In this episode, Sarah discusses the complexities of weight stigma and the impact weight bias has on our healthcare system. Becca then tells the story of a registered dietitian (!!!) who becomes the leader of a religious weight loss cult. This is the story of Gwen Shamblin Lara and The Weigh Down Diet.
Want to learn more about weight stigma?
Body respect: What conventional health books get wrong, leave out, and just plain fail to understand about weight by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor.
Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
Food Psych podcast with Christy Harrison
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Burnett, K. (2021, Sep 30). The Story Behind The Gruesome Child Death Connected To Remnant Fellowship Church. Bustle.https://www.bustle.com/entertainment/joseph-sonya-smith-still-in-prison-now
Harrison, C. (2019). What Thin Privilege REALLY Means.https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-thin-privilege
Harrison, C. (2021). What is Weight Stigma? Retrieved from: https://christyharrison.com/what-is-weight-stigma
Larry King Live (Part 1-5) Interview with Gwen Shamblin | Weigh Down. YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JK1z6-zUMD4
Mead, R. (2001, Jan 15). Slim for Him: God is watching what you’re eating. Spirit Watch.https://www.spiritwatch.org/rebeccamead.htm
Mensinger, J. L., Tylka, T. L., & Calamari, M. E. (2018). Mechanisms underlying weight status and healthcare avoidance in women: A study of weight stigma, body-related shame and guilt, and healthcare stress. Body Image, 25, 139-147.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.03.001
NewsChannel 5. (2021, Oct 28). Gwen Shamblin's will, potentially worth millions, leaves nothing to her Remnant Fellowship church. Youtube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJ5_80ckBBs
Obesity Canada (2021). Weight Bias. Retrieved from: https://obesitycanada.ca/weight-bias/
Pearl, R. L., & Puhl, R. M. (2018). Weight bias internalization and health: A systematic review: Weight bias internalization and health. Obesity Reviews, 19(8), 1141-1163. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12701
Penn Today Staff Writer (2019). Early and ongoing weight stigma linked to internal weight shaming.https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/early-and-ongoing-weight-stigma-linked-internal-weight-shaming
People Pill. (n.d.). Gwen Shamblin.https://peoplepill.com/people/gwen-shamblin
Ramos Salas, X., Forhan, M., Caulfield, T., Sharma, A. M., & Raine, K. D. (2019). Addressing internalized weight bias and changing damaged social identities for people living with obesity. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1409-1409.https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01409
Remnant Fellowship. (2021). Our history.https://www.remnantfellowship.org/our-history/
Starnes, T. (2000, Oct 13). Religious discrimination lawsuit filed against Weigh Down founder Shamblin. Baptist Press.https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/religious-discrimination-lawsuit-filed-against-weigh-down-founder-shamblin/
Tomiyama, A. J., Carr, D., Granberg, E. M., Major, B., Robinson, E., Sutin, A. R., & Brewis, A. (2018). How and why weight stigma drives the obesity 'epidemic' and harms health. BMC Medicine, 16(1), 123-123. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1116-5
Wakefield, K., & Feo, R. (2017). Confronting obesity, stigma and weight bias in healthcare with a person centred care approach: A case study. Australian Nursing & Midwifery Journal, 25(1), 28-31.
Weigh Down Ministries and Remnant Fellowship Church. Why Weigh Down works.https://www.weighdown.com/how-weigh-down-works/
World Obesity Federation (2019). Weight Stigma. Retrieved from:https://www.worldobesity.org/what-we-do/our-policy-priorities/weight-stigma#:~:text=Weight%20stigma%20refers%20to%20the,negative%20ideologies%20associated%20with%20obesity.
Zenovich, M. (2021). The Way Down. HBO Max.
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Today Sarah is going to talk to us a little bit about weight bias and stigma. Then I am going to cover the story of Gwen Shamblin who founded the Christian weight loss program - The WeighDown. This program is so problematic that many people actually consider it to be more of a cult than your typical diet plan. And the kicker - the group leader is a registered dietitian. So this one really hit home for me.
I’m going to start off today’s episode by talking about weight stigma or weight bias, but before I do, it wouldn’t be right for me to dive into this huge, important topic without first acknowledging that I am someone who benefits from thin privilege.
