Eight extraordinary Canadians bravely shared pieces of their life with obesity in the form of letters to their younger selves, and despite stigma, discrimination and hurtful stereotypes, these are stories of hope, resilience and recovery.
by Maja Begovic – first published in Healthing on March 17, 2023.
In April 2022, eight Canadians gathered to share their experiences living with obesity — both the physical challenges and the emotional obstacles they have faced on a daily basis for many years. They reflected on their experiences by writing letters to their younger selves — meaningful missives edited by New York Times bestselling author Ellyn Spragins and compiled into a book called, In Your Own Words.
And while each person has a different story, there were common themes threaded within everyone of them, including the pain of stigma, inherent discrimination and hurtful stereotypes. But most important was the incredible capacity of each person to keep going — these are stories of hope, resilience and recovery.
Writer Maja Begovic took a moment to reflect on these themes, and caught up with one of the authors, Andrew Locker, to find out why he chose to speak out, how far he has come, and his hopes for his older self.
Obesity is a deadly disease, and those who live with it often suffer alone and in silence. The emotional scars that stem from living in a heavy body can cut deeper than the physical aspects of the disease. In fact, the number on the scale or the health complications that may arise as a result of obesity appear to be less damaging to people when compared to the enormous burden of misconceptions, stereotypes, bias and stigma that seven million Canadians who are affected by the disease, have to carry.
In Your Own Words is a powerful portrait of what it feels like to live with obesity. It is an authentic and diverse representation of the trials and triumphs of eight extraordinary Canadians who bravely shared their stories in an effort to advance disease knowledge and awaken the public’s understanding and compassion. And while there are deeply personal and heartbreaking accounts of the systemic oppression and discrimination, such as the one shared by Rachelle in which she recalls being called “an obese specimen” by a doctor and his team more than two decades ago, at the heart of it all, these are stories about hope and resilience.
Whether it’s overcoming emotional eating or intergenerational trauma, getting support to treat the underlying cause of obesity could be the key to weight loss and improved health, according to scientific research and to those with lived experience. Talena, one of the contributors to the book, says it took her a long time to realize that “asking for help is not a deficit.” Her message to others is to “keep asking until the extra weight gets lighter and you’re free.”
Andrew shares how his mother’s passing led to challenges with weight. He wants others to know that one of the best ways to overcome external bias is through self-acceptance. His advice to others living with obesity is to stand up and be seen: “You need to walk through the world like you belong here,” he says. “The world needs to make space for all of you, in all of your magnificence.”
Compelling and insightful, this booklet puts a magnifying glass on the devastating impact negative perceptions can have on people’s lives, and at the same time, invites readers to reflect on their own misconceptions about obesity — a disease that is driven by the poisonous fuel of bias, when in fact, it could be cured with awareness, understanding and compassion.
Andrew, why did you choose to speak out?
Going through a proverbial door and speaking about it in a public forum allowed me to open up about this very vulnerable and often shame-ridden aspect of my life, and it led me to a place where I can now say, ‘I’m not ashamed anymore — this is me, and I’m allowed to take up as much as space as I need to in this world, without apology.’
How is your life different now?
I don’t allow the negative internal dialogue, but sometimes, it’s hard work. Therapy is a lifelong process, especially when we’re working through trauma and life experiences that are difficult and when we’re experiencing health challenges related to obesity. If you equate it to recovery from other addictions, the role of self-compassion, interrupting negative thoughts, being mindful and meditative in saying ‘you had that thought and you’re going to let it to go’ is really important. I still have the thoughts, but I’m getting better through therapy, meditation, mindfulness and support.
Tell me about the progress you have made.
I would often go to my mother’s gravesite and ask, ‘Am I enough?’ and ‘Are you proud of me?’ I know that I was the proudest piece of her life even though we only knew each other for four months before she passed. She was a school teacher, and at various points of my life and career, when I went from being a teacher to vice-principal, and from principal to regional manager to working as a director in the Ministry of Education, I would ask at her gravesite, ‘Have I done you proud, have I done well by the legacy you left me?’ I have stopped asking that question because I now know the answer to it. I am enough. I am a good person, I have a great sense of humour, I’m a caring, compassionate individual and I’ve been successful in my career. I’ve turned my experience with my body into a source of inspiration instead of a source of deficit.
What about your health goals?
I want to lose weight — it’s why I take medication, go to Pilates. It’s why I’m conscientious of my diet and why I’m seeking support with food addiction and binge eating. There is an awareness that I don’t want to be here in the next 20, 30, 40 years, I want to be in a better place in the future, doing what I love, with the people I love. I want to be in a lighter body because I want to hike mountains in different parts of the world. The older me would say, ‘You need that new body to look better in a bathing suit,’ but that’s not what I care about anymore. It’s about making better choices so that I can enjoy a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
What are you hoping the future looks like for your older self?
I want to be healthy and happy. I see myself rounding out my career and I’m working on improving my health so that my body will be able to carry me through the lived experiences that I want to have as a retired person. I want to have lived experiences that broker joy, happiness, self-fulfilment, discovery, creativity and curiosity. I want to be both physically and mentally rich so that I can partake in that beautiful part of life.