It’s OK to be fat!
Shifting perspectives on obesity and overweight
By helping clients remove their own negative judgements regarding their weight, fitness professionals can reduce incidence of self-sabotage, dietary and exercise failure, and regained weight, believes dietitian Tara Diversi.
Maybe you read the title of this article and thought ‘She’s a dietitian – she can’t be serious’. Yet, I am. I firmly believe it’s OK to be fat, and if more people believed this, our obesity epidemic would be reduced.
I am not suggesting that personal trainers start a fat pride movement or we stick our head in the sand about the health risks of obesity. Being overweight causes health risks – no question. You would have to have been hiding under a rock to be unaware of this. What I’m arguing is that the discrimination against overweight, or ‘fatism’, is not helping to solve the problem, and is, in fact, making it worse. This not only goes for the discrimination on the part of ‘normal’ weight people, but also the discrimination and self loathing that overweight people dish out to themselves. It’s amazing how many people talk to themselves in a way they wouldn’t dream of doing to another person – not even their worst enemy.
Fifty years ago, it was not OK to be a woman. Forty years ago it was not OK to be black. Twenty years ago, it was not OK to be gay. To say that it was OK to be a woman/black/gay at the height of discrimination in these groups would have caused as much controversy as saying it’s OK to be fat in today’s society. In the Western world today, being fat is the only remaining socially accepted form of discrimination. Sure, discrimination still exists in other areas, but it is not tolerated like fatism is. So what makes the issue of ‘fat’ different? Society judges people who are overweight as if they are in control of their weight, and therefore fair game.
Truth be known, we are in control of many things, but we are not in control of the physiology that controls our body shape, size and storage. Although we are theoretically in control of what we eat, and how much we exercise, we cannot control physiological aspects of our metabolism, hormones or genes. With training, we can change our response to taste or hunger that is developed from childhood, but we have to work at these like any skill or aspect of personal development.
Being obese, with a BMI of between 30 and 35, has been shown to reduce longevity by about three years. Interestingly enough, being underweight (below BMI 18) is shown to reduce longevity by more than this. Compare this to happiness: it has been shown that being unhappy can reduce your longevity by over nine years. We contribute to the unhappiness of people (and ourselves) who are overweight by unfairly judging their character by their weight. The fact is, we all have issues. Some of us wear our issues on the inside and some of us wear them on the outside. If you wear them on the outside, it doesn’t reflect your character. You do have the will power, you do have the strength, and you do have all the resources available inside you to make a change. The more you beat up on yourself, the more you will self-sabotage your efforts.
In the past, when I’ve discussed the concept of it being OK to be fat, the initial reaction has been, ‘But, it’s not ok to be fat’. This is usually followed by ‘People need to be aware that they have a problem, so they can fix it’. This is just ridiculous. After seeing over 10,000 people in clinics, thousands more in seminars, listening to other health professionals and just general chit chat between friends and colleagues, I know one thing: most, if not all, women who are overweight know that they are.
They may not tell you this every time they see you, but they think that they are fat (and many people who are nowhere near overweight also think that they are fat). How many women do you know – clients, family or friends – who are still dieting at 60 years of age and who tell you how gorgeous they were at 30 (with hindsight)? When they were 30, however, they most likely also thought they were fat. Interestingly, while women overestimate their size, men have been shown to underestimate their own weight, and to think they are thinner than they actually are.
Yes, it’s true that if people decide to lose weight, they do need to be aware of their situation and the issues. However, I would argue that people who are overweight have moved past the awareness, information and desire stages of message buy-in and need assistance with the how of weight loss, not the why. This is where fitness and health professionals come in.
Just like telling kids they are dumb won’t get them smarter, telling someone they are fat won’t get them thinner. In fact, research in intelligence shows us that the more we tell a child they are dumb, or that they are from a disadvantaged group, the lower their IQ scores or results on examinations will be. Telling someone (particularly children) they are fat actually increases their likelihood of binge and emotional eating rather than tipping them over the edge of motivation to do something about their weight.
If you have told someone more than once – they know. Instead, with your clients, focus on rewarding behaviours they can control, like turning up to their training sessions, only eating treats away from home (i.e. not keeping any junk food in the house) or trying a new activity or healthy recipe. Teach your clients to celebrate their successes at the time they achieve them.
There is a big difference between knowing that you’re ok, and believing you’re OK. Knowing you deserve better, and believing you deserve better. Knowing you can do it, and believing you can do it. Many self-help books will tell you that you need to change your beliefs. However, this is unlikely to happen in the time period people have to lose weight. When your self-perception is that you are fat, even when you are thin, you will believe you are fat. What if believing that you are fat is OK, that fat was just a descriptive word like ‘blonde’ or ‘brunette’, without the good or the bad connotations attached to it? Accepting this as a neutral belief will allow your clients to live life to the fullest.
The question then lies, is a person better off being thin and thinking they are fat, or being fat and thinking they are OK? And does thinking you’re fat when you are thin make you fat?
Acceptance of self, regardless of weight, is one of the necessary stages of weight loss and maintenance. Without this, people will go on to self-sabotage and punish themselves through weight gain.
A person’s self-talk becomes their reality, so it is important to get clients to practice talking to themselves positively. It is best for clients to talk to themselves out loud or write what they want to believe. At the start, everyone feels silly being positive to themselves – they may even feel like they are lying. However, over time they will believe what they are saying, and this will put them in a more positive space to accept compliments. When we have developed a low self-esteem, we find it difficult to receive compliments. It is like we put a mirror up when someone compliments us, and the compliments bounce off us. When we are told something negative, we turn the mirror around and it amplifies these negative feelings.
If this behaviour is evident in any of your clients, you could advise them to practice mirror affirmation before they go to bed. It may make them feel awkward at first, but the process itself is simple. Instruct them to look in the mirror each night before bed and say three positive affirmations. Positive affirmations can be things that they are grateful for about themself; things that they like about themself that day; things they consider to be their strengths; or things they will do. If they can’t think of anything, they should try to recall a compliment that someone has paid to them in recent days. Even if they don’t believe what they are saying about themself initially, they will still enjoy benefits. When positive affirmations are true, their sub-conscious will begin to believe what they are saying. Over time, their self-esteem will improve. We know that those with better self esteem and value are less likely to self-sabotage, fall off their dieting or exercise routine or regain lost weight.
Being a ‘non-nagging’ support to your clients will help to keep them accountable and on track when the going gets tough. Always remember that we are all different. What works for some may not work for everyone. Clients need to be treated as individuals in order to achieve the results they desire in a more positive manner.
Tara Diversi, MSc (Nutr&Diet), PostGradDipPsyc, MBA
Tara is an accredited practising dietitian with additional training in psychology and business. She is the author of four books: Presenting for Change, Marketing Health, Client Behaviour and The Good Enough Diet. Tara lectures at the University of Sydney and remotely manages her dietetic business in Cairns.
Join Tara at FILEX 2012 where she will be applying her mix of nutritional expertise and psychology to her session topics. Choose from:
- Fuelling happiness: mental health & nutrition ● A1O
- The good enough diet: is near enough good enough to lose weight? ● B4P
- Getting to 'Go'! ● PT Business Summit
For more information on Tara's sessions see pages 22, 53 & 54 of the printed FILEX brochure, or check out the fully interactive site at www.filex.com.au where you can also register for the convention and the fully comprehensive PT Gold Pass.