I follow the Huffington Post Canada on Twitter, partly because I write for them, and partly because I like reading the blogs and headlines. I'm used to a number of fitness and health related articles crossing my feed at any given time, and I read some of them and find myself educated and interested in the author's thoughts.
When I saw Dr. Arya Sharma's article, "The 5 Stages of Living With Obesity", I was interested. Here was a doctor who appeared to actually get what my life was like. I clicked, expecting a change from the numerous fat-shaming articles in the blogosphere, and hoped for a doctor who actually could write from the "fat experience" and offer empathy and advice free of blame, shame, and moral judgement.
What I found was a reworking of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, written in what I found to be a condescending and completely detached way. This doctor did not appear to understand what living with obesity is really like. He is an expert in obesity diagnosis and treatment, and it's clear he's spoken to and successfully treated many fat patients, but it was not apparent to me that he understood or felt any empathy towards their situations. So, I decided to rewrite his Five Stages of Living with Obesity to suit what it's actually like to live as a fat person every day. I hope that if Dr. Sharma reads this, he remembers that fat people are more than problematic patients. We're people first. We always have been.
I want to mention that I have not experienced these five stages in any semblance of order. Sometimes I lapse back into a certain stage. Sometimes I seem stuck in a certain stage for awhile. But I will say that my stages have always ended with acceptance, however tenuous it might be. And to me, that's the most important stage I've gone through as a fat woman.
I have never denied the fact that I'm a fat woman. I know it. I see myself in the mirror every day. However, I have denied that it's a problem for me in any way. I've pictured myself, in my head, as thin and svelte. I imagine what I would look like in certain outfits and clothes, and I have eaten certain foods, pushing what they'll do to my specific body to the back of my mind. I've imagined cutting off the fat parts of my body. I have denied that I'm treated any differently than the rest of the world, until it's slapped in my face by a disgusted look or seemingly innocuous comment.
I've denied that the image I see in the mirror is really me, even though in my heart, I know it is. And when I read Dr. Sharma's article, I notice that he mentions some of these stages of denial, but his tone implies that the people experiencing them are being deliberately ignorant and even stupid. I'm not a stupid woman and I never have been. But maybe I can be blind, because I think that my size doesn't determine who I am as a person. However, society disagrees. Okay - I can move past denial when I've been smacked in the forehead with the brick wall of "truth" enough times. I am not pigheaded. I do accept brick walls. I just want to bust through them - and I don't accept that being fat automatically means I have a serious problem that will lead to early and horrible death.
Anger isn't always the second stage for me. Anger is sometimes the default, or the last stage. Anger comes when I realize that in society, I am never enough. I am never pretty enough. I am never thin enough. If I want pretty clothes, I'm sneered at, because only thin people get to wear pretty clothes, since they "look better on thin people". If I want to eat a "bad food", or have a treat, I'm thrown looks of disgust, because that must be what I eat 24/7. I am assumed to be lazy, unhealthy, and a bad person. I have had civilians demanding to know my medical history and ready to jump on any medical problem I have, always blaming it on my weight. I am looked down upon. I apparently have no willpower. I make excuses as to why I'm fat. I don't want to, or must not want to, change. I'm a victim and I enjoy being victimized. If I were less lazy, I'd be thin already. I'm a whiner who deserves everything I get. The list goes on.
All these assumptions, and no one bothers to actually listen when I say that I'd like you to see me as a person, not a number on a scale. I'd like the size of my body to not indicate what kind of morality I have, or whether or not I'm considered attractive. And that makes me angry, because obesity appears to be the last acceptable form of prejudice in society. It's okay to make fun of a fat person, because they must be stupid and morally bad and have no willpower. They're ugly and so they deserve to be made fun of. It's their fault they're fat, always. Anything else is an excuse. Any medical problem they have is their fault and they deserve it. Good and bad, right and wrong. That's the world we live in, deal with it.
