Lecturing me won’t stop me being fat

Just over a year ago I tripped over my own pants and did some damage to my arm.

I gave it a big thwack as I was trying to regain balance, and I ended up with a giant bump that made it look like it may be broken. I sought a few opinions from friends, and Doctor Google. The consensus was that I should probably visit my GP just to check.

I made an appointment, and after a half-hour wait, was finally seen by my GP. He got me to stretch my fingers, wriggle my wrist, lift my arm, and proclaimed my arm not broken.

Then he proceeded to lecture me about my weight for 10 minutes before charging me $70 for the privilege.

Now, I’m not a small girl. I look in the mirror every day and I know what I look like. I also know that my weight is a result of a combination of things — overeating, emotional and sexual abuse, poor self-worth, lack of exercise — but primarily it is the result of a medical condition. Weight gain is made easier by it. Weight loss, is made harder.

Me, in all my “morbidly obese” glory.

This is not a new story for me. I’ve been pretty much the same weight since I was 16. There was a period where it got right out of control, but if my GP had actually bothered to look, he would have seen I’d lost 15 kilos since the last time I got The Lecture.

There was no ‘congratulations’ on that. There were no questions as to what I’d changed to achieve that result. There was only The Lecture.

In the light of the New Zealand Government’s new plan to tackle obesity, I’d like to shed some light on The Lecture, and what it actually does to a person. Or, more to the point, what it does to me.

I’ve been overweight since I was about 10. Somewhere around there I had an experience that made me want to be unattractive, and where I sought comfort in food. I stopped being active. When my hormones kicked in, I developed Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I’ve been overweight (well, if we’re paying attention to the BMI scale I’m “morbidly obese”) ever since.

Let me be very clear: I come from a upper-middle class home. My immediate family are all physically ‘normal’. My issue was about my own personal experiences — experiences I never shared with anyone until recently. No family eating or exercise plan would have helped.

In fact, I am also incredibly headstrong, and have been since a very young age. I know with complete certainty that my mother could never have implemented a forced diet. Much to her frustration and delight, I was a cunning, strong-willed child.

So I’ve heard The Lecture a number of times in my life. Not once has it made a positive change. I have sat in at least 3 GP offices crying because yet again, another medical professional is calling me fat. This is a type of negative enforcement that does not see me as a whole person. It merely sees me as a few numbers — my height, my weight, and my BMI.

Doctors never ask me what works, or usually even bother to check if there’s been a change since last time. Once I pointed out that I’d lost 5 kilos in the past 2 months. The GP ignored this completely and continued to tell me about all the nasty things that might happen to my body if I continued being fat.

Much like the ugly photos on boxes of cigarettes never stopped me from smoking, The Lecture has never, and will never, result in weight loss.

The only thing The Lecture has ever achieved for me, is for me to ignore my own health. I’d rather suffer than go to the GP for some antibiotics because no matter what I am presenting with, I get The Lecture.

I didn’t get my PCOS officially diagnosed until I was 26. I knew something was wrong with me, and Google had given me enough evidence to self-diagnose. I knew there was pretty much no cure except weight loss, and I knew doctors only ever wanted to give me The Lecture.

Broken arm? You’re fat.

You want birth control? But you’re fat!

That’s a nasty cough… but it’s more important that I tell you you’re fat.

When I did decide that it was time to get my diagnosis and perhaps do something about it, I chose a “holistic” medical practice. I figured they might be more willing to look at the entire picture (including the mental part of this game), as opposed to just the bit where I’m cuddly.

But no. As it turns out, “holistic” means telling me I’m fat, then charging me twice as much as any other GP I’ve seen in my life.

In fact, the GP I saw the day I thought I’d broken my arm was actively negligent in his job. Seeing as I was there, I also asked for some contraception — which he prescribed without asking for my family history of cardiac issues, or taking my blood pressure. Combined with my weight and age, I later found out he’d put me at extreme risk of blood clots.

Not that that mattered, as long as I was aware that I was fat, and that being fat wasn’t good for me.

I know that for me the most effective way to lose weight is in my diet — in particular, how much I eat. No restrictions on WHAT I can eat, but incentivised to make good choices. In my 33 years, I’ve achieved the best results with Weight Watchers.

But the only recommendation any GP has ever given me is exercise.

Had he bothered to ask he would have discovered I usually walk more than 5 kilometers a day, and practice yoga on a regular basis. I’m not going to be competing in the Olympics any time soon, but I reckon I’ve got a good chance in a zombie apocalypse. Despite my bulk, I’m actually quite fit. For me, it’s all in the food — not that any doctor has ever bothered to ask about my 33 years experience of my own body.

And that’s why I find the new policy absolutely horrendous. It applies labels and mandates The Lecture to children as young as 4 years old, while utterly ignoring the fact that 80% of the food available in the average supermarket is highly processed and laden with sugar. Count the aisles next time you’re there. There are more aisles dedicated to soft drink, chocolate biscuits, sweets and chips than there are for pasta, rice, and vegetables.

I quit smoking because I wanted to feel better. I wanted to climb mountains without wheezing for breath. And I didn’t want the wrinkles. I also couldn’t handle spending $20 a packet on something I knew was killing me. If obesity is the next health crisis, then I think it’s fair to compare it to the last one.

Along with support hotlines and labelling packets of cigarettes as bad, we have massive public health marketing campaigns and an ever-increasing taxation on tobacco. A packet of 20 has almost tripled in price since I began smoking 15 years ago. That’s not because it costs more to make cigarettes, it’s because we tax the living bejeesus out of them.

In my more successful weight loss attempts, the biggest change I made was to my diet. And that’s why I’m utterly confused as to why the new policy doesn’t even touch on the issue of sugar.

I have a sweet tooth. It’s half my problem. But I know it. I know that if I simply stopped putting sugar into my morning coffee I’d drop at least 2 kilos in a month.

I know that if I didn’t succumb to temptation and buy that giant block of chocolate on special for $3.99 when I did the grocery shopping, it would make a difference to my waistline.

I know that if a sugar tax did exist it would financially incentivise me to not include sugar in my morning coffee, and to maybe make chocolate a treat, as opposed to a regular occurrence.

A sugar tax, in my opinion, would be way more effective than a state-mandated Lecture.

Losing weight needs to be a positive experience that comes from within. No outside force can do it for you. My most positive experience was something I chose, and something that I participated in with a group of work colleagues. There was absolutely no finger pointing, blame or labels. It was entirely about education, support, and feeling good — not only for myself, but also for my friends who were shedding the weight as much as I was.

Much like that program, or the ever-increasing taxation on tobacco, a sugar tax would say “hey person, we recognise you are a person, and you have free will. You can still have it if you want it, but we’re going to make you think a little harder about it.”

Because really, you are the only person who can do a damn thing about your appearance. But it’s easier when you have support. Your GP should be one of your biggest cheerleaders when it comes to your health, but they can’t do that if you’re too intimidated to go.

To create an anti-obesity plan that actually works, the government needs to realise that weightloss isn’t always a math problem. I am an intelligent person who knows what she “should” be doing. But I also have this entire set of mental issues (some of which come from being labelled as “fat” or “morbidly obese” as a child) that contribute to me not doing what I should.

Labelling our kids won’t help. Nor will lecturing their parents. In fact, why are we calling this an “anti-obesity plan”, when what we should be calling it is a “healthy lifestyle plan”?

We can make real, positive and lasting change. We can incentivise individuals to make good choices through their wallets. We can teach people to cook real food. We can make the process of being healthy and making good choices a positive experience that we can participate in with our communities.

Imagine if all the fat people in your neighbourhood got together to learn how to cook, to celebrate each other’s successes, and to encourage each other when we dragged ourselves off the couch for a walk in the evening. Imagine the utter change that a free, community-based program centered around positivity could bring.

Weight loss needs to be a personal journey that considers the entire lifestyle and experience of the individual. It needs to be positive and it needs to be led by the people who are actually able to make the change — the individual themselves. It needs support from our closest networks, and it needs to be rooted in social activity.

It needs to bring people together, not isolate and intimidate. A truly effective plan will combine incentives with a strategy that looks at the whole picture — from social-economic factors, to education, mental health and diet and exercise.

Because my weight is not a math problem. It’s not simple. And to change the issue facing our society we need to be proactive and positive, instead of negative and reactionary.

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