Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Cone of Silence

Obesity is a lonely business. Because the most visible thing about us is often the very last topic up for conversation, we don’t often get the chance to talk about the fat in any meaningful capacity. We’ve erected a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ barrier around the subject, drawn a chalk line of propriety that we rarely allow to be crossed even in the most appropriate of circumstances. Whether you’ve always been the fattest person in the room, or you live in a world where you’re one amongst many, there’s not likely to be a whole lot of conversation about that fact encouraged, or even allowed.

But the great equalizer of our time, the Internet, has changed that. It turns out that there are literally millions of people out in cyberspace who are learning every day that they’re not alone in their battle with the bulge. There are approximately 1 gazillion weight loss blogs to be perused, and countless weight-related online communities with thriving memberships offering something for everyone on the subject. For me, finding a group of people who looked like me and were facing obesity on the same scale as my own was an unexpected gift, and being able to look out into the crowd and see my own face staring back at me was a singularly freeing experience.

And yet I’ve found that, like most things, too much solidarity isn’t necessarily a good thing, and everything I’ve gained by finding a place where I finally fit in is sometimes offset by the occasional loss of perspective that comes along with it.

My favorite weight loss message board is one that was created to give a home to those who are struggling with morbid obesity and face the monumental task of losing hundreds of pounds to achieve a healthy standard goal weight. It’s a very welcoming community, and the positive nature of the board is an attractive draw for many who call it home. Every once in a while, someone will show up on a fact finding mission asking for advice about their friend/spouse/loved one who has a severe weight problem. I have no real problem with this phenomenon, and although there are those who resent the occasional sightseer, I give most people the benefit of the doubt. Just today, someone popped in to ask advice about a loved one who’s weight has gotten so out of control they can barely move and are having difficulty breathing, but yet refuses to engage in any conversation about their weight problem. Tough stuff.

I sat back for a while and waited for the inevitable onslaught of responses that would advise the questioner that obesity is a very personal issue, that her loved one already knows that they’re overweight and reminding them of that fact is just being cruel, and it was only polite to speak about their weight when invited to, remembering that until someone is ready to lose weight that any criticism will likely only make things worse. As I visualized the admonitions about unconditional love, I found myself getting really, really pissed off. Not at the person asking the question, but that they had to ask the question at all. What is it about obesity that makes us still treat its discussion as an etiquette conundrum instead of the serious, dangerous health issue that it is?

What if this same person had told about how their loved one was starving themselves to death, that their weight had reached such a low number that they could barely move their wasted limbs and that their breathing had become visibly shallow and labored beneath their emaciated rib cage. Would we be talking about preserving her self esteem and remaining silent on the subject? Would we encourage the questioner to love the dying woman unconditionally because weight is a personal issue and that she already knows she’s anorexic, so to bring it up would be impolite? Would we tell her to sit back and wait until her loved one was ‘ready’ to help herself?


We’d be telling her to batten the hatches, dial 911, alert the medical professionals, call in the troops and stage an intervention to let this poor soul know just how much danger she was in and how it was affecting the lives of everyone who loved her. There would be ambulance rides and tearful pleading and declarations of support heaped upon her like a tidal wave, and we’d applaud as it crashed into the shore.

But when fat is killing someone, we tell everyone to just back off…with love. And I think that’s crap. It’s unjust. It’s patronizing.

Morbid obesity isn’t a lifestyle choice. It’s not a “personal” issue. It affects the quality of life of every family member and loved one around us—and yet we demand they remain silent on the subject. How often have we required those who love us to bite their tongues about the choices we’re making, had them sit right beside us as we devoured more and more of what was stealing our breath, our mobility, our very lives? How many times have we raised a hand to halt them telling us their fears, have we warned them against expressing the anger our out of control habits have caused them with just a look? And how often have we felt justified in doing so, in proclaiming that we’d do something about it when we were ready to—and not before? How often have we demanded their support in our weight loss endeavors, only to prohibit them from showing disappointment in our failures?

There is a piece of conventional wisdom we always throw around that says that no one will ever be successful at losing weight unless they are doing it for themselves. I disagree. I believe that some of the most powerful motivation we ever have under our belt is the desire to do right by those we love. And just maybe the gap between “unwilling” and “ready” can be bridged when someone precious to us has the guts to say, “I love you. I’m scared for you. I don’t want you do die.”

The enemy of change is silence. Obesity will never be elevated above a mere character flaw unless we allow the conversation to begin. So let’s start talking.


  1. I feel great sympathy for anorexics, equal to the empathy I feel for the obese. You raise an interesting point - how an anorexic is treated verus an obese person. The main difference lies in perception of character flaws. So although I completely get what you're saying, there's a conflict...

    Although ill, anorexics are perceived as strong and disciplied - and somewhat respected - after all, that's some major "willpower" to refuse to eat! The obese are seen as lazy, withouth willpower, undisciplined, etc....So the basis of how someone is treated (insisting on getting help for the person vs the person needing help refusing) is respected more because of the "character" facets underlying the problem.

    Maybe I'm oversimplifying it? Did I miss your point?

  2. Actually you got my point PERFECTLY. :)

    Until the world at large (and WE) stop looking at obesity as a mere character flaw and start seeing it for the complex medical condition that it is, we have very little hope of ever meaningfully working to conquer it.

    I believe that the shift in perspective begins with those of us who have first hand experience with obesity speaking out against the idea that it's simply a matter of weakness and bucking up and letting the issue stay out on the table.

  3. Sara, this is such a moving post. It touched my heart.

    I asked my husband why, when I was at my heaviest, why in God's name didn't he say something to me? I mean, I was killing myself with food and lack of exercise. He said, and I quote "I was afraid of making you mad".

    He was right, I would have been furious with him for pointing out I was fat and unhealthy. On the other hand, I desparately needed help. I was dying a slow and painful death.

    I wish obesity was treated as a real health condition, one where people need medical help to heal. Doing this by ourselves is so very hard. My heart just breaks for all the people suffering from obesity. I know their pain, their humiliation, their fear.