I have a close friend of several years who is overweight. I've been reading and thinking about the issue of obesity and how invisible it sometimes is - how difficult to discuss and yet how emotional and important to those affected.

I would like to signal to my friend that I'm open to talking about it anytime. My goals are this (in order):

  1. Be a listening ear. Provide a space to vent or talk.
  2. Offer emotional support.
  3. Offer practical support if they want it.

I'm not staging an intervention. I'm not trying to say their obesity is a problem. First and foremost I want to be available and safe. If they would like help making any practical changes (such as discussing nutrition, exercise, or accountability) then I want to provide that. But it's not my goal.

My friend has never brought it up for extended discussion. They will say things like "I've been trying to make exercise a habit" or "I'm cutting back on (some food/beverage)." They seem somewhat comfortable with the topic but have never discussed it at length with me.

How can I communicate that I'm willing to support and be there for them without implying there's a problem to be addressed?

  • Are you concerned there might be other issues at play, depression or eating disorders for example? Do you suspect your friend's obesity is harming other aspects of their life? – Kozaky Nov 5 at 15:25
  • When your friend said one of the examples you've mentioned, how did your talk continue in the past? Did you ask them about details ("How are you trying to make exercise a habit?") or provided support in that moment ("Do you mind if I join in for jogging?")? If yes, how did that go? – Marzipanherz Nov 5 at 15:29
  • @Kozaky I sense that they're not happy with their body image. And I think they would like to improve their fitness level. Basically, I think it's on their mind and I want to let them know they can talk about it with me, in case that would be helpful to them. – icanfathom Nov 5 at 16:18
  • @Marzipanherz Yes, I'll usually ask more details such as "How is your workout routine going?" and they'll respond with "Good/Not that good, I've been busy" sort of thing. Then talk continues onto something else. So it's brief, but doesn't feel unwelcome. – icanfathom Nov 5 at 16:21

Let me say this nicely, ... "You absolutely can not find a good way to start a conversation someone does not want it!"

If they wanted an extended talk they would have said so ... that's all there is too it.

Now, if you are concerned for someone, truly concerned - ask them how they are doing, how they are feeling. If there are signs they are having a bad day, comfort them. If there are signs they are down, ask if there is anything they want to talk about. You do not bring up obesity, you bring up they seem down about something etc.

That's all the encouragement and support you can signal until they ask for that help - you are always there for a talk if they want.

If they don't bring up the subject, that is how you know it's your issue.

I used to be an obese person, therefor my answer is based on some personal experience.

First of all, I would suggest that you never start the conversation yourself. This might look like a "mocking" advice more than a friendly one if you call him out about this.

My friend has never brought it up for extended discussion. They will say things like "I've been trying to make exercise a habit" or "I'm cutting back on (some food/beverage)."

You said that your friend would open up about this subject sometimes so I propose to use this opening as yours. Be direct about it and show him that you're ready to help, let it be by:

  • Exercising with him.
  • Not eating trash food while hanging out with him.
  • Even consider doing some "light" diet to encourage him.

Tell him to pick up the best strategy and that you'll follow it yourself.

A probable script that you can use following up his opening would be something like that:

Friend: I've been trying to make exercise a habit.
You (In a supportive way): What do you think about exercising together? Let's set up a schedule. About that, I remember reading about the issue of obesity and how invisible it sometimes is and I assume that you'd like to start exercising to lose some. At the end, it's all up to you, friend, but let me help you do that. If you'd like to speak up about it as well I am here for you. Do what suits you the best, [Insert friend name].

And leave it as it is. Don't bring the subject back, don't insist of doing it. You proposed your help following his conversation so it didn't look like you're watching him or have any problem with him regarding his weight. It's up to him now.

I have friends who, although not obese in my opinion, consider themselves to be so and are clearly not happy with their body image. The strategy I suggest here is the one that has had the better results in my experience with them.

Given that your friend sometimes makes statements related to their obesity, I think it is safe for you to try and address the issue - I wouldn't recommend it if they hadn't, for it could mean they aren't prepared to discuss it yet, or even to recognize they have this problem in front of others.

In order to communicate your support to your friend, I would wait until they make another remark like the ones you mentioned ("I've been trying to make exercise a habit", "I'm cutting back on..."). Then, don't say something in the same tenor of their comment, but be straightforward. Look them in the eye to convey you are serious about what you are about to say and ask something along the lines of:

Do you feel very bad about your weight/body?

Be as warm as you can and then listen. I have found these direct questions to work very well. In my experience, people open up and don't seem to feel awkward about it, but relieved.

If you think this is too abrupt, you can first ask for more details like in the example you gave in one of your comments ("How is your workout routine going?") and then go for the real question.

Once your friend and you have had an open conversation about their obesity, bringing up the subject again in the future will be much easier and then you can ask if they want any concrete help from you or just emotional support when they feel discouraged.

Why do I think this is a good approach?

If you keep the conversation on the casual level ("Are you following any diet?"), to change the tone of the chat to a deeper, more serious one takes some effort and courage on their part. They might not know if you will be comfortable with them being vulnerable in front of you. However, when you are the one who takes the step, you make it easier for them to share what they are really feeling or struggling with if they want to do so.

Also, I think it better to ask how they are feeling rather than if they want to have a serious conversation about their obesity, because the second feels less natural, makes the whole thing appear bigger and puts more pressure into the conversation.

In the past, when someone made a remark that showed they were not confortable with their body, I would tell them they looked ok, or that they shouldn't worry so much about it, but I have noticed this doesn't help. In fact, more often that not, the person ends up being kind of ashamed of feeling what they feel. The approach above, though, makes no judgement about what they should or should not feel and gives them room for opening up to you.

Hope this helps.

  • 3
    Your suggested opening line conflicts with your main point of keeping the conversation warm and casual. "Do you feel very bad about your weight?" indirectly targets weight (by focusing on their feelings) and then it implies a negative answer. This is very passive aggressive and would more likely turn the conversation ice cold. The softer approach is to ASK "How do you feel?" which is an open ended question and likely to result in conversation unlike your example. You could even be direct and it would result in a warmer conversation than "Do you feel very bad?"... not warm, not open, not casual – Jesse Nov 5 at 23:54
  • No, I didn't say 'Keep the conversation casual', but quite the opposite. English is not my native language, so maybe I wrote it weird. I meant to say that, if you keep the casual tenor, you make it more difficult for your friend to change that tone and talk about deeper stuff. I don't think the question is passive agressive, but honest and to the point. You are indeed receiving the message 'I am not ok with my body' when he says those remarks about diet and exercise. With "warm" I was not talking about the question, but about how should (ideally) be your voice and attitude when asking it. – user22124 Nov 6 at 5:36
  • 2
    About it not resulting in conversation, the only thing I can say is 'Give it a try'. I have used it a lot when somebody is meaning something (bad) but not clearly saying it, and it works great. Some of us are afraid of being vulnerable and addressing the main issue directly; you help them to do so if you catch that hidden worry and take it out without pretending it to be something else. Of course, you only use this when you have real interest and time to listen. – user22124 Nov 6 at 5:52

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