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Monday, February 13, 2006

When should we share our bariatric story?

Sharing our bariatric stories is as personal decision as electing to have the surgery itself. Some of us are very private and others of us are very open. Overall I think we do the best we can on any given day. There are times when the moment is right to share and times when it is best to keep quiet. Here are a few things this bariatric zealot has learned the last several years:

It is well known that when a person affects a tremendous change in their life they often experience a great spirit of sharing and a desire to convert others to the new belief system. This is an altruistic desire to bestow upon others their wonderful new life. Think of converts to religious beliefs or former addicts graduating from recovery programs; often these people reach out enthusiastically to others who are as they once were. The recovering alcoholic is a champion of reform to the drunken and depressed. The born again believer is a champion to the sinners and downtrodden. So it is with the bariatric zealot, a champion to the fat and hopeless.

The desire to share our stories - to make converts to the bariatric persuasion - is sincere and well intentioned. But just like the recovered addict or the new believer, we must tread lightly when it comes to proselytizing this new wonderful way of life. First, we cannot assume that every obese person we meet is in a place where they wish to hear about our weight loss success. Second, it is quite easy to hurt someone’s feelings by suggesting weight loss surgery – it implies inferiority, even coming from a formerly obese person.

Think back to when you were overweight and hopeless. Didn’t you sometime feel betrayed by a former fatty gone thin? Chubby folks stick together and when one betrays the band to join the tiny tummy league the others can feel exposed and vulnerable. They can feel like failures because one of their members has succeeded where they have given up hope.

On the other hand, a bariatric patient is an inspiration for the heavyweight hopeless among us, a living breathing shrinking miracle overcoming the obstacle of obesity right before our very eyes. It is my experience that this metamorphosis is the greatest inspiration of all. Let the physical manifestation do your talking for you and tread lightly on tender feelings. We all share a great empathy for the obese and should never forget where we came from, even after the giant clothes have long been tossed on the garbage heap.

My simple rule is to never give advice unless I’m asked for it. I often think back to how I felt before my weight loss when well intentioned people offered “constructive criticism” to “help” me with my “problem.” I hated it when well meaning friends or doctors told me to lose weight, to get fit, eat less, exercise more. I felt ashamed when people belittled the illness of obesity saying, “just stop eating so much.” I didn’t initiate conversation about my illness with anyone, but certainly more times than I care to count I endured the constructive criticism of others who were superior to the Little Fat Girl. I became a closet eater because I couldn’t cope with the unsolicited, “constructive criticism” of strangers in the mall’s food court telling the fat lady what she shouldn’t be eating.

By calling it constructive criticism it becomes socially acceptable to be superior to another person. When constructive criticism is offered the implication is that the person to whom the criticism is directed is in error and the person providing helpful advice is wiser and above that error. Criticism is rarely constructive. Obese people are painfully aware they are obese. They know why they are obese and they know the efforts they have exhausted trying to overcome obesity. As zealous as we may feel we never have the right to constructively criticize or give unsolicited advice to another person.

But when asked about the wonderful transformation weight loss surgery has affected, the opportunity is ours to empathetically inspire others with hope. Love the heavy woman on the plane. Commiserate. Obesity is a lonely place to be. Sharing an intimate understanding of that loneliness will go far to ease another’s pain. And perhaps, in their own time, they will have the good fortune to experience living after weight loss surgery.


Anonymous said...

What a great article Kaye. So often I hear from people, I hope WLS won't change you. I think this may be what they mean. I believe they are saying they hope that I will remain empathetic to those who are obese as I once was, that I won't become one of those who act superior because I lost weight. I need to understand that even when I reach goal, it will still be a struggle every day to maintain it. That "arriving" doesn't mean forgetting where we started and how we got there.

Sandi Hooper said...

Hear, Hear, Kaye. I agree with this article whole-heartedly.