I find this stage hardest to get past, probably because I live it pretty much daily, through comments made online, through "fitspiration" articles that outright state how bad and unhealthy you are if you have a fat body, and through looks I get in society, certain barbed comments if I bring something for lunch that isn't a salad. And through this lens, it's hard to tell if people are being innocuous or if they're judging me. Sometimes it seems like one and the same. Sometimes I get bitter and I get misanthropic. It's hard to live as a fat woman in society, and I don't really care if that makes me any kind of a "victim". It's the truth.
So, it really shouldn't be a surprise that after being confronted and bombarded daily with just how awful of a person I must be, that I get depressed. And then the real fun starts. Because depression is seen as more weakness, more excuses. Why am I getting upset at a "fitspiration" article? I should be using that as the catalyst I need to actually get off my ass and stop eating McDonald's all the time. Oh, I don't eat McDonald's all the time? Well, there must be something else that I'm doing that keeps me fat. I just don't have enough willpower. I need people to tell me how wrong and bad I am to motivate me to change and mold myself into what society wants. How dare I feel upset when it's my fault that I am the way I am? I deserve to feel upset and worthless. All fat people do.
And if I won't listen to that, well, here's 15 scary articles on what obesity can do to your body. Do I want to die by the time I'm 35? Well, do I?! Do I want to end up with my feet getting amputated because of Type II Diabetes? Because that's the road I'm going down, young lady. That's the road I'm choosing for myself by being a big old fatty. Never mind genetics. Never mind my own personal medical history. Never mind that I'm doing things for myself to change, because my health is my priority. Fat equals wrong. It equals bad. And if I'm upset about it, well, that's my fault and I should be upset about it. Maybe now I'll magically lose those pounds. Cry about it more. Medical professionals just want to help and aren't biased in any way. Fitspiration and diet businesses are trying to sell an image (this is true). Don't take it so PERSONALLY.
And the depression spirals into shame and back again. These are the messages I hear daily. These are the messages that overweight children hear daily. Why are these messages okay? So I yo-yo, back into anger, back into depression. And I hate living this way.
The bargaining stage is a way of getting back some stability in my life, to stop my emotions from going back and forth between anger and depression. I hope that if people see me walking briskly, my iPhone playing music clutched tightly in my hand, they'll stop seeing me as a lazy, shiftless person who never does anything right, as evidenced by the size of my body. If they see me eating a salad, they'll realize that I don't eat McDonald's all the time. I don't even eat it most of the time. If I join in the food and fitness talk at work, if I put myself and people like me down, I'll become part of that club, one of the "good fatties", the rare mythical fatties who are actually trying to lose weight and get healthy. And that will make me morally better in their eyes. Maybe all those negative comments about fat people won't apply to me, because I'll be visibly trying. I'll be trying to be enough.
This stage is really as dangerous as the last two stages. It causes me to reduce myself to a number on a scale, a body shape. It ignores who I am as a person -- which is much more than what I weigh. It causes me to turn my back on what I find important. And it's generally a short stage, because through it, I start understanding what I must do in order to fit in and combat the attitudes of society.
This is a tenuous stage. This stage is constructed on a very fragile scaffolding, one that is threatened a lot because of my own personal self-esteem issues. But it's a stage I try to make my default. And here's what fat acceptance means to me.
It doesn't mean that I am choosing to do nothing about my health. What it does mean is that my health is my priority, my business, and my responsibility. I feel better when I am walking regularly and eating a balanced diet. For me, it has nothing to do with what size I am or if I can fit into smaller clothing. It's about feeling good, having stamina, and being able to enjoy being active. And what I do for my health and wellness is also none of your business, unless I am consulting you as a medical professional. I don't owe you my medical history. I don't have to prove that I'm a "healthy fattie" to anyone but myself. Your pointed questions and assumptions regarding my health or anyone else's health, fat or thin, are well out of order. You need to check yourself and remember how you might feel if someone constantly probed you for health information and proof.
