Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why other people care about your weight loss

Sometimes I feel quite fortunate to be losing weight in relative isolation. In fact, aside from my husband and those who read this blog, I never receive any unsolicited advice or input on what I'm doing. That's in no way some oblique way of saying I don't want commentary from those who are kind enough to read what I write, but rather that I often read from others how unwanted or unhelpful input often makes things that much harder for them and this got me thinking about how this hasn't been an issue for me.

For me, I live in a situation where people would not involve themselves in my business in this regard. I could talk about it with them if I chose to (though I don't), and they'd nod and smile and express that they were happy for me, but they would never comment on my progress or offer advice. It's just not what is done here. Luckily, I am insulated from even the busiest of bodies in this regard.

Lately, I've been pondering the forces that motivate people to involve themselves in the dietary habits and weight loss processes of others and think it is useful to keep such things in mind when receiving input from others. Here are the general (and broad) reasons I think people care about the weight loss of others:

1. genuine concern

This is the type of thing which is rare and comes from those who are close to you like your family members. They are emotionally invested in a deep and meaningful way in your life and health and want you to be well, fit and happy. However, such concern is not always unconditional.

2. empathy

Mainly this comes from those who also have struggled with weight and understand the difficulties that you are going through. They know your suffering because they have experienced similar feelings. Many people who read blogs and comment on them are motivated by empathy.

3. vested interest

These are people who have something to gain by your efforts. This is perhaps one of the more complex motivations because what a particular person has to gain is very personal, and can be highly abstract. This is the motivation I'll be discussing in greater detail later.

4. education

Some people simply want to know what others are doing and how effective or ineffective various approaches are considering the variables involved in a person's life.

No person who is interested in the weight loss of others fits discretely into any one category. Most people will belong to several, if not all of them. The main thing that tends to define whether their interest in your weight loss is a force for ill or good in terms of your life lies in their "vested interest". The truth is that most people are far less interested in you than in how your actions impact them. At all times, even when you seem to be the focus of their scrutiny, support, or attacks, it is not about you; it is about them.

When I talk about how your actions affect others, I don't mean merely the direct effects. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that people are just as troubled by that which challenges their thinking than that which directly changes their experiences or lives. This thought crystallized for me when I was pondering the oft-cited motivation for bitter responses to weight loss as being jealousy. I don't think people are jealous, but rather that they are threatened because your actions challenge their perspective about weight and lifestyle.

When I consider all of the facets of "vested interest", I come up with a lot of sub-categories of motivation for involving oneself in the outcome of another person's weight loss efforts:

1. schaudenfreude (shameful joy)

Some people like to watch others fail because it elevates them for their meager successes in life.

2. inspiration

People want you to succeed because it helps them feel that it is possible for them as well.

3. reflection

These are people who feel that your appearance reflects their value. More often than not, this is a spouse or partner who thinks other people will think they are a better catch because he or she has an attractive significant other. However, it can also be about someone who is thinner than you feeling that your change in appearance to one which is socially more acceptable will reflect on them by making them look less attractive by comparison. People want you to stay as you are so they're better by comparison.

4. validation

People who follow the same plan as you and want to see success so that they can feel they are on the right track and have a good chance of succeeding as well. Validation can also be about education or information gathering.

5. invalidation

People who are following different plans want to see you struggle or fail in order to make them feel their plan is a better choice. This is slightly different than schaudenfreude because this motivation is based in a somewhat different insecurity, though they are related. Invalidation, like validation, is sometimes about education or information gathering.

6. involvement/need for community

Some people, quite frankly, have too little going on in their real lives or lack a sufficient support network and add meaning by involving themselves in the lives of others. They want to help, and they believe that they are motivated by a desire to assist others, but the bottom line is that they need to talk about weight loss and fitness and are seeking an audience which is likely to appreciate their input. That is not to say that there is no genuine desire to be helpful, but rather that most people who get involved act first on their own need, and second to meet your needs.

I am by no means immune to acting on vested interests in this regard. I comment on other people's blogs for reasons "4", "5" and "6" on vested interest list as well as reasons "2", "3", and "4" on the general list.

I think that most negative responses to weight loss blogs are motivated by the need for validation/invalidation. That is, most people need to believe you will succeed or crash and burn in your efforts for various reasons. In regards to wanting to see your failure, often, that need is simply so that they can quiet their own cognitive dissonance about the status quo with their bodies. People believe they can't lose weight, and that you can't either. They think you're just fooling yourself and that you'll succeed for awhile and then regain, become dysfunctional, or live a very stressful and unbalanced life as a slave to your weight. The fact that, more often than not, they are correct, makes following the weight loss efforts of others a very good way of finding information to validate ones views and invalidate those of others.

"Jealousy" is not one of the reasons I think most people write scathing comments on weight loss blogs, though I think that there is an element of feeling like a failure while watching others succeed at something you desperately would like to succeed at, too. This element can often manifest in a what sounds like jealousy, but I think that it really is anger at ones own sense of "failure" turned outward. It really isn't about coveting your success. It's about their failure.

One thing I realize is that I'm very unfortunate to have to deal with a fairly oppressive climate which points out my weight and makes me feel like a freak at every turn. On the other hand, on a personal level, I don't have to deal with people involving themselves in my weight loss because none of them have a vested interest in the outcome either way. The only one who cares, and who I discuss it with in real life, is my husband and his interest is unconditionally about concern for my well-being and nothing more. He has no vested interests, aside from hoping I'll be healthier, stronger, and will spend more time with him.


NewMe said...

I am always impressed by your in-depth assessments and commentary.

