3 Reasons You Don’t Lose Weight

Do you look in the mirror with love or hate?

Posted Jan 29, 2020

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

1. The way you look at yourself.

The first obstacle to weight loss is that your reasons for losing weight might backfire. When you look in the mirror, it’s true that the person in the mirror might be the problem. He might be unappealing in some way or even repulsive, whether physically or morally. If the latter, he may well deserve the scornful looks he garners from yourself and from others; he will have some work to do to become someone who deserves to be looked at acceptingly and warmly.

If what is unappealing about him is physical, he will have to accept about himself what cannot be changed and change about himself what can be changed. In this situation, information about exercise and calories is all he’ll need, because he wants to lose weight simply to look and feel his best.

For most people attempting to lose weight, in my experience as a psychologist (as opposed to what nutritionists or others might encounter), the problem is not the person in the mirror but the person looking at the person in the mirror. This observer is filled with hatred for the person in the mirror. Every blemish is exaggerated in his mind, every departure from a physical ideal becomes a whip to lacerate himself with.

No amount of information about calories spent and calories consumed will lead to weight loss, because no amount of improvement will satisfy the voracity of his contempt for himself. Indeed, it will do the opposite.

When someone is despised, they are tolerated, barely, if they know their place. But when the known villain (the image in the mirror) attempts to defend himself, when the known screw-up volunteers to lead a project, when the known monstrosity puts on a nice shirt and approaches someone with romance in mind, then, whether from condemnation or concern, we ferociously put him back in his place. When you hate the person you see in the mirror, any attempt to look better on his part exacerbates and animates your hatred of him.

Further, under the guidance of your contempt, he doesn’t want to lose weight. He’s like an athlete or performer whose coach has bullied him toward excellence. If he succeeds, the coach will take the credit and, even worse, claim that it was the bullying that produced the success. Losing weight under an aura of vicious disapproval can also make you feel like you are capitulating rather than getting fit.

Also, if he refrains from eating only while he is glaring at himself, he will stuff himself whenever he relaxes his vigil. If he watches himself constantly, he will lose weight but feel miserable—the cost is too great; if he looks the other way now and then, he will gain all the weight back.

Before contemplating weight loss, you ought to work on liking—not adoring, liking—yourself. You ought to see the fat person in the mirror the way a loving parent or good friend sees a person with flaws—in other words, the way they see a person.

Instead of telling yourself that you are defective and fat, you can tell yourself, if we’re not happy with the way we look, maybe we can do something about it. If you don’t know what it is like to talk to yourself as if cherished (but not adored!), a therapist can show you what it’s like by inducing you to show yourself for cherishing. Then, you can approach weight loss like a loving parent and a curious child looking for an after-school activity together and not like a tyrannical parent and a depressed child looking for a way to make the child good enough for the parent to love.

2. The way you deal with the way you look at yourself.

Often, hatred of the person in the mirror leads to distorted responses, of which the main culprits are denial and flattery. If you have a child who isn’t beautiful, you can help the child navigate the world in his actual body, or you can use denial or flattery to cushion his immediate disappointment while setting him up for future disappointments.

How many men have been told that they are handsome (and how many women have been told they are beautiful), leaving them ill-prepared for getting shot down? The effect is the same when you tell yourself that you are beautiful. When someone posts a selfie on Facebook and friends comment how beautiful or handsome they are, it always makes me wonder whether they are trying to bolster the poster's ego or whether they look at their friends through an evaluative lens. Do Brad Pitt’s friends tell him he’s handsome? I hope not.

The opposite of sneering contempt is not admiring flattery, which keeps you in a beauty contest. The real opposite of sneering contempt is realistic appraisal, which extracts you from the beauty contest. “Body positivity” can be a good thing if it means, “I like my body because it is me, the locus of my connections with others, the source of my biological pleasures, and the vehicle of my aspirations.” But too often, it means instead, “I am as beautiful as the next person,” which sustains the belief that it is horrible not to be beautiful.

Therapy can help by engaging with someone who does not evaluate you, so you can get a sense of what it is like to relate to someone, with your real self, outside of a beauty pageant.

3. You can’t lose weight and be special.

Losing weight requires you to reconcile yourself to the law of conservation of energy. Because we can imagine transcending the laws of nature, we can feel curtailed—even stifled, enslaved—by them. We can resent gravity, and many people refuse to reconcile to it, even if only in believing that certain people can levitate, or that some calories don’t count.

We resent the constrictions of time and imagine living forever, or always come late to events because we refuse to relinquish the belief that we have more minutes in an hour than sixty. We want to believe that we can eat a cookie and not have its calories count in our tally. To lose weight, we must accept the fact that we are physical beings in physical bodies, and not angels.

Again, therapy can help, but it takes a therapist with awfully good boundaries, a stickler for starting and stopping on time, and a willingness to see you through discomfort rather than an interest in relieving your discomfort. Otherwise, the therapist will tell you about herself, socialize to some extent with chitchat, extend or reschedule sessions, and so on. All these kindnesses inadvertently communicate that rules are flexible and should be bent rather than reconciled with, and this eliminates the possibility of using the constraints of therapy to make peace with other existential constraints.