If someone said that this fall was my fault, how would that sound? I chose to walk instead of ride a bike. I chose to walk over that particular area of the sidewalk. I chose the shoes I wore. I chose to live in the city I live in. I chose to wear shorts so my knees were exposed and I wasn't wearing gloves or a face mask to protect myself. I chose to wear glasses instead of contact lenses which would not have been broken. Is it fair to say that it is my fault that I fell and got hurt so much because of my choices?
I offer this story not only because it is true, but as an imperfect analogy for something which troubles me, and that is the use of the word "responsibility" when it comes to weight loss. I call this imperfect because it is a backwards situation compared to the real thing that I want to discuss. However, what I want my dear readers to focus on is the fact that there was an unforeseen or unpredictable outcome to a sequence of choices that were made. No one would say I was responsible for my fall due to those choices. It came upon me, and those choices did affect the outcome, but does that make it my "fault"?
I read a lot of people talk about "taking responsibility" for their weight, and on the surface, that is certainly a mature and agreeable sounding thing. However, I would say that this is looking at the moment one has tripped rather than all of the things that lead up to the problem. Though it can be said that we "choose" to eat whatever we eat, this is a very simplistic manner in which to view people's relationships with food. There are a great many choices that we didn't have which lead up to the moments we chose to overeat. I cannot speak for others, but (among other things) I didn't choose:
- To grow up with a mother who overfed me on high fat and white carbohydrates.
- To grow up with a completely distorted understanding of portion sizes and nutrition and therefore to view it as the norm.
- To be tormented by my peers out of the joys of sports and exercise.
- To grow up poor and exposed to very little in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- To be given food instead of love because neither of my parents were comfortable with their positive emotions.
- To be tortured by my peers such that comfort came from something destructive.
- To be in this body that was built by my parents' choices and income rather than a healthy one with better biological responses.
- I didn't choose to grow up around emotionally volatile people, one of whom was an alcoholic and role-modeled addictive behavior.
- I didn't choose to be biologically prone to addictive behavior or obesity (everyone in my family is very overweight).
- I didn't choose to be verbally abused if my behavior was not perfect and therefore susceptible to certain limited options for coping with what was happening to me before I was an adult.
Just as I did not know that I was going to fall when I took that step, I did not know that there were a multitude of issues leading up to my food habits. I couldn't choose them both because I was not in control of my life during my formative years and because I didn't know that an eating disorder would be the outcome of the things that happened in my life.
Up until this past year, I knew my problems and I knew some of the reasons, but I didn't know how to fix them. I knew I ate too much. I knew I was fat. I didn't know how to stop myself because the truth was until I understood a great many things, I couldn't make a choice. Responsibility requires control. It requires the ability to make a choice. I had none. I couldn't stop overeating anymore than I could make it rain of my own volition up until I gained some insight. It was like I had two ends of a rope that I had to tie together to start solving my problem, but they didn't quite meet and I had no idea how to bring them together.
People who talk about being "responsible" for what you eat act as though the moment that you place the food in your mouth is a choice in isolation. It is not. That moment is shaped by all of the things that came before which you couldn't control. People who use the word "responsibility" in this way are not interested in anything other than judgment and blame. They bully themselves into better eating habits and want to bully you, too. Their motive isn't to be nasty or unkind. They don't have insight into themselves and think this is what will "work" for them, and they can "motivate" others by pushing them similarly. In the end, this "works" for some people, but more than a handful of them come out the other side rather angry, bitter, and rigid because, while they have managed to pen up their hungry horses, they're still attacking the stall trying to get out and run free.
The bottom line is that we can change, and we can "take responsibility" for what we eat, but we can't if we ignore all of the things that we didn't choose which lead up to our food habits. If we only attempt to deal with the moment of the fall rather than the events that lead up to it, we're doomed to fall again and again. Pushing people or trying to make them feel bad because they can't stop eating certain foods does not help them. It's not about shoving responsibility on them so that they can be "blamed" for being fat, it's about understanding. Only after we understand can we gain the power to have a choice rather than have it made for us by every circumstance that lead up to it.
It's my belief that everyone who has an issue with overeating which they struggle to conquer is to some degree like a puppet on strings. Some of them are tethered to their problems with just a few fragile sewing threads which they can tug at and break free. Some of us, however, are attached with a multitude of steel cables that we struggle with very hard to break free of. Some people can't break free no matter how hard they try. The past is our puppet master, and no amount of talk about "responsibility" is going to change that. Changing that requires insight and a difficult (and perhaps long) therapeutic process.