Acceptance doesn't mean that I'm a victim or that I'm a whiner. It means that I'm choosing to speak up about my feelings regarding society's view of people like me, and I'm doing so because I want to change it. I believe change starts with education. I also believe that change starts with trying to walk in someone else's shoes. I have had conversations with people on the other end of the spectrum, people who are very thin and can't keep weight on, and a lot of what I experience is similar to what they experience. I have changed my views towards thin people as a result, and when I write about acceptance, I'm writing about body acceptance - mostly that what size you are is your business alone.
I don't believe that acceptance means that I'm making excuses. Who are you to decide if my experience is an excuse? That's derailing and dehumanizing. When you present your fitspiration article and ask me, a fat person, why I don't look like you and what my excuse must be, you're asking a question that is none of your business. I get that it's supposed to be inspiring and make me think, but you have no idea what I do for myself and what I'm working on personally. I don't owe anyone explanations, excuses, or anything else. I only owe myself those things. It's myself I answer to at the end of the day. And how I look has nothing to do with my personality, my morality, and my willpower.
I don't think acceptance means that I'm ignoring the risks of obesity. I'm not. I do understand that obesity is correlated with many secondary diseases. That's why I'm taking charge of my health and keeping those things in mind. Someone who doesn't appear to be doing the same thing is not willfully ignoring the fact that obesity can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other issues. We're all bombarded with scary images, scary stories, of what being fat can do to our health. Someone isn't stupid or worthless if they don't appear to be doing something about it that you can see. Because maybe they are - and maybe their fatness is caused by a secondary disease that they are treating in order to lose the weight. Maybe they're working on a treatment plan for their specific situation with their doctor. Maybe they're eating better and exercising, and they've already lost a large amount of weight. Maybe they don't want to "do anything about it" at all. And that's their choice, their business. It doesn't make them bad, ugly, or stupider than the rest of society.
I refuse to accept that "that's the way the world is". It doesn't have to be that way. Prejudice doesn't have to be the default. We don't have to place people in boxes of good and bad, assign worth based on how much someone weighs. We can worry about ourselves instead of what other people are doing with their lives. And being fat doesn't always mean that we're heading down a horrible road full of medical issues, either. It doesn't automatically equal a serious problem. It doesn't always mean we need bariatric surgery, or diet pills, or to have someone stand over us shaking a finger at every food choice. Refusing to buy into that doesn't make us ignorant, either.
What I do think acceptance means is recognizing that everyone is human. It recognizes that everyone's journey is different. It recognizes that no one owes you a explanation or the reason behind what you think are "excuses". It means that beauty comes in all sizes, all colours, all different shapes and forms. It means that beauty is allowed to be recognized in all its facets. And it means that the fat person you see on the bus, or in the street, is human and doesn't deserve your contempt and disdain. Look past their weight. Recognize their talents. No one is just a body shape or a number on a scale. And if that's what people are represented as to you, then it's you who's close-minded and myopic. Try expanding your world view and maybe you'll meet some pretty awesome people who may just happen to be fat.
Lastly, I want to say that I believe that Dr. Sharma believes in his work. That is evident from his article. I am not doubting the work that he does, nor am I saying that he is wrong in every stage he has written about. However, I do believe that he has overlooked the real experience of fatness, from its misguided moral issues to what those five stages of living with it really do to a person.
I hope that if he does experience patients in the stages of anger, denial, depression, and bargaining, that he can steer them towards acceptance - and not just acceptance that meets with the medical community's blanket ideas of what obesity is and how it should be treated. The acceptance I mean serves and helps the individual he's treating. It's the type of acceptance that will help those individuals find a journey that works for them.
Because it's not about excuses. It's not about denial. It's about wanting to be heard and seen as human, not just a statistic in the War on Obesity.
We, as human beings, are more than numbers on a scale.