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In honor of Weight Stigma Awareness Week, I want to write about one of the origins of weight stigma, which is the belief that being overweight is simply a result of poor willpower, that anyone fat is lazy and weak, that if they just got up and exercised and learned to say, “No, thanks,” the problem would be solved.

While I don’t agree with this concept now, I did believe it when I was younger and heavier. After all, I had no other way to understand why I ate the way I did, or couldn’t seem to lose weight even when I was dieting. The result was feeling constantly ashamed and judged – which, ironically, made me eat even more.

Which leads me to my main concern with this stigma: it ignores the reasons why people overeat. Sometimes it’s relatively straightforward, such being served a lot of food and conforming to the societal expectation to “clean your plate”.

But many times, the food and act of eating is done to fill some other need. Emotional comfort, distraction from pain or boredom, stress relief, and more. To therefore say that someone just needs to use some willpower and not eat the cookies or cake or chips or whatever else is insensitive to the deeper reasons that cause someone to reach for the food to begin with.

It took a long time for me to understand this, even coming from an insider’s point of view. And as I think about it, I realize that I did have to use a lot of willpower when losing weight, but not in the traditional sense of the word. I had to look at the needs driving me, to acknowledge and accept them, and more, to find ways of filling them that did not involve eating. That was much harder than simply passing when someone handed around a plate of goodies.

To really understand the emotions and rationale behind my food choices took a lot of strength, and the will to be honest with myself. This is something that many people have to do, if they get too deep into other types of unproductive or even destructive habits; the problem is that weight is much more visible than almost anything else. It leads people to more easily pass judgment, to feel superior that they are stronger, and hence stigmatize those who are overweight.

Not everyone has this stereotype or stigma, of course, but for those who may find themselves falling into that assumption, I’d like to suggest a different approach. When seeing someone heavy, try to recognize the person behind the weight, feel empathy and compassion for them, and know that they are not so different from you.

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