Living through our teen years comes with all sorts of changes and adjustments, so it's normal to face some emotional ups and downs. If a person is struggling with extra weight, it can add to these emotions.
Of course, not everyone who is overweight is worried or upset about it. Lots of us know confident, happy people who are overweight — and thin, fit people who are insecure. But because people often feel pressure to look a certain way, teens with weight issues are more likely to feel misunderstood or isolated.
To people who aren't overweight or who don't understand, being overweight can seem like a simple problem ("Hey, you're just not eating right or exercising enough!") with a simple solution ("Hey, just eat less or exercise more!"). That's not helpful, and it can often make people feel like extra weight is their fault — which of course it's not. If losing weight were simple, no one would be in the situation of staying overweight. So it's natural to feel frustrated, angry, or upset. Being aware of difficult emotions is the first step in dealing with them.
It takes practice to recognize emotions. Sometimes they can be so sudden and powerful that it's hard to sort out exactly what you're feeling. The best way is to pause and pay attention for a moment when you first notice yourself feeling upset. Try to acknowledge exactly what emotion you're feeling without judging yourself. That means saying to yourself, "I feel angry [or sad, or frustrated]" instead of, "It's stupid to get so mad about something this small."
If you're upset but aren't quite sure why, it can help to talk to someone you trust, like a close friend, family member, or counselor. Talking things over can also help people figure out how to deal with powerful emotions.
If it's hard to talk about your feelings or you think people won't understand, keep a journal, draw or paint, or do something else that helps you sort through difficult emotions. The more you take time to explore your feelings, the more skilled you become at coping with emotions as they come up. That can make it easier to find solutions to problems.
Here are some of the more common issues that affect people who are overweight, along with ideas on what to do.
Many people who are overweight worry about what others think. When people judge you unfairly, it can make you feel like it's your fault — which of course it's not. Well-meaning parents, siblings, or friends can sometimes make things worse by making "suggestions" about food or exercise. Of course, all that does is keep a person's mind focused on weight, which doesn't help.
Some teens who are overweight get teased, and bullying can be a real problem. It's just another example of how other people don't fully understand what it's like to be overweight. Those who are overweight have worries and concerns that others don't even realize, like fitting into a seat in the auditorium, shopping for clothes that are in style, or being able to keep up in gym class.
Sometimes physical discomfort or fear of rejection and being judged might make people who are overweight shy away from socializing or doing things they enjoy. But the best thing to do is to put yourself in social situations to take your mind — and other people's — off your weight and back onto you as a person.
Social Concerns: What You Can Do
A great way to ease into being more social is to volunteer for something you really like doing. The people you volunteer with will share the same interests, so you'll all be focused on a common goal. They'll come to know you for your skills and achievements, not your weight!
Joining school extracurricular activities is another good idea. If you want to meet people outside school, find out what's going on at the library, the YMCA, or a local drama group.
Remember that everyone feels shy when stepping into a new situation, even people who seem really confident. You may want to find a friend to join and support you when trying new activities. But even if you can't, it shouldn't take long to feel more comfortable.
When it comes to friends, focus on building one or two close friendships. Knowing that you have a couple of true friends who are always there for you can help anyone deal with life's ups and downs. A support system of a few true friends can help buffer any bullying or demeaning comments.
But what about when friends and family aren't giving you the support you need? If you feel pressured or misunderstood by friends or family, explain — gently — how you feel. For example, tell them it doesn't help when they suggest you eat like someone else or when they compare you with another person. Let people know what you appreciate (such as praise when you do well) and what you don't like (such as comments about weight or lecturing about food or exercise). If you explain your feelings calmly and rationally, family members or friends will be more likely to listen.
If You're Bullied
If you're being teased or bullied, talk to friends or write in a journal about how people's comments make you feel. Then use positive statements about yourself to get past the hurt and remind you of your good qualities. For example, if a bully says, "You're fat!" say to yourself: "My weight is not what I wish it would be, but I am a kind, interesting person." (If you decide to say something back to the bully, you could say: "My weight is not what I wish it would be, but thanks for your input.")
Sometimes ignoring teasing, bullying, and inappropriate comments is the best approach. But if the situation is really getting you down, you may want to stand up for yourself. The best way to do this is to speak back confidently. Say positive things about yourself and talk about your strengths without confronting the person in a way that might make things worse.
If you are being bullied, try not to let your anger take over. Reacting with aggression shows the bully that he or she has hit a nerve — and that may just make the bullying worse. Losing your temper also can make you feel less powerful and in control.
If you feel you can't stand up to teasing and bullying on your own, it's OK to ask for a little help. You might want to talk to a school counselor, parent, religious leader, or other trusted adult and ask for ideas on how to handle hurtful comments as they happen. Going to an adult for help will also help alert someone else to what you're going through.
Some people who are overweight have very good self-esteem. They are able to focus on their accomplishments and take pride in themselves. But lots of people who struggle with weight issues also struggle with low self-esteem — especially when other people can be so unkind about weight issues.
The amount of time it takes to lose weight, and the natural tendency to slip up occasionally, can leave people feeling discouraged and disappointed. This can lead to self-criticism, anger, or even guilt about letting friends or family down.
When we have negative thoughts and feelings about our bodies and what they can do, these feelings may overflow into other areas of life. Negative thoughts can affect a person's self-image and make it difficult to accomplish goals. For example, someone who thinks "I can't do this" or "Why bother, I'll always be overweight" may have a harder time losing weight. This is one reason why it's important to recognize any negative emotions and work hard to change them.
Sometimes, difficult feelings — and constant worry over food — make a person eat more. But there is a way to break the cycle and build healthier self-esteem.
Self-Esteem Issues: What You Can Do
Start by loving yourself. If you feel tempted to put your body or yourself down, focus instead on your talents and things you do well.
Another great way to boost self-esteem is to accomplish goals that you set for yourself. If you're trying to lose weight, make your goals about changing behaviors, not about losing weight. Set small, realistic goals and then check in regularly to watch your progress. For example, your goal may be to pack a healthy lunch one day a week.
Another way to feel good about yourself is to find others who support you. Talk to them about how you feel and how they can help (even if you just need them to listen and understand).
Your doctor is another wonderful resource. Ask a parent to make an appointment so you can talk to your doctor about weight management and advice on the types of exercises you can do. Your doctor may also be able to refer you to a dietician for help with meal planning. A school nurse is another great resource for ideas on how to take charge of your health.
When confidence fades and self-esteem takes a beating, it's harder to stick with a weight loss program. It's no wonder that people who are overweight can lose heart and become depressed.
If you think you may be depressed, tell someone. It's especially important to tell a parent or other trusted adult (like a school counselor or religious leader) if you often find yourself thinking about dying or suicide.
There's no doubt that being overweight can be hard, both physically and emotionally. But there are ways to feel better, including being aware of emotions, thinking positively, and finding others to support us. And feeling better about ourselves can help us to lose weight.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014