Self-Esteem and Weight

Carol Johnson, MA

I'm sure that you've seen scores of testimonials from people who are considered "success stories" in the weight loss arena. A typical success story goes something like this:

"Before I lost weight on the Pounds-B-Gone program, I was depressed, hated myself, had no self-confidence, and didn't want to leave the house. But now that I've lost weight, my entire life has changed! I married a prince, won a beauty pageant, started my own company and have more self-confidence than I know what to do with. Thanks, Pounds-B-Gone!"

Clearly, these people had no life before they lost weight. The question is, why not? What is there about some excess pounds that makes people feel as though they are complete failures and can't have a real life until they achieve a goal weight on a chart? The problem is that we use weight to measure so much more than just weight. We use it as a measure of character, self-respect, self-discipline -- indeed, our very moral fiber. Weight has taken on all sorts of meanings, and it's time we relegated it to its proper place - a measure of how many pounds our bodies weigh, nothing more, nothing less.

But what's wrong with the "I'm so ugly and awful until I lose weight" approach? Doesn't it motivate people to shed pounds? It may, in some cases, but the approach is laden with pitfalls and problems:

It's inaccurate! What you weigh has nothing to do with your character. If you read the research, you'll discover that your weight is based on a variety of biological and physiological factors, many of which you had nothing to do with. Researchers will tell you that many of these factors are, as yet, poorly understood. So why blame yourself?

It does not provide a sturdy foundation. A negative self-image is a very shaky foundation upon which to build a healthy lifestyle and can easily crumble under the pressure of negative thoughts.

It assumes you will never regain any of the weight you lose (and, unfortunately, studies show that the majority of people will end up regaining at least some of the weight they lost). If this happens to you, will you have to revert to the "self-loathing" mode?

This isn't to say you shouldn't embark on a weight management program. Studies show that losing even 10 percent of your weight can result in significant improvements in your health. However, if you begin with a high regard for yourself as a person, you will have a much better chance for long-term success. People who like themselves are much more likely to want to take good care of themselves. Because they respect and value who they are, they are motivated to take care of their bodies.

The question that always comes next is: "That's all well and good, but how can I have high self-esteem when I'm bombarded daily with messages that imply that self-esteem and a large body just don't go together?" Here are some suggestions:

First and foremost, tell yourself that you are a person of value even if you never lose another pound.

Get the facts. There are a lot of myths out there about size and weight. What the research really says and what the public believes are two entirely different things (I have tried to summarize this research in my book, Self-Esteem Comes In All Sizes. Please see our Recommended Reading selections).

Don't put your life on hold until you lose weight. Don't wait until you lose x number of pounds to buy attractive clothes, to take that trip, to further your education, to join a club. The problem with putting all these things on hold is that you're left with little else to do but think about what you'll be eating for your next meal. It actually increases your preoccupation with food.

Don't assume that you can't look good until you lose weight. When I realized my weight didn't make me inferior on the inside, I realized it didn't make me inferior on the outside either. So I bought a bunch of jazzy, pizzazzy-looking clothes in the size I wear now, had my hair highlighted, bought some red lipstick and big earrings. And I thought I looked pretty darn good - and so did a lot of other people!

Focus on the positives. You are so much more than just your weight. Make a list of your positive qualities, talents, and accomplishments. Your weight will pale in comparison.

Don't make weight loss your only goal. As soon as a few weeks go by and you haven't lost a pound, or you hit a plateau, you'll be depressed. Focus instead on the numbers that really matter - like blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, etc. Do you feel better? Do you have more energy?

Move! Studies show that people who exercise regularly generally have better self-esteem. Find something you enjoy doing and stick to it.

Remember that no one starts from zero. Everyone is already doing many healthy things for themselves. Sure, there's always room for improvement, but look upon it as adding to the good things you already do.

When you find that your weight is holding you back from doing something you'd like to do, ask yourself this question: "Why can't I do it now?" There is almost nothing you have to be thin to do. So don't wait on your weight - do these things now!

Some years ago, I attended a group weight loss program. Shortly before the Fourth of July, the group leader got out a flip chart and a magic marker and asked us to make a list of all the freedoms we lose when we are "overweight." I rebelled that evening. I said, "I may want to lose some weight, but I haven't lost any freedoms! I live a full and satisfying life. I don't feel as though my weight has denied me any freedoms. Why would we want to do such a negative thing?" I never went back. Why would I want to go somewhere on a weekly basis where I was encouraged to feel badly about myself - and pay them money to do it? I continued to carve out a healthy lifestyle for myself, but I did it with a positive rather than a negative frame of mind.

This experience led me to create an organization called Largely Positive, "the positive approach to weight management." Our goal is to help larger people realize that their weight is not a measure of their self-worth. We encourage them to base their weight management efforts on methods supported by research, not the latest fad diet or scam - and, most importantly, to begin liking themselves on day one of their weight management program, not at the end.

(c) 2001 Healthology, Inc.