The culture of fat-shaming: A conversation with Ali Moeen Nawazish

Published: November 20, 2014

Fat-shaming is a social evil that takes a toll on even the best of us, and needs to be firmly dealt with.

I’ve written extensively about the society’s attitude towards overweight people. Seemingly harmless jokes and unsolicited weight-loss advice often has serious, negative impact on the lives of people struggling with weight problem.

I sat down with academic prodigy Ali Moeen Nawazish, to discuss the issue of fat-shaming and body image.

Do you consider shaming people for their weight as something perverse?

Definitely. Just judging anyone by not their actions, but the way they look, they sound, they speak; the whole concept of judging people based on these arbitrary things is perverse.

Have you personally been a victim of fat-shaming, or suffered from poor self-image?

Ever since I was a kid, it’s been there. I think it helped when I did my O’ levels and went to Cambridge. The three years that I spent in Cambridge, it was never really an issue. I forgot even thinking about the fact that I was somewhat different, or didn’t conform to society’s expectation of what I should look like. Even at Columbia, it’s the same thing. It’s refreshing. But all through high school, yeah, it was pretty bad.

Tell us about some of the efforts you’ve made to improve your physique, and to what extent were you successful?

I used to go to the Pindi race course every morning for a run. I played squash quite a lot, still do sometimes. I joined a gym for quite some time, and I’ve always prioritised my health. I was actually quite active.

And (due to these efforts) my health did improve. My cholesterol is pretty normal. My resting heart rate is good, and while exercising I can maintain my heart rate below (a level that) my trainer says is also very good.

For me, it’s always been about my health, you know? It’s never been about having a six-pack. I’ve accepted, to some extent, that there’s no way I’m going to look a certain way. Because to do that, I’d have to put a hold on a lot of things I do in life.

“Being fat is a choice”. What’s your opinion of that statement?

Hmm, it’s a choice for some people, but not everybody. Some people do deliberately gain weight to maybe “look healthier” or whatever, but many do as much as they can to lose weight and aren’t able to. Remember, it’s also a lot about metabolism, and so many other things that you as a doctor would know better? There are metabolic disorders, and thyroid conditions that make you fatter?

It’s true.

Right. So Yeah, if you’re not doing anything, then being fat is a choice. But I don’t think it’s a choice in most cases. And even when it is, it’s a choice you’re making (for yourself), and others should be able to respect that.

What would you say to a person who considers a fat joke as ‘harmless fun’?

The sad part is that most of our humour is addressed at making fun of someone. We have a jugat-bazi culture, and fat people are easy targets for like all jugats (slams) on the planet. When people do that, they need to realise there’s a big likelihood that they’re hurting someone’s feelings. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a sense of humour; at some point, it just becomes too much.

It’s like asking what you think of jokes about people with ugly faces, or a person with one arm. Jokes (that make fun of people’s appearances) are pathetic to begin with.

Would you consider weight-loss surgery, or recommend it to others?

Going under a knife always carries a certain amount of risk. Unless the condition is life-threatening, or your health can be significantly improved by it, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s stupid to assume all those risks and side-effects just to look good.

Some people consider fat-shaming as a necessary evil to motivate people into staying in shape. What would you say to that?

Well, if you keep telling a person, “You’re dumb, you’re dumb”, he’s not going to improve, is he? In my experience, every time somebody has bothered me about losing weight, it has demotivated me!  Every time I’ve had people accepting me, and not making it a (social) issue, it’s worked better.

Most of my weight loss occurred in environments where (fat-shaming) hasn’t been an issue, like in Cambridge. When you look at psychological studies on these issues, they show you that such criticism rarely works.

I still get loads of messages every day from boys and girls talking about being made fun of for the way they look. Even teachers do it to them sometimes! I know girls who started puking, and guys who tried all these (extreme) things to lose weight. It’s terrible.

Anything you’d like to say to these people who are bullied for their weight?

I think it represents a social decay, of sorts, when people are not judged by their hard work, grades and accomplishments, but rather by the way they look. And that’s become worse with the kind of social exposure we get on the internet, without our family values to counteract it.

It can be sad and demotivating, but I want to tell these kids that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t care about what people say. Work hard, stay healthy, and do it for yourself!

I nodded as I turned off my recording device, not simply because his words mostly affirmed my views, but because he had sincerely portrayed his, or rather our, struggles from our days together in high school.

Overweight people are often afraid to complain about the society’s lack of empathy, because we’ve convinced them that they deserve to fall from grace for what they’ve ‘allowed’ themselves to become; even when they are truly putting in their best efforts to improve themselves.

