Wednesday, June 7, 2023

My father is obese and I can’t stand being around him | Ask Philippa

The dilemma My father, who I’ve always had a tricky relationship with, has been obese since I was a teenager. He was very sporty as a younger man, but since his 40s he has increasingly gained weight. He is now in his 60s and obese. I feel some guilt about feeling like this, but I find it disgusting and I hate being around him, especially when food is present.

I feel angry with him for putting his health at risk and I feel ashamed to be descended from someone with no self-control or self-respect. My mother has never been overweight and deserves a better husband. I have never introduced a partner to my parents, because I don’t want their opinion of me to be influenced by how my father is – one of my boyfriends at university once made negative comments about the issue and it really stuck with me. I know even if I marry that I’ll never have a family wedding because of this.

I won’t have anything to do with my father if he becomes ill as a result of his weight. I wish I could make him understand and change but he has always been stubborn, bordering on a bully. It’s a lost cause. How do I get through to him that he needs to address his weight?

Philippa’s answer You don’t have to take all the guilt of how you currently feel on to your own shoulders. It is society that has made it normal to stigmatise fat people – but it is the responsibility of all of us to overcome this prejudice and stop it getting even worse.

Your fatphobia is preventing you from really working out how you feel about your relationship with your father. We are surrounded by a society that encourages fatphobic beliefs. Fat people have been wrongly blamed for the failings of our NHS and publicly humiliated on TV via shows like You Are What You Eat and the Biggest Loser. It is our responsibility to challenge those beliefs within us, and have compassion and empathy for our fat friends, family members, strangers, and our fat selves.

In his book Food Isn’t Medicine, Dr Joshua Wolrich argues that the narrative that fat people simply have less willpower than thin people and are therefore morally inferior is scientifically incorrect and has hurt fat people for generations. Healthcare tends to follow a weight-normative approach where a focus of weight and weight loss is used to define health and wellbeing. This discriminates against those who don’t fit its narrow definition. The link between health and weight is nowhere near as straightforward as people and many healthcare providers make it out to be and we should be acknowledging the harmful impacts of weight stigma, an example of which is your attitude towards your father.

Studies show that if we are fat, being shamed and bullied does not make us healthier. Quite the reverse; it harms us.

You are not alone in your fatphobic opinion. Most of us could stand to do some thinking about the way society has demonised fat people and how that has influenced our personal beliefs. However, the majority do manage to love our fat family members despite maybe believing they could do with losing a few pounds. How would you feel about your father if he was thin? Apart from being fat, what else has he done that you don’t like? You don’t have to have a relationship with your father, and you are not obliged to look after him if he falls ill. But cutting him off purely because he is fat? That would be cruel: 64% of our population has a BMI classed as overweight or more. That 64% is full of wonderful, funny, intelligent and kind people. And some of the best agony aunts around. Don’t write us off because we remind you of your father, or because of an out-of-date idea that we are weak-willed gluttons. Challenge your own beliefs, enjoy your newfound love for 64% of the population, and then think about why you really don’t like your dad.

Perhaps you really do love him and this anger coming from your email may be an attempt to push down your more vulnerable feeling of fear. If you are concerned for your father, remember he is more likely to care about his own health if he feels loved and accepted, not made to feel morally inferior, weak or someone to be ashamed of. Concern is not effective if it comes in the guise of a bully. As Aubrey Gordon says in her excellent book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat: “Concern thrives on love, not shame…”

Regarding your mother “deserving a better husband”, she isn’t a good person because she is slim any more than your dad is a bad person for being fat. Sometimes when we think about our parents, we over simplistically think of them as one being good and the other bad. This doesn’t do us, or them, any favours.

Aubrey Gordon also says, “We don’t often ask ourselves what our response to fatness says about us, but it says so much about our empathy and our character.” This is something for us all to think about.

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