We are constantly inundated with messages that tell us that unintentional weight gain is bad and unwanted. Think about the many times you were “warned” about the side effects of a medication. For instance, some of the side effects of a certain antidepressant include the following: insomnia, tremors, hot flashes, dizziness, anxiety, and…weight gain. The reasoning why someone wouldn’t want to experience most of these side effects is obvious – because they can cause physical, psychological, or functional impairment. However, weight gain in itself does not seem to fit with these other adverse consequences. While societal messages might tell us that weight gain is terrible, or we make up that our weight gain reflects some negative quality or implication about us, for a majority of people, it is not an actual adverse effect that must be feared or shamed. We just perceive it as such. That being said, if you have gained weight for whatever reason, here are some things you should do:
Weight gain is a natural process of the body and does not need to be “fixed.” You should not feel obligated to lose pounds to fit an ideal body size, whether one you’ve created for yourself or others have imagined for you. You can exist in this body with the added weight. Now, this does not mean that doing so will be easy. Unfortunately we live in a society that very blindly values body size and shape. But that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to these superficial ideals. I’m giving you permission to live in and accept your body with extra weight. Moreover, here are some things you can do if you’ve gained weight: Enjoy your life. Keep living it in whatever way makes you feel happy. Pursue your passions and hobbies. Surround yourself with the people whom you love. Step out of your comfort zone and take risks. If you’ve gained weight, I am urging you to continue living your life in whatever way is congruent with your true values and desires, and not based on an arbitrary societal prototype of health or beauty.
Moreover, I want to be sensitive to individuals who may be experiencing health concerns because of weight gain. I see you and empathize with your circumstances and feelings surrounding needing to lose weight to be healthier – whether that means improving your cardiovascular health or increasing your mobility. If you are one of these individuals and are considering losing weight to better your overall health, remember that doing so is your choice and not an obligation simply because you put on weight.
Consider an underlying medical condition.
If you notice you have gained weight unintentionally and for whatever reason, are concerned about this, sometimes it’s worth looking into the presence of an existing medical concern that could otherwise be left unaddressed. For instance, weight gain, sluggishness, and lethargy are symptoms that can be indicative of hypothyroidism, meaning that the thyroid does not produce enough hormone. Weight gain and infertility can be symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a hormonal disorder causing enlarged ovaries with cysts. Subsequently, weight gain in itself is not wrong, harmful, or shameful in itself, but may be the product of an otherwise harmful yet inconspicuous disease.
Consider a mental health disorder.
Weight gain can also be a symptom or consequence for someone who is experiencing psychological distress. For instance, someone who is struggling with depression may encounter changes in appetite, which could ultimately lead to unintentional weight gain. Such body changes may also be the result if someone is using their relationship with food to cope with psychological distress. For example, engaging in emotional eating to cope with stress and undesired feelings could lead to weight gain. Furthermore, binge eating behaviors, in which the individual consumes large amounts of food in a discrete time period and feels unable to control this process, may signify an eating disorder or some type of dysfunctional relationship with food, or other comorbid mental health conditions. In these instances, weight gain could indicate that the individual is dealing with some underlying psychological concern – in this case, the psychological distress can be addressed so the individual can experience better emotional regulation and quality of life; the weight gain in itself is not the problem or the need to seek treatment. The distress behind it is what’s important.
Thus, weight gain may signify absolutely nothing other than the body undergoing natural changes, or, depending on the amount of weight loss and duration, could be a red flag that the individual is wrestling with some type of medical condition or mental health disorder. Subsequently, gaining weight, in itself, does not need to be something that causes fear, shame, anxiety, and obsession. There is nothing we need to do if we find ourselves gaining weight, even if society instills in our minds that weight gain is disappointing and must be undone. If you find yourself experiencing changes in your body weight, shape, or size, try to allow yourself to honor whatever your body is going through, and be curious rather than judgmental about this process.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates Virtual Body Image Groups for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are experiencing body image distress or any other psychological turmoil related to a chronic illness, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.