Baroness Benjamin: Negative language can cause long term problems well into adulthood

Posted On: 
7th January 2020

New research commissioned by Slimming World looks at how critical and negative language around weight and body image damages our self-esteem and can spiral into a vicious cycle.

The Mind your Language report explores how people use critical language around weight and body image to denigrate ourselves.
Credit: 
World Obesity Federation

The new research commissioned by Slimming World showed that 60% of British adults say they sometimes struggle with their weight or body image. Of those, 74% use self-deprecating (belittling) language when talking about their own weight or body image and 63% of respondents report having used negative words to describe themselves, against 37% who report using positive words.

A third (33%) of those who sometimes struggle with their weight or body image say that their friends, family or partner/spouse negatively affects their self-esteem on a daily basis. Additionally, 89% of Slimming World members say that losing weight as part of Slimming World has helped them feel more positive.

The Mind your Language report explores how we use critical language around weight and body image to denigrate ourselves. This has a negative impact on our self-esteem and can spiral into self-loathing. Participants in the research who struggled with their weight reported using words like ‘failure’, ‘shame’, ‘dissatisfied’, ‘hopeless’, ‘anxious’, ‘invisible’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘insecure’ and ‘embarrassed’ to describe how they felt about themselves and their weight and body image.

Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Floella Benjamin, DBE, commented on the findings:

“Slimming World has been an important and supportive member of the APPG A Fit & Healthy Childhood over the last 8 years. I have witnessed first-hand how their work has helped turn lives around including those of children, some as young as 10, and those of young people, who are dealing with overweight and body image.”

“They have seen up close the mental, self-destructive and physical damage that can be done by negative language which can cause long term problems well into adulthood and it’s getting worse partly due to the relentless presence and influence of social media. So the findings in this report should be taken seriously and acted upon before it becomes an even more disastrous epidemic.”

Respondents to the general population survey were more likely to describe themselves using negative words than positive – 63% versus 37%. Nearly half of the respondents to the survey who sometimes struggle with their weight or body image (47%) report that they have described themselves as ‘fat’.

In contrast, Slimming World members who had started to lose weight and were part of a caring, supportive community which understood their feelings, reported feeling ‘positive’, ‘attractive’, ‘inspired’, ‘content’, ‘empowered’, ‘happy’, ‘determined’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘fit’.

The research found that one of the reasons that we self-deprecate is to motivate ourselves to change. However, far from helping with motivation, the research found that self-deprecation, can be exacerbated by external negativity and fat shaming, creating a vicious cycle of self-criticism that is difficult to break.

Behavioural psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, who worked with Slimming World on the study, says: “People self-deprecate for a number of reasons which has an impact on self-esteem. This can then be made worse by external factors including social media and the media, and even friends and family. This onslaught of negativity can be particularly damaging because it takes a specific feature and generalises it. In our heads, the self-talk of “I am overweight”, turns into “I hate my body”, and then turns into “I don’t like myself”.”

Dr Linda continues: “It’s true that you need to feel that you don’t like something to be motivated to change it, but there is a difference between ‘I don’t like this’ to ‘I am this and I’m not good enough’. By being part of a supportive, like-minded social group and learning to be kinder to yourself it’s possible to shift negative self-talk and motivate positive change.”

Slimming World members reported that being a member made them feel more positive about themselves (91%), 89% said losing weight had helped them feel more positive, while 72% said their Slimming World group makes them feel like they are not alone.

Dr Jacquie Lavin, Head of Nutrition and Research at Slimming World, says: “By creating a supportive environment, free from judgement or humiliation, Slimming World helps members tackle self-criticism, building confidence and self-esteem, in order to make positive behaviour changes.

“The peer support available in Slimming World groups is what sets us apart. Our members are part of a community, something special, which helps them to realise, and feel, that they are not alone in the challenges they face. They are able to take pride in being part of a group that genuinely cares for and helps one other – it’s this pride and sense of belonging, where they learn to quieten their inner critic, and any negative thoughts they’ve had about themselves.

“Through the creation of a positive group dynamic, sharing solutions, recognising achievements and having a structured programme where healthy changes are rewarded and successes celebrated, members are motivated and inspired to change. It’s great to see that 91% of our members surveyed said that being a Slimming World member has made them feel more positive about themselves.”

Baroness Benjamin, who campaigns on healthy eating, additionally commented: “Now more than ever diet and climate change are inexorably linked. So healthy attitudes to eating and personal empowerment should be considered as part of the equation for a sustainable planet and happier lifestyle”.