During childhood, SparkPeople member Katie* endured all sorts of abuse about her weight. Eventually, she grew up, finished college, found a good job, got married and had children, her weight fluctuating throughout the years.
In the 1980s, Katie was carrying 260 pounds on her 5'2" frame. She knew she was very overweight, but tried her best to not care—or not think about—whether people were judging her. "As long as I didn't know their thoughts, I figured I was fine with it," she says.
But then came the day when she visited a hardware store with her husband. As they were talking to the owner about what they needed, the owner's wife struck up a conversation with Katie.
Suddenly, she said, "You have a lovely face."
At first, Katie felt gratified by what seemed to be a nice compliment. Just as she opened her mouth to thank the woman, there came the kicker: "...so why don't you lose that weight so everyone can see how pretty you are?"
Although the woman didn't use the word "fat" itself, the meaning was clear as a bell. Katie was shocked into silence, her mind reeling. She whispered to her husband, "We need to leave." Back in the car, Katie burst into tears and cried so hard that it took awhile for her to be able to explain to her husband what had happened.
"We never went to that store again, but it didn't make me feel better," she recalls.
Katie's experience was shocking and hurtful, but sadly, it wasn't unique. Every day, countless people are shamed, ridiculed and judged, either directly or indirectly, as a result of comments about their weight. No matter how determined and motivated someone is, a single spoken criticism can be enough to elicit crippling self-doubt and bring progress to a screeching halt.
How Hurtful Words Affect Weight Loss
Psychologist Dr. Kathryn Smerling notes that these types of comments can potentially have a lifetime effect on their target. "Hurtful comments could lead to eating disorders, and will definitely have an effect on someone's self-esteem," she says. "They may feel self-conscious, embarrassed and ashamed."’
In some cases, Dr. Smerling says, this type of criticism and judgment can cause people to internalize their feelings and eat more, using food as a source of comfort. Others may externalize by getting angry and lashing out at the person who has hurt them. Over time, they could react with feelings of self-loathing.
These types of hurtful experiences can bleed into other areas outside of weight loss, as well. "If you can't master weight loss, then perhaps you assume you're not great at anything else, like work or relationships," says Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., author of "Think, Act and Be Happy."
"The word 'fat' might seem like something you can't change; it leads to a feeling of hopelessness, and makes people feel like they just want to throw in the towel."
When Teresa (TEXASHSMOMOF3) received hurtful comments about her weight, they were often a trigger for emotional eating. "I smiled big, blinked back the tears and then ate something as soon as I could," she admits—the perpetuation of a vicious cycle.
Even if someone has made significant progress toward a goal, being called or referred to as "fat"—or even a more politically correct euphemism, like "heavyset," "husky" or "portly"—is enough to send them into a downward spiral and cause them to abandon their efforts.
But you don't have to let a three-letter word derail your progress. While you can't control people's comments, you can control how you react to them.
Healthier Ways to Respond to Hurtful Comments
1. Recognize that it stems from insecurity.
In high school, SparkPeople member KATBRUNNER recalls a time during gym class when she had to change into gym shorts. During class, an athletic boy looked at her bare legs with an air of disgust, said "She has absolutely no muscle definition," rolled his eyes and laughed with his friends.
"I just remember feeling so ashamed of myself," she shares. "I was already so self-conscious, but that made it so much worse. It has taken me over 25 years to get over that. Even now, I think there is part of that conversation that I still hold inside."
Over the years, though, Kat has come to realize that the boy's problem wasn't with her, but most likely with his own insecurities, as he often pointed out negative things about others to make himself feel better.
Kat's advice to anyone who experiences being referred to as "fat" is to reach deep within to find their confidence. "Know that your shape does not reflect the person you are and what you have to offer the world," she says. "Words hurt, there is no way around that, but when other people call you out for being overweight or fat, just realize that their issue is theirs, not yours. Their opinion is irrelevant."
During her lifelong battle with her weight, Debbie F., a member of SparkPeople’s Facebook group from Cincinnati, Ohio, has fielded countless negative comments from strangers, friends and family members. One of the most frustrating was "You're so pretty for a fat girl." There was a time when such words greatly bothered her, but eventually Debbie came to the conclusion that a person can change their physical appearance quite easily, but it's not so easy to change what's on the inside. "People who call others fat are truly ugly on the inside, and that's much worse than being called fat," she says. "I can change being fat."
