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Mind and body

Why assumptions about people with food issues are probably wrong

Lavinia Rodriguez

Lavinia Rodriguez

We make assumptions about people all the time and even may act on those assumptions.

But sometimes our assumptions are wrong, and I have found that's particularly true when it comes to beliefs about people who are obese or have eating disorders.

My patients who struggle with food and weight share the most intimate details of their lives with me. They reveal what it is like to be seriously misunderstood by so many.

On a recent plane trip, I observed an obese young woman struggling to get out of a window seat while annoyed fellow passengers waited. As she tried her best to hurry, the despair plain on her face, her movements caused her jeans to slip down a little and her top to ride up, exposing some of her body.

Despair turned to humiliation as she frantically tried to cover herself while also trying to get out of everyone's way.

Once she made it to the gate, the young woman looked close to tears.

If she is at all like many of the patients I treat, her emotional struggles didn't start or end that day. Living with obesity in a society that makes the wrong assumptions can be difficult and isolating.

A frequent false belief is that obese people don't care about themselves and choose to eat too much when they could easily stop. Closely related to this is the assumption that obese people are lazy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have spoken with many obese people who constantly criticize themselves. They think constantly of their weight and wish it were different. They constantly search for new diets and strategies, and they blame themselves when they don't work.

Even obese individuals who don't experience this kind of self-inflicted emotional pain still must contend with treatment based on beliefs that are plainly wrong.

False assumptions about people with anorexia and bulimia also are rampant. Since these folks are usually thin or normal weight, those around them often assume nothing's wrong. In fact, what they may see is a high-achiever, an attractive person who seems to have it all together. There may be no sign of the emotional pain within until thinness turns to emaciation, or binge and purge behaviors become too obvious to ignore.

Even once the disorder is discovered, emotional reality is disregarded by false assumptions. All an anorexic needs to do is eat a little more, many people believe. All a bulimic needs is a little self-control over bingeing and purging.

But patients who suffer from these conditions frequently are filled with anxiety and fear of losing control, not just over food, but over any number of frightening emotions they've tried to contain for most of their lives. They must deal with low self-esteem, self-rejection and criticism — even if they appear thin, beautiful and completely together.

This emotional turmoil has usually been going on for years before any problem is detected.

Jumping to conclusions about another person's life is never smart. What is smart is learning to question our assumptions. If we look within, we'll acknowledge that we all have issues and emotions we don't share. We may know what it's like to be badly misunderstood, and even rejected or dismissed.

Try to summon up those feelings if you feel tempted to judge someone based on their appearance — negatively or positively. You might share a lot more in common with the woman struggling out of a tight plane seat — or the woman in the next row who looks perfectly put together — than you know.

Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at [email protected]

Why assumptions about people with food issues are probably wrong 09/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 1:42pm]
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