Why do we feel ashamed of our weight?
Week in, week out, my work involves visiting teenagers to take their measurements as part of a research project about healthy weight management for adolescents. All the participants in our project are technically overweight, and so am I. In fact, since I was a teenager there has only been a very short period of my life when I haven’t felt that I was at least a bit overweight.
The adolescents I visit are all lovely. Many of them don’t look more than squishy (as opposed to toned), but even the ones who are more obviously overweight are lovely. It is amazing how swiftly my attention shifts from someone’s weight to their personality, and how easy it is for their personality to shine through and enhance their appearance further.
So I find myself wondering why we feel ashamed of our weight, regardless of whether we are fifteen or thirty-two.
I think that there are two main reasons and I don’t think that either of them are very much to do with the real problem with being overweight (i.e. that it’s unhealthy).
The first is that we feel ugly – more importantly, we feel that other people think we’re ugly. Perhaps there are are some evolutionary psychological reasons for us preferring people who are not too overweight (perhaps we want people who look fitter and more able to hunt, run (or protect us) from predators or bear children), but on this premise it would be counter-intuitive to be attracted to people who are very skinny (as they might be weak and would probably not have enough fat stored to survive harsher conditions where perhaps food is scarce). So we can’t blame much on evolution.
I think it is pretty widely acknowledged that the idea we currently have of what is attractive and what is unattractive is an unrealistic construct of society and the media. It is something that many people are trying to shake, but it is persistent and will not change easily. In the meantime, we are all battling to reconcile how we actually look with a skinny ideal. The teenagers I visit struggle with feeling ugly because they are overweight – and often with being told outright by people at school (and even sometimes by family) that they are ugly because they are overweight.
Appalling as this is, it is possible (although difficult) to detatch ourselves from this. It is possible to be comfortable with how we look and to be confident that we ourselves are people worth knowing. I think the second reason we feel ashamed of our weight is less obvious, but somehow worse, because it strikes overweight people at a less superficial level: We feel ashamed of our weight because we feel that people judge who we are by our weight.
How often have you heard jokes about the fat person sitting in front of the TV eating too much chocolate, cake, fried chicken, pizza etc? Even now, people can’t help feeling it’s a little funny because we believe we recognise some grain of truth in there: overweight people are lazy, overweight people have no self-control, overweight people are unhealthy and food-obsessed.
Overweight people often do have a somewhat (at least) unhealthy relationship with food and some do struggle to be as active as they ideally should. The problem is that people who are not overweight also often eat unhealthily and are more inactive than they should be. Genetics and life circumstances (such as having had children or a medical condition) play a role in how much fat our body stores, which means that some people are “lucky” and their body doesn’t give them away when they have any unhealthy habits.
My point here is not with actual healthy habits, it’s with the perception that overweight people are more lazy, gluttonous, undisciplined etc. than people who are not overweight – and peole who are not overweight have more self-control, success, organisation, energy etc. than overweight people. People look at us and they judge who we are by our appearance – or, at least, it feels like people judge us – and soon we start to believe the negative perception of ourselves and others. We believe that the thinner people have better qualities than us. The reality may be that an overweight person is no worse in their habits than anyone else – in fact, they may even be more mindful of being healthy than some because they are overweight. Nobody can actually tell from the outside the true merit of a person.
Yet, if we are obviously overweight (or if we think we are obviously overweight), then we feel a shame about who we are beyond our attractiveness to others.
The one and only problem with being overweight should be our health and, in reality, we should be measuring our health by much more than just weight. We should be measuring it by our fitness, our nutrition and the resilience of our bodies (e.g. immunity) and many not-overweight people would fail those measures. It is just sad that we feel our weight cancels out all of the educational degrees we have earned, the job skills we have gained, the relationships we have forged, the positive attributes we possess and reduces us to: lazy, undisciplined, gluttonous…