2. Throw yourself into productive activities.
Instead of dwelling on negative comments, Dr. Dow suggests redirecting your focus to something you're good at, or something productive that you've been meaning to get done. "This will help you to take your mind off the rumination so you can move on as quickly as possible," he notes. This can be anything you enjoy that will add a positive element to your life, whether it's finishing a painting you've been working on, clearing out a junk drawer or making an overdue phone call.
To take it a step further, Dr. Dow suggests reminding yourself of three things you do well and three positive things you’ve done for your health.
Dr. Smerling suggests burning off that negative energy through a physical outlet, such as going for a run, meditating or doing yoga—anything that benefits the body while also calming the mind.
3. (Try to) brush it off.
Throughout her more than 20 years of being overweight, Dawn (PENNYLANE15) has been called "fat" to her face a handful of times. "It always seems like 'fat' is the worst thing a person can be—but when did it become such an awful word?" she asks. "It's always said with disgust or laughter and makes it seem like you're a bad person because you're not skinny. Fat doesn't always mean unhealthy and lazy, but to people who aren't fat, that's all they see."
Over time, Dawn has realized that the best way to deal with being called fat was to try her hardest to brush it off. "Your first instinct is to insult back, whether it's to the person who called you fat, or [by] agreeing with them and therefore insulting yourself," she says. "Don't give them that power to control your image."
Whenever someone tried to throw an insult Dawn's way, she would ignore them and mentally remind herself both that "fat" isn't a personality trait and she has so many other admirable characteristics.
4. Use it as a motivator.
When DIANEDOESSMILES saw a doctor for her chronic back pain, his response was, "It's because you're fat and your stomach is where you carry the weight. That's why your back hurts." Diane explained to him that her back had been hurting since a car accident a few years prior, before she was overweight, but he continued to insist that the extra pounds were to blame.
Although the doctor's comments made Diane angry, they also motivated her to prove him wrong. She has vowed to visit the doctor again after she has reached her goal weight. "We can turn hurtful words into motivational ones," Diane says.
SparkPeople member AUTUMN C is no stranger to hurtful comments about her weight. "One side of my family is thin and they are not so tolerant of the other side of my family, which tends to have a weight problem all around," she says.
Although Autumn believes no one should be subject to cruelty or allow someone else's words to make them feel inferior, she does think that being called "fat" can serve as a springboard to make a change. "If you are overweight, you must be willing to admit that; if you are not, you cannot fix it," she says. "Obesity or even being overweight is not healthy—not socially, emotionally or physically."
Now, when someone mentions that Autumn is overweight, she responds with, "Perhaps…but I'm working on that."
Teresa agrees that the bluntness of those types of comments can help to propel forward progress. "The word 'fat' stings. It hurts. It's embarrassing," Teresa says. "But you have to ask yourself: Is it true?"
In her case, Teresa felt it was. At 321 pounds, she was at the heaviest weight of her life. "I hated my life, but felt at a loss to make the change," she says. In her case, the hurtful words were the not-so-gentle nudge she needed to take action.
"The next time someone calls you 'fat,' don't let your emotions take control," Teresa suggests. "Stop, be objective and think about it. Are you fat? If so, then find the courage to do something about it. Find a group of like-minded people, reach out, ask for support, ask for help. Don't let that word destroy you—let it change you and make you better."
5. Learn to accept your body in every state.
Although it may seem like losing weight is the ultimate "comeback" to hurtful comments, clinical counselor Lisa Bahar points out that hitting your goal weight won't magically erase the emotional impact of being called fat.
"The goal in this area is body acceptance and self-love, no matter what the weight is—unless there is a medical necessity to lose for health-related concerns," she says. "The individual has to be their own nurturer, accepting of themselves and their body before they can change it."
Ironically, when a person reaches a state of self-care and self-love, Bahar has noticed that destructive activities, like binging and emotional eating, tend to decrease.
"The process may require that the individual seek out therapy and end destructive relationships, along with eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep and reducing mood-altering substances," she says.
6. Turn to a supportive community.
When someone's hurtful comments threaten to derail your motivation, seek out those who are supportive of your goals, accept you at any weight and reinforce your efforts with consistently positive messages. At SparkPeople, our community offers unconditional support and positivity.
When KATHYJO56 was called fat, she said it hurt, but she initially felt like she deserved it. "Now I know that I didn't," she says. "I just needed some loving help. I got that here on SparkPeople."
*Name has been changed or withheld per member's request