But what if they’ll notice I’ve gained weight? What if will they think when they see I’m still not thin. They’ll know I don’t have it all together if they see that I’m struggling with my weight.
Many of us are very afraid other people noticing our extra weight. We’re afraid they’ll notice we gained some, we’re afraid they’ll notice we haven’t lost any, or we’re just afraid they’ll notice we’re not thin. We are afraid not just about others noticing, but of them silently judging, or, even worse, commenting on it. We may be afraid, too, of the reactions of competitive people who might get some twisted satisfaction out of seeing us “fail” in regards to our weight.
These fears of what others will think and of their judgement cause us to be riddled with anxiety in anticipation of social events. Each workday, each party, each meeting with friends, each visit to or from family can be something we pretend to enjoy but actually dread. We may even have anxiety about big social gatherings months and months in advance.
Not only does this anxiety and fear make us unhappy and anxious, but it often causes us to actually compulsively eat more. It’s ironic, because we desperately want to look good and have everyone approve of us and wish we could figure out how to eat better–but then we compulsively eat because of the anxiety about what others will think and so we sabotage the whole thing further. We actually end up perpetuating the very problem we are upset about having.
Then, we usually decide what kind of diet or protocol to lose weight that we’re going to do between now and whatever event we’re planning for. That often causes us to feel even more pressured about the whole situation, we might have an extra added fear, “What if I mess my diet up or I don’t lose weight by that time?”, and then we may overeat as a relief from or to rebel against all that pressure. It becomes a cycle of eating, anxiety, and anticipation.
Most of my life my issue had been overeating and bingeing, and having a little or a lot of extra weight as a result. However, during the very short time in my life where was thin due to unhealthy habits and anorexia, I received enthusiastic praise from others and only very little concern from particularly tuned-in people. The attention I received from everyone at different weights was different, even just from going from a size 8-10 to a size 2-4. Family members that had known me my whole life started saying how good I looked for the first time and telling me “great job” and so forth when I lost weight. People at school who I didn’t really know began to approach me with praise, wanting to know how I did it and seeming to even suddenly have an interest in being friends. I liked it, but I was also completely terrified that I’d lose it. Deep down, at that time, I knew that I was only thin because of complete and utter obsession and dysfunction, and really only was able to restrict my food at all because of absolute terror, total militant control, and extreme self-loathing. I was terrified I’d lose all this praise and approval that I’d wanted my whole life for my body.
And, I did lose it all. I wasn’t able to maintain the obsessive restriction and I swung the other way instead, gaining 62 pounds in 2 years, exceeding the amount of extra weight I’d ever had in my life by quite a bit. Throughout that 2-year period, as my weight crept up a little every month, the positive feedback I’d been receiving for being thin quickly dropped off. Within 10 or 15 pounds of gain, people stopped complimenting me. I could tell people noticed this substantial weight gain but no one said anything about it. I constantly worried that people would notice and judge my weight fluctuation. When I ran into particularly competitive women I knew, I worried about whether they’d feel some level of satisfaction that I hadn’t been able to maintain my small figure. I worried what people thought of me. Were they thinking “She’s so gross now,” or “Wow, she was pretty but that sure is all gone”. Were they thinking that something was wrong with me, that I was a failure and a fraud, that I didn’t have it all together?
I have talked in many of my blog posts about why we eat in compulsive and addictive ways, but that’s not exactly what this blog post is about. This blog post is about how the fear of judgement and the desperate need for approval of our bodies from other people. This is an issue in and of itself, and itself contributes to our eating behavior. I don’t know about you, but I can recall so many days where I’d have a train of thoughts and emotions that went something like this: I’d think about the upcoming holiday/wedding/big gathering/seeing someone for the first time in a while/basically any possible social situation where I had to put on clothes and leave my house, and then think about how I really should/need to lose weight for it, then I’d feel intimidated by how to lose weight by then, which gave me more anxiety, and then I’d visualize people judging me if I didn’t, then feel even more fear and anxiety, and then feel like I CAN’T EVEN HANDLE ALL THIS and I’d nose-dive into food to deal with the freakout I was having.