And I think that’s important to say because by virtue of having thin privilege, we have never actually had to experience external weight stigma or at least not a significant amount - and if you’re listening and that sentence sounds like a jumble of concepts that you’ve never heard before - thin privilege? External weight stigma? What the heck! Don’t worry - we’re going to unpack them!
Thin privilege is a term used to describe the experience of not being discriminated against for your body size. And the term “thin privilege” can get quite a bit of pushback on social media and the phrase itself seems to evoke some negative reactions. Someone with thin privilege can still have poor body image, they can still be teased for their body shape, and still have an overall negative experience in their body - thin privilege doesn’t make you immune from those experiences, BUT on a societal level, someone with thin privilege isn’t going to experience widespread discrimination. An individual with thin privilege will be able to walk into most stores and find clothing that fits them, they’ll be able to go to the doctors office for any condition and not be told that they need to lose weight, and they’ll be able to get on an airplane and not worry about being able to do up the seatbelt.
I’ve heard stories of people in larger bodies going to the doctors for like.. a headache and being told to lose weight, when the headache is almost certainly not related to weight at all, right? And thin privilege also means that you can live your life without being burdened by the negative stereotypes about people in larger bodies that stem from weight stigma. So weight stigma is kind of like the force that makes thin privilege a thing - if you have thin privilege, that means you’re moving throughout the world without experiencing weight stigma from other people.
According to the World Health Organization (2017), weight stigma is defined as “negative attitudes towards and beliefs about others because of their weight which are manifested by stereotypes and/or prejudice towards people in larger bodies.”
Some of these negative attributes about people in larger bodies can include laziness, lack of willpower, a lack of moral character, bad hygiene, low level of intelligence and unattractiveness. And if anyone is listening to this and thinking “people don’t think that way” or “it can’t be that bad”, it really only take one trip to the comment section of a body positive or body neutral instagram post or tiktok video to see all the terrible things that people say on the internet. The terms “thin privilege” and weight stigma can produce a pretty strong reaction from people, and a a large part of that stems from the widespread belief that body size is exclusively a matter of personal choice, and while of course there different eating patterns and physical activity patterns that can impact size to a certain extent, there is also a lot of genetic variation in our bone structure and natural shape and our comfortable weights (our set point weights). We all have different heights, hair and eye colours, shoe sizes, all linked to our genetic makeup - and there is also a lot of genetic variation in our body size and weight distribution, and on top of that, there are also different medical conditions and different life experiences that can impact your size and shape as well. So you actually can’t accurately make assumptions about what someone is eating or doing for exercise just by looking at them. When people incorrectly believe that those who are in larger bodies are just eating a certain way or not being active enough, they’re actually projecting their own internalized weight stigma because in reality they have no idea what that person eats or what their health status is like, and it’s none of their business.
Weight stigma shows up everywhere. It shows up in the work force as employment discrimination, including during the interviewing and hiring processes, in salary disparities, people in larger bodies recieve less promotions, harsher disciplinary actions and higher rates of employment termination. People in larger bodies are also significantly less likely to be put in a customer-facing position.
Weight stigma is present in the media - I can think of quite a few shows where the larger bodied characters are also the ones who are typecast as clumsy, dumb, lazy, lonely, messy, etc. Homer Simpson is a classic example.
Weight stigma also exists in healthcare and can be perpetuated by physicians, nurses, dietitians, physiotherapists, and by fitness professionals as well. In healthcare, certain characteristics based on weight stigma might be projected onto larger bodied clients, so labels such as being lazy, weak-willed, and noncompliant. Weight stigma in healthcare can also include hospital gowns, chairs, and examination tables that are too small. There is also research that suggests doctors actually spend less time talking with their patients that have higher BMIs and are more likely to misdiagnose larger-bodied patients. And because of these problematic and also humiliating experiences, larger-bodied patients are more likely to avoid going to the doctor’s altogether.
So far, I have just talked about weight stigma as an external force - something that someone else or a system would project on to an individual - but it can also be internal. Internal weight stigma is what someone projects onto themself, so their own negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves with regards to weight. So someone with thin privilege and living in a smaller body, can actually be experiencing internal weight stigma through their own self-talk patterns, poor body image, and how they feel about themselves based on their perceived body size.
