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?

Thoughts?

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.