Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shining a light on shame

I've had several people make note of how open I've been about this whole weight loss process.  The feedback I've received is that I have shown unusual bravery by talking about my weight loss program and how it has affected me.  I've been more open and allowed people to see my vulnerability in this area, more so than often expected by our standard American cultural norms, and the responses from my friends and family have been both encouraging and uplifting.

Weight issues* are a source of intense shame for the person who is living with the problem. For a long time, it has been popular opinion that anyone who was overweight based on "medical standards" had a moral or characterological failing, and that person was somehow weak for not losing weight.  This is perpetuated by many institutions, not the least of which is the Christian institutions which refer to the "seven deadly sins" - of which gluttony is defined as one of the seven.  Then there are the subtle and overt methods of discrimination against larger people - clothing is more expensive and less fashionable, seats on airlines and at popular venues don't fit well or aren't comfortable, and the hurtful looks and comments people make when they think you can't see or hear (or worse, when they know you DO see and hear).  The list goes on.

These experiences left me feeling invisible, helpless, worthless, and often hopeless.  I felt more and more like other people only saw my weight, and they couldn't see the things that were wonderful and good about me.  I hid more and more, hoping the feelings would just go away, and I used food as my comfort and shield against those destructive emotions.  The problem was that by trying to hide and protect myself from these feelings, I was digging myself deeper into the grave of shame that I was desperately trying to get out of.

A month or two into my weight loss program, I realized that I was still operating under the cloud of shame by hiding what I had chosen to do to help myself lose weight.  When I had my shakes in class, I would drink them out of a Starbucks cup so my classmates would think I was having coffee, just like everyone else.  I pre-mixed my shakes beforehand and poured them out of a Thermos so I wouldn't have to face the embarrassment of mixing the shake in front of other people.  I was so worried about how other people would feel about my choice of how to handle my weight loss that I was making it unnecessarily difficult on myself to do what I needed to do. 

Over time, the realization grew on me that other people did what they needed to do to take care of themselves without self-consciousness, and there was no reason I couldn't do the same. There is no shame in taking care of myself, and if people didn't understand or were critical, I could help them understand by talking about my experience.  At the same time, I feared that if I talked too much about what I was doing, that it would become the center of the conversation and the people I was talking to would lose sight of me, the person, in favor of focusing on my weight loss.  That was a risk I was willing to take, because the other option was to continue to hide and disappear, a strategy I knew didn't work for me.

I've come to believe that shame is like a mold.  In darkness, the mold can spread as widely as it can, wherever it can find a foothold.  But shining light on mold will eventually kill it, both because of light sensitivity and because it will get dried out when exposed to light.  In the same way, when I decided to be open about what I'm doing to work through my weight issues, and how I am being affected, I shined a light on the shame that was slowly suffocating me.  By being open and honest with myself and others about this sensitive topic, I have diminished the hold shame has on me.  I have also seen how positively others have responded to my openness, often to my complete surprise.  And I have seen that when someone disagrees with my choice of method to take care of myself, I don't have to take their opinion for anything more than it is - their opinion - and I don't feel the shame I used to with that person's disagreement facing me.

* I define weight issues as any problems relating to weight that cause distress for the person in question.  If a person's overweight by "medical standards" but feels happy in their body the way it is, I don't consider that person to have weight issues (and I doubt they would either!)

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