell people to mind their own business, or as Rules says “Four letter words are effective!”
As for those who don’t experience fat-shaming, but are witness to it? “Support from allies is essential,” says Rules, and you should try to step in quickly and firmly. Phrases can include “That’s an inappropriate thing to say” or “You need to stop right now.” Avoid getting into the subject, or debating the topic — according to Rules, it only further dehumanises the person you’re defending.
Following this, check in with the larger-bodied person, and see if they’re okay and what you can do to support them. If it happens in a work context, “Ask the person who has been bullied whether they’d like your help to report the incident and take their lead.” Keep yourself from getting upset or outraged (no matter how upsetting or outraging the situation is) — centre their feelings, and remember they may feel embarrassed or upset.
Like Rules says in reference to Jonah Hill: “We all deserve to enjoy our bodies, no matter how they look.” Or as Jonah Hill himself said on his Instagram: “You’re wonderful and awesome and perfect.”