Fat-shaming is a social evil that takes a toll on even the best of us, and needs to be firmly dealt with.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Muhammad Hassan

    @Faraz: You’re a doctor, please tell us what percentage of people are fat because of genetic or other biological issues. Lets talk about numbers now.Recommend

  • Over-eater

    I was always a slim person.A few years ago,the stress of my final year mbbs got to me & I piled on a fair amt.of weight the last month before my finals. It didn’t bother me in anyway..until,I cleared my papers & walked back into college,to join up as a house surgeon & a junior of mine remarked ‘ What Ma’am ..lookin faaat ..’
    This was followed by a series of more jovial ‘looking chubby’ remarks.
    For the first time in my size zero life, I could understand what a heavy person went through,even with remarks that were made by friends,who didn’t intend to hurt & even though my own weight gain hadn’t originally bothered me. I lost all the exam weight I’d gained, half way through my internship,but it showed me how painful it was,to be in another’s shoes.Recommend

  • Ghostrider

    This blog sounds like a satire of highest quality.Recommend

  • yogi bear

    Being a smoker is as unhealthy as being obese to some extent. Just some” food” for thought.Recommend

  • Joker

    True, and to think this is his fifth or sixth article on this topic.People need to man up (no misogyny implied) and accept others insults without taking them too seriously. Otherwise we will soon need articles on “bald-shaming (ganjha/takla)”, “mustashe shaming (moonch wala)”,”beard shaming (Maulvi)”,”Study shaming (Parhaku)”, “Laziness shaming (Lafunga)”…….etc,etcRecommend

  • Anonymouse

    In every article you write about obesity, each time the same point is reiterated. You claim that you just want people to leave you alone, and loosing weight is a matter of personal choice and does not warrant abuse, then why is it you haven’t written a single motivational article on achieving a healthy lifestyle? One would assume that you are in support of accepting obesity and being unhealthy. I think it sends across the wrong message.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    It’s not about “manning up” or “girling down”. Instead of teachinc others to “accept insults”, you should do the decent thing and not be heaping insults on others for the way they look, or other things about them they can’t easily change (like being poor, or ugly, mentally challenged, and so on)Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    I’m sorry you went through that. Luckily, recently gained weight is easier to lose, and I’m glad you managed to do so.

    Unfortunately, a lot of people have more difficulty doing that, and end up becoming social punching bags forever. Imagine what you went through multiplied by 25 years.Recommend

  • Jamal

    Strong FatlogicRecommend

  • Faraz Talat

    It’s not just about genes or diseases, although they are more prevalent than you’d think. There’s also a matter of epigenetic factors (genes normally dormant, now triggered “on” by new environmental changes), and certain prescription drugs, particularly psychiatric medication, that cause serious weight gain.

    Then there are social factors beyond a person’s control. A woman with a job requiring her to sit at a desk for long hours, is far more prone to obesity, and has to work extra hard to lose weight than others.

    I won’t make this comment too ‘technical’, but If you’re looking for numbers, the following is an insightful article from the New England Journal of Medicine:
    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmp1400613Recommend

  • SH

    I’ve been skinny genetically all my life. You’ll be surprised to know the bullying I went through throughout school and even now. I’m sick of people telling me I’m skinny, I need to gain weight, I need to become “healthy”, I need to eat more etc. It has come to the point that some people have said that I can’t have children with a body like this. It really hurts.

    People who are saying “we should take it lightly and accept the insults,” no, it’s not funny and no we shouldn’t accept an insult. Nobody should be targeted for shaming. As long as you are active, your vitals are fine, you keep a check with your doctor, you’re okay whether you’re bulky or skinny.Recommend

  • Racer

    This guy once made the country proud by holding the world record for the highest number of A’s in A’Levels. Now look where he stands. Really really sad state of affairs.Recommend

  • Huzzah!

    Here’s the interesting thing: in Pakistan everyone above the age of about 35 is fat. Really: *everyone* (not counting poor/rural people of course). As a 30 plus non-fat woman (who works out and has made sure not to put on the weight over the years), I have to put up with so many comments about how I should eat something and how ever do I manage to not get blown away by the wind? I feel quite tempted to “fat-shame” in response. Let me point out that technically my BMI is easily normal. But because everyone is fat, they think I’m too thin. “I’m not thin! You’re a fat A**!!”, I feel like screaming at times. But nonetheless, I know kids are cruel. But you’ll be pleased to know all the kids who made fun of you are going to be fat soon too.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    As a doctor, I frequently counsel patients on how to maintain a healthy weight. I’ve never denied the biological problems of obesity, which are indeed harrowing, and I welcome weight-loss motivation articles.

    But much less talked about, are the ‘social’ problems of obesity; that is, the problems society has ‘manufactured’ through a lack of understanding towards the difficulties of obese people.