We need to acknowledge that this fear and anxiety can actually perpetuate the compulsive eating, and even more importantly, make us more unhappy people. And after we have acknowledged that, the next question is, What do we do about this?
What we need to do is work through the fear that we have. As discussed, we have fear of judgement and fear of disapproval, or even ridicule. Many of us also feel shame about our weight and eating, but that still often partly comes from a fear of what others will think. And the way we process through it is to feel it. In other words, to actually get to a place where we no longer have that fear and where we don’t feel ashamed, we actually have to feel fear and feel the shame. We feel it to heal it. We feel it to get it out.
There are always reasons why we are so afraid of the ridicule about our bodies. Everyone is a little different as to what the causes are, but they can include things like what our parents thought of their own bodies. If our parents or family members hated their own bodies, we would learn that kind of self-talk. If we had a parent with an eating disorder themselves, we would also absorb this even if they didn’t impose it on us. Some children tragically do get direct criticism and ridicule of their bodies and of course that feels awful as a child. And sometimes our parents are mean towards other people who are overweight even if they’re not themselves. Did they judge people who struggled with weight as stupid, lazy, incapable? Or maybe we didn’t get much attention of any kind as children except that of approval about our appearance and now we feel it is the most important thing about us? There are endless examples, but the most important thing is to be aware that this came from somewhere.
Many of us, through a combination of our families and media and society end up associating our very worth with how perfect our bodies are. If we are thin we are more loved, more respected, more listened to. This is reinforced everywhere in our society. And I’m not saying we may not need to lose weight and get healthy. What I’m saying is there is an issue when we feel we are substantially less worthy of existing in this world and of love if we are not at whatever shape or weight we think we should be.
The reason we often eat more in fear of what others will think is because we’re actually not feeling these feelings, we’re avoiding them. We’re using the food to cover over and dampen the feelings of fear and shame that we have. We’re not eating too much because we have shame and fear and worth-based issues, we’re eating because we don’t want to feel and heal those feelings. So, what we need to do is instead let ourselves feel the full brunt of how afraid and ashamed we are. And we need to trace it back as far as we can in our childhood and feel through the core reasons for not only our disordered eating (whether that be in the direction of restriction or excess) but also why we are so terrified of what everyone else will think of our bodies and why we associate our worth as a soul with our body’s perfection.
Another important point: just because we heal the fear and shame and lack of self-worth does not mean we will stay overweight. Not having a concern about other peoples’ judgements of our bodies doesn’t mean we become ambiguous about our own health or weight. Not having a stake in others’ opinions does not mean we’ll keep eating junk food and excess amounts. More self-love always dictates that we make choices more often that are best for the health of our bodies. Growing in self-love means we are now freer, we are living in more love and less fear, and we will feel happier and more balanced just by this one change. And we will naturally be drawn to eating in a way that supports our healthy weight, and so we will start to lose any weight we need to.
When I’ve noticed myself feeling any kind of fear or anxiety about what others will think of my body, here’s what I’ve done: Rather than getting in a destructive cycle of “But what if they think ___! What if someone notices or judges!” and then eating, and then continuing to be scared, I’ve stopped whatever I was doing to feel. I stopped running from that feeling, and felt it instead. I actually let myself feel rather than avoid how bad the prospect of someone thinking the worst about my body felt. I allowed myself to feel the worst case scenario about what it would feel like to know someone did feel the worst things imaginable about my weight (which to be honest, probably has happened), and then feel that.
And eventually for me — which will also happen for you — I arrived at sadness and grief. Feeling that full amount of fear eventually leads to feeling like we could cry, which is also a very good and healing thing. Because at the core of the fear is sadness at the feeling of being unapproved of, sadness about feeling judged, and grief about all the times in our lives in the past and in our childhood we felt not good enough or not lovable because of our physical appearance or because being cute was the only approval we got as children. We may get into sadness that we have learned so young, from society and from our family, that our appearance was tied to our approval from others, our worth, or how lovable we are.
But this sadness, when felt as a child would feel it, is healing. It’s medicine for the soul and it repairs what was broken into something more whole, and more powerful.