Note: The use of the word ‘obesity’ in this article refers to its status as a chronic disease, according to CMA, AMA and WHO standards. Other words, such as ‘fat’ or ‘overweight,’ will be used to refer to people that simply have an excess of fat on their bodies, but do not necessarily suffer poor health as a result.
Near the end of May, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Obesity Network’s 3rd Annual Weight Bias Summit. It was a two-day affair, with about 40 people in attendance. All came from backgrounds in health, education and public policy, with some working in areas that, while not related to weight, certainly held some of the same parallels in terms of the stigma we face.
When I first got the emailed invitation from Ximena Ramos Salas, the Managing Director of the Canadian Obesity Network, I was hesitant. While Ximena seemed nice, I was worried that it would turn out to be a conference on how to lose weight, and on why fat shaming people was acceptable. I almost didn’t go.
The first two speakers were Adrianna O’Regan and Marty Enokson. Both Adrianna and Marty are former bariatric surgery patients, and members of the CON Public Engagement Committee. Adrianna spoke about the discrimination she felt while attending school, and how academic environments and equipment are not always accommodating to people who are overweight, which ultimately resulted in her learning how to adapt to her surroundings.
Marty’s discussion centered around his post-op experience after his surgery, and the treatment he received from medical staff. He, too, found that the environment was not made for him, even though the entire unit of the hospital is dedicated to bariatric procedures. It was a stark reminder of why I decided to become an activist in the first place, and lessened some of the anxiety I felt about the summit.
Ximena clearly felt this too, as before her presentation I was surprised to see that she was wiping tears from her eyes. She apologized to us, and explained that she always got emotional when speaking about this. I realized just how important this summit was to the people who were here, and how serious they all were about reducing weight stigma. Ximena’s results talked about the narrative fat people hear from others, primarily the ‘eat less, move more’ mantra that we have all heard at one time or another, and what we can do to ensure that people who are struggling with obesity can access the help that they need.
After listening to heavily medicalized presentations and talks, I was feeling pretty left out. I’m a sociology student, and I had always wished there was an area that talked about fat people in societal contexts. Then, like magic, Andrea Bombak and Erin Cameron appeared. First, Andrea, a critical weight and population health scholar, spoke about the history of critical weight studies and some of the theories and major findings of the field. And just when I thought I could have died happily, Erin Cameron, an assistant professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University in Newfoundland, started talking about her research in the field of reducing weight bias and discrimination in diverse settings, such as education and healthcare. Erin is also co-editor of the Fat Pedagogy Reader – that’s right, Fat Pedagogy Reader is a thing. She spoke about the emerging field of critical obesity pedagogy, and the lessons learned from social justice education. I was in heaven, and I had the opportunity to speak to both women one-on-one. I wanted to be them when I grew up.
A fascinating point of the summit was the inclusion of presenters whose work did not necessarily concern weight bias. Speakers discussed the experiences of stigma against people who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, those who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and those who struggle with mental illness. While these specifics are unique, many of the experiences are similar. The stigma against all of these often result in oppressive health care, education and public policy, and, at one point or another, it was believed that these were the result of individual choices. That got me thinking: If our beliefs around those who are LGBTQ+ as well as those with mental illness has started to change, why hasn’t our thinking changed about weight?
The second day of the weekend was dedicated to discussion around strategies. It was overwhelming, because the challenge is immense: How do we encourage people to think differently about weight, especially if they don’t want to listen? What was wonderful to see was the passion and thought that went into this planning, and reminded me that everyone here had the same goal.
Today, I write this from my desk at the Canadian Obesity Network office in Edmonton, where Ximena offered me a job last week. I feel honoured to be part of an organization that shares the same goals that I do. But, more than that, I feel ready to continue the work that I started on a Tuesday afternoon in April.
For more information on the Canadian Obesity Network, please visit www.obesitynetwork.ca.