Both of these experiences, internal and external weight stigma, are associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes, including increasing feelings of shame, anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating. Studies have also shown that experiencing weight stigma is a serious long-term stressor that can increase the risk of chronic disease, which is only exacerbated by healthcare avoidance and the increased risk of misdiagnosis.
In summary, weight stigma is terrible and it’s everywhere. It’s such a part of our society - it’s in magazines, the media, healthcare, academia, it pops up in tv shows, influencers on social media, it’s really insidious and not always obvious to those that have thin privilege and don’t have to think about it all the time. But once you become aware of the negative impacts of weight stigma, you can open the door to this whole world of learning and so I have cited some amazing references in our show notes including an article by Christy Harrison, who is a Registered Dietitian that I consider a thought leader on topics like weight stigma, she has a podcast (Food Psych) and a book (Anti-Diet) as well that I couldn’t recommend more! But my main take home message is that someone else’s body is NONE of your business, so educate yourself on weight stigma and the learning will never stop.
A lot of my research for this episode came from watching old news clips, interviews, and reading news article updates. So it’s definitely not the most evidence-based episode we’ve ever done, but it’s a story. Some of the references I used include a 1998 Gwen Shamblin interview with Larry King, articles in Spirit Watch and Baptist Press, as well as the Remnant Fellowship and Gwen Shamblin’s websites.
Ok, so who is Gwen Shamblin Lara? She was born Gwen Henley on February 18th, 1955 in Memphis, Tennessee. She never used her maiden name publicly - and I had to do some serious family tree web sleuthing to figure out what it was. Her dad, Walter Henley, was a General Surgeon, but I couldn’t find her mother’s name, or much about her childhood online, which makes me wonder if she was born in a lab. What we do know is that she was raised in a Church of Christ family; and that her parents were apparently very religious. She initially wanted to get into medicine, but instead completed her undergrad degree in Dietetics from the University of Tennessee, and later did her Masters in Nutrition and Biochemistry. So she was essentially as qualified as you are or as I will be in a matter of weeks. Gwen then worked as a professor at the University of Memphis in the Food & Nutrition department for five years, then worked with the Memphis Health Department for another five years where she focused on maternal health, child health, and obesity.
In the meantime she married David Shambin in 1978. And there isn’t much on the internet about him either, other than the fact that he was very supportive of his wife’s business ventures and even worked on some projects with her.
In 1980 she began her own private practice, where she offered 1-on-1 nutrition counseling services to clients. What she noticed working with clients was “that genetics, metabolism and behavior modification alone couldn't explain why some people were thin”. Which is a very valid observation. As we know body shapes and sizes are so individualized to each of us and influenced by a variety of factors within and out of our control. But Gwen decides to latch on to one of the least evidence-based factors contributing to weight loss, if not the least evidenced-based. And that’s religion.
So in a Larry King interview from 1998, Gwen states that she had struggled with her weight when she was younger and that she couldn’t stop herself around food. It wasn’t until she transferred her “addiction” from food to an addiction to God that she lost the weight. So she then dedicated her life’s work to the Christian-based weight loss program, the Weigh Down; which is a name her husband helped her come up with.
At this point in the 1990’s, she looks like a normal human woman - she’s beautiful, blonde, has a big smile, a Southern accent, and she really is captivating when she speaks, like she’s well spoken and clearly media trained. She kinda sounds like a politician when she speaks. But as time passes, her most notable feature becomes her hair. And I want to talk about this for a second, because I feel like her hair gives a lot away. I linked a photo in my notes, on page 2 if you want to take a look. And we will post this on our instagram page for reference.
So Gwen’s hair essentially gets more and more voluminous as the year’s go on. To the point where it’s comically large. But I think this goes beyond some weird vanity thing. And might be her way of masking some insecurity. Like the amount of time it likely takes her to get ready in the morning must be like 2 hours minimum - she also starts wearing more and more makeup over the years as well. Most recently it seems like she is wearing stage makeup in all her photos and on her Youtube channel. And you never see her any other way after the early 2000’s. While she does get up to some pretty terrible stuff, it does make you start to wonder about her own body image issues and what she might be going through.
