I recently read a post in which a woman asked whether others had experienced the phenomenon of being healthy in a larger body, yet having people point out their weight in making negative diagnostic assumptions about their health. She explained that it’s a double edged sword of presumption: Not only do people claim she can’t be healthy at the size she is now, but that she was so much healthier at an “underweight” size. As she went on to explain, from her personal experience, those assumptions are dead wrong.
I can empathize with her experience because it is the same journey I had to take: the trek from thin obsession (when I was rewarded for drastic dieting behavior) to ceaseless explanations about my excellent health in a large, non-ideal shape. I’ve finally found the body pride and personal confidence that allow me to save my breath when I recognize that people are commenting on my body when they shouldn’t.
My journey took me through a phase in which I had to unlearn a lot of misinformation so that I could identify it and protect myself from believing it again. For example, consider the following photograph showing my younger self when I was thin:
[Image description: This black-and-white photograph shows the author, a thin white woman with long dark hair and dark eyes. She is wearing a light-colored halter top and a dark short textured bottom. Her right hand is behind her head and her left hand is facing outward at the same level as her face.]
About this image, people have said, “You were so happy and healthy there!” They couldn’t have been more wrong. I was miserable, hungry, on drugs, and devoid of confidence. Sure, I was thin, but I was also a wreck.
Now, consider this image of myself, after my weight gain:
[Image description: The photograph shows the author at a higher weight. She is a white woman with long dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses. She is wearing a black shirt with a silver design on the front. She is sitting at a table with a white tablecloth, food, and glasses of water.]
In response to myself at a higher weight, I get comments such as, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. You must be miserable!” and “Don’t worry. You’ll get healthy again soon.” These sentiments were equally wrong. You see, in the second image, I’m free from drugs and alcohol; I’d started my own company; I was getting proper nutrition and proper rest; and I was challenging my body to train for a 5K. The annoyed look on my face is the (personal) evidence that I’d learned how wrong people were. I knew that their statements were dangerous and ill-informed – and sometimes came from those I loved. I knew I was being subjected to weight bias and I was struggling not to feel weight stigma.
What are weight bias and weight stigma? The most basic definitions are:
Weight bias is the external behavior we display because of our beliefs about body size and what we think it reveals about other people. Weight stigma is the internal dialog we have because we’ve learned to believe we deserve the bias we’ve received. There are more nuanced and complex ways of defining these experiences, but these basic definitions work for my situation.
It wasn’t until after my 40th birthday that I learned the two transformative concepts that have allowed me to combat both weight bias and weight stigma:
Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
You can’t estimate a person’s health based on their shape.
It sounds basic when I say it now, but for four decades, I either didn’t think critically about the messages I was receiving about my body from our culture, or I was too afraid to go against the system. I thought, as many did and still do, that size and shape were an indicator of both physical and mental health. So when I cycled through my larger sizes, I would hear a “concern troll” say something about how I must be depressed and, if I took the weight off, I would feel better. Worst of all, I believed them, and lived or medicated accordingly, rather than listening to my body and saying, “Nope. Just fine thanks!”
After a lifetime of being disgusted with my body on cue, like a Pavlovian pet, I gave up the chase, and I allowed myself to heal and learn. What I learned about my body is that I can trust it to tell me when it’s hungry, when it needs fuel, when it needs comfort, when it needs rest. I learned that if I actively listen, it will tell me whether or not I want to dance, move, work, go out, stay in, even forgo cake. As a matter of fact, when I listen to my body and follow its cues, my labs improve, my relationships improve, and my life improves.
What I had to learn was that people talk. Often they don’t even know what they are talking about or why, but they’ve latched on to a nugget and they want to share it:
“Fat people can’t possibly be healthy!”
“She’s let herself go. Must be depression.”
“Don’t hire him. He’s lazy and undisciplined. Look at him. He could lose some serious weight.”
“If she’d do X along with Y, she’d drop that ‘extra’ weight and look so much better.”
The kicker is that, oftentimes, statements like these aren’t said by the symbolic Mean Girls character. They’re said by the average person who, were you to reframe the sentiment in different words, would often be uncomfortable knowing that they have just condoned misogyny, healthism, and discrimination.
That’s when I started to listen more to science and less to rhetoric. I learned the obvious – that it’s simply not possible to diagnose a person without a full medical examination. Weight and body size are incredibly complex and are affected by genetics, geography, race, education, resources, income, familial culture, ability, and disability. Weight and size happen independent of health.
And then there was the final piece that I needed to face and eventually dedicate my career to combating: We must disconnect the false equivalency of weight/shape with personal character and human rights. People come in all shapes and sizes, and nobody can tell by looking at another person whether that person is a good, trustworthy, compassionate being. A shape is simply a shape. A weight tells you how much pressure your shoes put on the sidewalk. These metrics don’t tell us about cancer or mental health or the ability to feel happiness. They are simply ways of describing form – not substance.
As I go through my journey, there are parts that will be very similar to the journeys of others. I’m going to continue to share mine as I hope you’ll share yours in order to help heal and teach others. If you’ve felt the deep primordial sucking of weight stigma or weight bias, share your experiences so that others can identify what’s happening to them.
If what I’ve learned, or how I’ve learned it, can help you understand that your health is your business, your body is yours to love, and your place in this world is not dependent on fitting into ANY unrealistic ideal, then I am part of your community. Together, we form a new safe space. And we are among friends.
[Image description: The photograph shows the figure of a mermaid sitting on a chair outside a shop in Pacific Grove, CA. The figure has long red hair, light skin, a thin face, and blue eyes. She is wearing beads around her head, neck, and right wrist, and she has straps with white stars on them that are holding up a top made to look like sea shells. Her right hand is resting in her lap, and her left hand is resting on her right arm. From the waist down, she has a scaly gray mermaid body and tail. On her left arm, a monarch butterfly is resting.]
Lizabeth Wesely-Casella is a weight stigma prevention advocate and a binge eating disorder expert. She works in Washington, DC as a coalition builder and speaker addressing the impact that size discrimination has on communities and industry as well as the profound effect weightism has on those with eating disorders, especially binge eating disorder (BED).
As a speaker, Lizabeth blends science, humor, and cultural wisdom to engage her audience, creating a clear understanding of where health disconnects from body shape and that neither impact personal value or character. Lizabeth also connects the dots between weight discrimination as a civil rights issue and the negative consequences to our economy, education, and workforce by drawing from current events in today’s news.
Lizabeth leads the Weight Stigma Stakeholders Group, a coalition of industry professionals dedicated to addressing weight stigma and discrimination in policy, government, industry, and education.
Lizabeth’s weight stigma prevention advocacy has allowed her to speak in the Senate, on film, and in radio. Her advocacy work has impacted program design from college campuses to the White House in an effort to prevent weight bias and stigma in programs including Let’s Move!.
Lizabeth lives in Washington DC with her loving husband and spectacularly spoiled dog Noodle. Please follow her on blog at LizabethWesely-Casella.com, on Twitter @LizabethCasella and on Facebook at Lizabeth Wesely-Casella (www.facebook.com/LizabeththeAdvocate).