Perhaps you found this post because you have a loved one who has gained some weight and you’re worried about their health.
Or perhaps you’re here because you’ve gained some weight and/or are just plain old fat* and you’re tired of loved ones telling you to lose weight for your health.
Either way, great! I’m glad you’re both here. I want to support you both in working through this topic, so that you can best support your loved ones.
What Does Health Really Look Like?
In our society, health is depicted in very particular ways. In advertising and in the media in general, healthy people are often depicted as thin and relatively young or youthful looking.
Thinness gets associated with not just health, but attractiveness, being energetic, and, even more frighteningly, intelligence, morality, cleanliness, prosperity, etc.
People tend to stereotype thin people as these things, and fat people as the opposite, even if in they’re real, daily lives, they know that these are stereotypes.
For example, you may have a fat friend who you know to be very intelligent and a healthy eater, while at the same time you hold general stereotypes about fat people.
These stereotypes do a disservice to everyone. Fatness is seen as so bad and dangerous in our culture, that, as a fat person, I might go to the doctor and be prescribed weight loss for a sinus infection.
At the same time, a thin person might have Type II diabetes and never be checked for it if a doctor reads their thinness as healthy.
And that’s just one, sad example, since these stereotypes about weight affect our society in many ways.
Part of the reason that the fat equals unhealthy stereotype is so pervasive is that it’s funded by the diet, pharmaceutical, and bariatric industries, despite ever growing evidence that body diversity is a normal aspect of humanity, that diets fail 95% of the time, that there’s no way to permanently make fat people thin, and that weight loss does not improve health in the long run.
So it’s no wonder that you (person who is worried about a loved one) are invested in the idea that fat is bad.
More so, it makes sense that you would want your loved one to be spared the pain of being fat in our society.
And it’s no wonder that you (person who has gained weight or is fat) may have some mixed feelings about the “help” that people want to give you concerning your weight.
You may disagree with them completely, feel anger, or sadness, or you may agree with them to some extent too, but need to set some boundaries.
What To Do If You’re Worried About Someone Else’s Weight
Given what you now know about health and weight, take a moment to think about this person and ask yourself a few questions.
Question #1: If they weren’t fat, would I still be worried?
This is the number 1 most important question to ask. If you can picture this person thin or at their former weight and suddenly have no cause for concern, leave it alone.
It’s just those cultural assumptions about weight at play.
Let it go. And even better, you can be an ally for this person by not talking about their weight, suggesting weight loss, etc.
Question #2: Are there certain behaviors or symptoms that I’ve noticed?
Good question, right? Here, we’re moving from an appearance-based assessment to a more health-focused one.
You may have noticed symptoms of illness or potentially problematic behaviors that alerted you to a possible health concern. These could really be anything, from signs of depression, to seemingly strange rituals around food, really anything that seems different and worrisome.
In that case, you want to check in again with Question 1, that is, if you noticed these symptoms/behaviors and this person were at their former weight or thin, would I still have cause for concern?
If so, move on to Question 3 below.
Question #3: How can I really support this person that I care about?
The answer to this question may vary a lot. If you’ve noticed that there are behaviors or symptoms that you’re concerned about, and you’ve double-checked with yourself that you would still be concerned if this person were thin, you may say something like, “I care about you very much, and I’ve noticed [these behaviors/symptoms]. Is there anything that I can do to help?”
If they say yes, then by all means, help in the ways they ask.
Be an advocate for them at the doctor’s office (or just hold their hand). Listen to what they need.
If they say no, it’s important to respect their request. You don’t have to do anything more than love them (which is so important and valuable in of itself).
If they decide to ask for help later on, you can provide it then.
What To Do If Others Are Worried About Your Weight
First, I just want you to know that you’re not alone.
As we’ve already discussed, when you’re gaining weight and/or are fat, many people feel that saying something to you about it is necessary and for your own good.
They’re completely and totally wrong about that, but that’s the reality. So, I just want you to know that if people have been telling you they’re worried about your weight, you’re not alone, and whatever feelings come up for you when it happens are valid.
I also want to say that you don’t owe anyone a thinner body or even health.
Your health status and your weight are no one’s business but your own.
So rather than feel like you have to justify your weight or your weight gain, I recommend setting a boundary with the person (or people) who comment on your weight, your health, or as often happens, your food choices and intake.
This is my three-step formula for powerfully asserting boundaries:
- Acknowledge The Other Person, Their Feelings & Positive Motives PLUS
- Make Your Request Clearly PLUS
- Do So From A Place Of Asserting Your Needs, Rather Than Resentment
It may sound like a lot, but each part is important.
Sometimes I call this setting a loving boundary, because you’re lovingly explaining to the other person why you need this boundary, and respecting your needs in the process.
Here’s how it might work in practice. Let’s say you have an aunt (let’s call her Janine) who comments on your weight and says she’s worried about your health every time you see her.
The next time you see her, you might say something like this:
“Aunt Janine, I love you and I know you’re concerned about me, but I don’t feel comfortable when you comment on my weight, so please don’t do that again.”
Notice that I remind Aunt Janine that I love her and I’m assuming that she has good intentions. AND I’m also quite clear on what I need from her.
Setting boundaries takes practice and time. Note that you may need to repeat your needed boundary again and again with the same people.
But it’s still worthwhile to try to set it. Even if the other person doesn’t get it, by setting the boundary, you are sending a signal to yourself that your needs are important.
This practice of asserting your needs is powerful.
What has been your experience in talking about weight and health with loved ones? Leave a comment and let me know!
*I use the word fat because it’s actually the most neutral descriptor. “Overweight” seems to indicate that there is a certain weight that is okay, and you’re over it. “Obese” is too clinical. Fat is just fat.
Golda Poretsky is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, go to www.bodylovewellness.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bodylovewellnes.