The conversation that broke my heart

I hear a lot of stories that break my heart in the conversations I have with clients. The conversations people have around food can be a surprisingly vulnerable place.

But when you think about it, what better place for it all to come tumbling out? Food touches on every aspect of our lives; our personal history with the food we were raised on, what our culture ate, what our parents thought about food. It touches on our income and our “place” in society. It touches on the world economics, of international trades, of political power and policy, of who gets what and who doesn’t. Food is in fact simply something that can be tied in into any emotional, moral, or political conversation you want to have.

But I digress.

The conversation I want to write about today happened during a weight management course I was running. It was the response to the following question:

What situations make you uncomfortable around food?

For those not in the know, these type of courses are built around the idea of chronic dieting, and it’s cousin overeating. Often when people diet (aka starve themselves) this results in a physical (and psychological) backlash where they tend to overeat (not necessarily a binge, but often a feeling of no control around food arises).

So the expected response to the question “What situations make you feel uncomfortable around food” should be something like “I feel uncomfortable when we have Halloween candy in the house.” or “When I attend parties with buffets” or “when I’m with my frenemie who makes me feel two inches tall” etc.

But do you know what made these women (it was all women, and all of them felt this way) uncomfortable around food?

Eating with other people: their friends, their family, their loved ones.

These women, many of whom had been “big” their whole lives had had so many loved ones comment on what they were eating that eating with others was no longer something joyful.

For many people the idea of asking their dieting friend (or their “bigger” friend), “Are you really going to eat that?!” might seem the least bit harmful, but to be entirely honest it is. Can you imagine someone saying that to (accompanied by a LOOK) you (no matter what your size currently is)?

And as many of the women reminded me, as I sat listening to their confessions, they were constantly under eating, constantly dieting and trying to lose weight, and be “good” (when dieting = good is another story completely). “But,” one said sagely, “We’re only human too!”

The truth is comments like, “you don’t really need seconds” and “do you know how many calories are in that” or “you shouldn’t have dessert you know” often say a lot more about the person giving the comment than the person receiving the comment.

As a society we have been told over and over of the health risk factors excess weight provides, this has often led to the belief that any time someone is of a weight outside the BMI range they are unhealthy. This is a false assumption. Some people are unhealthy and overweight, and some people are unhealthy and skinny, yet we mostly just hear about the ill health affects related to excess body weight. So it’s understandable we might think saying these small things to a friend could be considered a helpful reminder, but mostly they’re just shaming. And shame is never the birthplace of true and lasting change. As one woman said, “When someone says that [above comments] to me I just want to go home and eat more!”

The truth is these shaming comments are part of a larger problem of weight stigma. And weight stigma is known to contribute more to ill health than weight itself.

I wish I had a better conclusion, something grand and poignant to say. Many other people have written about weight bias and stigma (great blogs such as Dances with Fat or the Fat Nutritionist have too many posts I could link to) , as well as organizations like Kelty Mental Health and even the BC PHSA has recommended a change in paradigm from weight to health focus. And courses like BalancedView are offered online for professionals wishing to learn more. What can I leave you with? Just be mindful of what you say; the language we use is much more powerful than we realize and the people we might hurt the most are the ones we care about the most.

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