Indiana is offering shame as a weight loss tool for state employees who apparently need to hate their bodies more in order to take better care of them.
(I’m reporting someone else’s story here, a launch from the norm on StrongCoffey.com. Much gratitude to Jessica for sharing her experience.)
On Wednesday, overweight and obese Indiana state employees arrived at work to find an all-too-familiar invitation in their inboxes. Their state-provided healthcare plan was offering them incentives to lose weight – again.
“This year, it’s a web-based points system,” says Jessica, an Indiana state employee for seven years and counting, ”I get 15 points every time I sign in at the gym. My ‘goal’ is 6,000. That’s a freakload of gym visits in a few months’ time in order to get a few bucks off my insurance each week.”
No, a few dollars a week off doesn’t feel like much of an incentive.
But every little bit helps, so when Jessica – who has been trying to lose weight for years, like so many of us – was offered 300 points to participate in the plan’s weight loss class, she signed up.
“I watched a video orientation of this guy telling me that the key to success was to develop a ‘lean mindset,’ as opposed to the ‘lardy mindset’ that I, according to him, am stuck in,” says Jessica. “I thought ‘Really? Did this guy really just say that?’ It was insulting, so I didn’t even watch the rest of the video.”
Jessica has spent the last 6 months developing a sense of genuine care for her body and for her health. An important first step in developing a genuine sense of care has been learning to anticipate and recognize shame attacks.
And the videos ridiculous use of the word “lardy” triggered a shame attack she could see coming a mile away.
“I can’t be focused on feeling shame about myself and my body and at the same time make caring choices consistently. I don’t take good care of anything that embarrasses me. Who does? When I feel ashamed of my body, I don’t want to move it, I don’t want to show it off at the gym, and I certainly don’t want to feel the way I feel, so I’m that much more inclined to binge to distract myself from how I’m feeling.” says Jessica. “In order to make healthier choices every day, I have to care about myself, and keep coming back to the pleasure I get when I make those healthier choices. That is what keeps me working out and eating well, even when it’s a challenge.”
Moving away from weight- and body-shame as her primary motivation for working out and eating well has made all the difference for Jessica – in six months, she’s developed a four-times a week gym habit, and has been loving how her body feels when she’s free of sugary and starchy foods like sodas, desserts and fast food.
“Being ashamed of my body has never enabled me to do what I’ve happily done in the last 6 months,” says Jessica. “Focusing on the pleasure I get when I take good care of my body has made all the difference. Shame makes me want to hide. If I’m focused on the pleasure, I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of me.”
The “lardy” comment was enough, but things got even more ridiculous – and insulting – when Jessica followed a link in what was meant to be an inspiring email from the same program on Wednesday. She couldn’t believe what she saw in the introductory paragraph: Shame, being heralded as an effective tool for weight loss.
“I’m not healthy,” wrote the post’s author, a fellow Indiana employee. “I’ve tried with little success my whole life to become healthier. I’ve had mixed results to be sure. That’s why I’m going to publicly shame myself into trying to eat better, lose weight and get more exercise.”
Jessica could not believe what her health care provider was suggesting.
Shame is an ineffective motivator for positive and sustainable change. Shame has been shown in clinical studies to do little more than inspire actions that create still more shame. 3
We feel badly about our weight, and so we eat more to escape the feeling. We wake up feeling like hell from drinking too much, again, so as soon as we can we escape into another glass of wine.
This is especially true for the women. While some men are more likely to act out in response to shame – sometimes with exercise – most women tend to act in; 4 they’re more likely to shut down, to hide, and to try to drown the feeling. for most overweight women, feeling shame increases the likelihood of a binge and decreases the likelihood of exercise.
“Shame makes me want to hide,” says Jessica. “When I’m caught in shame, I want to wear black and avoid the gym like the plague. I don’t want to be seen moving my body in public at all. And even in private I usually feel too embarrassed to keep it up for long.”
The State Government of Indiana surely has good intentions. But hiring a company whose message amounts to “Feel ashamed enough about your body to change it!” was perhaps not the strongest choice.
The key to healthy and sustainable weight loss, for those who want to lose, is to develop a deep and genuine sense of care for ourselves and our bodies as they are. From there, we develop an appreciation for the deep pleasure that results when we make each choice in service to our health. It’s this foundation of care that enables us to make healthier choices consistently, even when it’s hard (and it almost always is, or else we wouldn’t be getting misguided, if well-meaning, emails from our state health care plans that pull every rabbit out of every hat, trying to frighten or shame us into eating better and exercising more).
Six months ago, an email like the one she received on Wednesday might have sent Jessica straight to the gym. She would’ve worked out a handful of times, too hard and too fast, and soon after quit, and gained back whatever incremental amount of weight she’d lost. Jessica is in a healthier, care-based place today. The weight-loss email made her angry but it’s not gonna slow her down.
“I’ve been wanting to make these changes my whole life, but it wasn’t until I committed to a care- and pleasure-based approach that I was able to actually DO it,” Jessica says.
I asked Jessica what she’d say if she could speak to all the other women who work for the state of Indiana who got that email:
“Dig out the shame. Throw it in the garbage, and light it on fire. Focus on taking care of yourself, and on the pleasure you get when you do that.”
- Dr. Brenee Brown and many others are adding to our ever-growing appreciation for the toxic impact of shame, specifically on women. ↩
- Ashley N. Gearhardt, William R. Corbin, Kelly D. Brownell, “Preliminary validation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale,” Appetite 52 (2009) 430–436. ↩
- Weiss, Robert. “Guilt = Good, Shame = Bad”, Psychology Today, January 06, 2014. ↩
- VanScoy, H. (2006). Shame: The Quintessential Emotion. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/shame-the-quintessential-emotion/000730 ↩