Your Experience is Just That

I hear these kinds of things all the time:  I know that fat people eat this way because it’s what I did when I was fat.  I know that all fat people are sick because everyone who comes to my medical practice who is fat is sick.  I gained 20 pounds after a bad break-up and lost it with Slim Fast (or whatever) therefore someone who has been fat their whole life and has been on 15 diets can lose 200 pounds by doing what I did.

This is going wrong on a bunch of levels. The first thing to do is to separate personal experience from research.

The mistake that I see most often with experience is people confusing their own experience with everyone’s experience. Each of us can only speak for ourselves and what we think and our own life experiences.

This also leads to some issues wherein people who have no sense of understanding of a situation try to figure out how they would solve it if it were them.  Depressed?  Snap out of it.  Alcoholic?  Stop drinking.  Anorexic? Start eating.  Fat?  Get thin.  These “solutions” aren’t evidence-based, they are what people think based on their limited understanding, and lacking the emotional intelligence and intellectual humility to understand that they may not have any frame of reference that would allow them to understand someone else’s experience.

That said, we are the best witnesses to our own experience as is everyone else, so if someone says that they are happier having lost weight I have no right to tell them that they are wrong, just like they have no right to question that I am happy at my size.  Also, saying that one fat person losing weight and maintaining the loss means every fat person can is very much like saying that one person surviving going over Niagara Falls in a barrel means everybody can do it. That’s where research comes in.

So while a person might be happier thin, research gives me some context for that (besides the fact that I don’t believe that the cure for social stigma is weight loss).  Based on the studies that exist I know that there is a 95% that they will regain their weight within 5 years and, if they don’t, they are a statistical anomaly.  So before I go trying to duplicate the weight loss to be happy, it’s important to know that I have a 95% chance of failure, so I might want to look at a different avenue for finding happiness.

Even though the message I hear from the everybody knows” people is that exercise doesn’t make me healthier unless it makes me thinner, research tells me that moderate movement 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week mitigates most of the health issues correlated with obesity, even though it’s not likely to lead to weight loss.

I use a lot of education in my activism.  I have found that even well meaning people have a hard time figuring out how it feels to be a person of size and what they can do to help.  One of the things that I’ve seen be very successful with that is share our experiences, share research, educate.  Not just point out the problem, but become involved in the solution.

In order to do that we have to avoid mistaking our experience for the experience of others, and we also have to be extremely careful to remember that we are the best witness to our own experiences and that other people don’t get to replace our experiences with theirs.

Like my blog?  Here’s more of my stuff!

Become a member: For just ten bucks a month you can keep this blog ad-free, support the activism work I do, and get deals from cool businesses Click here for details

Interviews with Amazing Activists!!  Help Activists tell our movement’s history in their own words.  Support In Our Own Words:  A Fat Activist History Project!

The Book:  Fat:  The Owner’s Manual  The E-Book is Name Your Own Price! Click here for details

Dance Classes:  Buy the Dance Class DVDs or download individual classes – Every Body Dance Now! Click here for details 

If my selling things on the blog makes you uncomfortable, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 5:46 am  Comments (26)  

26 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s so true. People are different and no should assume they are the same or they have any right to believe they know a person more than themselves.

  2. Amen. This kind of thing is a logical fallacy known as “proof by anecdote” (kudos to Brian Dunning at for teaching me about this). While people should be encouraged to share their experiences, so that others can learn, not feel alone and perhaps relate to their content, they cannot be used in and of themselves as evidence.

  3. “intellectual humility” – personally my FAVorite line ever!!

    You GO!

    Much love

    Sue Rock

  4. Does the 5% chance of losing weight apply to everyone, or those who seem to be naturally fat? In other words, does it apply to those who try to lose wight after having been thinner for years but gain weight due to things like an injury or depression? (I hope that made sense) and does it apply to people all over the world as well?

    • I have never read a weight loss study (which, cumulatively, produce this number) that acknowledges such a thing as ‘naturally fat.’ Even if there are a few out there someone, it’s safe to say the vast majority don’t take that into account.

      The FA community speculates that if that were taken into account, the figure for the naturally fat who lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off would trend towards null.

      Also note that the majority of those in the 5% may have only lost a matter of 10 – 20 lbs. That is, the 5% isn’t comprised of mostly fat-to-thin 40+ lb losses.

      • Maybe naturally fat was the wrong term to use. I just meant to refer to people who have basically been fat their whole lives even though they eat healthy and keep active and are otherwise healthy people. I just wonder about the detail about the 95% statistic and if everyone has that same chance of losing weight from dieting when different people gain and lose weight for all different reasons. I just wondered if Ragen means literally everyone or just a certain group of people.

