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Why the Way You Talk About Your Weight Matters

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

I’ve worked with many clients who told me that they used harsh self-talk to keep themselves motivated. In fact, when the idea of using a kinder or more compassionate way of relating to themselves was introduced, many people have told me that they’re afraid they’ll no longer be motivated. There’s no domain in which this self-deprecating approach to motivation is more prominent or socially condoned than appearance, weight, and shape. Think about the last time someone paid you a compliment about your appearance— it’s much more likely that you responded with something you don’t like about yourself (“But my thighs are so fat” or “This dress is so old”) instead of being able to take in the compliment and feel good.

Doctors, public health advocates, athletic trainers, and all of the many cogs in the massive diet industry machine have been reinforcing and perpetuating this belief that it’s good for people to be critical of their own bodies. There has been a widespread presumption that making people feel bad about their body, weight, or shape will motivate them to engage in healthier behaviors, like eating well or exercising more. In fact, the notion that telling people they are “overweight” will help them lose weight has spawned a number of large-scale public health campaigns, including measuring BMI in schools.¹

However, a number of scientific findings challenge this intuitive notion that identifying problems with our bodies or weight is a key motivator for improving our health. In one recent study², researchers measured the weight of over 3,000 young adults and asked them whether or not they perceived themselves to be overweight. The team then followed these people for seven years, periodically measuring their weight, overall health, and symptoms of depression. According to the conventional hypothesis, higher weight individuals who saw themselves as overweight should be more likely to make healthy changes to their diet and lifestyle than higher weight individuals who don’t see themselves as having a problem with weight.

What the researchers found was just the opposite— people who saw themselves as overweight at the start of the study showed more weight gain, worsening self-reported health, and increased levels of inflammation and blood pressure over the course of the study, irrespective of their actual weight at the start of the study. Said another way, seeing yourself as overweight was bad for your health, regardless of your actual weight.

This is only one of many studies to show negative effects of labeling one’s body in a stigmatizing way. See this post about the consequences of parents labeling their child as “overweight”. Other studies have found that negative labeling based on weight leads to stigma and discrimination, disordered eating behaviors, and poorer health on a number of biological and psychological measures.³

It’s time for a shift in how we think about bodies to a view that puts weight in the background and health in the foreground. The Health at Every Size movement⁴ is an alternative lens that highlights the importance of non-weight markers of health, and research has shown that this weight-neutral approach to motivation is associated with important improvements in physical and mental health. So, even if it feels scary, consider putting away the strategy of saying negative things to yourself or others about your body and instead try to relate to your body with a compassionate and health-focused attitude. Doing so will probably take some practice, but you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

[1] Ikeda, J.P., Crawford, P.B., Woodward-Lopez, G. 2006). BMI screening in schools: Helpful or harmful. Health Education Research, 21, 761–769
[2] Daly, M., Robinson, E., & Sutin, A.R. (2017). Does knowing hurt? Perceiving oneself as overweight predicts future physical health and well-being. Psychological Science.
[3] Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight Science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10:9.
[4] Robison, J. (2005). Health at Every Size: Toward a New Paradigm of Weight and Health. Medscape General Medicine, 7, 13.

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