Background To explore the extent to which people living with obesity have attempted to lose weight, their attitudes towards dieting, physical exercise and weight loss solutions, why their weight loss attempts have failed, and their opinions about what would be most beneficial to them in their struggle with their weight. Method Qualitative study, using open-ended interviews, of 76 people living with obesity in Victoria, Australia in 2006/7. Individuals with a BMI of 30 or over were recruited using articles in local newspapers, convenience sampling, and at a later stage purposive sampling techniques to diversify the sample. Data analysis was conducted by hand using a constant, comparative method to develop and test analytical categories. Data were interpreted both within team meetings and through providing research participants the chance to comment on the study findings. Results Whilst participants repeatedly turned to commercial diets in their weight loss attempts, few had used, or were motivated to participate in physical activity. Friends or family members had introduced most individuals to weight loss techniques. Those who took part in interventions with members of their social network were more likely to report feeling accepted and supported. Participants blamed themselves for being unable to maintain their weight loss or 'stick' to diets. Whilst diets did not result in sustained weight loss, two thirds of participants felt that dieting was an effective way to lose weight. Conclusion Individuals with obesity receive numerous instructions about what to do to address their weight, but very few are given appropriate long term guidance or support with which to follow through those instructions. Understanding the positive role of social networks may be particularly important in engaging individuals in physical activity. Public health approaches to obesity must engage and consult with those currently living with obesity, if patterns of social change are to occur.