Have you ever heard someone say that while they don't have anything against fat people, they're just worried that the obesity epidemic is making our country less healthy? Or that by telling smokers to quit, they're saving them from cancer down the line? If statements like this rub you the wrong way, there's a good reason for that: They don't actually have anything to do with the receiver's well-being. Instead, they're actually "concern trolling" about people's health — which, ultimately, shames people, rather than being helpful.
We may not realize it, but a lot of the ideas we learn about science and health are far from objective. And regardless of what the research seems to say, there are certain things that are still not OK to comment on. Plus, there are politics involved in when and to whom we're commenting. Typically, women, fat people, people of color, and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of health policing. And even when it's well-intentioned, this policing often serves to further marginalize these groups — not help them.
Concern trolling is, in short, the act of judging someone's choice while couching it in concern. It often rears its head when it's not the concern troll's place to judge — and often when there's nothing to actually be concerned about in the first place. Sometimes, in fact, concern trolls aren't even concerned at all. They're just looking for an excuse to troll, and concern provides a convenient cover.
Here are some reasons acting "concerned" about people's health is really just shaming.
1. It's Often Not Based On Science
Some of the health issues people concern troll others about, particularly weight, are not scientifically proven to even be issues. For example, there's not as high a correlation as you might think between BMI and health — almost half of overweight people test well on other health measures and nearly a third of people with "healthy" BMIs don't, according to a study in the International Journal of Obesity. Each person's ideal size and build is different, so you can't tell how healthy someone is by looking at them.
2. People Have Already Heard What You're About To Tell Them
Pretty much everyone has heard that smoking can cause cancer, that the obese are at higher risk for diabetes (even if it's not always true), and that alcohol can cause pregnancy complications. It doesn't enlighten anyone to tell them these things. It just insults their intelligence by implying they don't know already.
3. Because It Probably Won't Change Their Behavior
Your friend probably isn't going to stop eating cheese because you've told them it has too much cholesterol. Your daughter will likely not exercise more because you tell her to, and even if she does, people tend to need internal motivation to keep to their routines, rather than external ones. Even if you truly believe your cause is a noble one, people don't usually change their lifestyle because others tell them to, especially if (see above) they've heard the same thing already. Consider yourself off-duty.
4. Because Even If It Did, It's Their Body And Their Choice
As long as we're not hurting someone else, it's pretty much up to us what we do with our own bodies. So, even if there were a highly advanced algorithm that could tell us for certain how many years a habit will cut from our lives, we'd still have the right to engage in that habit if the decreased life span were worth it to us. Especially when we're talking to strangers, it just doesn't make sense to take an interest in how long someone will live or how healthy their live will be. It doesn't affect us.
5. Because Concern-Trolling Itself Hurts People's Health
Whether or not fat people's weight hurts their health, what definitely harms them is the harassment and shaming they experience on a daily basis — even from the people who claim they're "just trying to help." When we talk about fat people and other people whose health is commonly policed as if they are lazy or undisciplined — or praise thin people for being disciplined, which implies fat people are not — we contribute to a belief system that hurts their mental health. If we're really so concerned about people's health, we will want to instead contribute to their acceptance.
Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle; Giphy