By Madeleine Ortiz
After spending no more than 20 minutes with Lisa Schaffer, a bright and friendly resident of Vancouver, Canada, I’m not surprised when she tells me she loves roller coasters. “They’re so fun,” she says, laughing. What is hard to believe though is that someone as brave and full of energy as she is didn’t take her first ride on one until she was in her forties. “I grew up in a family of ‘heavy bodies,’” she says, “I had parents that didn’t fit in the ride and had never really thought of myself as a rollercoaster person because of that.”
Now she loves them.
She also loves exercise, her job and, among many other things, the place she’s in right now. Even though Lisa describes herself as someone with a big personality who had a “perfectly fine” childhood – she’ll be the first to admit she hasn’t always felt content in her own skin. “Obesity has been a part of my life forever,” she says, “ and I’ve gone through a variety of stages and struggles to get where I am now.” But each shift brought with it more information, more motivation and more confidence – all tools she’s used to advocate for herself (and others through her work with Obesity Canada) to create her best life. Best of all? She’s more than happy to share her stories and secrets if it will help others do the same.
Here’s what we all can learn from Lisa.
Know you’re not a failure.
For a long time, Lisa says she felt dumb. She’d wonder how she could be successful at so many things but still “fail” at losing weight. It took her a long time to realize she wasn’t the problem – that obesity is a complex disease that is different for everyone. Once she really realized this, getting the facts and support she needed came a lot easier. The sooner you can recognize it’s not your fault, Lisa advises, the sooner you can start finding success.
Recognize diets don’t always equal success.
It’s not a coincidence that Lisa had a high-profile sales job managing over 100 accounts when she was only in her twenties. She’s smart and driven, and sought to achieve excellence in every area of her life. That someone so successful was able to follow diet and exercise plans to a T isn’t surprising. “I was hyper-compliant,” she recalls, following magazine advice for “six pack abs” like her life depended on it and then feeling disappointed when her efforts didn’t yield the promised results. She wants others to avoid the same societal traps and start recognizing that diet and exercise plans, even if followed perfectly, are not going to be enough for most people.
Have an open mind about obesity as a chronic medical condition.
The first time Lisa heard a doctor call obesity a chronic medical condition she felt relieved. Finally, she could attach a real, medical label to something that had been affecting her life for so long. Her friend, however, hearing the same message, recoiled. To her friend, it felt like she was being told, yet again, that there was something wrong with her. If you’re like Lisa’s friend, Lisa encourages you to be open to a shift in perspective. Don’t think of obesity being a chronic medical condition as a doctor telling you there is something wrong with you, think of it as an opportunity to understand what struggling with weight really involves, and as the impetus for more research, more care, and more solutions.
Understand it’s not 100% your burden to bear.
“Yes”, says Lisa, “you carry some responsibility when it comes to your weight, but understand it is not 100% your burden to bear.” Thinking your weight is all your fault can prevent you from seeking treatment. Lisa encourages you to let go of some of that heavy load you’ve been carrying and start seeking support. The less time you waste trying to do it on your own the faster you’ll start feeling healthy and empowered.
Be comfortable saying it out loud.
Lisa shares a story about sofa shopping with her family as a child. She remembers her mother asking her to ask the salesperson “which sofas would be good for heavy bodies.” She chuckles about the memory now, but at the time she felt embarrassed and remembers thinking “the sales person can see us.” Now, she sees that her mother was simply neutralizing the facts. The question wasn’t meant to be good or bad, and in the end, saying it out loud made everyone more comfortable. Making others comfortable with your size is not your job, but getting comfortable talking about your weight without attaching the judgment of “good” or “bad” puts you more control of a situation that might have previously made you feel awkward. Practice in safe spaces, like if your friends ask you on an adventure and you want to make sure that the experience can accommodate your size and shape. Once you get used to saying it out loud, conversations with healthcare professionals and even strangers will start to feel easier and they’ll be more productive too.
Get the care you deserve.
You are allowed to receive good, quality medical care. One of the first times Lisa spoke with her doctor about her weight, she asked if she could be recommended to a bariatrician. Her doctor laughed and told her that wasn’t even a word… and unfortunately, that was pretty much the end of the conversation. Don’t let discouraging doctors stop you from getting the care you deserve. Give yourself permission to interview your doctor and remind yourself it’s OK if they aren’t a fit. Ask questions and have an opinion. Start showing up for yourself and advocating for the care you deserve.
Do your research.
Evidence is your secret weapon. After three years of back and forth with doctors, Lisa finally was able to undergo a skin removal surgery. “It wasn’t easy,” she says. She was told her BMI was too high and was even offered advice like going to Weight Watchers or working out. But Lisa had tenacity, and a whole bunch of research on her side. People can share their opinion, but if you have facts, you’ll win every time. Do your research and don’t give up on pursuing the treatment that is best for you.
Don’t be scared of exploring all the options.
Initially for Lisa, surgery always felt like too extreme of an option for weight loss. She was open to medication, but not surgery. It wasn’t until her third for fourth appointment with her doctor that she started to think maybe surgery was actually the best choice. “I’m glad my doctor really broke down all the facts for me,” she says, “it allowed me to make the best choice for me and my goals.” Don’t automatically rule something out because of what other people have told you about it or because you think it’s too aggressive. Instead, do your own research and talk with your doctors about the treatments available that will fit best with you, your lifestyle and your goals.
Forget about the number on the scale.
Lisa says she used to roll her eyes when doctors told her not to let the scale be her measure of success, but now she can recognize that health is really so much more than how much you weigh. “I gave away ⅔ of my stomach,” she tells us, “and I lost 40 lbs.” It was an incredibly frustrating time for her and she started feeling depressed. The 40 lbs wasn’t nothing, but it didn’t feel like enough considering the sacrifices she had made for it and the result was that she was harder on herself than she had ever been before. “I broke my own heart,” she says, and it took a lot to pull herself out of that dark headspace. When she did find herself in a good place again, she started to understand more clearly why success shouldn’t be measured with just the scale. Her blood work is great, she exercises a ton and she’s happy being who she is – and those are all much better, bigger wins than weight loss.
Take care of your whole self.
Before surgery, Lisa’s doctor asked her to write down five things in her life that would change if she lost 100 lbs. What she realized after doing the exercise was that even if she lost an enormous amount of weight, most of her life would remain the same. She says that she’s glad her doctor asked her to do that because it really put things into perspective. We pin a lot of our happiness on reaching a goal weight, but in reality, the number on the scale doesn’t have as much to do with our happiness as we think. The best advice Lisa can give? Start taking care of your mental health and the other aspects of your life before diving head first into weight loss. The weight loss isn’t going to feel good unless other things in your life are feeling good too.
Realize some people will never join us.
You can have all the evidence in the world, and some people still aren’t going to believe that obesity is a disease. Some people are still going to think that those living in larger bodies are doing so because they choose to. Lisa recommends accepting the fact that some people will never join us, and then stop wasting your time on them. Your time is too valuable and they’re not worth the frustration.
Lisa is an inspiration in advocacy, health and happiness. She’s got tons of great advice that comes from both research and real life experience, but if she could sum up everything she’s learned it would be this: “You’re allowed to take up space.” You deserve to be here, you deserve to be healthy. Get the facts, get the support and get the life you deserve.
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