This article was first published in The Hindu in March 2010.
Having dealt with women wanting to lose weight over the last 15 years, I often ask and am asked these questions:
How does being overweight affect society at large and vice versa?
How does society react to you individually when you lose weight?
How does social pressure influence your decisions to lose weight?
The whole idea of losing weight to fit into social norms has taken on a whole new dimension. What with some airlines ruling that obese passengers need to pay for two seats if the flight is full, to insurance companies insisting on a higher premium for clinically obese people who are known to have a higher health risk, being overweight is now not only unacceptable but also expensive. There is more pressure to lose the extra weight for social and economic reasons as well as cosmetic and wellbeing.
Women of the higher socio-economic strata in developed countries are less likely to be obese perhaps due to social pressure to remain slim and also the availability and affordability of nutritious rather than junk food.
The social response
Some women tell me that losing weight is hard enough; they also have to contend with (well meaning?) friends and relatives who take the liberty of commenting on their new improved appearance, sometimes not very encouragingly.
Some of the comments take on a complicated edge, “you look gaunt’, “you have lost too much weight” and, sometimes even, “you have lost your charm”. Other optimistic confidants insist that being plump suits you or reason that, after all, being overweight runs in the family and so there really isn’t much you can do about changing your genetic inclination.
What could possibly provoke these comments? Perhaps discomfort with one woman’s aptitude for change, to sty motivated and the admittance of one’s own inability to do so.
As one of my clients said, the fact that some of us are “approval addicts” can make it an arduous task to disregard such comments and forge ahead in pursuit of a healthier body.
On the other hand, gaining the admiration of those around you is definitely a catalyst for further improvement. We are all social beings. Appreciation from significant (and sometimes even not so significant) others is meaningful. This is where the right kind of encouragement during the process of change is critical to success.
How do you see yourself?
It’s an ongoing process of self-discovery. Losing weight is not just about losing the layers of fat. There is also a certain unravelling of one’s persona along with it.
We need to first appreciate our own sense of self, both from a physical and emotional perspective. How we categorise our own selves is crucial to our growth. Sometimes we see ourselves solely as “a fat person”, or “a physically unattractive person” forgetting there is more to that “person” than size and appearance. You ARE not fat. You HAVE fat. YOU are still YOU.
As Gloria Steinem once said, “In my own mind, I am still a fat brunette from Toledo, and I always will be”. Chances are you too continue to think like you did before you lost all the weight and can barely see your altered self. This myopic vision is often a way of trying to ease the trauma of ‘change’ from within in addition to the distorted or altered behaviour of people around you.
Changing how we look also requires that we change how we think about ourselves. We need to recognise whether our entire identity resides with our physical appearance or if we have other outlets for our creativity and selfhood.
As women, I believe the pressure to be attractive is enormous. Wanting and trying to improve one’s appearance is different from depending totally on physical attributes to quantify oneself. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong or self-indulgent about desiring to look better, how and why you go about it is fundamental to determining if the change will be lasting and satisfying or only another step towards further turmoil.
In this context, unhealthy starvation diets, abusing and disrespecting the body will be counter-productive not only to health but also to one’s self-esteem.
It is true (and research has proven), that being emotionally troubled or stressed has a critical impact on our physical selves and vice versa. Women, in particular, are susceptible to external factors like opinions of others, suggestions and advice. Perhaps we are more insecure as a species or just more accommodating to social pressure.
There is often a deep-rooted difficult psychological background for most overweight women. It is not as simple as “jump on the treadmill and shed those pounds”. Although doing just that solves half the problems, including elevating one’s mood, following through is not as straightforward as it may seem. This is why, psychological counselling along the way helps stay on track.
Motivation, approval, denial, low self-esteem etc play a role in the state of one’s body.
So it comes down to this: What (or who) are you losing weight for?
Identification of your own motive is the first and foremost pre-requisite before starting on any kind of self improvement campaign, be it weight loss, improving posture, eating healthy, giving up alcohol and nicotine and so on. Often the very objective of the exercise is questionable.
Social pressure aside, it is necessary to delve into one’s own mind to identify reasons for wanting change. If these reasons don’t stand up to scrutiny, the results are often not sustainable. So for instance trying to lose weight for a boyfriend is never the best idea in the long term (the boyfriend may not last for instance, then what happens to your weight?). Wanting to lose weight to look good is perfectly fine as a motivating factor. Along the way, more self discovery often happens and you also start to feel good. Wanting to lose weight because it’s good for your health or to better manage a disease is a great idea too. Your focus is then more than just on weight but also on fitness levels and health parameters. As you start to reverse a disease (like diabetes) with a good exercise plan and diet, you start to feel really motivated to continue and sustain it.
One’s own actions and thoughts sometimes prevent change. Fear of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, in this case, being overweight and being accepted as or labelled as an “overweight person” may find one self-sabotaging one’s diet or attempts at regular exercise.
Question your reasoning when you find yourself making excuses to exercise. Is it fear of failure or fear of success?
Losing weight does not happen in a vacuum. There will be repercussions from within yourself and those around you. Knowing what you really want is important to keep you focused and motivated and understanding your true requirements will help you perhaps be more indulgent of uncalled for advice. As you know change is never easy, even if for the better.