        • Ashley,

          It’s an interesting question, though I’d think the answer is easy (research can confirm this eventually). Naturally fat people will tend to be naturally fat, naturally thin to be thin, and those trying to manipulate their weight — either down *or* up — will have a difficult time of it. I know that gaining behaviors haven’t been studied nearly as much as weight loss, though I do believe there was a prisoner study in the 60s that showed gainers gain temporarily, lose weight easily once they are no longer eating way above their norm — basically the reflection of the dieting process.

          Anecdotally, the naturally thin people I’ve been friends with, and my husband and exes (who all happen to be naturally thin), eat normal, non-birdlike portions of generally non-diet food, some exercise and some don’t, and they stay thin. One ex of mine intentionally tried to gain weight over a period of several months because he tended to get sick and lose weight, and was so thin he worried about not having enough ‘padding’ as he called it to save his life if he got so sick he couldn’t eat anything. He was able to gain about 15 lbs by consuming about twice his normal calories, and weight lifting, in about 3 – 4 months. As soon as he stopped this regimen, he lost the weight. This was very frustrating to him, but man, he worked as hard at gaining weight as any dieter does losing weight. It was this experience of his that made me look deeper into setpoint theory when I started doing size activism.

          So no, I believe Ragen is just referring to the results of the Mann study, which doesn’t group people int he way you’re describing.

          My (educated) guess would be: if a thin person gained weight by intentionally overeating, he/she would be able to lose it easily by no longer intentionally overeating. But the overeating is not a natural thing, and wouldn’t come naturally — it would be difficult, and painful, and sickening (as my ex’s gaining was, at times — and like Morgan Spurlock’s gain was in his SSM movie, for instance). It wouldn’t be a matter of unintentionally eating an extra bite of macaroni salad every weekend and gaining 5 lbs in 10 years, or something, like the Bunsen-burner-model nutritionists claim.

        • For me, naturally fat is the right term just like natural blonde, naturally tall, or natural brown eyes. It means to me the way one is born.

    • Ashley, that is an excellent question, and I have never seen those distinctions made in a study (not that my research has been exhaustive). Another thing I wonder is whether a significant number in the 5% who are losing weight and keeping it off are women who started their diets within a few weeks or months of giving birth which would give them an artificially high starting weight. I seem to remember a “before” picture of a popular weight-loss celebrity (can’t remember her name, the one with the blonde flat-top) when she was OMG 200 LBS EWW… only to find out that she was 8 months pregnant in the photo.

      • This is so true. I had someone tell me once that because she lost 60-pounds after having a baby, I could lose my 150 that I’ve pretty much carried all my life. You know….because that’s TOTALLY the same thing. /sarcasm

      • Thanks Theresa and Big Liberty for addressing my question. I just wondered. Obviously there are lots of people who have a hell of a time losing weight no matter what they do, and there are people who lose weight easily because before they were eating unhealthy and not very active (otherwise they would be thin) and all they have to do is cut out some of the junk food and go for a jog a couple times a week. I just wondered if those two groups were placed into the same category of having the same 5% chance of losing weight.

      • Are you thinking of Susan Powder? The no fat diet. I lost 125 in 1995 and 1996. last Diet I was ever on. I have done the research and in my book, I talk about the difference in those who were naturally thin vs those who are naturally fat. Yep, we are naturally fat. The book is being formated and the cover is being designed. Fatology 101. I hope in the next 30 days it will be out.

  5. AMEN!!!!

    Why do I have to fill out my info each time I want to leave a reply?
    Am I doing something wrong?

  6. Amen. Most people who lose weight & keep it off make practically a career of staying thin, working out more than most normal people, eating much less on a permanent basis, & in fact often do go on to make their living from the diet & ‘fitness’ industry. Also, as Big Liberty says, most of the long-term ‘success’ stories were never fat to begin with, maybe they want to lose that last ten pounds after having a baby, or they are fighting the midlife weight gain which is a normal part of aging & generally protective of health for almost everyone. Those of us who are genuinely genetically fat…& that is pretty much anyone who “needs” to lose more than maybe 10-20 pounds…will find it next to impossible to, first, lose significant weight, then, second, to keep it off, & when it comes back, it almost always brings a few of its friends to keep it company. If people could accept the size of their bodies as they are, it would save a lot of grief…& a lot of health problems. They can’t really prove that being fat causes health issues, but it is clearly & repeatedly shown that trying to lose weight does & that by the time you are my age, it increases your risk of early mortality by several hundred percent. That is more than enough reason for me to never to diet.

