When it comes to weight and body image—especially in the context of a chronic condition such as obesity or diabetes—it can be easy to sense judgment around every corner. From your co-workers’ commentary at lunch, to “what I eat in a day” videos clogging your social media feed, to the way your doctor talks about how “compliant” you are with your health management guidelines, it can seem downright impossible to avoid feelings of guilt or shame.
Chauntel Herrod, for example, knows how it feels to be “the odd person out” at the dinner table.
“Personally, with my weight loss story, I always got attention just for making healthy choices,” shares Herrod, a lifestyle coach and certified diabetes prevention specialist. Sometimes that attention was intended to be positive, she says, but it all boiled down to being “pointed out for being different.”
“If you’re not okay with being different, then it’s going to be that much harder for you to really change for your health,” she explains.
In fact, it probably is impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others or bypass their judgment altogether. But what we do have control over is how we handle shame when it does come our way.
Navigating Social Shame About Your Body Weight and Health Condition
It’s already challenging to brush off unsolicited comments about your weight or your health from friends and co-workers. But thanks to social media, many of us fall into a trap of constantly comparing ourselves to others (oftentimes, total strangers) each time we pick up our phone.
“It can be a subconscious thing we do,” says Herrod. “We think about what we don’t have or what we can’t do or what we don’t look like.”
Subconscious or not, these comparisons can impact how we think about ourselves. Study after study shows a link between social media use and negative body image, with weight stigma on social platforms being especially difficult for those living with health issues such as obesity or diabetes.
In some ways, though, messages about body image on social media are improving. Some research shows that exposure to body-positive content on social media—which challenges mainstream beauty ideals and encourages acceptance of all body types—can promote a healthy body image.
“Social media is getting better these days; more people are complimenting each other, which invites us to do the same for ourselves,” says Herrod. “But it’s really hard because you still see a lot of people only posting their highlight reels, or only sharing what’s going well, which can leave you thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have that.’”
Which, by the way, is okay, she continues. It’s completely normal to feel insecure at times about any number of things. But the key is to be comfortable and okay with that insecurity when it creeps in, and to recognize it as a temporary feeling, says Herrod. “When you allow it to be okay, you can invite yourself to really notice what your body does for you, and you can start appreciating it.”
Shame at the Doctor’s Office
In a perfect world, your doctor is there to help you, educate you, and support you in your health journey, regardless of what it looks like.
Unfortunately, though, for many people living with a chronic weight-related condition such as obesity or diabetes (especially people of color), doctor’s appointments can often be riddled with shame, judgment, and condescension. Research suggests that some doctors show less respect to patients with obesity compared to those without the chronic condition. Among people with diabetes, studies show that healthcare professionals tend to focus more on what their patients are doing “wrong” instead of what they’re doing right, with little positive encouragement along the way. In some cases, folks with diabetes (including types 1 and 2) actually avoid sharing full details of their condition with their doctors “because they fear judgment or blame,” according to one study.
Even the language around chronic conditions can carry shame, notes Herrod. For example, some doctors might tell their patients they are diabetic or obese, while others might instead say they’re living with diabetes or obesity. The latter, explains Herrod, can feel much less judgmental and permanent. In fact, research shows that using people-first language to describe our health, rather than labeling ourselves based on our condition, can positively change our attitude and behavior as it relates to our self-care.
How to Overcome Shame, No Matter Where You Encounter It
Whether it’s coming from a friend, your Instagram feed, your doctor, or even your own stream of consciousness, shame will always exist in one form or another. But, ultimately, it’s up to us to handle those challenges with grace, and figure out healthy ways to cope and respond. Here are some of Herrod’s tips for overcoming shame that you can use whether you're living with diabetes, obesity, or both.
- Acknowledge it. “If you have a negative thought about yourself, acknowledge it, and put it somewhere—literally,” suggests Herrod. Maybe you’ll write it down on a sticky note, or perhaps you’ll text your One Drop coach. Either way, the goal is to take these thoughts and feelings outside of your mind, and then really look at them and think about what they mean, explains Herrod. “You’re going to read it and think, ‘Dang, did I actually say that about myself? Would I allow somebody else to say that to me?’ Probably not, right?” From that point, continues Herrod, you can come up with more positive, or at least neutral, thoughts to counter the negativity.
- Arm yourself with knowledge. Shame is essentially a result of feeling embarrassed about having done something “wrong.” So, one way to protect against the effects of shame is to educate yourself. Read as much as you can (the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists and the Obesity Action Coalition have a variety of free resources to peruse), question what you read, and ask as many questions as you need to, whether you’re at a doctor’s appointment or chatting with your One Drop coach.
Use data to your advantage instead of letting numbers control you. For instance, when it comes to weighing yourself, you get to choose how you are going to use that information. The purpose is to know what’s happening in your body, so you can take care of yourself. And, no matter what the numbers show you, they don’t define you. “Your weight will fluctuate if you’re dehydrated, for example, but that doesn’t mean that’s who you are,” explains Herrod. You can also note how positive diet and physical activity changes are affecting not just your weight, but also your breathing, stamina, mental clarity, mood, blood sugar and blood pressure values, even the way your clothes fit.
Compare yourself to yourself, not others. Chronic weight-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes affect millions of people, but that doesn’t mean every person’s experience looks the same. So, you can compare yourself to others as much as you want, but at the end of the day, your body still functions in a way that’s unique to you and only you. Instead, the best reference points for your progress can be found in your own health history and habits, explains Herrod. “If your weight fluctuates one week, for example, instead of comparing yourself to someone else, you can say to yourself: ‘Okay, this is where I’m at. Why did this happen? Am I dehydrated? Stressed? Sleep-deprived? What is my body telling me?’” At the same time, though, remember that there will be days when you have no idea why your weight changed, or why your blood sugar went out of range. “Your body’s not always going to tell you,” she explains. “But it’s still doing something to keep you alive, to help you blink, breathe, drink water, move your limbs. It’s doing something to protect you. Putting it in that perspective can really alleviate all the guilt, shame, and criticism.”
- Reevaluate your social media habits. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to log off social media altogether. But it might be worth reassessing who you’re following and how their content affects you, says Herrod. “Have standards about who you follow; don’t be afraid to be picky,” she says. “Ask yourself: What purpose does this person’s content serve? What you’re seeing, what you’re listening to, what you’re watching—all of that feeds your subconscious, your spirit, how you show up in the world. Being aware of what makes you feel good or not good about yourself is key.” Additionally, remember to question whether the person creating the content is qualified to give health advice in the first place (oftentimes, they’re not). You can always check with your One Drop coach about something you’ve seen or heard on social media to check legitimacy and get your facts straight.
- Find healthcare professionals who motivate you and advocate for your health. Whether you’re working with a health coach or a doctor, remember that you’re in charge. “You know yourself better than I do, or anyone else does. You’re an expert in yourself,” says Herrod. “We’re just here to copilot.” Even if it entails the frustrating process of getting second, third, fourth, even hundredth opinions, find people who want to help you own your health. “Don’t stop until you feel like you’re really advocating for yourself and feeling heard.”
No matter what you're experiencing, you don't have to go at it alone. Your One Drop coach is qualified, caring, and ready to help you today as you navigate living with obesity, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.