Fat shaming

We are all well aware that in the 30-odd years since it came into public use, the Internet has become an increasingly powerful tool. It has brought us social media, online shopping, Internet banking, dating websites and apps, digital media and so much more. It has changed culture irrevocably – in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse. Whereas before the Internet, individuals were usually restricted to communication with a limited audience, now anyone with Internet access can connect with millions of people worldwide at a click of a button. One of the advantages of this mass communication is that people can spread awareness about issues quickly and easily, consequently reducing stigma and changing attitudes. Yet at the same time, the Internet has unfortunately created the ideal environment for bullying and abuse to proliferate. This dissonance is, as always, illustrated by developments in language.

Added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online in March 2018, fat shaming is defined as “the practice of making unpleasant comments about somebody who is judged to be fat or too heavy”. The definition also points the user to body shaming as a comparison (= the practice of making negative comments about a person’s body shape or size). Oxford Dictionaries online goes a step further with shaming collocations: it adds slut shaming to the list (= the practice of making negative comments about a woman’s sexual behaviour), and also identifies fat-shaming and body-shaming as adjectives as well as nouns, e.g. fat-shaming blog.

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Of course, shaming of most kinds has existed for many years and this kind of abuse wasn’t caused by the Internet. What the Internet has done, however, is increase both the prevalence of shaming and the power of the backlash against it. A single Google search for “fat shaming” returns over 19 million results, with references to broadcast media, trolling and anti-fat shaming social media campaigns.

And it doesn’t stop there. Hunting through various corpora reveals a whole host of other types of shaming that have been highlighted in recent years, for example:

  • age shaming (pretty self-explanatory), as in “She’s nearly 50. Should she really still be wearing those thigh-high boots?”
  • mom shaming (when one mother criticizes another for their child-rearing choices), as in “You allow your child to eat chocolate? I never give my child refined sugar.”
  • pill shaming (criticizing people who take medication for mental illnesses), as in “Antidepressants are just a placebo, aren’t they?”
  • thin/skinny shaming (the opposite of fat shaming), as in “Go on, have another pastry – you’re all skin and bones!”
  • victim shaming (judging victims of crimes such as rape, domestic violence, etc.), as in “Why didn’t you just fight back?”

This makes quite a grim catalogue. However, the mere fact that we have names for these forms of abuse means that they lose some of their power. It is very hard to fight against something with no name. Linguistic evolution has provided the rhetoric to denounce bullying of all kinds. Over recent years there has been a surge of body-positive social-media campaigns, for instance – to the extent that body positivity on social media is now known simply as “BoPo” for short.

Not all types of shaming are based on prejudice, thankfully. The idiom name and shame, meaning “to publish the names of people or organizations who have done something wrong or illegal”, illustrates the fact that there are times when it feels necessary to highlight bad behaviour. Passenger shaming is when flight attendants post photographic evidence online to expose bad behaviour on planes. An Instagram account called “passengershaming” includes photos of passengers clipping their toenails, leaving dirty nappies in the seat pockets, and sticking chewing gum inside the safety information cards.

Another example of naming and shaming – and my personal favourite – is cat and dog shaming. These light-hearted shaming practices are especially popular with pet-lovers in the West, who treat their pets like substitute children (see our Word of the Month on fur baby, July 2017). Cat and dog shaming involves publishing memes on the Internet of our feline and canine friends looking dejected or embarrassed next to a sign labelled with their latest misdemeanour, such as “I killed your child’s pet goldfish and left it on the kitchen floor” and “I steal dirty socks from the laundry basket”. Just please don’t ever fat shame your pet for piling on a few pounds – after all, their weight is likely to be your responsibility!


Stacey Bateman is a Development Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She is considering cat shaming her own feline friend, Flossie Teacakes, for her habit of stealing biscuits, and dog shaming the family dog, Frankie, for wiping his face on the sofa after eating.

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