In 1986, Gwen officially founded the Weigh Down Workshop, which was basically an extension of her private practice at this time. So, it’s a weight loss program, but she designed it around not limiting food groups, and also not focusing on exercise, weigh-ins, or calorie counting. So it is kind of the start of this anti-diet diet culture which is sooo prevalent now. But while The Weigh Down doesn’t blatantly focus on limiting food groups or calories, it does aim to help clients develop the self-discipline to only eat when they are hungry and to stop when they are full. So there are still elements of limitation or portion control involved.
As I mentioned before, her philosophy, it’s a religious one. Basically it is that we all have a void in us that we need filled. A void that God instilled in us so that we look for him. But many people get “lost” and instead fill their God-shaped void with food, drugs, alcohol, porn, or another vice. But the philosophy states that if we can just find God instead, our desires will be refocused to be similar to the desires that Jesus had - and he said that food was to do the will of the Father and to finish His work…To sum it up, when you’re hungry, Gwen advises that you first reach for the bible so you’re deemed more holy.
When Gwen started the program it was fairly small. The first seminar was actually held in a mall in Memphis. But then in the early 90’s she began hosting the sessions at a Baptist Church. It was now a 12-week program with guided audio and video of Gwen preaching her weight loss methods. And by 1996, the program was used in over 5,000 “satellite” churches, and some people even hosted the meetings in their homes. At this point, the company had 40 people on staff and Gwen gets her first book deal for The Weigh Down Diet, where she emphasizes her philosophy. Apparently it has sold more than 1 million copies, which helped make the Weigh Down “one of the most popular weight-loss programs in the world” by the mid-2000’s.
This is where things start to get a bit twisted. Because Gwen starts practicing even further beyond her scope as a dietitian. And I think we’ve talked about this briefly on the podcast before, but as a dietitian you have to follow specific standards and we have a pretty strict regulatory body that is in place to protect the public. For instance if I started offering a service beyond my scope - like massage therapy, I would probably lose my license. So I find it hard to believe that her regulatory college was okay with her focusing on religion for weight loss which is not evidence-based, and also that they were okay with her dabbling into treatment for addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex - which were a pretty big focus in some of her lessons and in chapters of her subsequent books.
In 1999, Gwen founded the Remnant Fellowship, which was initially a small gathering in The Weigh Down building. But in 2002 Gwen purchased a 40-acre piece of land with her own money and developed a church on it. The church membership sat at about 1000 people, but Gwen would livestream her services most Wednesday’s and Saturday’s, with 1000’s of viewers across the world.
Before the construction of the church Gwen claimed that half of her money went to the government and that the other half went to keep the program going, and she emphasizes multiple times that she doesn’t take a salary. And maybe she does come from immense family wealth, but there is very little explanation around her lavish lifestyle and her collection of properties. And her workshops and books are bringing in A LOT of money - then when she creates the Remnant Fellowship Church her company suddenly becomes tax exempt.
With the church and growth of the fellowship, Gwen’s beliefs started to get a little bit more intense. Members who lose weight quickly are praised, and those who failed to lose weight are perceived as having a failure of discipline or obedience. So you were basically deemed a sinner if you ate beyond hunger because you were worshipping your food when you should be worshipping God.
She also frames weight loss in this super strange way, where members will report on their “success” by saying things like “God took x # of lbs from me”, as if God is rewarding these members for their dedication, and not others.
Now I’m going to read you a quote from an article from The Spirit Watch to show you where Gwen’s mind is at (so this is the author quoting Gwen): "If you look at National Geographic magazine pictures taken in Third World countries where food is not the addiction--I am not referring to pictures of starving people--you will see that God made people's bodies to be lean," Shamblin writes in "The Weigh Down Diet." She doesn't believe that there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition to fat. "Let's go back to the Holocaust," she suggested to me. "To the concentration camps, where there was less food. What person genetically predisposed to obesity was in there, out of the millions and millions that died? When they ate less food, they became emaciated." Now I’m just going to let that resonate...