I hope that I will always be perceived as a supportive voice. You have my greatest admiration.

Dinah Soar said...

I hoped over from Lyn's blog, Escape From Obesity. You have some interesting posts which I plan to read. Perusing them it appears you have a similar approach as I to weight loss. After losing 50 pounds twice and regaining all or most after 2-5 years, and after reading Intuitive Eating, Eating Mindfully, and a couple of Geneen Roth's books I devised my own plan, changing my relationship with food ultimately.

I thought it interesting that you apportion your calories per meal and snacks, which is what I do, and like you I went with 2-3-4..200 for breakfast, 300 for lunch, and 400 for the evening meal. I have 3 snacks in between meals if I am hungry, of 150 calories each.

I do not obsess over the calories--I try to stay within 5%-- and I also do not make a point to eat all of my alloted calories either--I now use hunger as my signal to eat, not what I am allowed.

I love goat cheese with a drizzle of honey and a couple of nuts broken up for breakfast, with 2 plain tea rusks, and coffee with milk. Divine.

One very important thing I've learned is that my diet must fit me, not vice versa. Too often have I started a diet I knew full well I could not live with day in and day out. I think it is key to find a method of eating that you are comfortable with and really enjoy so that you might continue for life and have life long success.

As a benefit to my body and mind approx. every 10 days I have a bigger eating day, where I indulge in some higher calorie fare for a meal or two. No blow it out of the water though--maybe an extra 500 calories.

screaming fatgirl said...

NewMe: Thank you for your kind comment, and I do perceive your comments as supportive! I think part of why I write these types of things is that inhabiting the whole scope of what others feel makes me empathize with their position, and see to what extent I share their motives (which in turn creates greater empathy and understanding).

Dinah: Greetings, and thank you for taking the time to comment and read. I've heard many people talk about Geneen Roth's books, but the truth is I had never heard of them and don't know what they're all about. However, it is my understanding that some of the principles I chose are ones that she recommends.

I think we all have to have our own plan that works for us, because we all have individual issues with food. My main approach is to deal with the mental aspects more than the physical ones, and to not be "extreme" in any way.

Given what you have said, it does appear we have a lot in common in how we deal with things. Like you, I don't go crazy about how many calories I eat either and have some variation, though I do have a target I generally aim at (1500). If I don't hit it, I don't really care as long as the direction is generally around 1300-1800. Most days, I hit it, but if I want to eat more (or less), I do.

I used to have to eat more at regular intervals, but that seems to have dropped off a lot compared to the past. It used to happen about once every few weeks, but these days tends to come along about once a month. I think as my weight drops and my overall demands for energy drop with it, it has changed that need to some extent. Like you, when I eat more, it's rarely more than 500 more (and usually more like 200-300), but I don't fret about it. I think having a sense of control at this point makes it easier to adopt a less dramatic posture at occasional days where I eat more or less.

Thanks again, to both of you!

Inner said...

During the comments from "American, the freedom to be anything but fat", I probably would have posted more and continuted the discussion, but I was actually concerned about my movitivation in wanting to continue the discussion. Did I want to help? Did I want to educate myself? (you're ability to zero in on points makes for an incredible discussion!) Was I trying to educate? Was I trying just to share? In the end, I decided it was purely for the pleasure of the intellectual exchange and dialogue, but I didn't feel I could continue the discussion via posting on your blog without my thoughts being aligned with a negative motivation. So I stopped :( I am very thankful that you post, and even more grateful that you let us comment. I want to remember and respect that this is still your "space." I've read a couple of blogs where the commenters just seem to go way beyond an acceptable boundry for some of the not so nice reasons you mention in this post, and it sort of takes the joy out of reading blogs. Thanks for another thought provoking and educational post. My Inner Svelte (MIS)

screaming fatgirl said...

Inner: Thank you for your comment, and for your thoughtfulness and discretion. I also have found that I have to question my motives and sometimes have to pull back on continuing to comment. There's a part of all of us that wants to pursue discussions perhaps past the point of what may be perceived as "helpful". The problem with internet-based discussions is that tone and intent are hard to determine, and depending on how the other parties receive a message, it can be seen as negative.

I've been in that position before - I've asked a question or made a comment with only curiosity or a desire to know more as a motive, and gotten a very negative response. The problem is that ones voice, even when it is the only one in your head, may or may not be part of a chorus the other person has been barely tolerating for some time, and you happen to be the unhappy final straw that snaps the camel's back. You have no way of knowing this though, since you may be late to the discussion or the criticism they receive is behind the scenes of their blog.

I'm sure that I have commented on other people's blogs in a way meant to be matter of fact, or even positive, but it has come across as negative. Even things like suggesting people have an open mind about their capacity to change (rather than adopting a black and white attitude of "I can never do this") can be perceived as a negative thing by some folks, and this is something I do suggest on occasion. It can be seen as disagreeing with them or even criticizing their perspective. It is not meant that way, but I have to be careful as well.

Polar's Mom said...

New to your blog-and I love this post. Very insightful...honestly I never thought about why I read others blogs and don't tell anyone but my husband about my current attempt to lose weight. Except that if I fail, I would rather not have to face their pitiful faces that I'm not sure are very truthful asking me 'what happened?'

I agree that some horrible people live for the schadenfreude in other's weight loss blogs, as I am also unfortunate to have to deal with them on a regular basis-the same people that look me up and down every time I see them. Unfortunately being fat has made me think there are more of these people out there than not-and I don't like the cynical fat me, other than for the self-preservation it allows.

Anyway, I am happy to have found your blog, and encourage you on your journey.

Polar's Mom