Drifting Away

When Encouragement Drifts Toward Offense

These days, advice and encouragement comes to us all from many directions, and especially from social media. Subtle or blunt, empathetic or insufferable, it keeps coming. Recently a fitness expert warned us against telling people that obesity is highly heritable:

This isn’t a helpful message. Instead, take the opportunity to make the point that a high genetic risk doesn’t have to be a sentence to a lifetime with obesity.

One-Size-Fits-All Encouragement

One size for all certainly works in some instances and fails in others. But in matters of health and coping with a chronic condition, cookie cutter motivational messages can fall terribly flat. We’ve seen them inflict great pain.

Broadly, it’s certainly true that destiny isn’t completely written by our genes. We always have decisions to make and hope for things to come. And in the matter of obesity, interactions between genes and environment are complex. Our understanding is limited. So speaking about what is possible and what is not, with certainty, is foolish.

But superficial pep talks about obesity are equally foolish. Different people are living with very different physiologies and histories. One person might realistically aspire to put a history of obesity behind them. Another might have very different – and appropriate – goals for health and wholeness.

Assuming Too Much

Much that is studied and written about health risks feeds into an assumption that we can be masters of our destinies. But at best, we are contributing authors. A good friend recently explained the problem with assuming too much:

My husband ate a good diet. Exercised like mad including swimming in winter and died of lung cancer having never smoked. He said he had a good life. He did and was much loved. There’s a real need to get all this in perspective and take it out of the academic arena. I hate these studies that make no allowance for shit happens. And people deal with it. With great courage.

People do not deserve to suffer. But it happens. To all of us. We need encouragement. And everyone takes their encouragement in different doses and forms.

So, please. Think twice and listen first before you tell someone that they don’t have to live with obesity or any other chronic health problem.

Click here for excellent reporting on living with obesity from WBUR, here for thoughtful expert perspective from Arya Sharma, and here for diverse perspectives on living with chronic health conditions.

Drifting Away, photograph © Shawn Harquail / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


July 24, 2017