How can I help my husband lose weight without being fatphobic?
Should I not intervene and just continue listening to his bodily complaints?
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AN ANGEL, WHOM WE LOVE:
I'll start by saying that I think encouraging anyone to eat healthier becomes very fraught very quickly, just because fatphobia is so pervasive and we're immersed in body-negative messaging all the time. So when I talk to my husband about body image and our mutual goal to get healthier following a lethargic, sedentary year indoors, I try to be careful. But.
He's stated his goal to lose weight and get more toned many times over the past year (he's gained about 30 pounds since the start of the pandemic, and it makes him very unhappy.) I'm pretty indifferent to his weight and truly love him regardless, but I know that's not always enough. As we both try to get more disciplined, I'm not sure how much I should intervene with his eating behavior. He consistently uses 4-5 teaspoons of sugar in his coffee, eats very large portions, pours extra salt on our fries, and generally makes all the junk food we eat .... well, even worse. We're not even in the "are we eating vegetables more often?" phase, we're just getting into harm reduction mode and he's already pretty resistant to my gentle attempts to push back.
I guess my question is: should I be pushing back? Should I not intervene and just continue listening to his bodily complaints? What's the right tactic to really help him, because I don't want to become his enemy in the process. I want us to both feel comfortable voicing our feelings here.
You are a gem among gems, I hope you know that! We should all be so lucky to have a partner who not only wants to help but also acknowledges the possible pitfalls of such help on a broader societal level. The very fact that you are asking these questions—the exact right questions to ask, I believe—just shows how deeply and well you care for and about the people you love! Good on ya!
It is my strong recommendation, from many years of being alternatively overweight or obese and from my experience with multiple different eating disorders, that you do absolutely nothing. Nothing! Your role here is undoubtedly tricky! I have so so so much empathy and sympathy for being in your position. It feels like the best way to help people is to get involved, to be loudly there cheering them on, reminding them of their goals. And that might be helpful in a whole lot of contexts. I just don’t think it works for this one.
We are taught so much about the connection between health and weight that is flat out wrong, and you are absolutely correct to note the links between even the most well-intentioned weight loss discussions and fatphobia.
The best role you can play here, I believe, is patient confidant. (Not patient in a medical sense, patient as in having patience). Your job is simply to listen. Listen to how hard it is to change habits, listen to how emotional the process is, listen to how frustrating certain weeks and months are, listen to doubts, to fears, to insecurities. Then you can say empathetic things like, “I’m so sorry. This is really hard and sucks a lot, doesn’t it?” Even if you are frustrated with his lack of initiative, your job is to listen, not to punish him or point out said inaction. One of the best things a partner can do, I believe, is be there for our petty complaints without trying to solve the problem. Even the repeated ones or the annoying ones. I am not saying it’s the most fun part of being a partner, but good empathetic listening cannot be replaced by almost anything.
Your job is NOT to be a dietician, an enforcer, a doctor, a watchman, or a lifeguard. That is distinctly not your role. Your role is loving someone while they’re on their journey. You cannot make it your journey—that will not help you, that will not help him and it will almost for sure hurt the relationship. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that even if your partner asks you explicitly to be a diet referee of any kind, you politely decline. Why? Because, to use fancy medical jargon, it fucks up the dynamic of the relationship. It’s very hard to feel romantically inclined towards a person who is watching over your shoulder for how much salt you use.
Your mantra for your husband’s food consumption is, “It’s not my business,” or alternatively, “He can handle this himself.” He is an adult. He knows salt and sugar are bad for him; you are not the only person with this knowledge—I promise! Try your best to let go of tracking his food choices. This is not about not being there for him or not helping him. It’s about keeping your relationship with one another good. Your worry is not going to do anything positive for him; your support will.
If you find that the complaints are growing, or that your patience is wearing thin with them or if you’re simply not in a place at that day or at that time to listen, you can draw a kindness boundary— a boundary that keeps up your good will towards your husband. “Babe, I love you, and I hear how difficult this is, but I’m feeling a little worn out with diet talk right now. Can we revisit this later?” works perfectly fine. Or you two can make a rule in advance about not talking about bodies or diets more than X number of times a day if you find that it’s all you’re focusing on. Talking about health and food a lot is often emotional and triggering and it’s very easy to slide into disordered thoughts or patterns with food and exercise. There is no shame in limiting how much this topic is on the table at your house!
If you are genuinely, genuinely worried about his well-being—and if you have good reasons to be!—you can, I think, talk to him about your worry without attaching it to weight and say something like, “I know we talked about our health as a goal recently, and I just think it would help me to have some peace of mind if we both went to get annual physicals this year, that way we know if there are any specific problems we should be watching out for.” If he has already gotten a physical, then great! You’re done! Because his health is something for him and his doctor to manage and monitor!
Whether he changes his habits or not is ultimately fully up to him. 100%. You have no say in it, so you might as well not create a potentially adversarial relationship between the two of you for the sake of trying to influence his habits or to speed up his timeline. You can—and should!—go about your own healthy changes if that’s what you feel like would make you feel healthier and happier. Include him wherever and whenever you’d like to in that plan. If you’re making dinner and you want to make extra veggies with less salt than he might add, great. If he wants to add salt, great. If you’re going to take a walk, invite him, but only if you’re not going to mentally “punish” him for not going. Inclusion is fabulous, enforcement is bad.
You aren’t going to be in the same phases at the same time, and that’s ok. Go at your own pace. It might one day be helpful to him that you’ve already gone through some of the changes, maybe he can ask you for tips and tricks down the road. But that has to come from him 100%.
Your job is warm, supportive love. Your job is being there, agreeing that it’s hard, and making space for the fact that his journey is going to look entirely different than yours, that his journey might be a WHOLE LOT harder than yours. Your job together is fun and love, not discipline and accountability. If he wants to get those two things he can from a trainer or an app or a workout buddy.
As a final reminder, not that I think you specifically need it, more because I think anyone reading this can benefit from hearing it again: health is not virtuous. Healthier people are not better people. Even if someone is unhealthy, they deserve love and care and fun and happiness. There are people with chronic illnesses that will be deemed “unhealthy” their whole lives and their lives are worth just as much as anyone else’s. So even if your issue with weight is supposedly about “health,” please keep in mind that being healthy isn’t the only worthwhile thing in the world.
Ok, you’re doing great, you’re a great spouse and your husband is so so so lucky that you’re such an angel. Go make out with him or something!!!
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note that I do not recommend you spend hours a day on this or anything. You still should have a full life and good boundaries and dozens and dozens of conversations that are not about weight loss at all! In fact, most of your conversations should not be about weight loss. The point is not obsession. (A fixation over perceived “health” is not a healthy lifestyle).