The Personality of Weight Problems: Looking beyond the scale

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I have a lot of names for my scale.

1) Liar

2) So-this-is-what-I-get-for-eating-pasta.

3) Ughhh (Nickname: Grrrrrr)

4) …*bleep*…

Then I’ll chastise myself for choosing to step on this hell-spawned contraption and for gaining whatever amount it says. I’ll add whatever food du jour I ate to my “Must-not-have-even-though-I-want-to” list, then I’ll proportion the amount of calories I’m allowed to have according to a complex formula:

(Guilt² x Self-loathing) + (Cravings) – 1 hour, 30 minutes @ gym = celery stick

Sigh. What is it about me? Is it my fault that I love food and happen to have an unhealthy love affair with fries? And in general, why do women have so much trouble losing weight? And even when we try, the scale doesn’t cooperate. Well, here’s what our research at Queendom tells us:

Obesity may be an epidemic in the Western world, but so is its impact on physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Taking a critical look at what we’re eating and what type of physical activity we engage in (if any) is important, but of equal importance is what’s going on in our head. So we assessed over 400 women’s attitudes, behaviors, and thoughts about everything from their body to how they deal with stress.

While women of all ages are likely to be unhappy with their body, Queendom’s statistics reveal that women below the age of 18 tend to be the most vulnerable. Compared to 18 to 29-year-olds and women over 30, younger women were more likely to experience “food guilt” – feeling bad after eating something they felt they shouldn’t have. Women over the age of 30 were more likely to be motivated to lose weight, to have better self-esteem, and to deal with stress in a much healthier way (making emotional eating less likely). They were less likely, however, to be as physically active as younger women. 18 to 29-year-olds, perhaps due to their more active social lives, had a higher tendency to engage in late-night food no-no’s, like eating large meals or sneaking snacks late in the evening.

The result? Only 7% of women in the sample said that they are totally happy with their body. The unhappiest women were those in the “overweight” category, followed by obese women and women of a healthy weight. 6% of women in Queendom’s sample also indicated that they were considering undergoing Bariatric surgery.

On the one hand, we are bombarded with images of skinny beauty standards, which make us feel bad about ourselves, no matter how good we look (a favorite line among my friends and I is “That chick needs a burger”). On the other hand, we also are sent the message that we should love ourselves as we are, regardless of size, because the beauty ideal is subjective. So who do we listen to?

The problem is, both of these extremes are missing an important point. We need to love our bodies, imperfections and all. But our main focus should be on health, not on beauty or blind acceptance of the body that we have. So if you’re a bit overweight but have no problem walking up a few flights of stairs, it’s not so much of a problem. But telling yourself to love your body even though you get breathless after walking for 5 minutes? It’s not really helpful. Whether you’re severely overweight or underweight, learning to love your body isn’t enough. You have to care for it enough to bring it back into balance.

When comparing obese vs. healthy weight women, our study at Queendom reveals that obese women are more likely to:

  • Lack self-discipline
  • To use food as a reward
  • To lack self-esteem and self-confidence
  • To be emotional eaters
  • To use unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, like withdrawing from others rather than seeking social support
  • To practice unhealthy eating habits (grazing, night-time snacking, binge eating),
  • To have an “external locus of control” in regards to their health; that is, they are more likely to believe that they are a victim of a fixed genetic make-up, and thus have little, if any control over the quality of their physical health.

The fact that many women in our sample did not have a readily available repertoire of coping skills was clear. Research clearly shows the impact of stress on health and eating habits. This may explain why a lot of us are emotional eaters, binge eaters, or practice other unhealthy eating habits like rewarding ourselves with food. Issues like a lack of self-discipline, low tolerance for frustration, a sense of apathy/powerlessness over one’s life and a lack of self-belief will either be the source of weight gain, the obstacle behind unsuccessful weight loss efforts, or both. This is why it’s important, before embarking on a weight loss journey, to deal with the underlying emotional and cognitive causes. Weight loss is just as much an emotional and psychological reformation as it is a physical one.

The following are some tips I came up with that have helped me a lot. “Calories in vs. Calories out” is crucial to keep in mind, but I think we need to start with the psychological side of weight loss first:

  • Ask yourself if you’re really ready to change. Committing to losing weight requires a great deal of discipline. Granted, you may fall off the wagon sometimes and indulge in that dessert, but that doesn’t mean you need to let it spiral down further. If you find yourself struggling or basically unwilling to stick to healthy food and exercise, you may not be mentally ready to change just yet.
  • Learn to identify when you are really hungry. One critical component to ending a cycle of emotional eating is re-learning to recognize your body’s signals for hunger and satiety. This innate response has been lost for a lot of us. Emotional eaters no longer have the ability to recognize the difference between the biological need for food and the emotional need. Is your stomach just starting to grumble? Could you just be thirsty? Are you physically hungry?
  • Don’t give up your favorite foods. This is what always threw me off. I can give up pasta, bread, and sweets, but touch my fries and I’ll rip your eyeballs out. If I told myself that I couldn’t have fries ever, it became a psychological and weight battle. You don’t have to give up what you love – just eat it less often. Mind you, this doesn’t mean spending an entire day binging on your beloved chocolate cake, or having nothing but fast food. It means eating healthy most of the time, and allowing an indulgence for one meal. Weight loss author Tom Venuto recommends a “90/10 compliance rule,” where 90% of your meals are healthy, and the remaining 10% are your “free meals” (rather than “cheat meals”).
  • Refuse to be a victim. The feeling of being a victim leads to learned helplessness. If you blame your weight problems on other people or circumstances, you will avoid taking personal responsibility for your health. What happens in your life and to your body is up to YOU. YOU decide what goes in your fridge and on your fork, or whether to skip the gym for TV.
  • Know how to make small improvements. Everyone can change their life – the question is how much and how fast. Taking little steps has the advantage of continuous encouragement. Big steps might seem insurmountable, but small changes are quite feasible. Take it one pound at a time. And don’t forget to acknowledge the small victories.
  • Set your goals in positive terms, not negative. For instance, don’t define your goal as “I will stop eating like a pig and spending so much time on the couch.” State it, instead, in a manner that clarifies what you should do: “I will eat more fruits and vegetables and go for a long walk at least three times a week.”
  •  When it comes to stress, get a little help from your friends – even furry ones!  The benefit of emotional support from others is undeniable. Friends can be a shoulder to cry on, a source of advice, an attentive ear, and an allay-er of fears. If you don’t have a healthy support system in your life, consider joining an online community to deal with whatever type of stressor you are facing. Getting a pet can do wonders for your emotional health – just be sure you have the time and means to take care of it.

Join me for next week’s discussion on parenting and role models!

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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