How much compassion have we for people who are overweight?

We celebrate weight loss, and our basic attitude towards being overweight is disapproval

Now that we’ve exited our annual month of whipping ourselves into shape – with results that may be congratulatory, maybe not – I wonder about a particular group of people.

This group is made up of those who, because they are overweight, feel too inhibited to go to gyms or jogging, or even to take part in sports.

It is fair to say that the basic attitude of society towards being overweight is one of disapproval. Or, to put it another way, we celebrate weight loss to a degree that must embarrass those who are struggling with the issue.

A Eurostat survey showed that in 2019 most Irish adults (56 per cent) were overweight. We all know what happened between then and now, and it would come as no surprise if the figures were higher today.


Being overweight, as these figures show, isn't abnormal in Ireland. So people who are overweight should not be made to feel shy or embarrassed by those of us – the minority – who are not overweight (or weren't in 2019).

People differ in terms of their toughness and sensitivity. Some couldn’t care less what others think of their weight. Others may be too embarrassed to expose their bodies to the public gaze in a gym or on a sports field. That’s a shame because exercise is so good for us.

Health professionals also need to be considerate in how they frame remarks to people whose weight is at an unhealthy level

One of our most fundamental human needs is to belong. We don’t know what proportion of people who are overweight or obese exclude themselves from group activities because they fear they will be looked down upon. Those who exclude themselves or who feel discouraged are losing out on satisfying that fundamental human need. That sense of belonging and connection brings very significant mental and physical health benefits.

Fun is another fundamental human need. It is tied to the need for play, which is probably tied to the instinct to learn. A lot of fun involves group activities, so again we can see the importance of people feeling okay about being in groups where they are visible to others.

An atmosphere of disapproval can, if internalised, lead people to turn against themselves. This is a miserable way to live. We know that the more compassionate people feel towards themselves, the better they are at taking up and persisting with challenges. Self-loathing and shame, if they develop, are enemies of self-compassion.

So it would help if our attitudes were more compassionate. Health professionals also need to be considerate in how they frame remarks to people whose weight is at an unhealthy level.

Feeling good about yourself, feeling that the health professional you’re talking to is on your side, makes it easier to take on the task of losing weight. If you feel bad about yourself, you’re more likely to seek comfort and we get comfort from sugar in its innumerable disguises.

At a time when – because of the pandemic – we are more aware of the importance of mental health, we need to pay attention to the emotional messages we send. A kinder and more respectful attitude would be a greater encouragement to those whose health could depend on, or at least benefit greatly from, arriving at a lower weight.

If any of us feel inclined to look down on people who are overweight or obese, we should get off our high horses. Apart from anything else, the exercise would do us good.