Day one of a training course on psychological approaches to obesity. High point: a refresher on the role of insulin in weight gain and fat retention. Low point: when all the women in the room, except me – but including the trainer – raised their hands to say that they would like to lose couple pounds. There was an assumption around the room of professionals that ALL women are dissatisfied to some degree with their weight. I have to throw my hands in the air in frustration and say: Women, really?! Wise up!
I must point out that many of the women, including the trainer, were slim. The trainer spouted this viewpoint as if it were fact: that ALL women want to be slimmer.
As the training continued – covering attitudes, beliefs, mindsets that can contribute to the chronic, increasing epidemic of obesity – I started to think that the obesity mindsets and body dissatisfaction amongst the women in the room were actually much of the same. Two sides of the same coin, with a common thread of disconnection to the body.
Guilt is a key emotion to work with in obesity therapy. Self-blame, blame from others/society leads to guilt and shame which either causes us to hide from the problem or deal with it in a self-critical, even punishing way. As a result of guilt and shame, many people suffering with obesity are blind to, or resist examining their size, eating habits and behaviour patterns. This makes change impossible.
Yet, change is also not possible without accepting responsibility. If the problem isn’t under your influence, you can’t do anything to change it. But blame has a different quality from responsibility. They arise from very different perspectives. For me, the most useful kind of responsibility for our health and our bodies comes with realising that I am a valuable person. Not because of what I do. Not because of what I look like. Not because of weight. I am valuable because I am a person. My body is good not because I eat well and exercise, but because it works. It moves. It repairs itself. Without thinking it can breathe, walk, regulate temperature. And treated properly, it will regulate weight. It’s where I live and it does lots of amazing things all on its own. Once I see it that way, I feel more invested in taking care of it, not punishing it.
The women on my course and people struggling with obesity are stuck in the same psychological trap. The trap of withholding approval until it’s just right. It’s an uncompassionate way to approach yourself that leads to less focus on what’s going well and being overly focused on what is imperfect. Creating blind spots, disconnection from the body and reluctance to face reality – whether that reality is a body that’s fat or thin, healthy or unhealthy. Instead, we need a compassionate perspective. Compassion is warm, understanding and kind, but also honest – appreciating difficulties as well as strengths.
What do I suggest as an approach to your body that will free you from this kind of constant unhappiness with it? First, love it as it is. Fat, skinny, tall, short. It’s yours. It’s unique and you are lucky to have it. Stop ignoring it. Look at it. Get re-acquainted with it. It’s common that people who hate their bodies rarely look at their whole reflection.
From there you can start on the second step – appreciate what it does for you. If you exercise, be amazed at the way it can move. It doesn’t have to do everything that could be possible to still be an amazing example of nature. And be in awe of your ability, no matter what that ability is. If exercise isn’t your thing, you can still be amazed at the everyday little things your body can do without even trying. Even walking is an astounding feat that can’t be replicated authentically by robots and man-made machines.
The final step is a natural one. Once you’ve appreciated that you’ve been gifted with something so amazing, so special and so unique, how do you care for it? It’s like getting a brand new car, at first you want to clean it, change its oil, park it carefully. Some people continue and end up with cars that seem to defy the ravages if time. The same goes for your body. This amazing piece of machinery needs care and attention. You can do that with a compassionate attitude, not with a punishing one. In the same way, your compassionate attitude towards your body will help you to value what it is, instead of being caught in constant dissatisfaction.