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This week saw the launch of #livingwithobesity campaign by ECPO-The European Coalition for People Living with Obesity. It showed a patient perspective on weight bias and stigma whilst living with obesity, whilst stepping up the call to action on People First Language

The EU Commission has listed obesity as one of the high risks groups for people who are ‘medically vulnerable’

So why has this been necessary?

Ask anyone living with obesity to describe a bad experience where their weight was a significant issue. It can make for very uncomfortable accounts and is especially concerning when issues related to childhood obesity are mentioned.

“I was the last to be picked for a team in games. The other kids moaned it they had to take me. The worst part was the teacher sympathised with them in front of me”

“My pregnancy scan was ruined. The sonographer said it hurt her hand to press to get through the fat to get a good view of the baby”

“I get stuck in the plastic chair outside a pub. Everyone laughed when my friends had to help me stand up. I wanted to die!”

“My mum asked for the seatbelt extension on the plan. The attendance called to her colleagued and shouted that it was needed in our row. Everyone looked to see who was fat in row 12”

“My little boy pretended to be ill for school, yet he had sports day which he loved. I begged him to tell me what was wrong. He sobbed and said the other kids would tease him if I ran in the adult race and it upset him to hear what they said about me”

An 80-year-old woman still winced as she recalled PE lessons and how the games teacher had whistled the theme tune from the Laurel & Hardy films when she entered the gym.

More troubling is the account of a woman who was embarrassed during a cervical smear test. The nurse had said that the fat made it difficult to see and that she should not return until she has lost weight.  She didn’t lose weight and didn’t return. Finally, she went to A&E with abdominal pain and bloating.  She was diagnosed with cervical cancer with secondaries. She died aged 32.

No-one disputes the health advantages of patients reaching a normal weight range. Those who lose weight can be delighted to stop prescription medications and the need for less analgesia for back pain. Ask patients why they want to lose weight and some of the answers can be humbling and give insight into the added trauma of living with obesity.

“I’d love to walk up the stairs to use my own bathroom, to have a lovely shower. I have to make do with a commode and a strip wash with help from my carers”.

“My daughter and the grandchildren think I make excuses for not visiting but I simply can’t face the flight to Australia. I might not fit in the seat. I’d be mortified. Aside from the travel insurance premiums being way too high”

“I want to buy clothes in a normal shop. I want to choose things that I like and not just because they fit, or they are long enough to hide my bum!”

“I don’t want people to notice me-I want to blend in. No-one staring”

So, what of those who do reduce their weight significantly? What is the best part? Is it their health improvements? Are they suddenly surrounded by potential partners? The answers may surprise you.

“It’s wonderful. I can buy clothes from any shop and the staff are happy to serve me. No-one stares. The biggest surprise was that the staff stop talking and acknowledge me now. Before I was invisible”

“I finally split up from my husband. He did not like the attention I got when I started to lose weight. I got more confident and that didn’t suit him. I guess I married him because I didn’t think I would find (or deserve) anyone better. He clearly thought I should be grateful. When I left him, he told me I was a different woman. I wasn’t-I’d just found my voice”

The reality is that many living with obesity, suffer daily abuses and discrimination. Living with obesity is one of the few remaining areas where there is no protection under the law. It is quite lawful the advertise for staff specifying acceptable weights. You can shout weight related abuse and will not be breaking any law.

One day, people may look back with embarrassment at the treatment of people living with obesity. Sadly, for now those affected just start each day hoping that they will get a day off from abuse and be treated the same as everyone else.

Written by Toni Jenkins (ECG Obesity Specialist Nurse), Friday 23rd October 2020