When you see a loved one’s weight headed in a physically dangerous direction, you naturally want to help. But, it’s hard to know how to help because weight, for most people, is such a touchy subject. Enmeshed with weight is the idea of self-worth so telling a loved one he or she is too fat or too thin is tricky. Not to mention the fact that frank conversations about weight can have opposite the desired effect—people may push toward weight extremes in part as a way to escape feelings of self-disgust, but haphazardly approaching the issue of weight can fuel feelings of self-disgust, causing your loved one to continue the cycle. So where do you begin?
Below are some do's and don’ts that I have found helpful when talking with patients and friends about weight.
1. Do not use shame
Shame may make your loved one eat healthy (or restrict their intake) in front of you, but it doesn’t create long-term change. If fact, shame is likely to promote exactly the behaviors you hope to help your loved one avoid. Examples of shaming statements are “I’m not attracted to you anymore,” or, “You can’t even fit into your clothes”. I know your intention is to offer a well-meaning wake-up call, but shame rarely creates lasting change.
2. Do not force the issue
When approaching the issue of weight, give your loved one lots of space. If your loved one does not want to discuss their weight with you, let the issue go. Discussing one’s weight is an extremely personal and sensitive matter. It might need to be done slowly over time. And remember: Just because your loved one does not want to talk about their weight with you, does not mean they aren’t thinking about it or talking about it elsewhere.
3. Do not frame the discussion around weight and food
Keep the discussion focused on health. Phrases that focus on the person’s body or eating habits can make your loved one feel defensive. Avoid saying things like, “You keep gaining weight,” or, “I notice you eating at night after you’ve already had dinner.” I know it’s tempting to speak about the details that led to your concern about weight, but try to keep the discussion focused on the real issue, which is concern for overall health and life quality.
4. Do not offer helpful weight loss hints
I know this is a hard one, especially if you, yourself, have lost weight. Remember, your loved one likely knows quite well what to do and not do in order to take the weight off. Also, the issue is likely more complex than diet and exercise hints. Stick to speaking about your love and concern about him or her personally. Do not focus on how he or she can or should reach their goal.
5. Do not monitor their food or exercise
Try not to comment on your loved one's weight-sensitive behaviors—good or bad! I know this seems counter-intuitive, but any specific comments about behavior set up a dynamic in which you are the watchdog. If your loved one feels some checks and balances would be helpful, encourage them to hire professionals. Physical trainers and dieticians are trained to monitor, encourage AND to set limits when needed—let these professionals be the bad guys! Once you start policing, you set yourself up to eventually have to be the bad cop, which can complicate personal relationships.
6. Do not judge
This includes pointing out how society judges people of extreme weight. I promise you, your loved one is acutely aware of this fact, and no one is judging this person more harshly then they are judging themselves.
1. Do remember your loved one may already feel ashamed
Even if your loved one jokes openly about their weight, this does not mean they are comfortable with their body. Be sensitive and thoughtful with your words and your approach. Remember this subject matter can be very painful and shame inducing.
2. Do speak about health and feelings, not about weight and food
Again (because this is extremely important), phrases like, “I’m so worried about your high blood pressure,” or, “I don’t ever want to lose you or have your health suffer,” are helpful ways to communicate that your concern comes from a place of love.
3. Do speak with love and respect
Tell your loved one that you love him or her just the way that they are. PERIOD. Tell them you are trying to speak to them because you want for them the happiest and healthiest life possible.
4. Do use empathy
Try to think about an area of your own life in which you are especially sensitive—maybe it’s education, money or relationships. How would you want someone to approach you about a very sensitive and painful topic? When you speak, offer lots of love and support. Speaking to your loved one without true empathy and compassion for their struggle will only push them away.
5. Do look beyond fault
Though your loved one’s weight may seem to you like a simple issue of motivation and self-control, it may not be. Your loved one may have an eating disorder and need professional help to assist in their path to health. Try to avoid appearing to assign blame and fault by instead framing your discussion in terms of support and help.
Talking about weight is never easy. No matter what you do or say, it is ultimately up to your loved one to decide how they will follow through. Remember that even if your loved one is initially hurt, it doesn’t mean they don’t hear you. Use sensitivity and love, and above all give your loved one the respect and space to find their own way.