Mental Health and Weight Gain: A Vicious Cycle

Holly Slater

For some, being curvy means feeling bold and beautiful. It means feeling more confident and unapologetically comfortable in their own skin.

Confidence is inherently attractive, and those who find their extra curves to be a reflection of their happiest, healthiest selves carry an air of magnetism and charm I only wish I could pull off.

For others, like me, being overweight is just another item in a long list of signs that I’m losing the battle with some of my greatest struggles. Things like addiction, anxiety, and clinical depression.

My excess weight means my binge eating disorder is becoming a daily habit, I’m drinking heavily several nights a week, and I’m going from sitting at my desk all day to parking my butt on the couch all night, with only enough mental capacity to switch between episodes of Shameless and nostalgic Lifetime movies.

In other words, when my weight is this high, it’s because I’m struggling with my mental health.

My excess weight is a symptom of my bodily systems gone wrong — not a statement of body positivity or self-love. In fact, my particular brand of weight struggle is a direct result of self-hate.

And I need help.

A vicious cycle

For the past four years, I’ve been overweight. At 5 feet 6 inches and about 195 pounds, my body mass index (BMI) clocks in at 31.5 — which puts me in the obese category.

Nowadays it’s pretty common knowledge that BMI is, without question, problematic. It’s not the best indicator of our weight as it relates to overall health, because it doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle mass. There are other flaws too, like the fact that the BMI calculation is based mainly on white body types and isn’t always a good fit for other ethnicities.

I’m a long-distance uphill runner, and though I’m obese (I guess?) and not as consistently active as I’d like to be, I do have a ton of muscle in my legs and booty.

But according to fitness coach Brock Armstrong, most Americans with a BMI in the overweight or obese range carry around too much fat in relation to muscle, and I’m no exception. My belly fat is disproportionately high, a body shape medically referred to as adiposity. And studies show that my larger waist-to-hip ratio puts me at a greater heart attack risk factor later on.

A few years ago, I had an active job as a cook at my son’s daycare, and my weight hovered around 125 to 130. That’s a good bit of difference compared to where I am now, and I’m not nearly as physically comfortable at this weight.

But, beyond discomfort, my climbing weight is also a dangerous red flag for my physical and mental health. I have a history of binge eating and bulimia. One of the other reasons I’ve gained weight, other than a change of job, is the fact that I managed to get a handle on the purging.

As harmful as it is to make yourself throw-up several times a week over the course of 8 years or so, there’s also a slight downside to stopping — and it’s the fact that I still have a problem with the binging.

Don’t get me wrong, bulimia is a nasty and dangerous mental illness. It’s just that — so is a binge eating disorder. I binge eat and drink in an effort to cope with my stress, depression, anxiety, apathy, and — as we continue to navigate this ongoing pandemic, loneliness.

My weight keeps climbing, and as a result, I’m becoming more susceptible to health issues connected to obesity. I also feel myself slowly becoming more susceptible to falling into old purging habits.

My willpower has been zapped. My addiction to food and booze has made me gain weight. And my weight gain has made it more difficult for me to find the energy to work on my diet and exercise. It’s become a vicious cycle, and I still haven’t figured out how to break it.

Crying for help

You know when someone asks you, “How are you doing?,” and you feel the need to edit your answer depending on how close you are to the person?

I know how to keep it to polite small talk with co-workers and other professional interactions when I need to. But sometimes, when my friends are asking, I find it hard to feed them a complete and utter lie. A lie like, “Doing good! How are you?”

There have been times when I’ve told the people who seem to care about me a little bit of the truth. I’ve tried to share my weight issues and my struggle with maintaining a healthy diet, but the people I’m close to are quick to immediately tell me not to worry. They are incredibly positive and jump straight to telling me how amazing I look. They don’t bother to dig deeper and ask: “Why are you feeling that way?”

I’ve had friends balk when I’ve admitted I gained 60 pounds.

“Well, you must have been way too skinny back then!” is one of the more popular answers.

They shower me in praise and body positivity. They hit me over the head with it. It’s better than someone being cruel about it, right? Or discriminating against me?

But some try to make me feel guilty for worrying about such a superficial thing as my weight — and that’s a problem. They’re actually hurting me with their push to love my fat body, because they’re ignoring my anguish.

