As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, we are pummeled with ads promising us that, if we just sign up for some new plan (however loony or expensive it may be), we will be renewed and transformed. Gone will be the extra pounds, the shame of unattractiveness, and the social rejection. In its place will be new-found confidence, social and professional opportunities aplenty, and inner joy. You can see for yourself right here:
We’ll be posting a bit on this blog about the push to turn over a new leaf, start a new regimen, set new goals, and remake ourselves as soon as the calendar year turns over. And we also want to hear from readers, too, about how they are responding to the wave of self-improvement fever.
Not that I’m against self-improvement, or even against enthusiasm about new beginnings. The end of the year is a good time to take stock, reflect on what’s working in your life, what you want to change, and what goals you might want to pursue. However, doing a google search of images related to “new year’s resolution”, almost every image included the following:
We all know (from great posts like these among other places) that losing weight may or may not be difficult, but maintaining weight loss over time is nigh unto impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from wanting it badly.
I do research on weight, weight stigma, health, eating and behavior change, have read and written lots about these issues. But there is no substitute for hearing the stories of the struggles of real people as they try to make a more peaceful and accepting life that includes food.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to attend the last meeting of an 8-week course in Sydney, Australia on weight management run by Ginette Lenham, a counseler, therapist and support group facilitator specializing in weight management issues for women. She counsels women with complex sets of challenges ranging from fertility to gynecological to endocrine to psychological, working on how to respond to emotional eating and other triggers in their lives. Her website is here.
The stories these women shared were not surprising, but they were revealing. Here are some stories, and the underlying messages I am going to guard against as I face the new-year pull to remake myself in a more skinny image. These messages are powerful, but they are not true. The women in that room shared them in order to expose them for the falsehoods they are, and get some help in doing battle against them.
Message: Weight equals worth and status as a person
“You know, your position in a social hierarchy can change enormously with weight loss or gain. When you’re obese, people don’t see you as a person with control or discipline. My friends who have known me a long time (when I was thinner) have more confidence in me, in my abilities, than my newer friends (who only know me as fat). They think an obese person is a different sort of person, not a person like them.”
Message: Weight loss will fix any ailment
“I joined a running club; it’s really helped my motivation and improved my performance. I was having trouble recently with getting blisters and talked with someone about it. She said, ‘oh—after I lost a lot of weight, I stopped getting them’. Argh! “
“One woman in our running club won an award; at the ceremony, all they talked about was how much weight she had lost.”
Message: There are ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, and it’s never okay to eat ‘bad’ foods
“I used to work as a waitress, and women were always apologizing for their orders. They would say to me, ‘I’ll have this cake but I won’t have any dinner.’”
Message: Eating “right” is a “natural” ability, which some have and some don’t
“I look at my kids to see how they are eating—what they eat and what they leave behind on the plate. I have no idea what to do, or how to eat intuitively.”
“Some people are just stronger and they know when to stop.”
Ginette’s approach is largely about helping people to identify these negative messages and then to set aside those harsh judgments, focusing instead on individual health and life goals. This is a long-term process, and is not about learning to love salad. There’s no gimmickry—no magic pill to swallow, no exercise machine to use. Will it result in weight loss? Maybe, maybe not. What she hopes for her clients is of course some solutions to their complex medical problems, some of which are weight-related, but more importantly, in her own words, “you can learn to be liberated from all the negative self-talk that is associated with your previous weight loss experiences.”
Now that’s a new year’s resolution worth making.