The Obesity/Self-Esteem Dynamic
The obesity/self-esteem dynamic is a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. Sure, there have been countless studies on how obesity affects self-esteem, but duh – that’s kind of like a study of the obvious, like telling us that water turns into ice when it freezes. We have started the dialogue on other important issues like bullying, but not specifically on how being overweight affects us from an emotional and a psychological perspective.
You can’t hide from being overweight. It’s always there and it’s all encompassing. It’s there when you put on your clothes, it’s there when you look at your reflection and it’s there in the way that other people treat you. The sad thing is that we, as a society, gage our worth and our value on the feedback we get from others. Stop and think about that for a moment. If from birth, everyone is telling you that you have a huge nose, even if you don’t, but you keep getting that feedback you’re going to be self-conscious about it and you will see imperfections that don’t exist. For people that are overweight, the feedback they get is: there’s something wrong with you, you’re not important, no one will love you, you’re ugly and unappealing….. so naturally when we get these kinds of messages it is going to affect how we feel about ourselves.
Over the past several weeks I asked several women that I was working with, what they thought obesity felt like. Here’s some of their answers. Being overweight:
- Makes you feel invisible. People pass you over and behave like you’re not even there.
- Makes you feel like you are broken, that something isn’t working inside of you. So if a man wants children – don’t pick me or they’ll inherit this brokenness.
- Makes you feel like you don’t deserve what everyone else does.
- I feel like I’m always the side kick. Everyone else gets attention, but not me. I’m just there for comedic relief.
- Makes you feel like no one can, or will want you looking like this.
- You feel like if someone gives you attention you have to jump all over it because your options are limited.
- Keeps you from achieving your full potential, because you’re constantly battling the weight issue. People will pass you over for jobs and promotions, because you don’t look corporate enough. You look like you have no discipline or willpower.
- Makes you feel ashamed and embarrassed. You don’t want to be touched because you don’t want someone to grab you in places you feel self-conscious about.
- Makes you want to hide from people and not go out.
- Makes you feel ugly, unattractive and that no one will want you.
- Makes you feel like you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, like you’re not normal.
The one thing I get from all of these answers is that being overweight hurts. Words like, broken, unwanted, unlovable, shame, invisible – they’re powerful and they cut deep. Almost everyone said that they associate being overweight with being lazy and having no willpower, even if they were overweight themselves. Nearly 36 percent of Americans are overweight. Isn’t it time people started talking about how this really affects us on a deeper level?
The reasons people are overweight are as numerous as the stars, for some it’s, the type of medication they’re on, hormonal imbalances, food addiction, sugar addiction, unhealthy coping mechanisms (emotional eating), in some cases it’s our armor – it protects us from hurt, pregnancies, depression, heredity….. to just say someone is weak and doesn’t have willpower is ridiculous.
People have been talking lately about the stigma of mental health and how our perceptions need to change and how we should start talking about it. I heard a famous hockey coach, Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings say, “Depression has nothing to do with a lack of mental toughness.” And from that I think we can safely say that, obesity has nothing to do with a lack of will power. Will power can only get you so far.
I’ve been on both sides of the obesity coin. My mother was beautiful. She probably weighed about 105 lbs. You could almost wrap your thumb and index finger around her ankles, they were so tiny. I was not so tiny. I had an obese father and I was the only daughter, to a mother, who believed that looks were the most important thing in life. I was an embarrassment to her and she took passive-aggressive jabs at me, on a daily basis. She was heartbreakingly critical. She shamed and humiliated me at every turn, under the guise of, “I’m only trying to help you.” And I used to believe, as a young girl, that if only I was a size zero, then people would love me, then I would be good enough and it would be ok to let someone get close to me – but not until then.
After my long-term Narcissist left me, it happened. I got angry and I got focused and within the year I was fitter than I’d ever been in my whole life. This should have solved all of my problems, according to my unhealthy thinking, but it didn’t. I still didn’t feel good enough, or worthy. I was so focused on my outsides, that I neglected my insides. I was still attracting narcissists and I felt like a fat person in a thin person’s body. Don’t get me wrong, I liked looking at myself naked (for once), I had developed a level of confidence and I liked the attention I was getting, but something felt off and it told me I still had work to do – this time though, the work was inside, not outside.
I started to think about where all this shame and self-hatred came from and I wondered, what if, in an instant we could switch cultural norms and instead of thinness being in fashion, it was the round bodies that were in vogue. Wouldn’t we all feel different about ourselves then? Wouldn’t we be strutting our stuff in all our plump glory?
This made me realize that all this shame, judgment and hurt that I was carrying around came from other people. It came from society and it wasn’t real. Something is true only when it doesn’t change, so when the opinions and trends of others can change on a dime – they have no substance and therefore no truth. I was again giving other people way too much power over how I was feeling about me. To be comfortable in my own skin, regardless of the numbers on the scale, was up to me. It was not going to be given to me by someone else, I had to reach out and accept this body that was mine – flaws and all.
I realized that people are going to think what they’re going to think, judge what they’re going to judge and it has absolutely nothing to do with me. People pass on the culture, the opinions and prejudices that they have been brought up to believe and what they’re judging isn’t me, because I am not this body. This body houses my spirit and my spirit is who I am – what someone else thinks and does, doesn’t diminish my worth, it doesn’t make them right about me, all it does is make them a person that needs to judge others.
Having said that, the most profound thing I learned about being healthy was that it encompasses you in your entirety. What I mean by that is, that you can be a person with a healthy body, but an unhealthy mind or you can be a person with a healthy mind and an unhealthy body, but neither is fully healthy. For me, being healthy means healthy within both the mind and the body.
A mentally healthy person knows that they need to take care of themselves physically every day. The two go hand in hand, so get out there, get moving. You don’t have to hit the elliptical for an hour, but go for a walk around the block. Our bodies weren’t meant to be so stationary – inactivity kills. As I’m writing this, this morning, I threw an apple, a half of a pear, some spinach, kale and a little cucumber into a blender with some ice and water and voila… breakfast. It feels good to treat yourself with love. I should know, for a long time I punished myself, punished my body for not being perfect, by abusing it with food.
What this all boils down to is a choice. You can give yourself the love that you deserve and treat your body with kindness, or you can continue to hurt yourself. Remember being healthy means being fully healthy both mentally and physically. To fully love yourself, means to take care of yourself fully. Make the move to self-love, shift your perspective, take back your power and take the steps to health, you’ve punished yourself long enough.
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