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The Psychological Solution to the Stigma of Obesity

by Izzy Kalman (September 2007)I have read article after article in professional psychological publications that declare that the solution to the emotional suffering of the individual is to make society change. The individual is no longer being held responsible for his/her own feelings. The rest of us are.

But it was not always so. Until a couple of decades ago, before the psychological establishment made the Emotional Welfare State its mission, counseling and psychotherapy were about helping the individual deal with the difficulties of life. And this is also the role of philosophy and wisdom. As Samuel Johnson said so eloquently a couple of hundred years ago, “He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life away in fruitless efforts.”

Are you overweight? Are you stigmatized for being overweight? Do you want to stop suffering from the attitudes and remarks of others? Here is a primer.

Step One: Stop expecting the impossible

The first step to dealing with stigma is to get rid of irrational expectations. You would like people to stop noticing your weight. But when you see other people who are excessively tall, short, overweight, or are different from the norm, don’t you notice? Of course you do. It is impossible not to. So stop expecting others to not notice your difference from the norm.

Do you like being overweight? Do you think it is attractive and healthy? When you see other overweight people, do you admire them for it? Do you want your children to be overweight? Do you want them to marry overweight people? Of course not. So stop expecting others to think there is nothing wrong with you for being obese.

Let’s say you are an employer and you have to choose between two people of equal qualifications for a job that requires some physical exertion or contact with the public. One of the candidates is obese and the other trim and fit-looking. Which one will you prefer hiring? The fit one, of course. So stop expecting others to have no bias against you. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything to try to counter the bias. But don’t be shocked and outraged by the bias.)

Step Two: Treat people who put you down as friends

Understand that stigma is Mother Nature’s way–unpleasant as it may be–of pressuring you to lose weight. No single individual may be conscious of it when they do it, but realize they put you down as an attempt to pressure you to lose weight. So treat them like they are trying to do you a favor rather than trying to hurt you, and be grateful to them. Here are some examples of how to do it.

School situation

Wrong way:

Classmate: My God, you look more and more like a blimp every day!

You: No I don’t!

Classmate: Of course you do! And your mother is even worse!

You: Don’t talk about my mother!

Better way:

Classmate: My God, you look more and more like a blimp every day!

You: Yes, it’s so hard to stay thin. How do you do it?

Classmate: I exercise and don’t eat junk food.

You: That sounds great. I wish I could be as disciplined as you.

Classmate: That’s right. You should be.

You: Thanks.

Classmate: You’re welcome.

Employment situation

Wrong way:

Prospective employer: I don’t think we can hire you. The job requires employees to spend hours a day on their feet. With your weight, we’re going to need a forklift to move you around.

You: You can’t discriminate on the basis of weight! It’s against the law!

Prospective employer: You don’t even have the job yet and you’re already telling me what I can’t do! Please leave my office and ask the next applicant to come in.

You: I’m taking a walk. Right to my lawyer.

Prospective employer: Without a job, how can you afford a lawyer. Now, roll out of my sight as fast as you can!

Better way:

Prospective employer: I don’t think we can hire you. The job requires employees to spend hours a day on their feet. With your weight, we’re going to need a forklift to move you around.

You: People think that because I’m heavy, I can’t do what others do. I’m a hard worker and a perfectionist, and if you’re looking for someone to help your bottom line, I’m the one for you.

Prospective employer: That is quite a big bottom line you have there.

You: It sure is! And I’ll help your company’s bottom line grow, too.

Prospective employer: I like people with a sense of humor. Let me take another look at your resume.

Couple situation

Wrong way:

You: Honey, we haven’t been intimate in a long time. Maybe after the kids go to sleep, we can have some “quality time” together.

Spouse: Are you kidding? Look how fat you’ve become. You’re as attractive to me as a hog.

You: How can you talk to me like that? You married me to make me happy. You can’t deny me my conjugal rights. And you aren’t becoming better looking either, you know.

Spouse: Leave me alone already. I have a headache and you’re only making it worse.

Better way:

You: Honey, we haven’t been intimate in a long time. Maybe after the kids go to sleep, we can have some “quality time” together.

Spouse: Are you kidding? Look how fat you’ve become. You’re as attractive to me as a hog.

You: Have I become that unattractive to you? I still love you and I miss touching you.

Spouse: But look what’s become of you. You were in such good shape when we got married. How could you let this happen to you?

You: I don’t really know. I guess it’s a lot harder to stay slim when you’re married and have children. I should become disciplined and lose weight. I hate the idea that I am no longer attractive to you.

Spouse: I didn’t really mean to hurt you. It’s just that I care so much about you, and I feel like your physical condition is putting such a damper on our passion.

You: I know I don’t look too great, but I still love you and find you attractive, and if you’ll give me a chance, I think I can show you that I can still light your fire.

Spouse: I guess I haven’t been all that fair to you. After the kids go to bed, lets pull out a bottle of wine and light some candles.

You: I’m so lucky I married you!

Spouse: I guess I’m lucky, too. I just wish you would get back into shape again.

You: Me, too.

Step Three (optional): Lose weight

As you have just seen, you don’t have to suffer from the stigma that accompanies being overweight. You can still be liked and respected as an overweight person. But it sure would be better to lose the weight. You will do everyone a favor, especially yourself. It is easy to find excuses for not losing weight, but you’ll be mad at yourself for the rest of your life if you don’t. There are many excellent programs for losing weight; they just need to be followed consistently. And if you do lose the weight, dealing with the stigma of being overweight will cease to be an issue.

2 Responses to The Psychological Solution to the Stigma of Obesity

  1. Ray Chauvin October 27, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    What would you say to someone who has difficulty maintaining a healthy weight due to genetic dispositions, such as low motabolism, or thyroid problems?

    • Miriam Kalman October 27, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

      I assume you are asking how I would suggest they respond to people insulting their weight. If so, it is quite simple. Say something like, “You don’t know how lucky you are that you don’t have a weight problem,” or “I wish I could be skinny like you.”

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