7 Ways to Transform Weight Stigma & Shame Into Your Own Personal Power & Resilience
For decades, marketing people in various industries – diet, fitness, beauty, food, fashion, and more – have taken advantage of an emotion known to easily separate people from their money. What’s this all-powerful force magically removing money from even the most budget-conscious among us?
It’s shame. We’re told if we don’t have this thing or that look, we need to change that now or else walk around knowing everyone is judging us. (And we should judge ourselves, too!)
Turn on the TV any time of the day to see this in action. Commercials tell us our teeth aren’t white enough, our car isn’t new enough, our eyelashes are too short or we aren’t eating the “right” foods. 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 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 are the messages about the size of our bodies. It’s one of the very last “acceptable” prejudices. Jokes about “fatties” and messages implying the worst about people in larger bodies continue as if it’s appropriate. These attitudes “legitimize” weight stigma and keep it going – even in a time of heightened awareness and acceptance of many previously stigmatized groups of people.
There are things we don’t have control over, like what other people think or say. But 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 – the best antidote to shame.
Here are 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 more are everywhere. Many are obvious, like magazine covers or billboards. Others are very subtle. I mentioned “fat” jokes made by men at the expense of female characters who don’t meet their standards for thinness. But have you noticed how many female characters worry about their weight, food, exercise and more? (Or the “mean girls” that weight shame other women they don’t like?)
It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not funny in real life when the comments are directed at you. It’s also insulting that these shows attempt to dictate what we should think is funny – especially those with the stupid laugh tracks!
It’s improving, but it’s slow progress. Chrissy Metz’ character on “This Is Us,” is an accurate and compassionate portrayal of a woman living in a larger body.
Bottom line: it’s important to stay aware of the messages being sent in all forms of media. This includes TV programs, movies, magazines, commercials, books, radio, podcasts, much of the internet, and yes, even the news! Ask yourself what the motive is of those bringing you this information. Follow the money. There’s no need to be paranoid – but stay 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 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. (Pro tip: you can refuse 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 do you talk about? Does dieting, exercise, weight loss or what you’re eating/not eating come up (especially when it’s a group of all women)? 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)? The silence is deafening, isn’t it? It produces shame without a single word being said – the shame is there because nothing is said. This often drives more restrictive dieting and body bashing. Keep this in mind before sharing your own comments about someone else’s weight loss.
So many of my clients, who had 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. I know some are hoping for a comment, but I no longer see weight loss as an accomplishment. It’s damaging to the mind and body and there’s a 97% chance the weight will come back. I would rather irritate someone because I didn’t compliment their weight loss (which has happened) than trigger someone recovering from eating or body issues.
On the other side of this 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. Build your own confidence and respect instead of looking outside of yourself for it. Allow others to comment on how kind you are, or how supportive, loving, caring, helpful, etc., rather than your physical characteristics.
6) Try Using Compassion
You know anyone making a comment about your body, your weight, your looks, etc., is demonstrating their own insecurities – it’s NOT about you. But sometimes knowing this isn’t enough to ease the pain. Here’s another approach – find a way to have compassion for this person.
How sad is it that this person needs to tear down someone else to feel better? Compassion removes the power this person and those comments have over you – they are meaningless and truly not about you.
Having compassion for someone doesn’t mean you need to express it. It’s similar to forgiveness – it’s about getting you out of pain, no one needs to know but you. This approach helps you understand it’s not about you and lessens the impact of someone else’s words – without you having to say anything.
7) Listen to What You Tell Yourself
Do you listen to what you say to yourself? Call it whatever you like, the “mean girl,” the voices, your inner critic — if you wouldn’t say it to someone else, why say it to yourself?
Think about a young child in your life. Now imagine saying something to her that you say to yourself. How would she feel? Does she deserve it?
Obviously she doesn’t deserve it. And because she’s young and impressionable, if she hears it enough, she’ll believe it. And this will affect her for years to come. Your brain is no different. Compassion and kindness will have similar positive outcomes for you as they would for anyone else.
If you can relate to any of the above situations, please know that none of it is your fault (even the last one – that is learned from dieting). We live in a diet culture, focused on appearance over what’s inside and perfection over happiness. This doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.
You get to choose – what you watch or listen to, who you hang out with, medical and other professionals you work with, 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. But we have the power to decide how to react, what we believe, and how we feel about ourselves. The more “in charge” you are, the more resilient you’ll become – inside and out.