Health and Weight Stigma at All Sizes: Ellen Shuman

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Ellen Shuman-A Weigh Out CoachEllen Shuman is a coach specializing in recovery from emotional and binge eating issues.

More than 20 years ago, Ellen opened one of the first eating disorder treatment programs designed specifically for people struggling with binge eating disorder. Since 1997, she has been working one-to-one with people looking for A Weigh Out; freedom from emotional eating and weight obsession. She is the Co-Founder of the Academy for Eating Disorders “Health at Every Size” SIG and the Immediate Past President of BEDA.

To learn more about Ellen’s  A Weigh Out Members’ Circle and Coaching Services, visit www.aweighout.com or contact her directly at ellen(@)aweighout.com.

 

Where There’s Weight Stigma, “Weight” and “Health” Get All Mixed Up!

Ever notice that weight loss is celebrated, even when the way it was achieved was clearly unhealthy?

On the TV show “Extreme Weight Loss” a young woman is encouraged to lose 100+ lbs. in three months. At weigh-in, she’s down 108 lbs. In Phase Two, the next three months, she’s told to lose another 60 lbs but her insanely rapid weight loss has begun to slow. She gets sick. She tells the camera she’s afraid she can’t lose 60 more pounds in time for her next public weigh in, as ordered by her trainer. Now, feeling desperate, she is eating more than she has been told to eat and has started to purge. We hear her vomiting off camera…

My 82 year old mother recently experienced a significant weight loss; the result of an undiagnosed adverse reaction to a medication. After eating almost nothing for a month, my Mom was malnourished, weak, and had muscle deterioration. She could barely stand. Still, my cousin said, “Well, at least the weight loss is a good thing.”  He wasn’t kidding. I also wonder if the staff at her nursing home would have sounded the alarm sooner if Mom had been in a smaller body, rather than her size 18.

Weight stigma is harmful for people of all weights, shapes, and sizes.

A client of mine, a middle-aged woman and avid jogger, tells me she is above a “healthy weight” by 15 pounds. “Currently, do you have any health problems?” I ask. She answers, “No, not yet”. I’m curious, “Who says that 15 pounds puts your health at risk?”  Her response, “Everyone knows that being fat is bad for you”. She happens to be a physician.

I wish she were alone in her weight bias, but she’s certainly not…

Earlier this year, the American Medical Association labeled obesity a “disease”. How can that be when we now know that overweight and obesity, alone, are poor predictors of an individual’s health? In recent years, several large studies, including those from the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, have shown that physically fit obese people actually have a lower incidence of heart disease and death, from all causes, than do sedentary people of “normal” weight. So, where’s the proof that weight, alone, causes disease and/or death?

Upon seeing these new emerging studies, some in the medical field scratch their heads and call this “The Obesity Paradox”. Really? What’s up with ignoring the fact that there are a lot of fat and healthy folks out there? What makes it so hard to believe that a person can be fat, fit, and healthy? Is this just more weight bias or, hmm, could there be some economic motives at play here…like selling more pharmaceuticals and filling surgical suites?

As a coach who works by telephone, I find myself in a unique position. I never see a client’s body nor do I know what he or she happens to weigh (unless it’s brought up by them in conversation). Still, whether a size 4 or 4x, I hear the same pain, judgments, fear of being large (or larger) and therefore destined to be “unlovable” and/or “unhealthy”. Many of my clients struggle with their own personal bias; favoring thinness…while hating and blaming their non-conforming body for society’s stigmatizing and rude behavior.  I learned a long time ago that weight bias cannot be weighed on a bathroom scale. Regardless of weight, shape or size, we’re all vulnerable.

So, based on more than twenty years in the health and wellness field, here’s what I know about weight and health, and what emerging research is beginning to support: If your goal is to be as healthy as possible, and your focus is on weight, the emphasis is on the wrong word.

When interventions are focused on weight loss, rather than on improving overall health; emotional, physical, nutritional and spiritual health, people end up feeling like they’ve failed, again, and again, and again.  We all know that diets don’t work for most people and that exercise motivated by desperation to burn calories rarely continues.  When people don’t lose weight as quickly as contestants on shows like “Extreme Weight Loss” and “Biggest Loser”, they feel like real-life losers, they get disheartened, and they stop doing anything at all to get healthy.

If labeling obesity as a “disease” could lead to the types of interventions and services I see improving health in my clients, I’d be willing to bite my tongue and go with it. I’d love to see research and funding for programs that encourage mindfulness practices, self-care instead of self-loathing; hands on support to be more physically active, increased access to healthier whole food choices spaced throughout the day, better sleep habits, and the development of critically important emotional regulation skills that reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and emotional and binge eating. That could be health-promoting for people of all weights, shapes, and sizes…and varying degrees of health!

In my experience, whatever a person happens to weigh on any given day, when provided with specific, effective tools that empower them to take better care of their physical, emotional, nutritional, and spiritual health, their health is more likely to improve.

And, as a side note, when the emphasis shifts away from weight and toward healthy practices, a body has its best shot at finding its own natural weight, whatever that happens to be; one healthy step at a time, without dieting, diet pills, surgery, or TV shows that potentially trigger eating disorders and perpetuate weight stigma…