When weight becomes another thing to divide us
Life goes on, we have a stressful job, we get too busy to play our favourite sport, we have a baby and/or young children, we have elderly parents, we have a side hustle.
And then someone says, “You need to lose some weight.”
Sometimes, it’s both said and accepted fondly, as a gentle prod to get back onto a healthier lifestyle track, and if it works for you, then that’s fine. But for too many couples, it’s another hurtful topic to add to their conflict bonfire.
So just before you find yourself making such a comment, it’s worth reading these brilliant words from my wonderful friend and colleague, Ginette Lenham. Ginette is a weight and obesity expert, and she brings her unique perspective to our society’s judgemental narrative about our bodies.
Attending to a person’s inner psyche, their pain, or their trauma can be important when discussing someone’s weight struggles.
Of course, for many people living with obesity, none of the points below will be relevant at all. However, after working with thousands of clients over the years, these kinds of experiences tend to come to the surface. If we are just asking them to change their behaviours through a behavioural change model and don’t take into account what is going on below the surface, we miss a very important opportunity to support them.
I see it time and time again in my practice. People have been told repeatedly they are failing because they didn’t implement the behavioural changes asked of them. They are blamed and criticised, which leads to despair and isolation and, worst of all, a resistance to seek help in case the same blaming happens again.
Making changes, even seemingly simple ones, can be very challenging.
For example, a woman in mid-life asks for help with her weight. She is told to cook healthy meals, to walk for 45 mins a day, and to join a gym. She is then criticised for not doing those things.
Unnoticed are all her challenges. She may be going through menopause and is sleep-deprived, experiencing debilitating hormonal symptoms. She may be looking after elderly parents and managing children. Maybe money is tight, or time is tight. Or meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning are all too much after a big work day. Not to mention that long walk alone in the dark.
Instead of berating her, we need to support her and work out ways she can do something realistic to support her wellbeing. Help her get sleep; help her find easy, affordable, healthier food options. Listen to where she is at, not lecture her.
Under the surface might be other traumas that I have seen impact people’s coping:
- They might have been raised in a physically or emotionally abusive family
- They may have suffered childhood sexual assault and abuse
- They may have suffered grief and loss as a little one
- They may be part of the Stolen Generation
- They may have been displaced from their land
- They may have escaped a war-torn country
- They may have suffered, or are suffering, domestic violence
- They may be a survivor of sexual assault
- They may have had an unwell parent and were their caregiver from a young age
- They may have watched a loved one suffer from a debilitating physical or psychiatric condition, or are now caring for someone unwell
- They may have grown up in poverty
- They may have suffered childhood abuse that was not overt, like neglect
- They may have had undiagnosed ADHD or autism, and had sensory or food processing difficulties that were dismissed
- They may have suffered from a serious childhood illness, like cancer
- They may have had troubles with rapid weight gain, hirsutism, acne, fertility problems, receding hair loss, which no0ine took seriously, until later in life they received a diagnosis of PCOS
- They might suffer from anxiety and or depression so crippling that they need to be on medication, but this medication interferes with their weight
- They may have grown up feeling like an outsider, didn’t feel like they belonged and food was a form of comfort
- They may have been bullied at school
- They have had an accident and are no longer mobile
- They may have an eating disorder or disordered eating
- They may have undiagnosed insulin resistance, a metabolic syndrome, a thyroid problem, causing significant weight challenges
- They may have trouble sleeping, insomnia or sleep apnoea
- They may have an autoimmune illness, which impacts their daily life
- They may have fertility struggles
- They may have ante- or post-natal depression
- They may be peri menopausal or menopausal
- They may have suffered, or are suffering, trauma due to the pandemic
- For some people living with obesity, these experiences might not be a contributing factor at all. Many people do suffer immense trauma and do not have weight concerns.
However, it is worth factoring in a possible history of trauma when speaking with people who are looking for some help to manage their weight. Trauma is not necessarily the cause, but it helps with understanding why there may be struggles in many areas of life.
The shame and stigma that people experience daily about weight is deeply traumatic in itself.
This is why I believe it is so important to have a space, a place, and a time to share your story when you seek help for weight management. And, when you share it, you are given the care, respect, and space you need to feel safe. Safe from harm, safe to be heard and safe to ask for help.