What our bodies and our weight, or our seeming inability to lose it, can say about our emotional health
I was twelve when I stood on a weighing scale and saw the number ‘sixty’ staring back at me. I remember feeling light headed and then hurrying out to join my family as we headed out for a Sunday picnic. I remember running in the lawn outside our house soon after and going faster and faster, hoping I could outrun the ‘extra stuff’ that I carried, imagining that if I picked up enough speed it might literally fall of my body like froth off of beer when you blow on it!
In the last two and a half decades, I managed to ‘outrun the extra stuff’ a few times, but when you reach your thirties and discover you have lost and gained your full body weight at least twice over, it makes you pause and think – ‘What am I missing? What is this about?’
Going through life as an overweight person is difficult.
The most mundane things in life can become a challenge. Waking up in the morning and getting out of bed, rolling over, what to wear, what to eat, how much to put on your plate, where to sit in the restaurant or coffee shop, whether to stand out and say what you think and feel or stay in the background and not make anyone uncomfortable. Every aching limb can be a condemnation of the size you carry, every craving for a sweet or savoury goody a confirmation of your gluttonous and undisciplined nature. Being overweight isn’t limited to the fact of carrying extra kilos – it is a sin, a shortcoming, a failure. Most of us work extra hard to scuttle our real and imagined failures out of sight, but for a large person your mere appearance is a walking, talking advertorial of your ‘failure’ to contain, to conform, to comply. Weight isn’t just a physical reality – it is a mental, emotional, psychological, social, cultural and (I hesitate to say this, but I have to) spiritual state of being.
We hesitate to comment on scars, discolourations or people’s awkward style choices, but the losing and gaining or weight is acceptable social banter. The overweight person dreads family gatherings, especially reunions – the social commentary on one’s changing shape and size, or ‘concerned advice’ of ‘caring relatives’ can be enough to deter thoughts of attending itself. I remember a participant in a workshop I conducted crying because she would have to go back to America and meet relatives she hadn’t seen for over five years. She oscillated wildly between being angry at them for their scrutiny of her body and at herself. Angry exclamations of “why can’t I just lose this weight and be done with it,” spoke of the helplessness, despair and frustration she clearly felt.
The world that provides these labels also provides endless ‘solutions’ – Atkins, Palm Beach, the Grapefruit diet, the books of Rujuta Diwekar (she did wonders for Kareena Kapoor), offers on regular supplies of Garcinia Cambogia (a fruit-based weight loss supplement). Most recently, I’ve been titillated by the seemingly magical powers of a Keto diet – where I eat cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles, pee on a paper to determine if my body is in the coveted state of Ketosis, log my weight daily and in a few months I can hope to enter the world of the ‘regularly’ sized, desirable and benign!
If we could harness the time, energy and money spent on thinking about the eating and not eating of food we could probably power a small country for a significant stretch of time!
The psychological dimension
As a psychotherapist, I naturally explored whether body, size and weight have a psychological dimension and saw the deep connections that exist. For most people dropping the weight isn’t the biggest challenge – many will have succeeded several times in their life. It is the sustaining and maintaining a healthy goal weight that presents the greatest challenge. The work of Oprah, Louise Hay and eventually Geneen Roth and Kathy Leach helped me connect the dots.
The body that we carry isn’t just a genetically or physiologically fixed entity. It also holds the physical manifestation of our psychological and emotional realities. Put simply, a person might travel drastically up and down the scale if they have a deep rooted and unconscious need for large amounts of food or to maintain a larger body.
The largeness of the body can be a result of a need to protect against trauma; for example, a person who has suffered sexual violation might literally retain the layers of weight as protection – to create distance or deflect attention – to avoid further abuse. The child who survived the original trauma never learnt about boundaries and protection – so the body performs the dual role of holding the trauma and protecting against it. A large body can reflect the unconscious need of the inner child to ‘be big’ and take her place in the world or it can be a way to keep the love of a jealous parent – by not outshining them. The deeper psychological causes can be varied even though the external manifestation of largeness is the same.
The medical community has established the connection between disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia and early childhood and adolescent deficits. The same has not yet happened for overeating and obesity, which seem almost like a personal and moral failing rather than an outcome of a psychological struggle the individual may be facing. The irony of course is that the addiction is to a substance that is required for sustenance. This further compounds the complexity built into this issue. As long as the language around weight, size and food continues to be constructed on will power, determination, discipline and laziness this futile loop will continue. People can feel shamed and inadequate, out of control and helpless in impacting this most intimate space in our lives – the boundaries of our bodies.
Today, through my practice, therapy groups and my workshop titled ‘Body Boundaries’, I seek to provide people a space where they can understand their bodies and hear the stories its boundaries hold. For in that is the key to developing real choices and sustainable options for individuals and people as a whole. My interest has been more specifically concentrated on people who have had long-term obesity and may have lost and gained weight throughout their lives.
In a society that is preoccupied with physical appearances it can be easy to buy into the party line that asks people to ‘keep active, eat healthy and live well’. This well-intentioned but bland advice can feel like a daily battle, a monumental, insurmountable task that leaves people feeling inadequate and hopeless. I invite them to ask a different question, seek a different answer – to take the step and exercise the courage to know what the weight hides; which fears, losses, pains lurk under its folds, which parts of you have been obscured by the diets and the gyms and the juice fasts? I believe without a doubt, like in everything else in therapy, when the core has been seen, valued and validated, the dress size will take care of itself.
Mrinalini is a psychotherapist who has been in private practice since 2010. She works with individuals, couples, families and organizations. Working with the psychological dynamics around the body is one of her core focus areas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the White Swan Foundation.