    If I say, “Don’t mock a poor man”, doesn’t mean I support poverty. I haven’t written any advice columns about making money; would you assume that it’s because I want people to stay poor?Recommend

  • AM

    I have the same issue N to be honest it’s sick since I’ve been seeing people telling me In all these 21 years to eat to be healthy n what not in bullying .Recommend

  • MindYourOwnBody

    After he talks numbers,what next…fat people who’re sedentary & enjoy their food must have stamps on their foreheads to distinguish themselves from other heavy people who have genetic issues ?
    What’s after that ? Its the general publics right to ridicule the former group ? Are they eating out of your refrigerator ? Are you footing their pizza bills or their XXXL wardrobe or their future bypass surgeries ?
    People should mind their own business .
    Live & let live ..please.Recommend

  • MindYourOwnBody

    Let it be his 10th or 20th article…if you don’t like it,stop reading.
    The titles are pretty clear as to what the blog is about.
    Why should people ‘man’ up & take insults ? Do the people insulting them have difficulty controlling their verbal diarrhoea or is it too much of an effort to be diplomatic & spare someones feelings ?Recommend

  • Over-eater

    I understand.
    Basically, people can’t mind their own business. We love passing comments & judgements about others,their clothes,their bodies,their intelligence,their accents,their lives,etc.
    I’ve seen relatives commenting about attractive cousins of mine who got heavy after having children,saying insensitive things like they weren’t ‘hot’ anymore…and these are educated,white-collar relatives who live in Europe & the United States ( & talk like this )
    I remember a wedding in India where my heavy aunt ( a busy overseas Ob-Gyn with 3 kids) was jovially called ‘baby elephant’,by other relatives. My aunt was heavy till the day she died-the comments never motivated her to lose weight. On the other hand I was taunted as ‘anorexic’,’too fashionable to eat’,’will get blown away’,’kareena’- it didn’t matter that I ran 6 miles a day/lifted weights/did yoga.
    I think passing comments about others is how people feel better about themselves…or its just an idle pastime. Either way,it’s insensitive,judgemental & disrespectful.
    Recommend

  • Over-eater

    Objecting to ridicule isn’t the same as supporting obesity.
    Please discern the difference.Recommend

  • ?

    So smokers shouldn’t ridiculed like fat people & must be treated with sensitivity….is that what you’re saying ?
    Heavy people only harm themselves, but smokers harm people all around them with their second hand & third hand smoke…smokers should be banned to lonely islands.Recommend

  • Healthy Eater

    Totally disagree. Your body is what you put in Btw! It is a choice for the majority of people! People who think they can eat whatever and get away or eat a unhealthy junk food and come out saying “I never eat”
    Losing weight requires acting responsibility and personal image/brand matters in everything.Recommend

  • Seriously…

    Time could be better spent hitting the gym or implementing portion control. One does protest too much.Recommend

  • saki M

    you just have written the voice of my heart !! i have been a chubby kid and a fat teen….. i have been and being bullied about my looks but rather depressing myself i reply my haters with my actions i.e performing well and good in studies than them ^_^ which comforts me and discomforts them…….Recommend

  • Sexton Blake

    Loosing weight is easy. I have a system, which people can have for free. All it takes is willpower.Recommend

  • Kfc_ka_chicken

    Hahah just loved this comment. It’s like curvy women think they are fat and fat women think they are curvy. While fat shaming is a problem sometimes slim shaming can take on epic proportions to hide ones own inadequacy. Recommend

  • Sigh ..

    You seem to have missed the point of the article.Recommend

  • Sigh..

    What about empathy…& if not that ,at least talking with grace & decency…or the least..speaking diplomatically ?Recommend

  • muneeb

    .its always harmless when someone else is at the but end of the joke ..Recommend

  • Top_Quark

    I agree with Faraz about the social aspects of obesity and with him totally on the fat-shaming issue. Instead of shaming the obese, there should be a campaign to counter the popular thinking (esp. in Pakistan) that being overweight is somehow a sign of good health (or sehat-mandi) and to raise awareness about the various inherent health issues associated with obesity from greater risk of diabetes to cholesterol and heart disease.

    According to a latest study by McKinsey Global Institute, “The worldwide cost of obesity is about the same as smoking or armed conflict and greater than both alcoholism and climate change and there is a steep economic toll. Read more about this at BBC.Recommend

  • Hunza wala

    You have run out of topics. And keep beating a dead
    horse. How about you go over and help those children
    in Thar. They need medical attention. They lack it. Do
    something constructive. They will appreciate it more. Than
    all the combine readership here. After all, you are a medical doctor.Recommend

  • abhi

    The other gorup of fat people may not be eating out of others food, but they do cosume lots of space in public transport and airoplanes.Recommend

  • abhi

    Now I seriously need a blog on social problem faced by people suffering from hair loss. They are ridiculed and mocked every where.Recommend

  • ahmad

    This guy AMN makes a big deal out of a few PTI leaders having a communal dinner because people in Thar are famished but he is carrying a gut of a guy who has Nihari for breakfast.

    My advice for AMN would be that just because you took a lot of subjects does not mean you did the world any favours. People who really want to excel choose one field and pursue excellence in it. I have little respect for people who focus more on self promotion and acting like the “youth mouth piece” of their employer.Recommend

  • Empathy

    Good topic. Why don’t you write one,based on your experiences ?Recommend