Representation matters! Obesity Canada launched the Weight of Living series to dismantle the stereotypes and myths surrounding obesity. Through stories and photos, we hope to address the bias that surrounds obesity and weight, and inspire others to continue the conversation about obesity. Recently, OC ran a Facebook contest for submissions, and our winner was Helen. Click her photo to read her story!
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I am a full time foster parent. At this point in my life, I enjoy being active. I hike almost daily, and work out at my local gym. I would love to dance the night away, but that’s not always possible… sadly.
Can you describe your experience living with obesity? Do you have a family history of obesity?
I have lived with obesity my entire life, or at least as long as I can remember. I have family members that struggle with their weight as well, but I have always been the fattest one in my family. I always felt that I had to work extra hard to fit in. I was always the “funny” girl. I had a lot of friends growing up, but I never felt like I fit in. When I was made fun of, I would just laugh and make a joke about it. Deep down, though, it affected me to the core.
I have never felt comfortable with my body, and even today I still do not feel comfortable. I had many years where I would binge and purge, and I never told anyone. It was my way of keeping my weight in check, even though it was never in check. My obsession with food continued to grow throughout my adult life. I tried every diet that you can imagine and even some that I made up myself. I probably lost close to 400 pounds in total, but gained and lost over the years. It has been, and I believe will always be, a constant battle.
When did obesity start for you? Is there anything specific that triggered it? How have you managed it?
I remember being six years old at the doctor’s office with my mother. The doctor told my mother if I could maintain the weight I was at this age, by the time I reached 11 years old I would be a normal weight. What I took from that was I was not normal, but would be by the time I was 11. I was just a child, but the words of this doctor impacted me so much that I remember it today, and trust me, my memory sucks.
How do you perceive your body?
I can look at pictures of myself before and after and see that I look so much different, however, I don’t know if I will ever have a healthy view of how my body actually is. This is such a deep-seated issue inside of me. It started as such a young child. I’m not sure if it can ever be repaired at this stage of my life. I’m hopeful, though.
Do you feel like your perspective on obesity is different than that of society’s? If so, how does that influence you?
I feel like I have much more empathy for those who struggle with weight and food addiction. I will NEVER judge anyone with a weight problem. It is so much more than what it appears to be. It is an addiction like any other addiction, only worse than people know. Can you imagine being a drug addict and having to have a small portion of drugs administered to you, but never enough? Just enough to want more? It’s just not easy. You need food to live. No one need drugs or alcohol or gambling to live, but food? You have to have it to live. It’s just so much more than anyone without that addiction can ever imagine.
How were the topics of self-image, weight and health discussed when you were growing up? How does this influence the way you think and talk about bodies and weight now?
It has always been bad to be fat. It has never been accepted in my family. I don’t believe my family intended to cause me harm, but between my family and society that’s what happened. My parents did the very best they could. They enrolled me in all the activities they could. I had to get a special uniform to play soccer and hockey, and my mother never said anything about that, but when you don’t fit the uniform, and you have to get something made “special”, you know you are not normal, which in a kids mind is not okay.
Can you tell us about a time when you experienced or observed discrimination or judgment because of your (or someone else’s) weight or size? Why does this particular experience stand out in your mind?
I was at a smaller time in my life. One of those successful weight loss times. I was at an event with my aunt and her husband. A large woman walked by. She was probably about 300 pounds. My aunt’s husband made a comment. I honestly don’t remember what exactly he said, but I remember so clearly how it felt to me. I instantly hated him. There was no going back. I remember thinking that was me not too long ago, and how dare he say anything about anyone he knows nothing about. This was maybe 20 years ago, but I can still picture this woman in my mind. I was her and she was me. She will never know what was said, but I will always remember her. She is me.
If weight bias and discrimination did not exist, how would your life change? What would your life look like?
This is not something I can or will answer. It’s never going to happen, at least not from what I can see. People seem to think being fat is something people can control. It’s not!
Do you feel that your obesity has created barriers for you? For example, have you ever given up an activity you really loved because of your weight? Or are there other ways that your weight has hindered you?
I was a manager for a non-profit organization. We had a managers retreat, and part of that was to go zip lining. I know they may have changed the plan if they realized a person would be left out but it wasn’t something they thought about. I didn’t either, but when I got the form to fill out, there was a weight restriction. You couldn’t be over 250, and I was well over that. When I told them I couldn’t go, all the staff chimed in saying, “no, you’re fine”. They proceeded to make me walk to the scale. Worst moment ever. I assured them I was over and didn’t want to step on the scale, but the pressure was on. I knew how much I weighed, but I stepped on the scale with five employees surrounding me to see what I weighed in at. With a bunch of twenty-somethings surrounding me and the death scale, I sealed my fate. Yup, I couldn’t zip line. Thanks guys, I already knew that. It was a very tough and emotional moment for me, but in the end I got something better than zip lining. I was working for an organization that supports individuals with special needs. They are told daily they cannot do certain things. I never knew how this felt for them until this very moment. I would take this lesson over zip lining any day. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise.
How have your opinions and beliefs about weight influenced the way you see other people? Why do you think this is?
I will never judge a person for their weight. That is not who they are as a person. I believe we all have a certain amount of trauma that can lead to addictions. Food is not different.
If you had to explain to someone who has never experienced obesity, what would you want them to know about living with obesity?
It is not a choice. None of us want to be obese. No one wants to have an addiction to food. Our outside packaging has nothing to do with who we are on the inside, but that’s how we wear our pain. Please be kind and don’t judge.
If you are living with obesity, have you ever tried to seek help in managing it? If yes, what triggered you to seek help and what was that experience like? If no, please explain why?
I have tried to seek help in every form you can imagine. It has to eventually come from a place so deep inside your soul. It has to scream at you to finally make a change. It has not been easy. It comes with jumping on the wagon and falling off many times. You fall off and get back on. I’ve had plateaus that lasted for months and months. I’ve gained and lost and just kept going. I went from morbidly obese to obese and now I’m considered overweight by the books. I’ll take overweight; it’s a label I’m okay with. What triggered me was my 50th birthday. I wanted to be healthy by 50. I was a new grandma and I wanted to be a fit grandma for my grandson. He helped me make a change.
As someone living with obesity, what would be your vision for improving the lives of Canadians living with obesity?
We need more programs to bring awareness. Motivational speakers that have been through what Canadians have been through. Be open to different ideas and help Canadians with what works for them.