How do you perceive your body? And do you feel like your perspective differs from that of society’s?
My perception of my body has probably changed in recent months since going to the clinic. I’ve lost a little bit of weight, and I’m trying to focus on the positive aspects, instead of focusing on the flaws. I think that every person is aware of [their flaws], I definitely am acutely aware of all my body’s flaws, and I’ve just been trying to focus more on the positives. I think it’s different from the societal perception of my body. Especially for women, I think that there’s a lot of pressure to look and be a certain way. I know men with obesity also have a lot of struggles, but I think they are generally more accepted in the media- if you look at sitcoms or cartoons, you’ll often see a Homer Simpson with a Marge Simpson, and you never see the reverse. So I know society expects the hot female, and so when you’re not ‘hot’ in a thin sense, that can be a bit of a struggle. But I think the body positivity movement is kind of helping with that, and I’m trying to focus on loving my body right now- because if you don't accept yourself in the now, you’ll never be able to move forward.
How were the topics of self-image, weight and health discussed when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, I was a really healthy, happy kid, probably a little too content until maybe puberty? If you look at pictures of me as I child, there’s no issues with my body; I’ll be sitting there relaxed with my stomach out, and my younger sister is sucking it in, and I’m just in a bikini, just a happy, normal, average body. I never thought of it- I was aware that my mother dieted, and I knew that women in general dieted, but that didn’t really affect me much because I was always what I considered to be average. I didn’t develop until later, and that was kind of horrifying and awkward for me. When the puberty changes happened, they happened for me instantly, almost overnight, between grades 7 and 8, and that was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. But generally, discussions around any of those topics- there wasn’t very many- but my parents tried to instill good self-esteem and everything like that. It wasn’t until I gained weight that it came up in my head.
Can you tell us about a time when you or someone you know experienced discrimination or judgment based on size?
It’s hard for me to come up with one defining moment, but you experience them every day, wherever you go, whatever you’re doing- you’re aware of the eyes of judgment, or people kind of giving you a look, or you overhear things sometimes. I’ve seen it happen to people and you can just see the look of devastation on that persons face. I once saw a woman be kind of torn apart by this other woman on the LRT; she was quite a large woman and she took up almost a whole seat. This woman had sat across from her, and she made a big fuss out of something, and she just went kind of nuts. People went up to the other woman after and asked “Are you okay?” and “Don’t listen to her, just ignore her”.
But more than experiences with strangers, I think it’s harder when you have friends or colleagues approach you and try to have a ‘fat-ervention’ and are like “are you aware you’re fat?”. And I kind of go like “no, what?!” And they come from a place of good intention, but I don’t think that’s how you support someone, by pointing out their obvious struggle, it has never helped me. I had one person tell me [when I was unemployed] that I wouldn’t be able to get a job because of how I looked, and the best thing I could do for my career was to lose weight. I was aware of the stigma, and I know there are no human rights laws for people living with obesity, but that doesn't help support me in this moment, because like that woman [on the LRT], I can't magically change. It’s not like I’m wearing the wrong blouse- I can't change it in a second. I can go get a manicure, I can change up my hair, but I can’t go from this weight to the appropriate weight that you deem, in a second. And that’s what I felt like at that time, and so that was probably one of the worst ones.
Do you feel that your weight has created barriers for you, and how?
My weight has created barriers, largely in my mind. I’m aware that I’m not necessarily physically limited, and it’s more my mind and fear of others or being judged or doing things not at the same level as a healthier person, or a thinner person, or a person with a different body than mine. Some of the barriers, though, are actually physiological, especially when I was even heavier than I am in the moment. Just the physical pain and some of the physical issues; I found it difficult to do stairs, or things like daily tasks became difficult. So the initial weight-loss has been helpful with that, but I still definitely experience barriers, some of which are even just like finding seating.
In a certain food court downtown, one of my coworkers wouldn't move tables. I asked “let’s go sit over there, because the chairs pull out”, but I didn’t say it like that, because I am trying to save face, right? And she was like “no, [we’re staying at] these are the tables” and I said “oh, you know what, I forgot something at the office”. I just didn’t want to sit there because my gut would physically go into the table, because for whatever reason that food court has tighter seating than other food courts.
At my absolute heaviest, I went to my grandmother’s funeral and I had to ask for a seatbelt extender, and it was just mortifying to me. And thank goodness my mom sat between my father, who is 6’3, and me who’s 5’9. My miniature mother being squished because I was quite large, and my dad is- I wouldn't consider him obese but he’s hefty and 6’3- so my poor mother. I had to ask for a seatbelt extender… I mean I tried really hard, and I probably could’ve damaged myself and got it done, but my mom was like “What are you doing? Just get help”.
