Priti Chawla is a communicator – you hear it in her precise language as she explains the far-reaching goals of the organization she founded, Obesity Matters, a non-profit based in Toronto which aims to serve the community of people affected by obesity. “We are working with stakeholders to debunk the myth that obesity is a lifestyle issue… and we’re also giving a platform to people who’ve had a lived experience to share their stories, be it success or failure, be it joy or trauma,” she outlines.
Chawla sees the mission of Obesity Matters as filling the gaps in patient care around obesity. Beyond offering information about viable weight management solutions, Obesity Matters aims to be a launchpad from which those dealing with obesity can also advocate for a wholesale change in society’s view of “what it means to live in a larger body.”
Guiding people toward self-acceptance is a cornerstone mission of Obesity Matters. Now two years old, the organization has thousands of Facebook followers and has a community of patients and clinicians who engage with the organization on social media, online and in person.
“We had 18 webinars in the first nine months,” Chawla says proudly. In those early months during the Covid lockdown the organization offered online conversations with weight management patient advocates, as well as clinicians talking about the latest science-based information on treating obesity.
Chawla believes that the organization can serve as both a support system and a driver of change in the healthcare system. She wants to help people with obesity be seen as a community, and be taken seriously, because the medical profession has been slow to offer solutions and care tailored to their needs.
The frustrations are real. Angela Martin, 54, is a nurse and has struggled with her weight since childhood. She’s been an active participant in Obesity Matters ever since its messages started showing up in her Facebook feed. It’s been affirming for her to hear obesity specialist and guest speaker Dr. Sean Wharton talk about the brain’s connection to obesity. “All these years!” says Martin emphatically. “It’s NOT just willpower – but everyone else just sees a fat girl who can’t control herself and doesn’t work out. That is all they see…and they have no idea what goes on behind the scenes.”
The Power of Connection
At heart, Chawla sees herself as a connector. Before starting Obesity Matters, she already had many established relationships in the obesity space stemming from the communications agency she and her husband founded soon after emigrating from India to Canada with their young children in the nineties. Chawla’s initial contact with the obesity community came through work organizing informational events for a client to educate clinicians and patients about laparoscopic gastric banding. She enjoyed seeing the fruitful connections that came from that work.
Chawla feels an affinity with those struggling with obesity, recalling how she has grappled with a lack of confidence in her own life. “Growing up I was told quite often that I was not the smartest. I was not the brightest. I became a people pleaser. And I think that was because I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself,” she explains. That’s made her sensitive to the challenges faced by those who struggle with a poor self-image, something that people who carry excess weight often contend with.
Two Epiphanies in One During Covid
Obesity Matters was founded during the hazy between-time of the pandemic – a low point for social connection, but also, for some, a catalyst. It was a re-set point for Chawla as the slowing down allowed for some reflection. She had her communications agency, but in the pause, she reevaluated what was important to her. “I just don’t want to be chasing business. I want to do something that’s more meaningful, where I bring some purpose into my life,” she says.
Chawla also recognized that serving the need she saw in the obesity community could be scaled up easily in the world of virtual meeting spaces we were all suddenly obliged to inhabit. The timing was perfect to bring a sense of togetherness to a population at risk of feeling more alienated than ever.
Obesity Matters emphasizes evidence-based information and often relies on another national organization, Obesity Canada, for materials and research. Chawla initially established the Toronto chapter of Obesity Canada, and her idea for a separate organization focused primarily on the people living with obesity grew out of that work. “We are not reinventing the wheel,” Chawla explains. “But what we are doing is expanding the advocacy.”
One of the group’s first in-person gatherings post pandemic was their “Your Health Matters” Summit in March on World Obesity Day. It was a full day of events which included presentations from doctors, dietitians, and authors – as well as personal stories from people living with obesity. In those stories reside significant power, participant Andrea Levy believes.
Levy, 55, has had a lifelong struggle with excess weight. She pulled herself back from the brink of a health crisis brought on by an out-of-control blood sugar count six years ago. But she did it mainly alone, through her own dogged research into how food affects blood sugar levels. In the process she lost 30% of her weight. “It’s really significant when you know you’re not the only person who’s experienced something,” Levy says. “I think that‘s a really important part of what [Obesity Matters does] is helping people to understand that they’re not alone.”
Martin echoes that feeling. “It was cathartic,” Martin says. It was so motivational that she’s energized to volunteer to change the perceptions around obesity. “I can step into the limelight,” Martin declared. No doubt these reactions – and connections – are exactly what Priti Chawla envisions as she takes Obesity Matters into its third year.
This article is written by Maria Fleet and first appeared in My Weight What To Know on May 15, 2023