Many of us fear gaining weight. In fact, it is a fear that’s hard to avoid, according to Kirsten Belzer, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago. Because in our culture, the number on the scale is so much more than just a number. It is so much more than a representation of our weight.
It is everything.
“From my experience, we don’t fear weight gain as much as we fear the association that accompanies the weight gain,” said Britt Frank, LSCSW, a therapist in private practice in Kansas City. We fear the loss of connection, abandonment and rejection, she said.
We receive messages all around us that being in a larger body is unhealthy and unattractive, Belzer said.
While logically we realize that gaining weight doesn’t mean we’ll be shunned or killed by a tiger, our brains aren’t hardwired to process the constant images we’re bombarded with, said Frank. “For the primitive brain, weight gain = rejection = death.”
We also start clinging to cognitive distortions. According to Frank, we might think, “If I don’t fit into these pants, I cannot go out in public because people will reject me.”
We also attempt to gain control. We count calories. We skip meals. We eat “clean.” We start exercising more and more, especially after we’ve eaten something we deem “bad” or “sinful” or “unhealthy.” We shame ourselves.
The fear of weight gain is a stubborn fear. If it’s particularly stubborn, seeing a therapist is important. The below tips also might help in starting the process.
Do a media detox. Frank suggested replacing the time you’d spend looking at images with practicing self-care. “It generally takes between 60-90 days to form new neural pathways, which are the superhighways upon which our habits travel. If we are habituated to check Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat first thing in the morning, it can take time to train our brains to do something different.”
She suggested doing a 90-day detox from social media, magazines and TV. Use this time to do things that genuinely nourish you. Connect with friends face to face. Read. Take walks. Take an art class. Practice yoga. Journal. Listen to self-compassionate meditations.
According to Frank, “Ask yourself, ‘When was the last time I felt the most like my authentic self?’ Try to recreate as many elements as you can once you have that image.”
Expose yourself to all shapes and sizes. Go to a museum. (If that’s not possible, look at images of paintings online.) “Look at art throughout the ages and see the women of all sizes celebrated,” Belzer said. See the beauty and grace and power in a wide range of women in a wide range of sizes and shapes.
Focus on what you do like and embrace. “For every ‘body shaming’ comment made, turn your attention to a body part you actually like and affirm that part,” Frank said. Belzer suggested thinking of at least one thing you appreciate about your body. “Maybe it’s the way your legs get you around town, or the color of your eyes, or the strength of your arms.”
Go beyond size. Belzer suggested thinking of people who have qualities that you admire or people who have positively affected your life. “Chances are that at least some of these people are not a size 2. When I was in my 20s, I realized most of the women I looked up to for qualities such as their intelligence, positive energy, compassion and self-actualization just happened to be on the heavier side. It was a helpful reminder that what matters most is not someone’s size. ”
We hyper-focus on our weight, and we fear what a few—or 40—pounds will do. We fear what others will think. We fear how others will see us. We fear that at a higher weight we will be unworthy. It’s understandable that we have these fears, because thin-is-in messages are all around us.
Sometimes, we can diminish these fears by reminding ourselves that we are more than our weight. Sometimes we can diminish these fears by refocusing on self-care, by participating in activities that inspire, uplift, empower, energize or soothe, and surrounding ourselves with positive images and people.
And sometimes we can’t. Sometimes these fears are too loud, too persistent. In those times, it really helps to work with a coach or therapist. Either way, know that these fears are not permanent. Know that, with support, you can work through them. Know that you don’t have to stay shackled to your scale.