Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Being On the "Other Side"

So this isn't so much about running specifically, but certainly related to the topic of health and wellness. Having achieved a healthy, "normal" weight through my recent journey, and now being at a place of maintaining this healthy weight, I'm more conscious of a perspective that I never really was before. I've always been aware of the divide between the healthy and the unhealthy; for most of my life, I've fallen in that latter category and it's only until recently that I've crossed that line to the "other side". The sad part is that this line is not simply a line to mark achievement - a metaphor for running a race, for example. I've crossed the line and I can hang my medal up on display to show I completed the distance from this epic journey. But this line that divides the "sides" is also, unfortunately, a line of judgment, misundertanding, and stigma. It's a line whose existence I hate, one that caused me so much grief through my life, and one I'd love to see disappear. I know that's highly unlikely, but perhaps I can help make a small amount of change by speaking my mind, and sharing often the story of my journey that I've owned. So please read this and let me know what you think.

I spent a lot of my life being judged by others, and judging myself. I was, after all, once almost twice the size I am now. Yes, twice - you read correctly. Growing up, I heard every fat joke there was in the book. And then some. When I finally grew up and didn't have the playground banter I had as a kid, there were the grown-up kind of insults - the kind that tend to sting a bit more. These are the ones that aren't explicit and in your face, but more the way people tiptoe around you when certain topics are brought up. It's also when you realize you've been excluded from certain activities because of what you're not capable of doing. It's when you hear of your friends going out and doing wonderful athletic activities after they've done them.

While I can understand that people don't want to make it seem like they approve of an unhealthy lifestyle, it's a challenge when it's clear that they disapprove of your lifestyle. I would often wish that people could judge me for who I am, for the person that I am, rather than for the person I appeared to be. And now that my appearance has changed, I'm saddened by the existence of this line in a whole new way. Being the size I was made me no less intelligent, motivated, or accomplished than I am today at the size I am. And being the size I am today makes me no less insecure or less unsure about how others see me as I was at the size I used to be. Regardless of size, I'm the same person. 

So what brought this on? It's something that's been on my mind for a while. But very recently, I've heard a few comments from people on my current side of the line that prompted me to write. While what I heard was upsetting, I know the people who said these comments meant no harm. The thing is though, that sometimes these "innocent" and "harmless" comments do harm, a small tiny bit of harm that on its own can be seen as negligible. But when each negative and judgmental comment, no matter how small, is compounded on the next, and then again onto the next, this world soon becomes a very judging place. 

Without getting into any specific details about the comments I heard, I will tell you that I stood up to one of the commenters, and it felt really good. The comment suggested that overweight people are lazy, unmotivated, and pathetic for not being able to "got off their couches" and fit healthy living into their life. Of course they didn't realize who they were talking to; we had only met a week or so beforehand. The nice thing is that after saying what I said, I think a light turned on. I hope that my story is an example of how an overweight person can easily be the complete opposite of lazy, unmotivated and pathetic. I don't want to toot my own horn, but I believe nobody could every accuse me of those having those attributes - perhaps many would agree that I have in fact, an above-average level of motivation. My hope is that this person will think twice the next time they stop to judge. Perhaps, instead, they will stop before they judge, and reconsider that judgment instead. I could tell they understood what they didn't see before, and I feel their respect for me grew a few levels as they learned something from that interaction. They appreciated being called out on their words because they saw the error of their words themselves. Or so I hope. But another incident happened yesterday and it wasn't the time and place to jump in and say what I needed to say here. I did not speak my mind and boy did it feel awful to let that comment slide. It's been weighing on my shoulders since. And I hate it. I'm sorry for letting it go. I hope it won't happen again.

So yes, people see me and they see a "normal weight" woman. I have a somewhat athletic build now and I fall into the category of someone who "looks like a runner". By looking at me now, would you ever guess where I was 3 years ago? Doubtful. So if one just met me, they may think it safe to say ignorant things about overweight people in my presence, right? The odd thing is that even though I see myself in the mirror everyday, I still haven't fully grasped the concept that I'm now this athletic girl. One of the confirming moments for me was being in the presence of someone directing a fat joke at someone else while in my presence. I thought, "oh, I guess they don't think I'm fat if they think that other person is." So not cool that this was a defining moment, but it's a sad sign of the judging world we live in. Of course I don't want people to not speak their mind, but there are healthier ways to approach the topic of unhealthiness. We just have to figure out how.

