7 Ways to Transform Weight Stigma & Shame Into Your Own Personal Power & Resilience
For decades, or even longer, marketing people in several industries – diet, fitness, beauty, food, fashion, and more – have known the most powerful motivator for getting customers to buy their products. What’s this all powerful force that magically removes money from even the most budget-conscious among us?
It’s shame. These industries are experts in making us believe if we don’t have that thing or look this way, we better take care of it now, or else walk around knowing everyone is judging us and we should judge ourselves, too.
Simply turn on the TV anytime of the day to see this in action. Commercials tell us that our teeth aren’t white enough, our car isn’t new enough, we aren’t eating the “right” foods, or exercising enough, etc. It never ends. Even the shows the commercials sponsor tell us how we should look, feel or live our lives. And if we aren’t as perfect as all the perfect people on TV, if we can’t raise 4 kids, work full time, keep the house clean, and have enough energy for our spouse at the end of the day, we aren’t good enough and have to keep trying.
The worst, in my opinion, are the messages about the size of our bodies. It’s one of the very last “acceptable” prejudices. It’s apparently still ok to make jokes about “fatties” and perpetuate the myth that they could change if they really wanted to. All of these attitudes “legitimize” the weight stigma and keeps it going, even now, in a time of heightened awareness of and sensitivity and understanding towards so many different groups of people that had also been stigmatized in our culture.
It has to stop. Years ago when I was in the throws of chronic dieting and binge eating, I could have given you many reasons why I deserved to feel shame. I was convinced that I would never be good enough as long as I wasn’t at my “goal weight.” Girls as young as 3rd and 4th grade have already learned that it’s a “bad” thing to be even the slightest bit over what’s considered a “normal” weight, and many are obsessed with the scale and what they’re eating.
Weight stigma and shame tell us that we aren’t of any value – at all – until we attempt to reduce the size of our bodies. It becomes a moral issue – if you are trying to lose weight and/or you’re eating “healthy” food, then you are a good person.
But if you decide you want that piece of cake, or you don’t feel up to going to the gym today, all of a sudden you’re a “bad” person. How dare you be kind to yourself! You don’t deserve kindness or self-care until that horrible, evil extra weight is gone!
How would you feel if someone actually said these things to you? Whether you believe them or not, you’d probably be pretty angry and even defiant, thinking you don’t deserve to be spoken to that way. You didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion and why does this person think it’s appropriate to comment on your body!
So why is it ok for YOU to make these types of comments or judgments about YOURSELF? Do you hear the things you say about yourself and to yourself? The first time I actually listened to what I was saying to myself, I was horrified. It was mean, so much meaner than anything anyone else ever said to me.
While there are some things we don’t have much control over, like what other people think or say, we do have the ability to change what we think, how we act and react, and how we perceive the situations we find ourselves in. We can take personal responsibility for our own happiness and create resilience, which is the best antidote to shame.
I’d like to share 7 common situations that create stigma and shame around weight, and how you can take your power back, boost resilience and move on, instead of letting them take you down and further away from what’s important to you and your life.
1) Pay Attention To Media In All Forms
Messages about how we “should” look, think, eat and other aspects of our lives are everywhere. Many are obvious, like the cover of magazines or huge billboards. But others are very subtle. I’ve already mentioned the jokes that male characters often make about not wanting to meet anyone that doesn’t meet their standards for thinness. But have you noticed how many female characters on TV sitcoms worry about their weight or what they eat – not to mention the characters that comment on others’ weight and what they are eating.
It’s all supposed to be funny, but it’s not very funny in real life, especially when the comments are directed at you. The bigger issue is that these show essentially dictate what we should think is funny – especially those with the stupid laugh tracks!
There are small changes being made over time. I personally have not seen, “This Is Us,” which I believe is fairly new. I’ve seen blog posts about one of the main characters, who has some serious challenges with her weight and living with it. The good news, from what I’ve read, is that her struggle is portrayed quite accurately, showing that she’s not just sitting around eating bonbons and being “lazy.”
The point here is that we all need to stay aware of the messages being sent in all forms of media. This includes TV programs, movies, magazines, commercials, books, radio, podcasts, most of the internet, and yes, even the news! Remember, someone is always editing the information before it’s dispersed. It doesn’t hurt to ask yourself what the motive is of those that are bringing you this information. Don’t be paranoid – but be aware and proactive!
2) Reject the Myth of Health
Has someone ever commented on your weight, and then told you it was only out of love and a “concern for your health”? Sincere concern or not, it’s still inappropriate. Your size and weight DO NOT define your health. No one, including doctors, can determine your health status by looking at you or the number on the scale.
If you’re hanging on to this belief, or someone you know continues to get on your case to lose weight “for your health,” take 2 minutes to do a search for “HAES” or “Health At Every Size,” and take a look at all the scientific references that prove you can carry more bodyfat than conventional sources recommend, and still have excellent health markers, including normal heart rate, blood cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
There are many people who are considered “overweight” by cultural standards (and by the very flawed BMI chart), that are actually in excellent health. They’re active, energetic, they make self-care a priority, and most importantly, they do not diet, restrict calories or nutrients, or spend every waking moment obsessing over what they “should” eat or how they “should” lose weight.
