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.
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