April 12, 2011 -- Being called a fatty in front of 200 people is embarrassing for anyone. When you're a registered dietitian getting paid to lead a discussion on dieting and weight loss it's especially humiliating.
Bill Bradley grew up fat in a family of fat people who were obsessed with Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous. Even at points in his life when he wasn't particularly overweight, he was still focused on food, eating and weight. That he chose dietetics as a profession is a bit like being raised as an arsonist and deciding to become a firefighter.
As Bradley began his internship, he was in a relatively svelte phase. He recalls encountering some overweight dietitians during his training and wondering how they had the audacity to give anyone guidance about shedding pounds. They so obviously wore their own struggles with food on their sleeve -- and thighs, buttocks and waistlines.
Bradley's coursework was stressful. Food helped him deal with the stress. By the end of his internship, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of being one of those chubby health experts dispensing advice not personally followed.
Now faced with a mocking question about his burgeoning belly in front of a large crowd, Bradley felt a momentary wave of shame pass over him but quickly recovered. He spoke from the heart and he spoke the truth.
"I'm not perfect and I have struggled with weight issues my whole life," he responded. "That's why I'm a dietitian. Not just to help other people, but to stay focused on helping myself too."
It's an interesting thing to be both a person who assists others with weight loss while battling weight demons of your own. Bradley points out that the vulnerability of such a professional conundrum has worked to his advantage because it makes him more accessible to clients. It's a lot easier confessing a midnight run for cookie dough ice cream to a nutritionist who has taken that same trip many times himself than to one who is a size zero vegan.
On the other hand, what gives someone the right to dispense health information they don't follow, won't follow or can't prove works? Isn't their credibility buried underneath a mountain of excess flab?
Professionals Offer Harshest Criticism
While Bradley has since lost weight and believes he never lost clients or potential clients because he didn't look the part, he admits he wouldn't go to an obese cardiologist. Which is exactly what Joseph F. Majdan was before he dropped "epic amounts of weight" about 18 months ago.
In Majdan's case, it was his fellow doctors, not his patients, who let him know how they felt about his adiposity. Over the years, they called him names like Fat Albert and asked if his lab coats were made by Omar the Tentmaker. In one particularly cruel and damaging episode, an oncologist refused to send a patient to him dismissing him as too fat to be a good doctor. She came to see him anyway, choosing to judge him not by the depth of his fat tissue, but by the depth of his character.
"My colleagues will look at cancer and drug addiction with compassion but some cannot look at overweight in the same vein," Majdan said. If they treat one of their own with such distain, what must they think of their obese patients?
Fat Is No Laughing Matter
Majdan said that in a way, fat has become a civil rights issue. "It's one of the last remaining prejudices where it's PC to make jokes at someone's expense. Perhaps that's why it's easy to be so judgmental about fat health experts," he said.
You can poke at the soft belly of your fat nutritionist or doctor (or nurse or personal trainer) and accuse them of being a hypocrite like a divorced marriage counselor or barber with bad haircut. It's easy to be dismissive if you've never fought against the complex cocktail of DNA, environment, health habits and dozens of other factors that make fat cling to our bodies.
Even when you've done everything right, you sometimes still come out on the gaining end. Going to school and learning all you can does not exempt you from the biological struggle. It doesn't.
Both Bradley and Majdan say their desire to be at an ideal weight wasn't a response to any criticism. Like you and me, they wanted to be healthy and feel good about themselves. Perhaps this makes them ideal health experts: Someone who once was fat but now is thin.
This provides them with a good understanding of what 66 percent of the population who are overweight and obese go through on a daily basis, but allows them to look the part of the stick-thin genetic lottery winner. It's a lose-win scenario.