“What’s happening out there – examples not to live by – yours, mine and ours?”

Often there are subtle reminders of the weight bias out there. And sometimes they come in through the back door with no anticipation of their arrival. Such is the story I am about to tell. Let me preface things by saying I have been fortunate in not experiencing (overt) weight bias professionally or personally. I do put “overt” because sometimes you don’t know it until you’re shown it.

A few years after I had bariatric surgery I was in a Kinko’s. It was a very long, narrow store with the cash register at the far end away from the door. I was leaving the store after paying, and when I looked up, I realized a man was standing at the door. He waited the entire time for me to traverse the store so he could then hold open the door. It was in that moment I realized I most certainly had been discriminated against and likely for many years. I could not think of one experience during my years being affected by obesity where someone went out of his way to hold open a door, let alone wait until I marched myself down the length of a store.

Now, some of you are probably thinking, “This is not a big deal. So she didn’t get guys to hold doors open for her – so what?” But I see this is a broader context. I believe what this really means is we are likely not conscious of many acts of bias that occur regularly and stories like this help to highlight just how insidious it is.

Now for a Scenario to Consider
I am sitting in a food court in a mall eating something when a person sits down at the table next to me. This person is affected by severe obesity and has a large portion of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, soda and dessert. As she begins to eat, I begin to feel more and more uncomfortable.

I realize there are many feelings and questions flooding into my brain. Is it bias – I don’t think so – I am not feeling any ill will or aggression toward this person, and I certainly would never do anything to make this person feel bad. If anything, I feel extremely empathetic. I can’t think of anything I would do to cause her pain. And yet, there is something that is making me feel uncomfortable. So what is it? I suspect it is fear – my own fear of revisiting my demons around food and eating. It is like looking into the mirror of an older part of my life I found difficult. So surely that has nothing to do with bias, right?

Well, not so fast. Most people are bad actors (let’s face it, most actors are bad actors) in which case, hiding ones reactions is probably pretty hopeless. If that’s true, regardless of my best intentions to not let this person know what is churning inside of me, the odds are pretty good she will get some sense of it, which is likely to be interpreted as a negative judgment around her weight, eating, etc. So despite my best intentions, to her, I have perpetuated a stereotypical reaction.

How do we manage these types of experiences? Are we able to think while at the same time remain empathetic or nonreactive? What is the educational process to get us to that point? Perhaps role playing? And how do you get people engaged in the topic dreaded by most?


About the Author:
Melinda J. Watman, BSN, MSN, CNM, MBA, spent years in clinical practice and recently founded “THE F WORD FAT tiny word, BIG impact,” a company that provides educational seminars to organizations on understanding, managing and eliminating weight bias and discrimination.

5 Comments for this Post
  • Nanette
    July 4, 2013 at 7:26 am

    The term you’re looking for is projecting. While you may want to engage in the conversation with everyone about your knowledge of obesity, not everyone shares your sentiments, and you will likely be met with offense and hurt by offering any insight on your observation. There is a fine line to walk in being an advocate and being an … People are too easily hurt by the weight conversation from family or friends, let alone complete strangers. It’s intrusive and inappropriate to accost someone about their meal choices in a food court. You may silently pass judgment all you like, but you can’t make saving then individually your business unless they invite it. Otherwise, it maybe self serving to stroke your own ego.

    • Melinda Watman
      July 8, 2013 at 8:55 am

      Nanette – first, thank you for your response and I agree with your insight that some of what is happening is attributable to projection. And I completely agree with your thoughts on how difficult this conversation is – regardless of someone’s weight. It is a loaded topic for most people and something to be well thought out if one is even considering opening that door with someone.

      I do want to clarify one point, which I think might have been lost in translation. I am not an advocate of going around trying to discuss weight with others. This is indeed a personal conversation and I only engage if approached to do so.

      I believe one of the main issues is in educating people to understand their bias and learn how to manage it. The question is, how do we do that? Is it through presentations to various organizations? Is role-playing part of the process? Is there a place for such education in the schools?

      These are the types of conversations I am most interested in and believe can make a difference.

  • Mark Rumps
    July 6, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    As a formerly obese person who now works to help obese people get their lives back I can say that your fried chicken example is simply a normal reaction. Her obesity is not helped by the foods you mentioned. Unfortunately, with someone we don’t know who has not asked for our help all we can do it sit idly by and wonder what that meal really represents to them. The most difficult part of change for me and those I now help is changing their mind. Once we do that, their body follows.

  • Sheri
    August 3, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    I am obese because my mother constantly berated me about my weight..( I grew to 5’11′” by 6th grade and weighed 170, which is within the normal weight for a person my size. I think because she was 5’2″ she did not know what was normal for my height.)

    Well, I carried that hurt thru out my life and because I thought I was obese, I just kept eating until I was obese-314 lbs! Until the light went off in my head, I resented all attempts for someone else who tried to help me. Well I finally decided I had to do something and had WLS. I have lost 70lbs so far and am still working to lose more. I HAD TO MAKE THAT DECISION MY SELF! I am very happy that at 70 years old, I am finally working to get my BMI to normal! I am doing it for myself and no one else!

    Now I know I need all the help and support I can get. Is having WLS easy- NO! It changes the rest of your life. But I am willing to make those changes and live within the guidelines.

    • Melinda Watman
      August 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Sheri – what an inspirational story and congratulations on your decision – a huge decision at that! I relate to your recounting of your childhood and being made to believe you were obese. Several years ago, my sister and I were going through old photos and there was one of me in a bathing suit. I was around 16. And her comment was “I don’t get what the whole fat thing was about – you weren’t obese or even that heavy”. Yes, I could have lost some weight but I was nothing like how I viewed myself and like you, I made sure ultimately that I was indeed obese.

      I too made the same decision you did – 13 years ago – and it was life-changing. It is not for everyone and most who choose WLS go through a soul-searching process to reach the decision one way or another. The only “right” decision is the one each person arrives at in that moment in time.

      I wish great health!

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