If It Was That Simple, It Wouldn't Be So Hard
Some things to do with our weight, our height and our health are simply out of our control. For example no amount of nutritious food, exercise and positive thinking will make me taller or make my legs longer. I probably will feel stronger and fitter from the exercise and my insides will feel good from the extra nutrition and may protect me from some health conditions but essentially my height will remain the same.
I have been reflecting on the feelings of helplessness and powerless one can feel when there is a health scare, or diagnosis of a chronic disease or illness thrust into ones life. Somehow we think we ought to have total control over our health and body size and shape, and this is a particularly common belief when it comes to our weight.
I will never forget the despair I felt when my baby was diagnosed with many serious illnesses all of which were imminently life threatening. What I also recall were my overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety responsibility, guilt and shame. This was because I honestly believed if I was more competent, informed, educated and dedicated to healthy behaviours, I would have been able to prevent, avoid and change these diagnosis's and keep my babies safe and well.
I have come to understand these were not very helpful thoughts. I actually did not have any control at all over these diagnoses. But, while I was in the midst of the crisis I had thoughts like if only I had fed or not fed my babies certain foods. What if the perfume I wore had drifted on to them and made them sick. What if a house-cleaning product I used once was the cause of the illnesses. These thoughts were linked to me thinking if I had just tried harder as a mother, then I would have been in control and been able to protect my precious babies from suffering and pain. I remember reading in one of the paediatric oncology newsletters I received each month where a mother wrote, "what kind of mother would let her baby get cancer?" And that's just it, as if we would ever deliberately set out to cause suffering to our babies, but somehow we feel like we should have been able to prevent anything bad happening to them. Not being able to prevent it or make it go away with positive thoughts, best intentions, healthy eating, desperate hope, longing, or with beetroot juice as once person suggested I do, just reinforced a sense of utter hopelessness.
When I listen to my client's stories that are so tinged with sadness, shame and guilt, about their weight, I feel angry that there is a world out there that places blame on vulnerable people for what is essentially something out of their control by telling them they just should have been able to try harder, be stronger, have more will power, eat less, and that they then could then avoid having obesity. If it were that easy or simple it wouldn't be a struggle for so many.
I stumbled across this quote in conscienhealth, which resonated with me:
"Obesity is a disease with a complex etiology, including multilevel factors that are outside the patient's control. if a clinician thinks motivation is the secret sauce for weight loss, they're fooling themselves. Because motivation is no different for someone with obesity than it is for someone with cancer. It takes a lot to manage a chronic disease. Obesity is not a disease of errant behaviour".
Of course behavioural strategies are immensely helpful for helping manage some health conditions, and paying attention to good nutrition and exercise are very important for overall wellbeing, but in themselves but they are only a part of the long-term management and bigger picture.
A counter argument I am often challenged with is that some people do eat way too much and it is their fault because they actually consume large quantities of food in binges or with poor food choices.
If someone is eating large and copious amounts of food in a binge then this is still something that is out of their control. They may have a binge eating disorder, which is serious and needs care and attention. Maybe they have PTSD and are eating to self soothe. Perhaps they have suffered huge trauma and food is their comfort or had food insecurity and food scarcity as a child. So much of this is out of the individual's control. Or, they might have an appetite that is hard to satisfy and this is often related to their hormones that regulate hunger and satiety. It is not greed.
Morality and judgment just do not belong in the arena of health when people are suffering. It is counterproductive, and at worst quite harmful.
Telling people it is their fault just pushes the feelings of frustration, confusion and despair underground. Shame festers in the dark and it might make people hesitant to reach out for support and help and there really is hope and help out there, there really is.
Ginette Lenham © April 2022