Our body fat is not always our fault, so why are we made to think it is?

Why do we keep hearing “exercise more, eat less” from the media, our doctors, and even our friends and families, when overeating is not always the culprit?

Take a good look at the picture above.

Now, let me ask you a question:
Why do you think this woman is overweight?

I believe you’ll probably say something like: “she eats too much and she doesn’t exercise enough.” Or, at least, that’s what the majority of the population would say.

But what if that’s not the answer? What if something else is causing her to gain weight, and she has no idea?

That’s what happened to me.

Last year, I found out I have lipedema, a connective tissue disorder in which fat cells grow disproportionally on legs and arms. It’s a progressive, debilitating disease, that can also cause pain in the affected limbs.

Despite being relatively unknown, lipedema is far more common than you’d think. A German study estimated that the disease is present in 11% of the female population. In my experience, most women with lipedema hide their legs behind pants and long dresses and skirts. You would never suspect there’s something wrong with them, but deep down, they are struggling, like me.

Having lipedema means that, no matter what I do, I’ll always gain weight. The disease has no cure, and the treatments only treat symptoms like pain and water retention, not addressing the cause, which is still unknown. Even having liposuction doesn’t guarantee that the fat won’t show up somewhere else, no matter how clean you eat or how much you exercise.

(I talk more about lipedema and getting diagnosed in this article, which I highly recommend you to read if you’re unfamiliar with the disease)

Before I knew I had lipedema, I spent almost 15 years trying to lose weight on my legs, experimenting with every type of diet and exercise you can possibly imagine, but I couldn’t. At one point, I was exercising for 3 or 4 hours per day, and starving myself with a borderline eating disorder. And I still could not lose weight on my legs.

I felt like a total failure.

We have all been there. We have all tried some sort of diet and/or exercise just to fit into beauty standards. And these standards are not just propagated by the media, but also by our doctors, and even our friends and family.

But doctors know that obesity is a much more complicated disease. Besides fat disorders like lipedema, other diseases (like thyroid disorders), genetics, hormones, and medications also come into play. Even overeating is driven by things like hormonal imbalances. It’s not just psychological like we think.

And yet, most doctors don’t do anything to investigate other weight gain causes. They’ll usually just prescribe you a one-size-fits-all diet and send you on your way. Many people actually dread going to the doctor and being weighed, because they know that the doctor will judge them.

Actually, when you’re overweight, you’re met with very little empathy by everyone, including doctors. That’s known as “weight bias”.

According to the Obesity Action Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to advocating for individuals affected by obesity, weight bias makes people affected by obesity less likely to do well in their studies, their careers, and to be generally perceived by society — including doctors — as unsuccessful.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that weight bias also has a profoundly damaging effect on the patient, ranging from depression and anxiety to avoidance of physical activity and medical care.

If you’re interested in reading more about weight bias, I recommend this page on the Obesity Action Coalition website and this WHO brochure.

And we don’t just have weight bias against others. We also have it against ourselves. We all assume that obesity can be prevented by self-control. We think that overweight people are lazy and lack willpower to lose weight. Therefore, if I’m gaining weight and I’m unable to lose it, it has to be because I’m lazy and I’m overeating.

That’s not exactly true. It may or it may not be because you’re overeating and not exercising. It’s important for all of us to understand that. That way, we can be kinder to ourselves, and to all people who struggle with their weight.

I have to say, I spent most of my life being fat-phobic. I would constantly say: “How can someone allow themselves to get to that size? I would never. I would starve myself before I got to that point.” Which is a really horrible thing to say and to think. But that’s what women are taught.

After so many years of thinking it was my fault, I am still struggling to come to terms that it’s not. I have a disease.

We should know better, and we should be making a bigger effort into educating society about weight gain. We shouldn’t assume anything about anyone struggling with their weight. We should question our doctors when we feel like there’s another reason why we’re unable to lose weight. And, when we’ve tried all diets and exercises, and we’re still struggling, we shouldn’t feel guilty thinking it’s our fault. Because, oftentimes, it’s not.

Spreading awareness about lipedema.

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