Part 2 of 2
Many people think that stigmatizing overweight people will motivate them to engage in healthy behaviors. But, as we discussed last time in Personal Best, much of the data about weight bias suggests that this type of prejudice actually makes people more likely to eat poorly, avoid exercise and suffer from depression and poor self-esteem that makes it even harder to lose weight.
So, what's going on in the head of an overweight person who is the target of bias?
After years of counseling people with weight management issues and studying the medical literature on the subject, I can tell you that I hear similar experiences echoed over and over.
"I don't remember a time when I wasn't overweight'' is a common refrain. Patients tell me that like all children, they depended on their parents for their meals, and often, their parents didn't know much about nutrition.
Not that my patients blame their parents — to the contrary, many have happy memories of being surrounded by people who loved them.
Nor were they necessarily couch potatoes as kids. Many describe being active, yet still gaining weight.
And then they entered school and the teasing began.
They were called names, laughed at and were the target of cruel tricks — all due to their size.
"I believed I was worthless because I was fat'' is a common sentiment.
Obesity got in the way of everyday life, turning simple things into nightmares. How does an obese teen get into the backseat of a two-door car?
A Friday night with friends turned into the fear that movie theater seats wouldn't be big enough. Or worse yet, what if the overweight person's body spilled over to the next seat and crowded whoever had the misfortune to have to sit there?
"Some people would simply avoid sitting next to me because of my size,'' one patient told me. "I didn't blame them. At least they could get away from me, but I couldn't.''
Forget about flying. When you're obese, getting on an airplane just means looking at expressions of disgust from fellow passengers praying they won't have to sit next to you. Asking the attendant for a seatbelt extender is another misery, to say nothing of how physically painful it is to sit for hours in a space so small you cannot move.
Little wonder so many of my overweight patients don't want to leave the house.
Most people tell me they've tried all their lives to lose weight. They've tried plans offering fast, huge weight losses, but they've never been successful and assumed it was all their fault.
Same for exercising outdoors. Between the discomfort of moving a heavy body in the heat and the misery of enduring comments from passers-by, the feelings of humiliation and failure are too overwhelming to continue.
Most of the people I talk to are not looking for pity or making excuses. They genuinely want to lose weight and take responsibility for their health. But they've bought into how society views them, and have feelings of worthlessness and depression that do nothing to help them take constructive action.
What's the way out?
The people I see succeed are those who can summon the strength to realize that even if their efforts to assume new, healthy habits are not immediately apparent to outsiders, their actions do matter. And if they continue eating healthfully and moving as much as they are able, results will show.
More important, they understand that they do not have to share society's negative views of them. People who succeed give themselves the respect and compassion they need, even when they can't get it from others.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. Reach her at (813) 240-9557 or firstname.lastname@example.org.