And I know that I'm clearly proud of myself for being where I am today. But I hope that I never come across as someone who judges others for where they are today. And I hope I don't catch myself judging others for their weight myself. I have absolutely no right to judge. And that's not just because I was once overweight but because nobody has the right to judge another in this way.  

I know in some ways I've become a bit of a "running snob" when it comes to my training, my gear, and my sights on my first marathon. But I don't want to be the running snob that, based on appearances, says that person over there is a runner and that one over there isn't. I don't want to be the one who refuses to make eye contact with passing runners who are at a more beginner level or who are a different weight "category" because I think I'm better than them. And I hope that I can be genuine and understood as the runner I am today, regardless of my new body. When I smile at someone or try to offer encouragement I hope it's not interpreted as condescending or patronizing. I'm going to be extremely careful using the term "good for you" when someone tells me about their fitness goals. I know I hated it - "what do you mean, good for ME?" When I was planning my first 5km race in 2010 and still quite a bit overweight, when I heard the term "good for you", I automatically thought that people thought this was all I was capable of. That 5km was "good" for someone like me, but so less impressive for someone like them. I wish more people would have said, "5km is fantastic! What do you have planned after that?" Show me you know I'm capable of so much more than my short term goal.

If we want others to get healthy, we really have to change our approach. We can't be judging others for their lifestyle and telling them to lose weight - like they don't know! No overweight person is oblivious to their need to change - it's in their face every day! In my opinion, we need to be supportive and genuinely show we believe in that person's own ability to change their own lives, one short term goal at a time.

9 comments:

  1. Well said. We really don't know anyone's story but our own and thoughtless comments and assumptions can be very cruel.

    Nice to see someone who has been on both sides speak up. :)

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  2. Thank you for your comment! I hope others will join me in speaking up too. :-)

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. As someone who is always the heaviest of her friends, but still tries to be active I can appreciate both sides of what you are saying... and probably fall more onto the "inactive" side of that line. I also completed my first 5k in 2010 & it sucks that yours wasn't met with more of a "5K is fantastic" voice... To "runners," 5k is almost nothing, an average day or short run but to a learner, it is a big deal... building up from walk/run to slowly increasing running segments to actually running an entire 5K. I think it is easy for runners to shrug off 5k as "easy" or really "nothing" for them and lose sight of the fact that 5k might actually be a really exciting achievement for someone. My first ever 5K in 2010 was such a huge achievement for me in learning how to run that thankfully my own emotions and pride in completing it outweighed any other voices of thoughts... but your reflections are really powerful for athletes in evaluating perceptions & beliefs around fitness and being healthy.

    Thanks again for this commentary, I really value your thoughts on this.

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  4. Yes, thank you Monnie! 5km IS a big distance indeed and your comments on that distance are well put. I'm so glad that you are proud of yourself for your accomplishments - your own voice is always the most important voice. You have an incredible spirit and I'm excited to stay in touch with you and see where your goals take you. I too felt a huge lift of achievement with that 2010 5km race. I would have never thought that 2 years later, I'd be training for a marathon. That's the thing though, you can never tell what a person is capable of by looking at them! You can only imagine of what they're capable of by believing in them.

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  5. "Show me you know I'm capable of so much more than my short term goal." You know, Zahida, I think you would be a really fantastic coach.

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  6. This is a fantastic post! You would make an excellent coach (I agree with you, Kiran!) and it is clear you are capable of many wonderful things. I love following your journey and I know you are changing people's lives just by being you.

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  7. I just wanted to say that I have been thinking about this post a lot lately, as I struggle with some of life's curve balls & to time manage and plan and fit fitness into myself on top of more than full schedule... and I still really appreciate the sentiment that when I can't make it out for a run or I have a training set back, that it is not being lazy or unmotivated but rather set backs are a reality sometimes and life throws things at you at times which means goals need to be re-adjusted...

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    1. Thanks Monnie. I'm glad this post has given you something to think about and I hope that the curve balls being thrown your way are manageable and that soon they go away all together. It's very true that sometimes we have to re-adjust our priorities based on current situations. And it really doesn't mean we are any less interested in the things we had to put on the back-burner. I hope you find your groove again soon! *hugs*

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