  7. Thanks for clarity and how you articulate that. Reading your blog has completely shifted my thinking about health in a majorly positive way. I have hope again and fun, too, and enjoy eating without the ongoing guilt trips I was laying on myself. The other day I rode a very long bike ride just because I FELT like it, not to lose weight or any crap like that. I also have had better success in handling blood sugar surges and eating to moderate them as a concept when the issue of weight is not part of the equation it’s much simpler to focus on facts and solutions. THANKS!!!

  8. Patsy (and Ragen, since you are the research queen) can you point me to the research that indicates trying to lose weight damages health? I would like to show my husband (he’s the one trying to lose weight, and I wish he would stop torturing himself). Thanks!

  9. Ragen, you make the point wonderfully that all bodies are different and you can’t draw any conclusions based on the way a body looks or the way YOUR body behaves. I know my experience doesn’t fit into any “neat” narrative. My weight fluctuated like crazy when I was a teenager, but I’ve since settled into a pretty stable weight for the past few years. I wouldn’t count myself among that 5% that’s “kept the weight off” even though I would probably fall under that classification; my weight gain and loss all happened while my body was still growing and going through hormonal changes. I cried every time I had to go to the doctor’s for a routine physical exam from the ages of 15 – 19 because I knew they would disapprovingly tell me I had gained weight, but hadn’t grown any taller (Ragen, I know you’ve made this observation about that 5% statistic and I’ve always remembered these doctors visits–they kind of were telling me I ought to change my height if I wasn’t going to change my weight!); the only way my weight gain would be acceptable to a doctor was if I had also gained height. Of course when I started losing weight they never commented that I hadn’t gotten any shorter, and they never bothered to check my thyroid levels even though my mom had all sorts of problems with her thyroid as a teen and young adult too. The medical profession can be astonishingly myopic when it comes to anything weight-related.

  10. Sounds as if you are doing great, Laurel. Nothing much to add really, just peeking in to read a bit after checking my yahoo mail & seeing one of the usual “obesity panic” headlines, about the ‘fattest cities’ in the US & the high health care costs ’caused by obesity.’ Ughhh!! I get so tired of this being spread everywhere & knowing that 95% or more of those reading it believe every word & hate their fat neighbors all the more. They are very successful at selling an ‘epidemic.’ Oh, & need I say that the pictures I saw with the headline (I would NOT click & actually read the article) were headless?

  11. Wonderful post, as usual. Nothing makes me more upset then when other people project their experience onto mine..

    I had a question regarding the 95% too – does it apply to those who have eating disorder history that may have drastically altered body shape at one point?

    I am classified as overweight but nowhere near my high (or low) weights that I was at during the course of my eating disorder, which at my higher weight spectrum was extreme and continuous binge eating. When I went into treatment for bulimia (somewhere in the middle/lower end of my personal very large weight range) in 2010 I initially gained a little weight from where I was at but then leveled off…two years later I am still the same as I left treatment, and I eat exactly as much as I want, no dieting whatsoever with very modest (trying to increase up to moderate for the health benefits) levels of activities. My treatment providers have told me they aren’t sure what my body will do given I continue in recovery, I could gain weight as I age/having children, etc. or I could stay the same, only time will tell, though it seems like my body likes and defends this weight pretty well. This is a weight I feel really good and strong and healthy in for me personally, overweight labels aside (I don’t give a damn anymore) but I don’t know if my body has “memory” of my higher weight that will make me tend to gain over time. I guess either way I have to accept what comes and continue to treat my body well.

    If anyone has any input/experience relating to this I’d appreciate it, it’s always something I’d wondered about.

    • I am struggling with accepting my weight because I don’t feel like I got fat “naturally”, and this also makes it harder to fight against the idea that the diet industry pushes that if you just worked hard enough you could “fix” being fat.
      I was a compulsive eater all through my teens and I suffered from depression so getting motivated to be physically active was hard (getting out of bed was hard never mind exercising!). I began to spiral as I got fatter and my self-consciousness made me do less and eat more.
      I’ve come a long way, but I still have to fight the urge to stress-eat, and chocolate is still my go-to “self-medication”. I have found exercise I love and I am trying to follow HAES and eat more intuitively.

      But on my really bad days, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve “ruined” myself. I know the binge eating I used to do must have been bad for my body and my metabolism. Even though there are big people in my family, and my school pictures show me getting chubby around the cheeks as early as 2nd grade, I feel like I’ll never know how my body was “meant” to be because I used food to mutilate myself. You don’t have to be fat to be teased for being fat, kids can say it just because they know it’s one of the worst stigmas to give someone. I remember I was teased for being fat, then I fed my pain with food and became fat anyway. So I can’t help feeling like my being fat now is a “mistake.” I look at myself and I wonder what I would have looked like if I hadn’t been forced to cover myself in adipose armor. This is what makes SA so difficult for me – the doubt of the authenticity of my “Self.”

