I first became interested in the issue of overweight and obesity as a child, way back in the 1960’s. One of my brothers was a little chubby and my eldest brother nickmamed him “Fatty”, somewhat unkindly. My mother took him to the doctor and the result was that Richard was no longer allowed to eat the fat from the lamb chops and was to use Saccharin tablets (artifical sweetener) in his coffee instead of sugar. (Us kids all drank coffee back then. It was quite normal.) Richard was unimpressed with these changes and I don’t think he lost much weight at the time. Later as a teenager he was quite slim, but gained way too much weight later in life.
The first obese person I ever knew was a lovely lady who I shall call Mrs S. One day when I was out walking in the foothills of Adelaide and found myself on her property – an old house on acreage where horses and cows grazed and chickens roamed. Sensing my trespass, a pack of dogs streamed out of the house, barking at me. They were followed by the most overweight person I had ever seen. (Back in those days obesity was quite rare, so it was not until I was 9 years of age that I laid eyes on an obese person.) Mrs S turned out to be a very kind woman who bred Welsh Mountain ponies and miniature collies, and being an avid animal lover, I soon began spending a lot of time at her place. Some girls a little older than me had their horses agisted there, but I preferred to spend my time with the animals – grooming the ponies, cuddling the puppies or just sitting quitely watching cows with their calves. I didn’t like the mean things the girls said about Mrs S’s size, remembering how my brother hated to be called “Fatty”.
Occasionally Mrs S would invite me into the house (which was kind of dark and spooky) and offer me a glass of lemonade or a cup of tea. In the dim light I could see there were wedding photographs on the mantlepiece of a younger and very slim Mrs S, and I wondered where her husband was. I was way too shy to ask questions, but one day Mrs S told me that on her honeymoon her husband had gone to the shop on his motorbike to buy cigarettes and he’d never returned. He’d been killed in a road accident. “That’s why I eat” she said. I understood that a little: I too loved to eat and knew that eating a favourite food could be a comforting distraction from the pains of life.
Sadly Mrs S did not live a long life, but I will never forget how kind she was to me and to the animals she cared for. She unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten: we have no idea what the pain of others might be or what they are doing to try to deal with it. Overcoming obesity often isn’t a simple matter of just “eating better”, and for people struggling with their weight, understanding is needed, not judgement.
I’ve been helping people lose weight for 25 years and stil feel there is a lot to learn. I often feel admiration at my clients’ determination to get to a healthier weight, and their courage in addressing underlying issues, such as having counselling with a psychologist in addition to the dietary guidance they receive from me. I never give up on my obese clients, and encourage anyone who struggles with obesity to never give up on themselves: to seek help and to stay determined to improve their health.