Once there was a girl who, growing up, was happy and healthy. She played sports and was very active. She had a happy childhood and a loving, stable family unit. Her family emphasized enjoying good food as a normal part of their environment. There were no food insecurity issues, and this girl was always a good eater without any food hangups.
She also happened to be in a larger body.
In any population, weights are distributed along a bell curve the same way that heights are. There will always be people at the higher end of the weight spectrum, and the lower end as well. In other words, in any population, there will always be be fat people and there will always be thin people, and lots of people of all shapes and sizes in between.
Even though her weight was at the higher end of the spectrum starting at birth and her growth tracked steadily along her high-end percentile, the adults in her life were fearful that her weight was a concern and something to "watch". And it didn't take long for her to discern that weight was going to be a problem.
From a very young age, she was taught that she needed to be careful around food. She was taught that gaining too much weight was not good for her health. She learned to pretend to laugh and internalize comments made by relatives that she was getting chubby and maybe needed to cut back on the candy and ice cream. She figured out on her own, without being told by her family directly, that it was important to be thin. A lot was at stake for people who weren't thin. If she wanted to be liked, loved, considered beautiful... being thin was the necessary prerequisite.
And so began a confusing and conflicted relationship with food. The foods that she enjoyed and found delicious were also the ones that she was supposed to be careful around, and stay away from if possible. This presented a problem at birthday parties and other special occasions when everybody else got to enjoy these foods without strings attached. She would either skip them and feel sad and guilty for wanting them, or eat them and feel guilty and ashamed for breaking the rules. As she grew older, this morphed into a pattern of sneaking and hiding foods, and having secretive binge eating sessions late at night. Her self-esteem and self-worth eroded as a result.
When puberty arrived at her doorstep and her body started to change, full blown anxiety and panic ensued. Instead of being reassured by her parents, her health teacher, her swim coach or her family doctor that weight gain was a totally normal and necessary prerequisite to a forthcoming growth spurt and was nothing to be concerned about, the message that was reinforced was that weight gain of any kind was a real problem. And so, vulnerable, terrified and determined to avoid this fate, she decided to go on a diet and begin an exercise regime to make herself over.
It worked. She lost weight and people noticed. In fact, they praised her for her hard work, dedication and grit. They reinforced that she was taking control of her health and her destiny. She became more popular, and kids who previously ignored her were now interested. She was thrilled and delighted with these changes, and thought to herself "now all I have to do is keep doing this for the rest of my life and I'll be set". She resolved to never return to her previous body.
Eventually though, things got harder. Eventually the weight she worked so hard to lose started to creep back on. Frustrated, scared and determined, she doubled her efforts to make sure this didn't happen. She cut more foods and calories from her diet. She increased her exercise. She weighted herself daily, then multiple times daily, and diligently recorded her weights along with the calories she counted. Despite all of these efforts, her weight continued to drift upwards. It seemed that the harder she worked, the more her body seemed to rebel against her. Eventually the binge eating episodes returned, interspersed between periods of a severely restricted diet, which made her feel even more guilty, ashamed and full of hatred for the body that continued to betray her.
These teenage years marked the beginning of a life-long pattern of dieting, weight cycling, binge eating, body hatred, and a completely dysfunctional and unsatisfying experience with food. Activities like dancing, swimming and hiking that were once beloved were now avoided because her body was a source of shame, pain and perceived ridicule. She forced herself to go to the gym, but this became less and less enjoyable and more sporadic. Over time, her weight continued to trend upwards, and it became increasingly more taxing to embark on a weight loss venture. Despite this, she continued to believe with every fiber of her being, that until she lost the weight for good, her life would never be complete.
Eventually she got married and had a child of her own, and made it her mission in life, even more than getting her own weight under control, that her child would never have to suffer the same fate that she had. From the very beginning, she would carefully monitor and police her child's intake and activity level to make sure that being fat was never an option.
And so it goes, the cycle repeating itself into the next generation.
I'm not an expert on obesity. I know that it is incredibly complex and multi-factorial. I know that numerous factors have contributed to why weights today are, on average, higher than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and that even the obesity experts agree that the "solution" can no longer be boiled down to "eat less move more".
I also know that two of these factors that have contributed heavily - that don't get talked about nearly enough - are diet culture and weight stigma. And until they are acknowledged as dangerous and attention shifts to removing them, they will continue to impose harm on individuals and society as a whole.