So many of us are scared to gain weight. And so many of us become disgusted with ourselves when we do.
It’s this fear and disgust that drives our desire to diet, engage in punishing exercise and hate our bodies unless the scale says a certain number. They can also color how we see ourselves at the core: as failures.
It makes sense that we’d take such a stance in our society.
“[W]e are set up to view weight gain as a failure and pursuing weight loss as a solution [or] penance. Weight cycling companies have deftly conditioned us to frame it that way and jump into a gym contract, new diet, etc. as a response,” according to Deb Burgard, Ph.D, a psychologist specializing in eating and body image concerns across the weight spectrum, and one of the founders of the Health at Every Size(r) model (a woman I greatly admire).
We’re also taught that it’s our fat – and not the jerks who take issue with it – that leads to rejection.
“We are taught to blame our bodies, and often specifically, our fat, for the meanness, judgments, and rejections from other people. We are then sold products to perfect our bodies, and we are very motivated to buy them, because it is one of our most primary objectives as social beings to be liked and loved, and to belong,” Deb said.
We assume that weight loss is a panacea. We assume that it’ll cure our anxieties about life and losing our health.
According to Deb, “You will lose social power as you age, as you lose ability and health. You may now and/or in the future, be facing real vulnerabilities. Someday your body will die. The problem is that we screen all of those anxieties through the lens of weight and pretend that we can change those realities by pursuing weight loss, by turning our lives upside down in thrall to the scale.”
So what can you do?
Deb shared these excellent suggestions:
Focus on your feelings.
If we think we’ve gained weight, “we could be curious, we could take note of our feelings, we could try to name real emotions rather than ‘I feel fat’ in order to understand our reaction.”
Consider if your current habits are realistic and sustainable.
“One critical question might be to ask whether the practices of pursuing weight loss have in fact raised the bar for what your body considers a safe weight.” For instance, you might be under-eating or over-exercising.
“Most people’s setpoint range is going to be higher than the culture’s dictates. In all cases, your body might be telling you that this set of practices is not sustainable.”
Explore your underlying fears.
Deb stressed the importance of figuring out our real fears, facing them and doing something about them.
She suggested asking ourselves: “What am I really afraid of, and what will really make a difference in that issue?”
“Do I need to stop putting my life on hold until I am a certain weight? What else would I be doing if I was at “the perfect weight” and still felt these anxieties?”
Deb also suggested asking this critical and empowering question: “How do I develop other ways of being powerful?” (Wow. I love this!)
Remind yourself that fat isn’t the issue; it’s stigma. Remind yourself of all the meaningful things you can focus on, instead of scrambling to shed pounds.
According to Deb:
“We have to resist the seduction of blaming our fat for a bad social outcome – it is a seduction because it seems like something we can control and change, and therefore, use to prevent said bad social outcomes in the future.
But this means we are like little squirrels running around examining our bellies and never looking up and realizing that the problem is the stigma itself. We even participate in it by judging ourselves and other people.
You note all the hours and money and attention that drains down the black hole of body anxiety, never to be used for solving our real economic, social, and environmental problems; never to be used for developing our wisdom as people navigating through life; never to be used for all the other ways we would be spending it to be with loved ones, create art, develop wise policies, learn to get along despite our differences.”
In our society, gaining weight is a legitimate fear, Deb said. But we don’t have to let this fear dictate our lives.
If you’re worried about gaining weight or you have gained weight, think of other ways you can feel energized, healthy – and powerful (as Deb noted above).
And remember that the time, energy and money spent on losing weight can be spent on meaningful activities, hobbies and habits: taking good care of yourself, moving your body in ways you enjoy, creating and enjoying your loved ones.
Remember that you can boost your well-being without ever focusing on weight.