3) Remember That Doctors Are Not Infallible
Speaking of health, have you ever gone to the doctor about a particular symptom (like a cough, back pain, labored breathing, etc.), only to be told you need to lose weight? This is NOT appropriate!
Like any profession, there are many excellent doctors and then there are some that can’t look past their own outdated opinions or prejudice. I’ve heard too many stories about someone going to their doctor because of a sore throat and being told to lose weight. Really, for a sore throat! And don’t get me started on the futility of forcing patients to be weighed regardless of their reasons for visiting. (You can say you don’t want to be weighed – you are the customer!)
If your concerns are glossed over when you go to the doctor, and you’re told you just need to lose weight, it’s time to find another doctor! Everyone deserves respect and to be listened to by their health professionals.
4) Create a “Diet-Free/Body-Bashing Free Zone”
When you get together with your friends or even family, what are the main topics you discuss? Chances are you often land on the topic of dieting, exercise, weight loss or what you’re eating/not eating (especially when it’s a group of all women). If you pay attention, you’ll notice these topics are discussed everywhere – whether at work, with family, in ‘mommy’ groups, while eating out, anywhere and everywhere.
As you work on making peace with food, I guarantee this will begin to annoy you. Better to put an end to it now! Suggest to those you’re hanging out with that you have a “body/food/dieting-free” get together. Challenge yourselves to find other topics that are meaningful, or at least more fun than bashing and shaming yourselves and seeking false reassurance (as in, “no, those pants don’t make you look fat…”).
5) Beware of Comments About Weight Loss…
Remember how good it felt when you were dieting and someone said to you, “Wow! You look great! Have you lost weight?” Did you ever stop to think, “Well, how bad did I look before if he/she is making comments after I’ve lost weight?”
What happens when you inevitably gain that weight back (as 97% of all dieters do)? No more comments, and the silence is deafening, isn’t it? It produces shame without a single word being said – in fact the shame is there because nothing is said. This shame drives more restrictive dieting and body bashing, and that person that said nothing has no idea this is happening. Keep this in mind before sharing your own comments about someone else’s weight loss.
So many of my clients, who at one time lived for comments about how thin they were (when they were in the thin phase of yo-yo dieting), are now triggered by those same positive comments! A comment about how “great” they look can feel quite triggering.
This is why I have my own policy that I never comment on someone’s body, even if they have LOST weight, and even if I know they want me to say something. It’s never helpful and you don’t know how it could trigger someone.
On the other side of this commenting situation, if you have lost weight, do yourself a favor and DO NOT expect or start “fishing” for comments. Confidence and self-respect come from inside yourself. Cultivate your own confidence and respect instead of looking outside of yourself for it. Allow others to comment on how kind of a person you are, or how supportive, loving, caring, helpful, etc., that you are, not on your physical characteristics.
6) Try Using Compassion
You have probably heard before that anyone who makes a comment about your body, your weight, your looks, etc., is actually demonstrating their own insecurities, it’s NOT about you. But sometimes knowing it’s the other person’s issue isn’t enough to ease the pain. Another approach I like to recommend is finding a way to have COMPASSION for this person, instead of letting what he or she said take away your own power, leaving you with shame.
Think about it – how sad is it that this person needs to tear down someone else to feel better about him/herself? Having compassion will remove the power this person and his/her comments have over you – they are meaningless and truly not about you.
Remember – having compassion doesn’t mean you need to express compassion. It’s similar to forgiveness – it’s about getting you out of pain, no one needs to know but you. When you feel sorry for someone like this, they become insignificant and so do their actions, without you having to say a word.
7) Listen to What You Tell Yourself
Don’t forget to listen to what you’re saying to yourself! Call it whatever you like, the “mean girl,” the voices, your inner critic — if no one else should be talking this way to you, neither should you!
One helpful way to change how you talk to yourself is to consider a young child in your life. Think of a daughter, granddaughter, niece, or other child that you know personally that’s under 8 years old or so. Imagine saying something to her that you say to yourself. How would she feel? Does she deserve it?
Of course she doesn’t deserve it. And because she’s young and impressionable, if she hears it enough, she’ll believe it and it will affect her for years to come. Your subconscious is no different! Watch what you say to yourself and start replacing the mean comments with self-compassion and kindness to yourself and your body.
Can you relate to many of these situations? None of them are your fault (even the last one – that is learned from dieting), and you don’t have to put up with any of them, either. You have the power of choice – what you watch or listen to, who you hang out with, who helps you manage your health, and especially what’s going on in your own head.
Rude, mean or plain clueless people are out there, and they will continue to make comments. What we have the power to do is decide how to react, whether to believe the comments or not, and if we will let them interfere with our lives and whatever we are here to do in our lives. It’s a powerful choice! The more you build that resilience, the less it will affect you.
Let me know what you try and how it goes! I’d love to hear your stories!