      • Im so sorry you are feeling that way and the pain it causes you. You said you started getting “chubby” at 7. That is the time most kids start to look chubby. The thin ones grow out of baby fat around 7 and us fat ones tend to keep it. You said some of your family is fat. It looks like you would be naturallly fat just from your genetics. There have been experiements where they have fed guys in prison thousands of calories to fatten them up and they just cant get fat. They gain a few pounds, within 20 and cant gain more. If you were naturally thin, you wouldnt have gained weight not matter what you were eating. Dont blame yourself. You were not born with a perfect body and then ruined it. You are what you are. But that doesnt make you who you are. You are a wonderful person. Find a way to accept yourself and STOP blaming yourself. I hope this helps you.

  12. Ragen, I heard “everybody knows” just this morning! I work for a Worldwide not-for-profit, and one of our big focuses is health and nutrition. A recent grant is up for renewal, so the team who worked under the grant decided to show us a video about some of the work they’ve been doing. The work they’ve been doing is fantastic! Teaching kids how to make health food choices, encouraging increased physical activity, discussions about portion control and family style meals, etc. I think this is valuable nutritional and health information and teaching kids these things early is great!

    What’s not so great, though, is the rhetoric. The department head referred to it both as the “fighting obesity” grant and the “anti-obesity” grant. As a fat adult who was, surprise, a fat kid as well, I couldn’t help but hear, “We’re fighting YOU, and we’re anti-YOU.” And then the video started. And within 15 seconds there’s someone up on the screen saying, “Everybody knows we have an obesity problem.”

    Yeah. And once upon a time everyone knew the world was flat.

    I want to say something–do something!–to change the rhetoric around these otherwise great programs… but I don’t know if it’s my place (since it is my place of employment) or how I would even go about raising such a question. Especially since, knowing the way grants work, there’s a good chance they have to use that rhetoric because of the grant. Or maybe the director of that department is just a fat-hater (she has been known to throw out “unhealthy” foods rather than let her employees choose to eat it…).

    • Hi Natalia,

      I have found that a really effective way to create change in this type of situation is to send the people in charge of messaging some Health at Every Size Materials and be inquisitive as opposed to instructive. For example:

      I came across these studies and they seem to say the opposite of what our health messaging says, can you help me make sense of it?


      I notice that we say [whatever] in our health messaging, but these [studies, statements etc.] suggest that we may actually be creating health problems – can you help me understand?

      That way you’re not being combative and you are asking for an explanation. If they come back with a half-assed answer, you can always provide more research and ask again.


  13. I have decided to stop reading the comments about any article about fat published on line in any newspaper. Because they are all about how the commenter lost 20 pounds on some diet. So it is the solution to fat.
    the new popular diet is “Paleo” which I think means you are allowed to eat anything as long as you first run it down and kill it with a boomerang.

    • LOL….I think I love the phrase “you are allowed to eat anything as long as you first run it down and kill it with a boomerang.”

      CNN did an excellent (body positive) article on ‘fatshionistas’ today and I made the mistake of reading the comments. I wanted to curl up under my bed and hide because clearly a person of my size doesn’t deserve to walk out in regular society. I think my new mantra is “never read comments on CNN.”

  14. My favorite laughable one: I know that all fat people are sick because everyone who comes to my medical practice who is fat is sick.
    No way! Could it possibly be that you only see sick people because you’re profession is helping sick people get better? Are all the thin people who visit your medical practice healthy?? That’s what I’d wonder.

    One thing that bothers me is about anorexia. You said it–”Anorexic? Start eating.” That’s just as harsh as the “Fat? Get thin” mentality, but I don’t think you see it as often. Some people can just be jerks, but it seems like when someone is super thin, whether or not they’re actually anorexic or if you know they’re anorexic or not, people take on a more concerned approach rather than judgmental disgust. If someone is sickeningly thin because they decided to stop eating due to depression, they’re met with sympathy, concern, and urged to get help. If someone is fat or becomes fat because they overeat or binge because of depression, they encounter rude comments, higher-than-mighty doctors, and a diet plan rather than therapy. Both conditions are bad for your health and both should be treated with the same respect, but they aren’t. And it makes me think that I’d rather be anorexic than fat, which is a very shameful thought to even consider.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: