[Edit: I’ve evolved my thinking a lot since first writing this piece in the fall of 2015. You can find my newer thinking at my website, Made on a Generous Plan.]
I have been seething about the Nicole Arbour video for three days. I have never seen anything online so hateful and prejudiced.
It feels like Nicole is attacking me personally, and people like me. She is making assumptions that are completely wrong, and spewing hate based on her ignorance.
I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions about overweight people, because people who’ve never struggled with weight have positively zero idea what it’s like.
These people often assume:
- People are overweight because they’re slovenly, stupid and weak.
- Overweight people are not aware that their weight can lead to health issues.
- Shame can stimulate people to change their habits.
None of these assumptions are the slightest bit true.
We know we are overweight, and we already experience shame.
If you are overweight, it is impossible to exist in our society without the awareness that you are overweight.
Think about the fact that most average-sized women in 2015 (say, those who aren’t plus-sized) think they’re not skinny enough. Now imagine being someone who struggles with weight. You are now two steps removed from being the societal ideal.
Although she delivered her message as if it would be a surprise to people, I can guarantee that Nicole’s stunt did not teach a single overweight person that they are stigmatized. When you are overweight, other people’s judgment is constantly on your mind.
You think about it every time you sit down on the subway, as you worry about inconveniencing fellow passengers with your girth.
You think about it every time see a cute outfit and realize it’s not available in your size.
You think about it every time you need to eat out in public, worrying that people will judge you for putting anything in your mouth.
You even think about it every time someone holds a door open for you. You think, “Wow, they were kind even though I am overweight.”
This is the kind of nonsense that seeps into one’s mind over a lifetime of struggling with weight.
If shame helped overweight people develop good habits, we would all be thin already. We were not waiting around for Nicole Arbour to deliver the coup de grâce with her video.
Everyone who is overweight is aware of the health implications.
People like Nicole assume they know the story here: If you’re obese, you are destined for diabetes, health disease, joint problems and myriad other health issues.
However, there is research showing that it’s not always someone’s weight that affects their health. For instance, the Journal of the American Board of Medicine published a study that showed that healthy habits (not smoking, eating fruits and vegetables, drinking in moderation and exercising regularly) would significantly decrease the mortality of people regardless of their BMI. A similar study showed that “active or fit women and men appeared to be protected against the hazards of overweight or obesity”.
Our scientific knowledge is constantly evolving. But right now, it is impossible to look at someone who is overweight and automatically know their health status, or predict their likelihood of getting certain diseases.
It is ridiculous to fat-shame someone on the basis of concern for their health. They could actually be as healthy or healthier than someone who is much smaller.
Everyone who is overweight has tried to lose weight.
There are no mythical fatties out there who have thumbed their noses at society for their entire lives, eschewing diets at every turn.
People in North America are trying to lose weight! North Americans spend billions and billions of dollars attempting this each year.
Some people are so intent on losing weight that they kill themselves in the process. (If you are unaware of this, please read about Eloise Aimee Parry, a 21-year-old who died after taking weight loss pills, or about the numerous people who die from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia each year.)
Losing weight is incredibly, incredibly hard to do in the long term. Most diets (or — ahem — “lifestyle changes”) address the calories in / calories out equation but usually do not address the core reasons why people overeat in the first place.
Many people reach for food as a way to make themselves feel good. The substances in food (sugar, fat, etc.) directly affect the pleasure centers of the brain. If you are feeling anxious, sad or depressed, worried, lonely, fearful, or any other negative emotion, I can attest that food is one of the absolute fastest ways to feel better (albeit for a brief while).
Others rely on addictions to alcohol, tobacco, pot, other drugs, etc. to improve their moods. Unfortunately, overeating is a unique vice as its effects are long-lasting and immediately visible. It is also not possible to abstain from: everyone needs to eat.
Until many people heal their emotional ills, fighting the extra weight is simply going to be a battle of willpower, and evidence thus far shows your brain will eventually tire of fighting. Healing emotional ills is incredibly difficult and time-consuming (not to mention expensive, should one require support in the form of therapy).
I know of this personally.
The first time I tried to lose weight I was incredibly successful. I did Weight Watchers and lost 50 pounds quite quickly with a little willpower and a ton of hard work (watching my food intake and exercising a lot).
I quickly became obsessive about food. I constantly worried about what my next meal would be and whether it would fit within my quotas. I also started bingeing constantly.
I would restrict myself as directed by the plan, then buckle late in the week and either go on an unplanned binge (eating whatever I could find in the house), or worse, a planned binge (where I would stop at bakeries, candy stores, etc. on my way home to pick up every food that was calling my name).
I ended up in a cycle where I was ashamed I binged, thus I binged more to quell the shame. I temporarily kept the weight off by working out multiple times a week for two hours at a time. But meanwhile, none of the other emotional issues that led me to overeat in the first place had been dealt with. I ended up a mess, gaining back the 50 pounds and more.
Since then I have worked with numerous food coaches and nutritionists, but it keeps coming back to my emotions each time. At the moment, I am focusing wholly on emotional healing and am not actively limiting my food intake (though I certainly try to stay as healthy as I can without feeling restricted and spiraling back into bingeing).
Overweight people deserve to be treated as humans.
The overweight people I know are smart, kind and incredibly giving.
Most importantly, we are human beings — although Nicole’s video might attempt to insinuate otherwise.
Please look past our exteriors and get to know us as living, breathing souls with creativity, ingenuity, compassion, intelligence, and contradictions just like everyone else.