The conditions apparently became so bad at the church that a number of her employees filed a lawsuit against her for religious discrimination, claiming that Gwen required her staff to attend the church services as a part of their employment. At least 35 employees were pressured to quit their jobs or fired because they would not conform. Others claimed psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. When under oath for this trial, Gwen admitted that she and her husband, David, did in fact profit from the church, which you probably remember she had previously denied...
And this isn’t the last time that Gwen & her fellowship see the inside of a courtroom. A lot of The Fellowship’s messaging is focused on obedience - so obviously being obedient around food; but women were also meant to be obedient to their husbands and children obedient to their parents. The church went so far as to promote physical violence, like spanking or hitting children when they disobey. And it became common practice that members would use long glue sticks - like the ones you put in a glue gun - to hit their children, since they hurt but didn’t leave much of a mark.
Here is another one of Gwen’s quotes from the most recent docuseries called The Way Down: “The way you show God that you are answering to him is through obeying your mother and your father on the first time. If you do it on the second or the third time, or you are slow to obey, you are being your own God, and nobody playing around like that can ever go to heaven,” “If you do not obey Mommy and Daddy the first time you will be taken out and you will be very, very sorry.”
In October of 2003, two Remnant Fellowship members were charged with murdering their 8-year old son using what they claimed was advice from Gwen and Tedd Anger, who was one of the church leaders. Sonya & Joseph Smith would lock their son Josef in his room with just his bible - no food or water. His parents claimed that he had passed out during a prayer, but in reality medical examiners found that Josef had died due to head trauma from being kept in a box. Just a few months earlier, in July of 2003, another one of the Smith children, 17-month old Milek, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Investigators claim they wished they had looked into this case further at the time, but they had no reason to be suspicious. The Fellowship supported them throughout the trial, I assume because they knew they were partially to blame, but three years later they were both charged and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, in 2004, so as Joseph’s murder trial is getting started Gwen releases a weight loss program for children called The Last Exodus, which targets youth between the ages of 8 and 28. I am 100% convinced that she hates children, even though she has two of her own. This move basically tells me that it’s okay to abuse your children, but not okay to live in a larger body. It makes no sense. As a dietitian she should have some basic understanding of the implications of putting children on diets.
Anyways, The Fellowship has a few less eventful years up until 2018 when Gwen leaves David, her husband of 40 years. The reason this is eventful is that up until this point Gwen did not approve of divorce, and advised many of her fellowship members that it was not an option for them, even in instances of infidelity or domestic abuse.
Now there is some speculation around why we don’t see or know much about David even though Gwen was in the public eye for basically their whole marriage - because he didn’t really subscribe to Gwen’s religious philosophies and because he lives in a larger body. He seemed to be so supportive of her and her work, and I think that he was even CEO of the Weigh Down at one point.
In their divorce, they split up the 18 properties that they owned together totaling over 20 million dollars. Gwen also had to pay David an additional 3 million in the settlement. So this makes me wonder how much they were really benefiting from the church. That’s a lot of money.
Later in the same year - I think it was like 2 months later - Gwen married Joe Lara, who’s the actor that played Tarzan in the 70’s. This wedding is bonkers - it’s in a theater with huge archways of flowers, Gwen is in a cinderella-style gown. As someone who has planned a much more low key wedding, I don’t know how they pulled this off in 2 months. And these two do everything together - interviews, services, anything public-facing they seem to be together. It is just such a contrast from the way that Gwen displayed her relationship with David. It’s strange.
On May 29th of this year, Gwen, Joe, and five other passengers boarded a small plane, apparently heading to a MAGA rally - if you can believe it. But while they were flying over Percy Priest Lake in Tennessee something went wrong and the plane went down. Everyone on board died, including Gwen’s daughter’s husband Brandon Hannah. The plane belonged to Joe and it was suspected that he was flying it, but apparently no one on board was actually certified to fly it. Both Joe and Brandon did have their pilot’s license, but neither had the proper training for that plane. And there is not much more known about the whole situation.
Gwen’s children - Michael & Elizabeth - are now continuing the Remnant Fellowship, so we’ll see how that goes. And news reports released just days ago (Oct 28/21) - they reported that Gwen didn't leave anything to the Remnant Fellowship in her will. Which seems super weird since it was her whole life...unless it really was more of a front for her business.
And that concludes the story of the most notorious dietitian. Thoughts? Feelings?