So, I mean things like that have been barriers and I feel like I have limited myself with travelling and even clothing shopping. For some reason they think people aren’t tall and plus-sized for plus sized clothing, but they’ll carry petites. And so, there’s a lot of different barriers out there that just come up, but I am trying to make my life easier.
How have your opinions and beliefs about weight influenced the way you see other people?
I don’t know that my opinions about my weight or my beliefs about weight have influenced my opinions of people that much. I always view the world with humor; I find it helps me cope a lot. When I look at other people, I try and have empathy and often humor. I’ve heard some people in similar situations to me, say about someone struggling with 5 extra pounds, “oh who cares, they are crazy, I hope that they gain weight” So, I try and realize that, to someone [who isn’t living with obesity], that 5 pounds is very real. I was raised to be empathetic, and I have siblings with issues, so I just try to keep an open mind and not judge people the way I have been judged- for various things, not just obesity- and it’s hurtful and unnecessary, we don’t need to be that way.
If you could speak to someone who held a stigma against people living with obesity, what would you tell them?
If I got to talk to somebody who had stigmas against people living with obesity, I would just want to tell them that some factors are personal choice. But, there are also physiological factors, there are psychological factors, and there are sociological factors that all contribute to a person’s individual situation of living with obesity. For myself, I take accountability for my own actions; I know what I’ve done to add to my problems. But I also know, that the obesity [began] because of medication that was wrongfully prescribed to me as a young woman. I also know from science that once obesity [is introduced] it is very difficult, when you get to that highest weight, your body is forever looking to go back there, it loves it, it’s an evolution thing we can’t fight. Your body is like, “Hey, remember when we had all that fat? That was awesome, we aren’t going to die in the apocalypse, we should totally go back there.” So, whenever you’re losing the weight, your body is going “let’s be fat again, remember when you were 300 and some odd pounds? That was awesome.” Our bodies haven’t caught up to modern evolution. They don’t know there’s a McDonald’s down the street, they don’t know there’s a grocery store 2 blocks from where you live, where you can buy literally anything and everything you need. I would just kind of explain the science and tell them that you’re not going to help people with shame, you’re never going to help anyone by coming from a point of shaming them or body shaming them. The only way to help someone is support, kindness, compassion. That’s the same for anything, it’s the same for mental illness, it’s the same for other physical illnesses. You wouldn't point at a disabled person, and a person with a disability, or any difference and shame them for that. So I don’t see why people do it in the case of obesity; it’s a struggle for that person regardless of how they got there. Open your mind, and open your heart to everyone, whether they are living with obesity or any other issue.
If the fear of weight discrimination were eliminated what would your life look like? Would it look any different?
I think it would look different; I’m trying to work on myself so that I don’t fear discrimination, but that has been a challenge. I think the main thing would be that I would feel safer, and by feeling safer I would feel more confident. I think safety is an issue for all women but when you add anything extra on top of that it makes you a higher target for harassment or things of that nature. I think feeling safe in places like the gym, or walking home, taking transit late at night… I think it would increase my confidence in doing things if I knew people weren’t discriminating against me based on my weight. I’ve felt certain experiences in tiny ways, at different times, like nearly daily I would say.
What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about obesity?
It’s kind of funny because some of the most common misconceptions about obesity, I had until very recently when I started to learn the science of obesity. Whenever something would come up in the media and science before, I would always look it up or try to find the original article and read the abstract, but I never thought of it in terms of myself. And for a long time I thought I was crazy and lazy, and it turns out, that no, I just have sleep apnea and ADHD, but for my whole adult life, I just thought I was crazy and lazy. And I think the biggest misconception about people with obesity is that they are lazy. I’m not saying that there aren’t people living with obese with laziness, but I think it’s a spectrum and all people are on it.
When did you realize your weight was an issue for you?
I think that there are people who are overweight or are living with obesity that can be healthy. My body is not one of them, I have a couple health conditions- luckily nothing too serious or life threatening at this point in time- but it’s definitely a problem for me and I definitely feel the heaviness, and want to work on that. When I first realized it was a problem, when I was in grade 12, my parents took me to a very inept psychiatrist. I was very depressed, very anxious, but I was in grade 12, who isn’t? This psychiatrist was totally incompetent, and put me on a ton of medications, misdiagnosed me, and hospitalized me. I gained 60 pounds in 3 months, and that shattered my self-confidence as a young woman.
What do you wish someone said to you in that moment, in grade 12 when you were struggling?
If I could say something to my grade 12 self, it would be to have a little more faith in myself, trust my own gut, even at a young age, because I knew I was being treated wrong, but I trusted people that I shouldn’t have. If I were to talk to myself in my younger 20’s, I would say "just love yourself where you are now, because you don’t know where the next struggle will take you, or the next struggle after". I mean, the weight has crept on at different points beyond that initial weight gain.
And also, maybe to seek help sooner than I did seek help for the weight, and trust my gut and be more assertive with healthcare professionals.