In early June, Obesity Canada sent three delegates to Ottawa to meet with Members of Parliament. Ximena Ramos-Salas (Managing Director), Ian Patton (Public Engagement Coordinator), and Candace Vilhan (Public Engagement Committee member) made visits on behalf of Obesity Canada and the millions of Canadians living with obesity to the politicians who shape health policy in this country. The goal of our advocates was simple: to raise awareness about weight bias and discrimination, making a case for equality, and to have obesity recognized as a chronic disease, by bringing the government and policy in alignment with the scientific evidence and experts in the field. Please take a moment to read about this experience from our patient advocate’s perspective as Candace describes the day, and why she does what she does. We are lucky to have strong empowered individuals like Candace! If you want to make a difference, we can help you with that! Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a member of the Public Engagement Committee for Obesity Canada. Recently I was asked to join Dr. Ian Patton (Public Engagement Coordinator) and Dr. Ximena Ramos-Salas (Managing Director) on June 5, 2018 to meet with various Members of Parliament on behalf of Obesity Canada and the 7 million people living with obesity in this country. Our goal was simple, increase obesity awareness and advocate for the recognition of obesity as a chronic disease.
This was a HUGE step out of my comfort zone. I am very shy by nature, but this cause is far too important to myself and those I care about to not lend my voice. It was a grey, rainy day in Ottawa but nothing would deter our spirits or our enthusiasm for these discussions which lasted the full day. It was a surreal experience walking up to parliament hill, as the last time I had been there was for one of my daughter’s school trips in grade school. Now I was there in a different capacity, not as a mom, but as an ambassador and advocate for those living with this chronic disease.
I told the MP’s that the people I represent needed help with their voice at times, as we’re told obesity is a lifestyle choice of not moving enough, eating too much, and is in some way our fault. Obesity is a complex, multifactorial disease that needs better access to treatments and understanding. It is recognized as a disease by virtually all the experts including the World Health Organization and the Canadian Medical Association. I am constantly asking when the rest of the world will catch up to the knowledge we have and shift the narrative around obesity.
The day consisted of meetings with Don Davies (NDP), Colin Carrie (Conservative), Marilyn Gladu’s team (Conservative) and Bill Casey (Liberal). The meetings were typically scheduled for 15-20 minutes each, and we had practiced our messaging to ensure we got our message across effectively. However, with each meeting the conversation took a human turn and shifted to an honest discussion and education. There was a sincere interest in listening to the experience of those living with obesity, and the challenges we often face which are unique to the individual.
My experience as a patient advocate far exceeded my expectations, as everyone was open, receptive, and wanting to learn more about obesity. I think meeting the MP’s made me realize that this disease, while often not a popular topic, is so pervasive. It touches everyone in some way and that is the common ground we can meet on. The other realization was that MP’s are humans with hearts too. Giving an important conversation a true human connection, talking about how this affects their constituents, family, friends, and co-workers opens the door for a more full and fruitful discussion. It gives me hope.
I am asked why I volunteer and commit to helping this cause while working full-time and balancing the needs of my family. I am a mother to two wonderful teenage daughters, and the encouragement of my family has been integral to me championing this cause. I am privileged to have worked in the field of obesity management and community health for the past 20 years, specializing in mental health. On a daily basis I hear stories of those who struggle with obesity, and how that weight impacts health. Beyond that, the shame and stigma they experience is debilitating.
Obesity is a disease we wear. I often think that if I was an alcoholic, had diabetes, or high blood pressure etc., people wouldn’t be able to see those conditions and then judge me for my perceived health status. I am not perfect but this disease requires me to do something everyday to manage it. I need to invest even more effort everyday in order to not blame myself for perceived shortcomings. People have made many assumptions about me because of my weight, thinking that I am not active, that I am constantly eating, and that I have no willpower. As a professional, I have received comments that because I work in the field that I “should know better and practice what I teach”. As if my appearance has anything to do with my knowledge and effectiveness in my chosen profession. As a Patient Advocate, I would challenge that narrative and say, who better? Who knows more about obesity and the struggles than someone who has lived it? Who better to discuss and counsel patients than someone they can look at, and know there is a common thread that connects us?
I spent a long time listening to the criticism from others regarding my chronic disease, and feeling like a failure. I do this advocacy work because I understand what it feels like to be beaten down by shame and blame that oversimplifies this very complex disease. This is not a disease of commitment, and I guarantee that individuals living with obesity have far greater willpower than they are given credit for. Simply ask them about some of the things they have put their bodies and minds through trying to help themselves.
I help support change because I know what that feels like, and if I can make a difference in helping one person I will have succeeded. I advocate for the clients I serve, for myself, and certainly for my two teenage daughters growing up with skewed societal messaging that if we are thin, we should immediately be happy and be a productive and valued member of society. I try instead to help them to understand obesity as a chronic disease and to love and respect all people of all sizes, and to embrace their own unique gifts and have compassion towards others.
I hope that this initial set of meetings with Members of Parliament will help introduce Obesity Canada to the government. It is a reliable source of credible, scientific knowledge, and an expert in recognizing obesity as a chronic disease. I hope that one day this disease will be better understood and receive affordable, funded, evidence-based treatment options that fit the individual without judgment yet with compassion. I think our June 5, 2018 visit to Parliament was a good start to this, and I look forward to continuing discussions that will yield the very changes I have discussed herein.