Strange question, right? It’s also strange how lots of people are seemingly obsessed with losing weight, while continually struggling to do so. Why does this happen? While there are likely many contributing physical and behavioral factors, it also is important to investigate what powerful “emotional benefits” might come from keeping the weight on.
For all of the negative emotions surrounding obesity, there are often very positive ones that we don’t talk about enough. And although the positive ones are less obvious, they’re often powerful enough to override the negative ones, thus preventing real change from happening.
If you have clients who you have been struggling to help, but, despite your best efforts, continue to run into obstacles, consider asking them: “What is your weight doing for you?” What you learn may help you understand some of the less-obvious factors affecting someone struggling with obesity.
Perhaps it allows your client to “hide”—to socially fade into the background and avoid having too much attention focused on him or her. Anyone who is shy or lacks confidence in social situations might enjoy a sense of invisibility if they are obese. This can be especially true of someone who was overweight as a child. The teasing and bullying from other children can be cruel, brutal and unrelenting. If any physical characteristic makes a person a target of ridicule, it is understandable why he or she would want emotionally to obscure that characteristic as much as possible. This short-term, emotionally driven coping mechanism can become a default response and a way to feel safer in public.
I once had a client who, after losing over 200 pounds, shared with me that she began wearing brightly colored or patterned clothing again. When she was an obese teenager, her mother had once told her “fat chicks don’t wear red.” My client had internalized this and chosen safe colors as a way to avoid calling too much attention to herself. This idea stayed with her for many years, even after she had lost enough weight to feel comfortable wearing just about anything.
Whether someone has lost a significant amount or is just starting to lose weight, this “social invisibility” can become a significant factor. Suddenly getting a lot of attention from people who might now find you more attractive can be a jarring and unexpected—even if desired—result of losing weight. It puts the individual in emotional situations he or she has not had to be in for some time and this can often feel scary and intimidating.
Consider the stereotype of the “jolly fat person.” Would our concept of Santa Claus be the same if he were a lean, mean, gift-giving machine? Probably not. A fit Santa Claus bellowing, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” just would not feel right.
For some, the social isolation that often comes with obesity is successfully negated by having a jovial, affable personality—at least outwardly. I saw this in my father. In public, he could be charming, despite weighing more than 400 pounds. He had a big smile and was jovial enough to be liked, even though I could see how his weight sometimes made people feel uncomfortable. Being gregarious was his defense mechanism.
His personality at home was not quite as much fun. As I was growing up, he got heavier and heavier. When I was a kid, my father and I got along very well. He was very playful. As he got heavier, he became angrier at home. He would still project the outwardly charming persona with acquaintances and at business functions. However, the closer you were to his inner circle, the more you saw the real darkness in his personality that grew right along with his waistline.
(For more details about my parents’ obesity and how it killed my father, but not my mother, see my "800 Pounds of Parents" blog.)
Someone’s public persona can become so linked with their excessive weight that once the weight is lost, there can be a sense of not knowing how to act around people. And, conversely, many people will struggle with how to treat someone previously obese once they begin to lose weight. If a person has always been the “jolly fat guy,” and he’s no longer fat, will people react to his “jolly” the same way? This potential shift can put someone outside of his or her emotional comfort zone and lead to subtle yet powerful resistance to change.
Comedian John Pinette’s entire act is centered on how overweight he is, his love of buffets and his dislike of anything physically challenging. He is quite funny, but his obesity isn’t just something that is a part of his act—his entire comedy career is based on it. The disincentive for changing is high, as he would essentially be abandoning something that has helped him become successful. His professional identity is entirely bound up with his obesity.
This phenomenon does not only appear with performers or celebrities. It can apply to regular people as well. Large physical changes can often make the people we see every day uncomfortable. Co-workers frequently feel awkward around someone going through major physical change (either gaining or losing a lot of weight). After all, even if you are to attempting to be complimentary and supportive, what is appropriate to say can be difficult to determine given highly variable workplace rules and the uncertainty of how each individual will react to even the most superficial of comments about changes in appearance.
Although very few obese people will even be aware of it until after they have lost weight, their obesity often provides emotional comfort in very subtle ways. As hard as it is to reverse obesity physically, the difficulty can be amplified by several less-obvious, deep-seated emotional factors. One of the ways that fitness professionals can help facilitate more successful change with obese clients is to consider that underneath the obvious or stated negative emotions surrounding obesity, there often lies some positive emotional benefit from a client’s obesity that provides him or her with a powerful incentive to stay that way. Once you bring some of these factors to the client’s conscious awareness, this powerful first step often allows these previously invisible, internal barriers to be overcome.