I DISCOVERED a recent dichotomy.

Some say ‘fatphobia’ does not exist, yet even in the few weeks of 2023, the backlash some prominent people – most recently Sam Smith for their recent video (they identify as non-binary) accompanying their new single I'm Not Here To Make Friends – have received seems to prove this untrue.

Belting out the chorus, which inspired the song’s name, they are wearing a corset, tights with heart-shaped cutouts on the bum, nipple tassels, and a sparkly crown and gloves, all while confidently dancing in a hallway filled with others in the same gear.

Personally, I think the whole thing is fabulous. Others, however, have called the video ‘vulgar;’ too hyper-sexualised and inappropriate for younger people. But there has been a whole other element criticised profusely, too: Sam’s body.

“Looking like a walrus,” one viewer said. “Fatass”, another added: “Imagine putting this outfit on, standing in front of a mirror, seeing this reflected back at you and thinking, ‘I look amazing’.”

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There were many more similar comments. What they all had in common was that they had nothing to do with Sam Smith as an artist, their work, or message. They existed purely to insult; to express hate towards their appearance.

It’s nothing new, of course. Body-shaming – particularly those that do not conform to the ideals of thinness – is an age-old practice. We all know the articles showing celebrities’ weight gain or zoomed in pictures of cellulite. Nor is it an issue reserved to prominent people, but something most have us will have experienced – online and offline.

HeraldScotland: Despite the uproar, Sam Smith and Kim Petras took home best pop duo/group collaboration for their song Unholy at the 2023 GrammysDespite the uproar, Sam Smith and Kim Petras took home best pop duo/group collaboration for their song Unholy at the 2023 Grammys (Image: Getty)

Like many, I have received unsolicited comments about my body and my experience is: They hurt – and they stayed with me. There are times I still think of them, where the people that said them have probably long forgotten.

However, what none of the comments I have received directly or those I consumed indirectly, have done is push me towards being ‘healthy.’

Paired with other factors, they did the opposite. They ruined my self-confidence and led me to adopt seriously unhealthy habits that took me years to deal with.

When it comes to being bullied, I have yet to meet a person who says they enjoyed the experience. Yet, we continue to do it – especially to those that don't fit societal norms of thinness, and even more so when these people dare to be happy in their body (the audacity!) – and then deny that such hostile environments exist, whenever those targeted do speak up.

Why? For one, we always have. Then, the internet may be to blame, but the shift towards obesity being a ‘public health concern' has definitely exacerbated things.

In November, Cancer Research UK published a report stating overweight and obesity are the second largest preventable cause of cancer in Scotland after smoking. Now, the charity has issued a further warning: that, if current trends continue without government intervention, cancer cases will rise by a third in 2040, leading to the risk of the NHS “being overwhelmed.”

Such figures do present a worrying prospect for Scotland, given the country has among the highest levels of obesity prevalence among OECD countries.

When it comes to attitudes towards who or what is at fault for this trend, 27 per cent of people here ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that those overweight/ obese 'have only themselves to blame’ according to a Scottish Government survey published last month.

Some who think this way might argue that shaming is necessary for the message to sink in. Some might even feel that they are doing civic duty in ‘waging the war against obesity’ – as Boris Johnson previously referred to it – by offering their services and shaming people into submission.

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Having conversations about the health impacts being overweight or obese can have to prevent early mortality is vital. But so is not stigmatising those who are at the centre of it further.

The Scottish Government has in parts recognised this in that it has adopted a Whole Systems Approach to diet and healthy weight with the aim ‘to halve childhood obesity and significantly reduce diet-related health inequalities’ – such as those from deprived backgrounds being ‘significantly more likely’ to be overweight and/or obese than others.

However, these systemic changes will take time to implement. What will not speed things up is hateful language used as a baton to hit those already marginalised.

In fact, doing so might endanger the mission. Recent studies on fatphobic attitudes in the UK have revealed that ‘discrimination may be a barrier to engaging in some of the actions’ such as exercise.

I probably should not have to spell this out, but I will: Words have consequences. Not just to those you are aiming them at, but at times those that consume them indirectly through social media, for example.

The Mental Health Foundation in their Mind over Mirror report said that, for young people – faced with a stream of unattainable body ideals from social media and influencers, as well as stigmatising messaging from society and governments – “the pressure on their body image has never been greater.”

They found that body dissatisfaction is associated with ‘a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours’ and, sometimes, eating disorders.

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Of course, the causes of eating disorders are complex and to draw a causal chain between (online) comments and these mental health disorders is a murky one, Eating Disorder charity Beat even says so. But it is also recognised as an exacerbating factor.

In Scotland there has been an “unprecedented” increase in the number of children and young people presenting with eating disorders according to CAMHS staff. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland found that referrals for eating disorders in under-18s have nearly tripled between 2018-19 and 2020-21.

Tackling all the things mentioned simultaneously will require a careful balancing act and, ultimately, the solution to one element must not further exacerbate the other.

One thing I do know for certain: body shaming anybody and further contributing towards harmful messaging on body image is not the answer. The hate needs to stop.

Daniella Theis is Scottish Student Journalist of the Year