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Approaching the Subject of Weight with a Loved One

December 21, 2011

Generally, when asked about the right way to approach someone about their weight, my answer is no approach at all. Weight is not a determinant of health and someone else’s weight is none of your business. If you approach someone about their weight, it will most likely end badly because it is one of those subjects that no one likes to talk about.

Like all bad things, though, the subject just won’t go away. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about someone’s weight, or recent change in weight, whether it is weight gain or weight loss. For example, rapid and extreme weight gain can point to a legitimate binge eating disorder or hormonal problem. Rapid and extreme weight loss can signify lupus, cancer, or drug abuse. In our culture, though, we have come up with every excuse possible to concern ourselves with other peoples’ weights and lifestyles, and pretend that it’s about health when it’s not. Half the battle, then, is to convince the other person that your concern is genuine and that, yes, it is about health. It is not about their appearance or their character. It is not about your image. It is about their health only.

So how do you do this?

Granted, I’m no expert in invervention techniques or how to ask personal health questions with any kind of finesse. This isn’t about that. This is about approaching a loved one in casual conversation. It might set the stage for a later intervetion, but these are not intended to be interventions.

Know what you’re talking about — Do you have proof that this person actually goes on regular eating binges, like receipts, empty containers, etc.? Did you find drug paraphernalia in her room? Is he experiencing distinct mood or behavior changes that cannot be easily explained some other way? Spend some time observing the person. Do your research. Get feedback from others without letting that other person know who you are talking about. Weight gain and weight loss, just as we discussed, can be caused by any number of things. You don’t want to cause a scene over culinary arts homework and moodiness over finals.

Be non-confrontational — This is not an intervention, and that person is not on trial. Bring these issues up if they come up over the course of a conversation. Take that person out to do something and talk about it then if opportunities do not naturally present themselves. When I was little, I had many of my heart-to-hearts with my father on the way to flute lessons. He would ask me about my day and we would go from there. However, if you start accosting them at the door without good reason, you can forget about getting answers.

Do NOT mention weight — The real issue isn’t about weight. You can be skinny or fat, losing weight or gaining weight. The problems are emotions, behaviors, and changes in weight, regardless of starting weight or direction of weight change. Some suggestions for questions to ask include:

  • “So how have you been? You don’t seem as energetic these days.” (Good for someone who is overwhelmed or depressed)
  • “You and I haven’t talked with this in ages and I wanted to catch up with you.” (Good for someone who’s withdrawn)
  • Mention something specific if you’ve got it, then go from there. “I heard that you lost your cat. I’m so sorry!” (That person might reveal something to you over the course of this conversation about how they are handling it)
  • “Are you keeping a journal? I always knew you’d be a good writer!” (Are they taking up a solitary hobby in order to withdraw? What are they writing about?)
  • “I LOVE your new outfit. Where did you get it?” (Are they making drastically different fashion choices? Often, when people buy new outfits, they reference recent body changes, like “I could have NEVER worn clothes like this when I was bigger!”)

NOTE:  It helps to reframe concerns as compliments because that person is more likely to talk if they don’t feel cornered. Do NOT come off as insincere, though. People can see through that. Even if you are not really in love with someone’s outfit, find at least one thing to like about it and comment on that.

Emotions and interests should be your focus, not appearancers and behaviors.

Let them talk — Let them say what they need to say. Don’t ask deep, probing questions because that will be awkward for them. Don’t make accusations. Even if you think someone isn’t totally being truthful, don’t press the issue. They will open up in time if nothing is going on that they are in denial about. If something IS going on, making accusations too soon can make them more defensive and more secretive. That’s when you talk to a professional. But we aren’t at that stage yet.

Let them be — Don’t choose a setting or an activity that is really triggering, but don’t strive for the opposite extreme either. If you think someone is taking an exercise regime too far, going to the gym might not be the best idea, but a leisurely walk would be okay. If you think someone has a binge eating problem, there is no need to prepare a big meal, but if someone wants that hamburger or a sundae, let them have it. Ultimately, their choices are their business. Getting in their face will send the conversation to Hell.

NOTE: How someone reacts to the setting can provide useful clues. Is that person visibly anxious about not using the treadmill?

Don’t get upset — You’ll upset that person in turn and they probably will not talk to you. You might say or do something that you regret.

Don’t give unsolicited advice — Nine times out of ten, when someone gives unsolicited advice, it is common sense advice that anyone could figure out and that that person has already tried. Giving unsolicited advice can make you sound condescending. Even when I was depressed, I used to HATE it when people would suggest that I do something I enjoy or go for a walk. People with depression don’t have the energy for walks and are no longer capable of enjoying old interests. Therein lies the problem. Remember, if that person wants advice, they will ask for it.

Give unique advice with that person’s direction — If someone asks you advice, first ask them what they have tried and what they would like advice on. Then give them suggestions they probably have not heard before. If you can’t think of good advice, refer that person to someone who knows more about the subject than you do. Now is not the time to quote self-help mantras like “step out of your comfort zone” (Christ Almighty, I HATE that line!)

Follow up — Meet again. Asking to meet again lets the person know you are interested. You cannot find out anything without making a few tries. Good luck.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 10:49 am

    Excellent advice, Joanna. This is a very thoughtful, positive set of suggestions. You are absolutely correct that a person’s weight is nobody’s business, and even more correct that weight fluctuations can be a sign of underlying mental or physical health issues. And I loved your advice about not giving cliched advice. I’m definitely guilty there and can think of people I’ve done this to off the top of my head. So, thank you for raising our awareness and educating us.

    Peace,
    Shannon

  2. Barb permalink
    December 21, 2011 2:28 pm

    I read on the BBC today that concerned relatives are to approach their loved ones over the holidays about their weight. Oh boy, I thought, how to ruin a day for the poor blighter. I mean seriously, those of us who are fat know it and really do not need to hear about it yet again. Massive changes maybe but even then I would not be so sure about the wisdom of intervening over the holidays– there are better times and places than an already potentially fraught family get together…

    On a similar note, I was invited to a neighbourhood tea the other day. I went, met some neighbours, and the hostess when I was leaving handed me her brochure. She’s a personal trainer. I’ve been thinking of polite ways to make my utter disinterest in her services clear without being rude (and yes I know she probably didn’t mean to come across as rude herself but when you hand a fat lady a personal trainer brochure…) I don’t feel any need to enlighten her that I’ve lost the recommended 10% for health improvement, or that I’ve kept it off for almost three years. I don’t feel the need to tell her my doctor is pleased with me as I am. I don’t feel the need to justify the remaining fat on me that keeps me looking pleasantly rounded when naked and not like a deflated baloon.In the end I think I will stick with “I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

    • December 21, 2011 3:22 pm

      Hi Barb,
      Welcome to Fierce Fatties. Oddly enough, I just flagged that article to comment. This would be complete opposite of what Joanna is suggesting. 🙂

      The only reason people are encouraged to mention something to their fat friends and relatives is to shame them. Do they really think fat people aren’t already aware of their own fatness? No, they know this, but they encourage comments anyway because they believe the shame of having it pointed out by others will motivate them to finally lose the weight.

      I’m glad you’re so comfortable in your own skin, though. So comfortable, in fact, that you didn’t feel compelled to respond, not out of shame, but because you just didn’t need to respond. That’s awesome. But who knows, maybe if you strike up a conversation with her about your experience she may listen and change her approach. You never know…

      Peace,
      Shannon

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