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We don’t have to be defined by a ‘disease’

This column appeared in The Bryan Times on Monday, July 1

I was going to write a column about the importance of recognizing obesity as a disease. I researched some of the talking points from the American Medical Association — which recently voted for the new disease classification — and found some facts about Body Mass Index measurements and what they mean.

Seriously, I was nearly done writing when I suddenly decided to hit delete and head in a new direction.

As someone who has been classified as obese for most of her life, I think I’d rather use my column to talk about how it feels to be obese — rather than what it means.

Obesity can be such an ugly word. Our society puts such a nasty spin on the classification. When we see news programs or TV commercials about obesity or weight loss, we see the extreme side of obesity. We’re shown people eating massive amounts of food, sitting on their couches all day or not being able to get out of their house.

We’re shown bellies hanging out the bottoms of shirts, swimsuits that are too tight or unsightly rolls of fat.

Yes, those things are part of obesity, even though they are on the extreme end. Too often, however, we forget that behind those pounds is a person — someone who is more than just a number on a scale.

I believe the AMA’s vote to recognize obesity as a disease has the potential to make a positive impact on our society. I believe it is important to take obesity seriously and to start doing more to help those who suffer from its complications.

However, I also believe if it’s not handled correctly the new classification can be harmful to those who are obese — nearly one-third of Americans.

After all, the word disease has inherently negative connotations. Being obese doesn’t necessarily mean you are sick or dying, however. It also does not mean that simple medical intervention can change your condition.

As I write this column I am just 3 pounds away from no longer being obese. I have lost 70 pounds over a year and a half and I’ve fought hard to drop every single one of them. I believe obesity is going to be something I fight against for the rest of my life — because I know full well I could gain the weight back just as fast as I lost it.

There are two important lessons I have learned as I traveled from one end of the BMI scale to the other.

The first is that losing weight does not automatically make you healthy. Yes, losing weight can decrease your risk for diabetes and heart disease — this is a medical fact. However, even skinny people can drop dead of a heart attack.

There are also methods of losing weight which can be unhealthy and cause damage to your body even if you take off the pounds. I struggled for years to find a successful weight loss method that wasn’t also making my heart race or my hair fall out.

Before I found my diet and exercise regiment, I found diets, pills and gimmicks that didn’t work or only worked temporarily. I know now that those were bad decisions, but society told me I needed to get up and get those pounds off quickly — no matter the risks.

My fear is that the weight loss market will use the new obesity classification as a fear mongering tactic — scaring Americans into losing weight to rid themselves of “disease”   thus continuing the cycle of unhealthy or unsuccessful weight loss.

The other lesson I have learned is that my happiness doesn’t depend on my weight. Sure, I am happy when I lose pounds and upset when I gain, but my overall outlook on life was just as positive 70 pounds ago as it is today.

Heck, many times I am more upset with my smaller body because I lost my curves and gained sagging skin in their place. Weight loss was not an automatic mental boost, at least not for me.

But the media usually tells us obese people are sad, eating their lives away and hiding in shame. And when they lose weight they are magically dancing around on the beach in a bikini, cured of their depression.

Sure, that is possible. But obese people have nothing to be ashamed of or sad about. 

Just because we now have a “disease” in the eyes of the medical community does not mean we can’t be happy, productive, positive members of society. I was there — I am still there — and it’s hard, but our weight doesn’t have to define us.

So yes, I want to lose weight and eventually drop the obesity classification from my medical chart, but I don’t think everyone who is obese needs to do the same.

My hope is that the new attention brought to obesity shows that it a complicated and difficult condition, one that is not easy to live with, and one that is not easy to end. My hope is that the medical community, and not the weight loss companies, take the opportunity to find new and positive ways to battle this disease.

And my biggest hope is that we quit defining obesity with shame and unhappiness and instead celebrate the wonderful individuals behind the number on the scale.

Comments

  1. Great post, thank you for sharing your experience!

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