Ben Shapiro: The Negatives Of Body Positivity | Opinion

In the United States, 12.7 percent of our kids are now technically classified as obese. iStock

Americans spend an awful lot of time worrying about self-esteem.

We worry that our children won't have enough self-esteem. We worry that we're not learning to "love ourselves" properly. We worry that if we aren't surrounded by a cocoon of people who validate our choices, our self-esteem might be compromised.

Maybe we're worried about the wrong thing. Maybe we ought to be worried about making good decisions, and earning self-esteem the old fashioned way.

That possibility springs to mind thanks to a new study from the journal Obesity. That study surveyed some 23,000 British overweight and obese adults, and asked them to estimate their own weight. Nearly 60 percent of men underestimated their weight; approximately 30 percent of women did. Researchers found that people who improperly assessed their own weight were 85 percent less likely to try and lose weight. This makes sense: why lose weight when you're perfect the way you are?

And this raises another question: are we doing the right thing when we urge people to see themselves as already perfect? When it comes to weight, we've been told that the best possible strategy for helping others is to help them see themselves as beautiful—that boosting self-esteem is key to success. This is the so-called "body positivity" movement, which aims to help people feel better about themselves.

Indeed, nobody should be "fat-shamed"—mocked thanks to their weight. There's no reason to mock somebody for their appearance. That's nasty stuff, and counterproductive. In fact, studies tend to show that mocking people for their looks leads to "psychological distress, unhealthy behaviours, physiological stress, and weight gain," according to Dr. Rebecca Puhl of the University of Connecticut.

With that said, it is also counterproductive to praise people for things about themselves they ought to change, particularly regarding health, assuming change is possible. The media's new focus on building up self-esteem regarding weight status isn't totally disconnected from radically escalating rates of obesity in the United States; 12.7 percent of our kids are now technically classified as obese.

Self-esteem shouldn't be disconnected from achievement. Doing so leads to a lack of active decision-making. That holds true whether we're discussing obesity or whether we're discussing any other status than can be altered by decision-making. Self-esteem must be earned, not given.

Unfortunately, there is a long legacy in the United States of seeing self-esteem as an ultimate good. In the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. Spock famously told parents to put aside the rigidity of old-school parenting, which could result in insecurity and anxiety; Nathaniel Branden penned the massively bestselling book The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969, and later suggested there was not a "single psychological problem—from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation—that is not traceable to the problem of poor self-esteem."

This perspective has become commonplace in everything from pop culture to public education. There's only one problem: the data doesn't back it up. As Jesse Singal of The Cut writes, "The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation—millennials—was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably)." As Singal also points out, the social science to suggest that crime and suffering would be minimized with the maximization of self-esteem was junk—it turns out not that self-esteem makes people more high-achieving, but that more high-achieving people tend to have higher self-esteem thanks to their achievements.

The true effect wasn't to create generations of more fulfilled human beings—it was to create generations of more self-obsessed human beings. But society was quick to embrace the self-esteem movement, the notion that everyone's feelings were to be honored in order to prevent crucial loss of self-esteem. Barney sang to countless school children, "Oh, you are special, special, everyone is special / Everyone in his or her own way." And as they grew, Lady Gaga would sing to them, "I'm beautiful in my way…Don't hide yourself in regret / Just love yourself and you're set / I'm on the right track, baby / I was born this way."

None of this is particularly helpful when it comes to fixing life problems. In fact, lack of unearned self-esteem is helpful in overcoming obstacles. You should feel good about yourself when you've accomplished something. Again, that doesn't mean that we should shame people who can't change themselves. But doing the opposite and praising people for failing to make better decisions isn't likely to incentivize healthier decisions. It's likely to reinforce the notion that nothing needs to change. And sometimes something needs to change.

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and host of "The Ben Shapiro Show," available on iTunes and syndicated across America.​

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​