Does Being Obese Make You Socially Invisible?

Absorbing the Superficial Aspects of Interacting

Posted Jun 05, 2017

Several years ago, a young woman, recently graduated from college, came to see me for weight-loss support. She was an experienced dieter, having lost half her body weight during her sophomore year at college. However, living in her new thin body had been a disappointing and hurtful experience.

“No one noticed me when I was a freshman, and my social life was non-existent. I didn’t even get into a sorority!” she told me. “But when I returned to the campus, thin, at the beginning of my junior year, I was suddenly popular. Guys who would not say hello to me the year before were asking me out, and I felt like Miss Popularity…” Then she began to cry. “I was the same person as I had been when I was fat. The only thing that changed was my weight “

“So you gained all the weight back,“ I ventured.

“Yes, and more. I was angry, and I thought if guys really liked me, they would like me however I looked. But of course that didn’t happen. And now I am invisible again.”

My client’s story (let’s call her Claire) is not unique. A similar story was related to me by a widowed woman who had lost a great deal of weight a few years after her husband died.  A couple of men who she knew from her church asked her out.

“I went from a size 16 to a size 8, and these guys who barely said good morning to me when I was heavy started calling,“ she told me.

Men also experience the transition from being ignored to having others desire their company when they reached what others considered a socially acceptable weight.

This too common attitude has the misfortune of negatively affecting self-confidence among those who endured months of diligent deprivation to lose weight. “What was I before I lost weight, chopped liver?   I am the same me. ”

 Sadly, the now thin individual often gains back weight to give herself or himself time to consider how to deal with the fact that overwhelmingly…social acceptability is conditional upon what they look like.

The basic problem is based on society’s refusal to be size-blind.  Our perception of others is, of course, not limited only to their weight. We also notice the very tall or short, those with physical defects such as a missing eye, and the exceptionally attractive. A friend of mine who is confined to a wheelchair insisted that her chair be elevated to the height of a standing individual, because she told me that when people peer down at her, they seem to think that she is deaf and or mentally impaired, in addition to being paralyzed.  Another friend who went from gray to blonde found sales people less condescending to her. “I am the same age as I was before I dyed my hair, but the cashiers in the supermarket stopped acting as if I was their grandmother.“

As sympathetic as I was to the stories from my clients, in all honesty I had to wonder if their obese and slim personae were really the same.  Of course their core being was, that is, their values, beliefs, memories, and aspirations. But when they attained a normal size, many of the health problems that plagued them when they were obese disappeared. They slept better, certainly could move more easily, and perhaps felt less pain from orthopedic problems caused by a heavier weight. They no longer had to brace themselves against the whispered comments about their size when they walked into a room or remarks about what they were eating in a restaurant. They could find clothes in their size when they went shopping, and didn’t have to worry that they might not get a job because of unspoken (but very real) size discrimination.  And they did not make the transition to a new body overnight the way someone who has extensive plastic surgery might. Wouldn’t someone losing weight over 12 or 18 months gradually feel differently about themselves as they were achieving such a difficult goal?

It would have helped Claire and others who faced invisibility when they were heavy, and social affirmation when they became thin, to have been coached in handling this situation. Do patients undergoing bariatric surgery that allows them to lose sometimes hundreds of pounds have help in understanding that they may be treated differently once they are no longer morbidly obese?

Fortunately, Claire became convinced that being a normal weight was more important for her health than using her obesity to get back at those who did not  “see her” when she was fat. But helping her overcome her justifiable hurt from those who accepted her only when her weight fit their definition of what a date looks like…that took a long time. In fact, she got over this only when, after graduation, she worked and lived among those who never knew the “before” Claire. When I bumped into her several years later, she had had a baby and was still carrying around her “baby weight.”

“It’s funny,” she told me. “People who met me when I was thin are still my friends even though I am now 40 pounds heavier. They don’t reject me now that I am fat; to them I am the same person I was when I was thin. Why doesn’t it work the other way?”

Why indeed?