Self-Portrait, Jeff Newell

Obesity Challenges Me, But It Doesn’t Define Me

Writing in the Washington Post this week, Courtland Milloy went looking for answers. How can it be that black women are defying a trend of declining life expectancy? Among other things, obesity challenges the health of black women more than almost any other demographic group. So why is it that while life expectancy for all Americans declined last year, black women held their own? He got an interesting answer from Linda Goler Blount, President and CEO of Black Women’s Health Imperative:

When black women are asked to define what good health means, we say things such as ‘being calm’ or ‘being at peace.’ We don’t use diseases to define it. We don’t let a condition like obesity define who we are, even though we work on getting into shape.

A similar theme surfaces when we talk to the Obesity Action Coalition‘s members and activists. Jeff Newell, pictured above, is one of the OAC’s most inspiring members. He shared these thoughts:

The challenges of obesity were never something I put on myself – it was always limitations presented to me by our culture and definitions of who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to be able to do and where I was supposed to be able to be seen and go. I learned quickly that the world around me would try to stop me, but my spirit is what defines me, not my disease or my body. You can’t see my spirit, but if you could, you’d see that it’s bigger than my body ever was.

Nikki MassieNikki Massie, known around the world as the amazing Bariatric Foodie, offered more perspective:

I always tell people I was a big baby (9 lbs., 3 oz. – and I was born three weeks early!), who grew into a big kid, who matured into a big teenager and ended up becoming a big woman. Even after weight loss surgery, my weight runs higher than the body mass index prescribes for me. I could let that depress me, but it’s hard for me to be depressed when the weight I have lost and maintained (125 lbs. over 9 years!) has allowed me to do things I never thought possible, such as zip lining in Las Vegas, running on a treadmill, and being able to “bench press” my five-year old niece. I will always have to closely monitor my weight to avoid total regain, but obesity does not, and will not, define me!

Ava ZebrickAva Zebrick, an award-winning OAC advocate, explained further:

My experience and challenges with obesity did change me. I reject the identification as an “obese woman.” But being a “woman affected by obesity” is part of my personal identity. I’m a student, a daughter and sister, a friend, a wife, a business owner, a millennial, a New Orleanian, a nature lover, a nerd, and so much more.

Mary ChavezMary Chavez, an OAC member in Glendale, CA, told us:

Obesity has challenged me my entire life. Even as a youth. Although there have been many physical challenges, the biggest challenge of all has been dealing with the perception of others that being obese means that I am lazy, or that somehow I have “done this to myself.” Getting past those false, preconceived notions hasn’t been easy and hasn’t always been successful, but I don’t ever give up. As much as obesity has challenged me, it has nothing to do with who I am. I’m a mother, a sister, a friend, a daughter, a nurse, and a leader.

Kesha CalicuttKesha Calicutt inspired many hundreds of people at the opening of the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit earlier this year. She explained that obesity is just one of many challenges in her life:

My biggest challenge is trying to fit it all in. Balancing all of the elements of family life while taking care of my health isn’t easy. I want to go to the gym, to spend quality family time in the evenings, to have a clean house, to cook healthful dinners at home. I want my son involved in enrichment activities after school.  Realistically, I can only check off two or three of the items on that wishlist. For the most part, I’ve learned to be OK with that. I’m an educator first and foremost. Whether it’s at work, obesity advocacy, or in my own house, I’m a teacher. That defines me.

Michelle VicariAnd then we spoke to Michelle Vicari, an extraordinary, caring person who writes The World According to Eggface. In her “spare time,” she leads the planning team of OAC’s annual convention. She told us:

What was most hurtful and harmful was that people defined me by obesity. Every other good thing in my life was negated. That is wrong. I am so much more than a number on a scale or a dress size. At 300 or 150, my character, talents, leadership, contributions to society, love for my friends and family are the same. Obesity is a chronic disease that will require lifelong adjusting of the sails and that is a challenge but it does not define me.

Take time to consider and respect the many millions of people living with obesity. When you do, it’s easy to see that this complex and chronic disease is indeed a challenge. But it’s not an identity. It does not define who we are.

We are deeply indebted to these six fine people today for sharing a bit of what defines them.

Self-Portrait, photograph © Jeff Newell

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December 15, 2016