How to talk about weight… with love

Is someone close to you overweight and you’re worried about bringing up the subject for fear of hurting them? Take a gentle approach, says YOU’s relationships expert Caroline West-Meads.

How to get a good friend to open up

We all want to be kind. We don’t want to upset the people we care about. So when friends turn to us and say, ‘I’m so fat!’ or, ‘I’ve put on loads of weight!’ our first impulse can be to shut down the conversation with, ‘No you’re not!’ or ‘I hadn’t noticed!’– even though you both know that really isn’t true. Some people are scared to talk about difficult things so they try to avoid the subject when actually the most helpful thing to do might be to discuss it.

So is there a more helpful response to that friend concerned about her weight? I would be very cautious of telling anyone directly that I was worried they were overweight unless I knew them extremely well. Because if people are overweight, they tend to know that they are and sadly this often causes them a lot of distress. Of course some people have medical conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome or medications that mean they can’t control their weight or may have an eating disorder, either past or present.

But if a friend raises the issue themselves, help them to open up a little more. Try asking questions. ‘How do you feel about that?’ ‘Does that worry you a lot?’ ‘Do you find that difficult?’ You could explore with them how it has happened. Obesity is complicated, there are so many causes, but research shows that people tend to eat more in response to stress, loneliness and anger and then it can become habit forming. They turn to food for comfort and this makes it worse. So you need to help them find the underlying cause. Is it stress? Are they unhappy at work or in their relationship? What do they think makes it worse? Are they caught in a cycle?

Getty Images, Chris O’Donovan

There are no quick fixes or magical solutions. The real key is building up self-esteem so that they can start to gradually make lifestyle changes that can help them. I’m generally against diets because so many people find them difficult to stick to and that just induces more guilt and shame. It is also really counterproductive to have ‘banned’ foods because that can set up cravings. Everything in moderation is a good mantra. Instead, emphasise to your friend that there’s no pressure, there’s no hurry. You might say, ‘I can understand you may feel you weigh a bit more than you want to and that’s hard, but whatever you do, don’t punish yourself. Do not beat yourself up about it. If you pile on bad feelings, you will feel worse and eat more, so forgive yourself. You also need to know that being a little bit heavier than you would like to be does not make you one fraction less attractive and a wonderful friend.’

You could encourage them to build more exercise into their life. Again, go gently because if the goals are too unrealistic, they won’t meet them. A lot of people who are overweight are too embarrassed to go to the gym or wear a swimming costume – and wasting money on membership and expensive workout clothes that they then barely use just compounds feelings of failure.

Sometimes, if people are very overweight, they can also find exercise physically uncomfortable. But you could just suggest going for walks with your friend. Almost anyone can start with walking just 20 minutes a day. You don’t need fancy kit and you don’t need to factor in time to shower afterwards. It becomes habitual. Very soon 20 minutes becomes 30 and then 40 minutes or more. The beauty of exercise is that it is a double benefit because it greatly improves mental health – studies have shown it to be very effective in reducing anxiety and depression. So if your friend’s emotional health is boosted, they will start to feel better about themselves and might not turn to food so much for comfort. It becomes a positive cycle. I loathe gyms and I was rubbish at school sports (I’m mildly dyspraxic and it is really quite amusing watching me trying to catch or hit a ball) but for many years I have made sure I walk at least 40 minutes a day and I swim a couple of times a week. It keeps me fit as well as keeping my stress levels down.

You can also encourage your friend to take a different look at her appearance. I see a lot of people who are overweight hiding in baggy clothing; they stop bothering, they ‘give up’. If you can help someone feel better about their appearance, the chances are they’ll be more able to make the lifestyle changes they need. Suggest treating you both to a session with a department store personal shopper – someone who’ll help find clothes that suit their shape – or a makeover, or an appointment with a fantastic hairdresser. Maybe it could be a birthday gift.

Obesity problems are difficult to fix. If your friend is opening up, suggest that a counsellor can be a helpful way to explore causes and find techniques to change behaviour and self-esteem. In the meantime, be the friend who helps them see they can still feel fabulous, and still be fabulous. There’s a lot more to them than just their body.

What to say to your husband or boyfriend

Raising a weight issue with a partner is a little different – and so much depends on personality types. You’ll know if your partner responds well to being helped or not. Concentrate on fitness rather than weight or appearance, and always start with love and compassion. Don’t frame it like an ultimatum. Start by telling him how much you love him and will always love him. Tell him that because of this you want him to live for a very long time, and you are a little concerned that he is not as healthy as he could be. Maybe you’ve noticed that he gets breathless more easily, or that he has much less energy than he used to.

Again, try to root out the causes – it’s very rarely ‘greed’ or ‘laziness’. Certain changes in life can trigger weight gain – a new job, a baby, empty nest, redundancy, retirement. It’s worth looking at how much is connected to alcohol and whether it’s the drinking you really need to address. If you do feel he is drinking too much, talk about why. Is his job very stressful and can you look at ways the two of you can reduce that stress? Can he change the way he works, make more time for things he loves to do, old hobbies or interests that have got lost along the way? Let your partner offload and really listen. Then, together, think about the things that you can change.

Ask how you can help him. If you could also benefit from improving your fitness, look at things you could do as a couple – cycling, swimming, walking. Could you both serve up smaller portions?

It’s hard to shift a habit and if you’re not careful, adding pressure can create panic, anxiety and guilt – all of which can lead to more weight gain. Make sure that there’s no blame attached. You’re there to help, not judge.

How to talk to your wife or girlfriend

A woman’s weight is unfortunately often massively connected to her self-esteem – far more so than it is for most men. On the whole, women are judged more than men on their body and appearance – and it can be a source of great insecurity. There is sadly a common perception that thin is more attractive, but I can think of many women who are not slim but who are utterly gorgeous. Being attractive is much more about warmth, humour, confidence and being comfortable in your own skin.

Many women ask their partners if they are overweight on a regular basis. It’s the classic: ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ or ‘Does this dress make me look fat?’– and many men struggle to answer. Lack of confidence in their appearance is often one of the underlying reasons why women go off sex or insist on having the lights off; they feel bad about their bodies. So when a woman asks her partner if she looks fat, she is seeking reassurance – not really about her weight but for the fear beneath that. She needs reassurance that you still love or fancy her.

The best response is something like, ‘You look fabulous to me’. Then gently add, ‘You know, you often ask me if you look OK, or if I think you have put on weight, so I’m wondering if you’re worried about it. I love the way you look, but if you feel as though you want to be fitter or healthier or if you feel bad about your body, then perhaps I can help you with that. Maybe we could both get a little fitter?’ It’s a loving, comforting response that will help her to think about change.

As told to Anna Moore.