One of the most debilitating issues about having a high weight is the stigma attached to it by this culture. The debilitation comes in great part from fear of social rejection. My hunch is that how you feel about rejection in general is a major factor in how you perceive negative reactions to your weight or body size in social situations.

In “Unpacking the psychological weight of weight stigma: a rejection-expectation pathway” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 63, 3/16, pp. 69-76), authors Blodorn, Major, Hunger and Miller studied expectations of social rejection in women and men who had various body weights and BMIs. No surprise that “Men’s responses were largely unaffected by body-weight” in the dating context of the experiment. However, the study concluded that, “As predicted, high body-weight women reported increased expectations of social rejection…which in turn predicted decreased self-esteem, increased self-conscious emotions, and increased stress.” Of course, culturally this makes perfect sense because there’s gobs more pressure on females than males to have an appearance that conforms to current low-weight beauty standards.

Frankly, most of my dysregulated eating clients have high anxiety and don’t feel very good about themselves in general. They’re self-critical, not merely about their appearance. They worry that they’re not smart, nice, or “good enough,” and are usually perfectionists who see themselves in success or failure terms. Many feel unworthy, undeserving, and defective, although they can never actually tell me why that is: It’s just a vague feeling that’s always been with them. They see being a high weight as just one more thing wrong with them. And, fact is, if my clients slim down, they’re still as hard on themselves on the whole as they were at a higher weight.

Which came first for you: Not feeling good enough about your body or a more general fear of rejection? Many dysregulated eaters come from shame-based families with parents who were critical, put down others, and used humiliation and approval withdrawal to shape their children’s behaviors. They certainly didn’t give their children unconditional love and teach them to love themselves as is. This kind of rejecting dynamic, more than weight itself, is what drives a fear of social rejection. People of high weights could stand up to cultural rejection for their size and shape more easily if they felt better about themselves to begin with. They could better hold onto high self-esteem and a positive identity if they started out with these traits in childhood. Start unconditionally accepting yourself and you’ll fear rejection less, even at a high weight.