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My Weight Was My Shield

May 27, 2015

It happens at least once a week. I receive a call from a client in distress who tells me, “I need help, I’ve lost a bunch of weight and I’m terrified.”

It might seem strange to hear someone talk about being terrified after reaching their goal weight. But the truth is, it’s incredibly common, if not par for the course.

A Whole New World

For people who have been overweight since childhood, losing weight is a terrifying change process in which their entire world is flipped upside down in a matter of months.

It starts with the stage where you feel like Tom Hanks in Big anytime you put on your old clothes, and suddenly all of your friends and family can’t stop talking about your weight loss. Some are super supportive, while others may range from unsupportive to downright sabotaging.

While you are so excited to have lost the weight, you are still panicked every time you see yourself in the mirror because you don’t recognize the person staring back at you.

New Interactions

It doesn’t stop there. With time, it’s not just your friends and family that treat you differently. Gradually the world begins to take notice. Trips to the grocery store that you have frequented for years are no longer the same: you are no longer invisible.

People smile more often at you. They’re more willing to look you in the eyes. On occasion, those gazes can even turn into long stares from the opposite sex—and yes, I know that’s a whooole other story!

The checkout clerk who has helped you for years suddenly wants to make small talk and and seems interested in your life. They’re curious if there was “something different about you….” They wonder aloud, “Did you do something different with your hair, or… (wait for it) did you lose some weight?”

Removing The Shield

While many people might read this and think how great it must be to be acknowledged in all these new ways, you might be one of many people who find it absolutely terrifying.

Sure, it’s nice to be noticed, but this brand new world feels incredibly unpredictable and unsafe.

It’s often at this point in a weight loss journey that many people realize that their weight was more than just a health risk.

Your excess weight was your shield from an unsafe and unpredictable world, and now it’s gone.

Why Regain Happens

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, medical research says that 95% of people who lose a drastic amount of weight will regain it within 5 years or less (Berry & Canetti, 2009).

One of the main reasons people gain back the weight is because there’s too much change too darn fast in their lives and they often weren’t expecting any of it.

Sure, everyone reacts to these changes differently. Not everyone is scared of the new attention; in fact, some even thrive off of it to the point of becoming addicted to the compliments and attention. These folks often maintain the weight loss through the initial honeymoon phase and then start gaining when everyone in their inner circle adjusts and stops praising them for their efforts.

Yet, for people who feel overwhelmed and even traumatized by this new attention, this stage in their weight loss journey is when they are at the highest risk for weight regain.

While it’s not necessarily gender specific, women are most likely to feel this sense of panic to losing their weight shield. Women who have been overweight their entire life are so used to feeling shame and rejection over not performing to society’s body image standards for women that they feel (even more) lost in their new bodies.

Protection From Trauma

While just about anyone who’s been overweight most of their life feels overwhelmed by these changes it’s especially overwhelming for survivors of trauma like sexual abuse, verbal, emotional and psychical abuse. Most often I find patients who’ve been sexually assaulted or abused be most likely to feel that weight was truly their shield of protection from the threat of potential perpetrators.

The Center for Disease Control reports that approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. Binge eating disorder is at least six times more common in obese people and 3 to 4 times more common in obese people who report a history of child sexual abuse.

When viewed in this way, compulsive overeating is simply a way for survivors to cope and manage the depression and trauma of experiencing sexual abuse. Over time, when they feel unsafe or unsettled, food becomes the comforter to help soothe these intense emotions.

Our Friend In Food

For everyone who has been overweight the majority of their life, food has a history of being one, if not the only, reliable allies to provide comfort when troubling and scary emotions come around.

“I feel safer when I’m bigger, and the only thing I know to make me feel safe is food…”

“But I don’t want to die an early death from carrying this extra weight, so I can’t afford to put the weight back on. I feel stuck. What do I do?”

If you’re reading this blog today and this is your story, my hope is that just by reading these words you will find comfort in knowing you’re not alone.

You CAN Find Safety in Your New Body

There is a way to maintain your weight loss while also advocating for feeling safe. Up until this point, I know that hasn’t seemed possible, but by exploring these feelings and dilemmas with a licensed therapist, you can begin to find ways to feel safe in your new body.

I know it’s terrifying, but there is a way to advocate for your health while also advocating for your safety in brand new ways. I know it’s hard to believe that you are worth it, or that you deserve this type of healing and support, but I promise you this:

You are absolutely worthy of safety and happiness.

You absolutely deserve healing and peace.

And, there is a way to find safety in your new body.


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