“You have such a pretty face. If only you could do something about your weight.” Is a comment very familiar to most overweight women. It is usually made by well meaning friends and relatives who seem to think that all the person needs in order to deal with their weight problem is their caring, but hurtful, comments. Perhaps their friends think that the person who is overweight never looks in a mirror, never looks at themselves below the eyebrows or needs glasses.
There seems to be an assumption that the persons who inhabits the oversize body are unaware they are a larger size. All that is needed is to make them aware they are overweight and this knowledge will fix the problem. In reality, the comments serve no purpose, impart no new knowledge, and cause pain. Yet, they keep coming. The comments seem to be made, almost always, by people without weight problems.
I decided to interview some well spouses on this topic when I received the following e-mail.
Some obese women who are now in their 60’s will not be able to walk when they are in their 70’s because of all the extra weight they are carrying. It’s even going to be harder for them as they age. It’s time for them to take action now. Those that are in their 30’s also need to look at what they’re eating now, to stay young for their children and families.
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Overeating is a symptom, not an end product. It is a physical response to an emotional problem. And the emotional problems are as varied as the people themselves. It is the emotional problem that needs to be addressed as much as the overeating. That necessitates that people understand why they overeat or be willing to explore why they overeat, and more importantly, be willing and able to do something about it. Even well spouses who understand why they overeat are not always ready to do something about it.
One well spouse I spoke with said she understands why she is overweight. “It keeps a wall around me. I know it makes me unattractive, but being a well spouse, I find it protective. I don’t want to be in a situation of being attractive to another man. It would make life too difficult for me as a well spouse. It might provide me with temptation that I don’t want to think about and can’t cope with. It took a lot of therapy for me to understand this. I am trying to get over the fear and deal with the weight because of health issues. But it is very difficult.”
Another had this to say. “Dieting requires self-care. Self-care requires a positive self-image. Both became eroded with years of care giving. I am constantly surrounded by criticism, from my spouse, from my community. With my life so hard and lonely, I feel that I am being punished for something. Feeling that way is not very conducive to dieting. I need to feel better about myself. If I could have more of a feeling of self worth, dieting might be easier. But in an atmosphere of constant criticism and constant catastrophe, it’s just impossible.”
“Who has the time?” was another comment. “Between work, care giving, parenting, and everything else, there’s not a minute left for me − neither the time nor the energy. It takes time to diet; to plan meals and buy the appropriate food and then prepare the proper meals.”
Another comment: “My ice cream is my best friend. It comforts me when no one else does. It fills the emptiness. Food is my companion. Of course I know I’m headed for problems, but I’m just too sad to care.”
“I know my overweight may lead to illness and even an earlier death. But that may be my only way out.” And many well spouses understood and even agreed.
It is neither a lack of awareness that they are overweight, nor an ignorance of the health risks that keep people from losing weight. They are all too aware of these risks and as some of the comments indicate, may even welcome them. If there is a concern about someone you care about, that is overweight, bombarding her/him with what that person already knows, is not the solution. Often it just adds to the problem.
If you really want to help overweight friends or relatives, start with helping them to feel better about themselves. Helping them with the burden of their lives whether it is loneliness, the overwhelming chores of care giving or just discovering what they are compensating for by overeating that results in weight gain.
Happier people want to live longer. Happiness leads to a desire to be healthy and may be the best way to start them on the road to health. Overeating is a very complex issue without a simple cure. However, repeatedly informing people that they need to loose weight is not a solution and will often make the problem worse.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org