I recently wrote about what not to say to a fat friend, with the promise of writing a follow-up with suggestions for how to support her. I come from both sides of this situation. I am fat myself and moving to the less fat side of the scale, and I have people in my life who are overweight. I have desperately wanted them to lose weight for their own health, yet I can’t help recalling my own experience. I know how it feels to be the one who people try to "fix," and I’ve also been the person trying to do the "fixing." There are very practical and easy things to do that will mean the world to your overweight loved one that will build your relationship with them rather than make things uncomfortable between you.
1. Say Nothing Being overweight is the byproduct of an addiction based on an unhealthy view of food and deep emotions. Like most addictions, until the person is ready to deal with it, there is nothing you can say to change their mind. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to change for our own good. I know it hurts to watch, but all you can really do is be there when your friend is ready. Constantly bringing up their weight, or trying to "fix" her will only driving a wedge between you and send the message that getting your friend to lose weight is the only part of the relationship that you care about. Sometimes silence is golden. When she needs to reach out to someone, it will be you.
2. Offer to Take the Journey with Her Losing weight is a daunting task. Think about how much work people put into losing 10 or 20 pounds and how long that can take. Now picture needing to lose 200 or 300 pounds! When your loved one is ready to talk, be a source of encouragement and support--NOT A COACH! Your friend needs someone to walk beside her, literally and even figuratively. She doesn’t need someone looking to "catch" her cheating on her diet. When she brings up exercise, offer to join her. Saying, "I'd like to get healthier too; maybe I can walk with you a couple times a week, and it would give us a great chance to hang out and talk as well," is a great way to make exercise fun and meaningful. Don't make exercising all about the weight, make it about the friendship.
3. Help Her Be Realistic When starting a weight-loss journey most people tend to go gung-ho at first but end up burning out because our bodies are just not ready for the increased activity. When walking with your friend, check to see if she seems tired or in pain, or if she’s pushing herself too hard. Gently suggest a break if necessary. Heck, say you need a break if you know that your friend is too stubborn to admit she needs one! Or decide in advance that every few minutes you’ll stop to take a break, or that you are only going to walk for a specific length of time. Try walking slower if you see the need without making your friend feel like she’s failing or incapable. Hurting herself the first couple of times out will not lead to lasting change. Offer to help her set reasonable weight loss goals. When we go on a diet we immediately say things like, "I'm going to lose fifty pounds in a month!" Suggest that your friend focus not just on losing weight, but also on how she feels. Setting a goal of being able to walk for an hour by the end of the month takes the focus off the weight and puts it on building healthy stamina. Set realistic, attainable, and measurable goals, then consider writing them down. Even if your friend’s goals are not the same as yours, journaling them will build the bond of your friendship. It will also keep you accountable to each other, instead of putting pressure on your friend to report to you.
4. Celebrate the Little Successes! We tend to focus on the end game, the final score. I grew up watching sports with my dad, so I am going to use a sports analogy here. When you watch a football game, for instance, the final score is what counts for ranking and championships. But if you’ve ever watched a football game, you know the fans don't only cheer at the final score. They cheer at a great pass, rushing for a first down, and for each touchdown and extra point. All of those things go into winning the game. Our weight loss journey is the same. But what do we ask people who we know are dieting? "How much weight have you lost?" After my surgery, people who knew I had the surgery asked me that question almost weekly. It was almost like "Hi Jenn" became "You look good; how much have you lost now?" I know they meant to be encouraging, but it just felt like once again I was reduced to pounds of flesh instead of being seen as a human being. Because of this I started focusing on the little successes I was experiencing. Like in a football game, I started cheering for myself, for each push forward. I celebrated milestones like wearing my husband's pajama pants and t-shirts, walking through the kitchen gate without turning sideways, walking up the steps without running out of breath, and so many more. Now when people ask me how much I have lost, I actually have to take a minute to think about it because the scale is not the defining factor for whether or not I am succeeding on this journey. Unlike a football game, being healthy has no final score. There is no end game. You may have a goal weight or size you want to be, but that is not the end. You’ll need to maintain that goal for the rest of your life. Focusing only on a number can set your friend up to feel constant success/failure; instead, try acknowledging positive changes you notice along the way. For example, I have a friend who has recently lost a lot of weight and has been working really hard at being healthy. A couple of weeks ago, she called to say she had something for my boys and asked to drop by for a few minutes. During her visit my husband mentioned how she never would have done that before. If anything, she would have pulled up and handed the things out the car window, but this time she came in and spent a few minutes with us. It may seem like a small thing, but for her, having the confidence and energy to get out of the car and visit was as much a reason to celebrate as any touchdown.
5. Non-food Related Rewards Along with celebrating successes comes the question of how to do it in a way that is supportive and not sabotaging. Our culture revolves around food; we celebrate with food all the time. I can remember a time in college when a dear friend and I would treat ourselves to Vienna Mocha Chunk sundaes at Friendly's every time we did well on a test. We were good students, so we ate a lot of ice cream that semester, LOL!
Over the years I have found some ways to celebrate that do not involve food. Verbal acknowledgment is one of the best ways to uplift and celebrate your friend. No over the top gushing--you don’t want your congratulations to sound fake--just acknowledge the accomplishment, tell her how excited you are for her, and move on. One of my favorite rewards was when my mom took me for my first pedicure. So grab your friend for a mani or pedi day. Whether you treat or you each pay for yourselves, just spending time together celebrating and relaxing is great! Get your hair done together, or see a movie. Rent one and have a girl's night. Try going for a leisurely walk somewhere different, just for fun. If your budget allows, “retail rewards” like new music for your digital player, new clothes, books, DVDS, or makeup are always a treat. Finally, if you or your friend have kids, get a sitter for the afternoon and enjoy some quiet time that doesn't involve hiding in the bathroom.
I’ve also planned rewards for reaching my bigger goals, like getting my first professional massage, taking a dance class, having a full spa day, taking a healthy cooking class, and going on a cruise.
Overall, supporting your over-weight friend doesn’t have to be complicated. Just be a good friend. Be kind, understanding, and willing to be there through the ups and downs of her journey. Encourage, but don’t coach; guide, but don't push. Above all, celebrate your friend for who she is. Cheer her on for aspiring to change for the better, to be her best self--no matter what she weighs!