We tell ourselves we want to lose weight, but could our mindset and not our calorie intake be the thing that’s really holding us back?
‘For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. I’ve tried loads of diets but nothing seems to work,’ says Rosie, 37, from Lincolnshire. Sound familiar? Many of us who have struggled with our weight can relate to this scenario. We want to lose weight, start a new diet, stick to it for a bit but then, within a short period of time, the weight creeps back on. We all make excuses as to why this happens – work was busy, I was depressed, I just love my food… but what if the real reason we put on weight is rooted much deeper? What if, in fact, we’re subconsciously keeping the weight from coming off because we want to stay ‘big’?
This is something Rosie can relate to. ‘I knew I wasn’t happy “big”. I’d been battling with my weight for 20 years. But food and being larger than life was who I was – it was part of my identity. I was the jolly, fat one in my group of friends, the person in my family who threw the best parties, made the best cakes and always did it with a smile on my face.
‘It was only after joining LighterLife and discussing my relationship with food in my group that it hit me. I was, on some level, happy being fat because it was a huge part of my identity. If I lost weight, who would I be? What role would I play? I was scared that saying goodbye to the weight would be like saying goodbye to who I was as a person.’
Fat as a protective barrier
Rosie is not alone. In fact, as LighterLife’s psychology expert Mandy Cassidy explains, many people struggling with their weight are subconsciously holding themselves back. ‘We find that many people use food to maintain a large body size. Most don’t know they’re doing it. It’s a deep, unconscious thing. They use the fat as a protective barrier.’
Like Rosie, some people are scared of losing weight because it will leave a void in their life. They’re frightened of losing their sense of self and having nothing to fill their time. Their lives will be empty. ‘When I thought about it, I spent hours obsessing over food. I was always thinking about what I was going to eat, cook or bake next,’ says Rosie. ‘It was the centre of my life. I was terrified that I’d be valueless without it. I didn’t have any other hobbies or interests to fill my time.’
The intimacy issue
Another reason why some women may be reluctant to lose weight is because they’re terrified of being noticed, particularly by the opposite sex. ‘I divorced my husband eight years ago and was miserable,’ says Gwen, 51, from Bridgend. ‘I piled on the weight soon after and struggled to get it off. I think part of that was because I was afraid of being available again. I wasn’t ready to be “seen” by other men and my weight was a cocoon from facing the world. I felt safe being obese.’
‘For those of us uncomfortable with seeing ourselves as sexual beings, using our weight in this way is a really common scenario,’ explains Mandy. ‘We use the fat to push away unwanted sexual advances. We see this with people with anorexia, too – they don’t want to be objectified sexually – and they use their bodies to show this, albeit subconsciously.’
Using weight to stave off sexual advances isn’t just the action of single people either. New mothers often find it hard to shift their baby weight, and this can be because they want to dull their sexual desires and others’ desires towards them. They take on a maternal role, not just with their baby, but with their partner, too.
Similarly, women in unhappy relationships use the fact that they’re fat to avoid the issue. ‘Deep down, they may be worried that by losing weight it opens them up to the possibility of leaving their partner, which can be a daunting prospect,’ continues Mandy.
And let’s not forget the other side of the coin: the woman who uses her weight as an excuse for sexual promiscuity. ‘In my early 20s I was morbidly obese and full of self-loathing. Sex for me was a currency. I gave myself away freely to men in exchange for that feeling of being close to someone,’ says Kat, 32, a LighterLife client from Halifax.
‘I deluded myself that it made me feel better, but I always ended up feeling worse. It was only years later that I accepted that my weight had nothing to do with it. I used it as an excuse. The real issue was that I didn’t value myself. I thought I didn’t deserve to be loved or respected.’
Suffering from low self-esteem is not uncommon in women struggling with their weight, but what if you realise that you’re putting off shifting the pounds because you’re scared of facing up to your true potential?
Mandy says, ‘I come across lots of women who put off going for what they want in life and use their weight as an excuse. They say things like, “When I’m slim I’ll get a new job,” or, “As soon as I lose a few pounds I’ll get on the dating scene.”’
This is a sentiment Jackie, 44, from Bucks, is all too familiar with. ‘I’ve been with my company for six years and in that time I’ve never gone for promotion. I know I’m capable, I just don’t have the confidence. I don’t assert myself. I’m the quiet, reliable Jackie – the one that gets on with her work.
‘I’ve said to my husband for years that as soon as I shift a few stone I’ll put myself forward for promotion or find a new job, but the truth is that the thought of change terrifies me.’
Jackie’s situation is a classic case of someone opting to be ‘invisible’ for various reasons rather than the daunting prospect of being ‘visible’ and facing the chance of rejection or disappointment. As Mandy explains, ‘When you’re overweight, less seems to be demanded of you – in the workplace you don’t get promotions. If you’re afraid of the next step, being overweight is an asset. You want to remain small and not be seen.’
The next step
It might be difficult to identify that you’re foiling your own efforts – especially as so many of the situations noted above are deep-set and hidden within our subconscious minds. But, if you’ve been yo-yo dieting for years or have struggled to lose weight then ask yourself, could you have been your own worst enemy?
‘It was only when I did LighterLife and spoke about my relationship with food that I realised how much I was sabotaging my own weight loss,’ concludes Rosie. ‘What I now realise is that I needn’t fear losing weight. I can embrace it. Instead of focusing all my attention on food and hinging my social life on it, I’m finding new things to fill my time and my life has never felt fuller.’