I am fat. I’ve been told this my whole life by both friends and society. Sometimes I will look at a photo of myself from when I was young and will wonder why everyone thought I was so fat. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophesy but I am fat and that has been part of my identity as long as I can remember. At times it has determined what risks I have been willing to take and what experiences I participated in. I would blame it for relationship troubles or truly believe it was one of the reasons for general unhappiness at different times in my life. As I’ve gotten older I am able to more often recognize that I am not just a fat person and my weight doesn’t determine my happiness. Also – and this important for people to remember about themselves too – what I weigh does not determine my worthiness as a person. I am going to repeat that. Our weight does not determine our worth as a person. The value I have as a human and my happiness are not dependent on numbers on a scale. Each of us is worthy of love, happiness and kindness, regardless of how much or how little we weigh or our physical appearance.
Right now I am doing the whole30 challenge. I get accolades about how great it is that I am doing this. If I lose weight, I will get praise for losing weight. People will say “You look so good.” Or “It is so great you are hanging in there.” I soak up any praise and it it is a motivator to keep eating healthy. However, when it comes down to it, if I choose to live healthier, if I lose 40 pounds or if I end up gaining 40 pounds – it makes no difference in who I am. I am a not better person if I weigh 40 pounds less. I will not be less worthy if I gain 40 pounds more.
In my private practice both women and men come in and virtually with each and every person there will come a time where there is a discussion about weight and negative feelings surrounding it. I have worked with so many teenage girls who have issues around their weight. They tell me “My mom (or my grandma) told me I need to lose weight.” These are teens who are active and within the norm of weight for their age and they will cry and ask why their parents can’t accept them if they don’t weigh the right amount.
Then I have adult women come in and tell me the same stories of family members and friends telling them they needed to lose weight. They are told they will be all alone in life because they are fat or if they didn’t lose weight they would never find happiness. Generally, these messages are well-intended. You want the people you love to be happy. Only, the feelings these messages induce don’t go away. It sends a subtle implication that you are not quite good enough because of your weight. You might not even notice you are saying these things to others or yourself because it is such a part of our culture. It is difficult to step away from thoughts about weight because American society is filled with the messages everywhere telling us that thinner is better.
When I started first grade there was a girl who told me she wished she could be my friend but she couldn’t because I was too fat to have friends. I wasn’t even six years old. Now, almost 40 years later I remember this and I know it became part of my identity. I don’t remember the girl’s name or face but I remember the conversation. Probably one of my brain’s first lessons on starting to believe “don’t be fat or you will be all alone.” How much more will words about heaviness stay with someone when it is a family or friend saying them. You might say “I worry about their health, I want them around for the grandkids” or a hundred other very valid reasons why someone would be better off losing weight. You are just trying to help. I would argue that if the person is an adult – they are very aware of how much they weigh. It only amplifies the shame to be reminded that your fat bothers others and you are not quite good enough because you don’t lose it. There are ways to be encouraging and supportive without adding to pain. It is up to the person to decide how they want to tackle their weight. People have very complicated relationships with food and weight. You can be pithy and say “just don’t put it in your mouth” but there are often many factors at play. It is not necessary for you to let someone know they need to lose weight. Even disguising it with “I worry about you” is still saying “you are not good enough because of your weight.”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t help your children be active and maintain a healthy weight. I would just say consider how you promote it with your children. Eat healthy and be active yourself. Don’t hold others to expectations you aren’t able to sustain. Live by example. Which also means recognize that each time you put yourself down for your weight or your eating or exercise habits you are teaching your children and others that your importance has something to do with your physical looks. You are even reinforcing your own beliefs. “See I’m not good enough because my body isn’t perfect.” Stop yourself when you find yourself putting yourself down. Stop comparing yourself to others. I bet virtually everyone who reads this has thought at one time or another “at least I’m not as fat as that person.” I have thought it. Unfortunately it just reinforces the idea that if I weigh less I am better. Being a little healthier than someone else does not give us the moral high ground.
Not making your weight be such a huge factor in your identity doesn’t mean someone can’t make changes and be healthier. I want to live healthier. I want to lose weight. I want a better relationship with food. These are reasons why I am doing the Whole30 challenge. However, this is my journey. If I don’t succeed I will be disappointed with myself but it doesn’t make me a failure at life. Conversely, if I complete the challenge it won’t make me a better person. Happiness, love, money and opportunity won’t just fall out of the sky to me because I shed a few pounds. My life will still be my life. If you are working on changing your weight do it for you and not because you think it will make others accept or love you more.
I want to note that it is OK to accept yourself at whatever weight you are. You don’t owe anyone explanations on how much you weigh. You are allowed to be happy and enjoy life and it is not dependent on your size. You are worthy of love and joy and you will find the people who really matter don’t care how much you weigh.
I know as someone who is heavy that it is easy to forget to live life because you are waiting to lose weight. Just don’t do that. I am working hard at living the life I choose, embracing opportunities and not letting my weight stop me from living. Whatever we are on the outside does not determine our happiness unless we let it. I know that it is easier said than done, but my hope is that instead of focusing on our perceived shortcomings that we instead embrace life. You are worthy because you are alive. Instead of feeling shame over your weight focus on embracing experiences, loving those dear to you and being kind to all.