Even though I tell them, in so many words, that accepting my fat body is inherently dangerous, the friends I try to confide in always ignore my pleas and pass them off as casual, superficial complaints.

But these are not casual, superficial complaints. They are painful and emotional cries for help.

Health at every size

As a woman, a feminist, and a general practitioner of kindness and empathy, it pains me to read about and witness fat discrimination. Even though I’m overweight, I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience it for myself. All my bullies made fun of me for other flaws in my looks, but my weight wasn’t one of them.

Though I’ve never had to go through it, I’m aware that fat discrimination is alive and well today.

Women who are overweight turn to doctors for help and find an enemy. Fat folks of every gender are victims of cruel harassment, both on social media and in real life. And the weight loss or “health and wellness” industry continues pounding the pavement with products that are useless at best or dangerous at worst, making millions off people like me who are struggling with body insecurity and mental illness.

Shaming anyone for their looks or their weight is a disgusting act, one that reeks of inner hostility and insecurity. Organizations like The Fat Underground, a catalyst of the Fat Liberation movement, believed that women come in all shapes and sizes, and so too should feminism.

We believe that fat people are fully entitled to human respect and recognition. We are angry at the mistreatment by commercial and sexist interests. These have exploited our bodies as objects of ridicule, thereby creating an immensely profitable market selling the false promise of avoidance of, or relief from, that ridicule.
“Fat Liberation Manifesto,” Judy Freespirit and Sara Aldebaran. (November 1973)

To this end, I fully support and encourage what has evolved into the fat acceptance movement and concepts like Health at Every Size, which recognizes that “health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors, requiring a social and political response.”

But, as with any societal movement or push to activism, we have to educate ourselves if we’re going to join in. It’s not healthy to sit around day in and day out, eating the worst possible foods and drinking all the alcohol.

Health at Every Size means just that. Every size. Fat, skinny, or mildly chubby. I may not be in the morbidly obese category, but I’m not healthy. In fact, there are women who weigh a lot more than me and are actually healthier.

We have to take into account things like genetics and family health history. For my particular health situation, accepting and loving my excess weight brings with it a danger to myself and those I love most.

My dad is on medication for high cholesterol. When my son was only 9 years old, I found out he might also have to go on cholesterol medication if we didn’t radically change his diet and increase his exercise. For him, losing weight would bring his cholesterol down.

Imagine, as a mother, encouraging your young child to lose weight while also trying not to give them a weight complex. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure.

And me? I’m on the line too. At this weight, my blood pressure is high, but still below the point where I need medication. Same with my cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Every time I go to the doctor, I’m advised I need to “watch” my diet. I’m in the watch zone.

But I need start doing more than just watching my not-so-great vitals get worse.

I need to start taking action.

Love more, judge less

Let’s get real. I don’t want to love my fat body, and I don’t want to accept it. But I’m fine with those who want to, and I won’t judge them for taking the path that makes them happy. We all need more love and less judgment.

At my current weight, I feel a major lack of energy. I feel unhappy, anxious, and far more stressed. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin — the opposite of confident.

Being overweight kills my libido. I don’t want to be intimate with my partner. I don’t even want him to see me naked.

Being fat also affects my motivation. I have more trouble focusing on my work, keeping my house clean, and being a good mom.

It also makes it very, very difficult to shave my legs and…other areas. It’s a little thing, I know, but I just want to be able to maintain my body hair comfortably. Who doesn’t?

I think it’s accurate to say that I would benefit from enlisting the help of a good therapist. I saw one once when I was 12, and I was lucky enough to have four sessions. By the end of it, I had an anxiety disorder diagnosis and the very beginnings of the help I needed.

At 34, I very much would like to go back into therapy. So many of us who are struggling would benefit from it. Especially during these dark days.

On the other hand, I’m scared of it. What if I commit to a therapist who isn’t a great fit? What if I spend a ton of money I don’t have, and I don’t get the help I need?

All I can do is try, and see what comes of it.

It’s a mad, mad world out there. Fat acceptance is a much-needed movement and has its place, to be sure. But in the end, we all need to do what makes us happy and healthy. We need to pursue the goals that will make us feel the most like ourselves.

And, most importantly, we need to love — without judgment. Let’s love ourselves more, and love each other more.

Feature image by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

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