What’s Up with Motivation?

Shame for Mihaha

The question of motivation, or lack of it, is endlessly provocative. A while back there was a media kerfuffle when a man thought he could motivate a Wisconsin TV news reader to lose weight by offering his critique of her ample figure. It bothered him even more that Jennifer Livingston had been overweight for many years and did not appear to be improving. Part of the message read:

I hope she’ll finally take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity to influence the health and psychological well-being of Coulee region children by transforming herself for all of her viewers to see over the next year.

Among other things, the complainer wrote, “Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular.” That observation implied that Ms. Livingston was not even a fit mother to her three daughters, a suggestion that neither she nor her husband appreciated. Bullying is an issue they take an interest in. Ms. Livingston filmed a four-minute reply, which her station aired, including these thoughts:

That man’s words mean nothing to me, but what really angers me about this is, is there are children who don’t know better — who get emails as critical as the one I received or in many cases, even worse, each and every day…. If you are at home and you are talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News examined the very atypical story of a man who responded to a friend’s disapproval and scolding by getting his act together and turning his life around. Any mental health professional would caution that such an outcome is extremely rare, and the approach would never be recommended for use on a child. Or would it?

The Hastings Center is described by journalist JoNel Aleccia as a nonprofit think tank, whose mission is “to address fundamental ethical issues in the areas of health, medicine, and the environment as they affect individuals, communities, and societies.” Its president emeritus, bioethicist Daniel Callahan, is over 80 — an age at which many people give up worrying about what others may think.

Dr. Callahan proposes that social pressure is not necessarily a bad thing, especially since the avoidance of stigmatization has not seemed to accomplish any reduction in the obesity rate. He advocates an edgier approach, like putting up posters that ask, “If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way that you look?” But as in many other areas of public life, the asking of a simple and seemingly innocent question is met with outrage.

Dr. Callahan’s iconoclastic suggestion originates from the most convincing argument of all: personal experience. He used to smoke cigarettes, and being treated like a pariah helped him to quit. He says:

The force of being shamed and beat upon socially was as persuasive for me to stop smoking as the threats to my health. The campaign to stigmatize smoking was a great success, turning what had been considered simply a bad habit into reprehensible behavior.

He wonders if there could be such a thing as “stigmatization lite” — a happy medium between outright shaming and pretending that no problem exists. With the right amount of social pressure, perhaps people would stop overeating, just as so many have quit smoking. Needless to say, it is a very controversial notion.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ ‘I’m in no position to bully her’: Man who shamed ‘fat’ news anchor finally apologizes,” DailyMail.co.uk, 10/05/12
Source: “Fat-shaming May Curb Obesity, Bioethicist Says,” today.com, 01/24/13
Image by Gabriel

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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