T.P. had become accustomed to the scornful looks, hurtful comments and other slights that so many overweight people have to deal with, but something just snapped during one incident and she couldn’t just let it go: “Are you seriously telling me that your diagnostic center caters to everyone except for overweight people? Is that something you’d put on a sign on your door?”
There was, of course, a lot of frustration in this unusually sharp retort. T.P. is 49 years old and has struggled with obesity since she was a child.
“I’ve had a few minor health problems recently – I get very tired at work and my body seems to have pulled the brakes – and have had to visit several doctors. One of them suggested that I have a checkup with some diagnostic tests, a thyroid ultrasound and a bone density test,” she tells Kathimerini, requesting that her name be withheld.
She called the private diagnostic center she usually uses when having her regular blood tests to book the appointments. “They asked me how much I weigh because the machine for the bone density test ‘cannot take too much weight.’ When I told them, they said they were sorry but could not do the test for me, so I booked an appointment only for the ultrasound. My phone rang three hours later. It was the diagnostic center telling me that we had to cancel the ultrasound ‘because the machine cannot take your weight.’” That’s when she snapped.
“I’ve watched how the issue of obesity is handled for years. But no one speaks out; no one brings it up. Maybe it’s the guilt obese people like me feel. I’ve even had doctors suggest that it’s my fault. Most people believe that I have simply failed to make up my mind to lose weight,” she says.
After that last phone call from the diagnostic center, T.P. decided to call the facility’s management to lodge a complaint.
“I told them I had been denied a test that had been prescribed by my doctor. Their response was immediate. The director was shocked at the way I had been dismissed, and said that even if that particular center could not carry out the tests because it used lightweight aluminum beds, then the appointment service should have referred me to another of the center’s branches. He agreed with me that the behavior of the operators I had spoken to was unacceptable and added that I should never have been denied the thyroid ultrasound, as it’s a test that can be done with the patient sitting down in a chair,” says T.P., adding that she was able to make her appointment as a result of taking action.
“It’s not a solution, though,” she laments. “A few years ago, there were no wheelchair ramps anywhere, but society has gradually become more educated and aware. Maybe medical beds should just be designed to handle everyone’s weight. Or diagnostic centers should make it clear that they cannot serve obese patients.”
The incident with the diagnostic center was the first time that T.P. defended her rights.
“There’s one day I will always remember,” she says. “I was at the metro station, carrying a box of sweets done up with a ribbon because I was visiting a friend’s house, when a man walking past me said: ‘Just keep eating, you animal. See how fat you get.’ I froze. But this is exactly how most people regard overweight people, as animals who can’t control themselves.”
According to the World Obesity Federation, “weight stigma is one of the last socially accepted forms of discrimination.”
Last October 11, on World Obesity Day, it added that discrimination against overweight people is even more prevalent than discrimination based on sexual orientation, race or gender. The result is a vicious cycle.
“I have personally tried very hard to do something about my weight. I’m constantly on a diet. But imagine what life is like when you feel that every time you have a bite to eat, people are staring at your mouth. I know people who never eat in front of others because they feel guilty,” says T.P.
N.V. is a 43-year-old teacher and is also overweight. “I hadn’t come to terms with it for years and would never talk about my weight,” she tells Kathimerini. “There came a time when I started reconciling myself with my situation and opening up, but not everyone was as accepting and that made me retreat back into my shell. It’s not the extra kilos that drive overweight people to solitude; it’s other people.”
N.V. has noticed that obese people are not included in the debate about diversity and tolerance that has picked up pace in recent years. “Everyone talks about how we shouldn’t discriminate, but they mean against a person’s skin color or sexual orientation. People still believe that you can discriminate as much as you like against overweight people, short people or people with a physical deformity. They think they have a right to comment on appearance,” she says.
A global disease
“Just ask yourself this. Did you take the metro today? And did you use the escalator or the stairs? How you answer may explain why you’re putting on weight.” Efthymios Kapantais is a specialized pathologist and director of the department for diabetes, obesity and metabolism at Athens’ Metropolitan Hospital, as well as president of the Hellenic Medical Association for Obesity (EIEP). He believes that obesity is affecting Greece as much as it is other parts of the world where it has spiked in recent years. “Across the world, people are starting to weigh more. Even in countries where residents tend to be quite slim, such as China, Pakistan and India, the data show an increase in the average weight. In Greece, this trend is particularly evident among children, as the frequency of overweight and obese children keeps growing over time,” he says.
According to EIEP, 26 percent of Greece’s male population is overweight, and 18.2 percent of women. More worryingly, nearly 50 percent of children in the 6-10 age group are above their advised weight.
“Our genes have been the same for thousands of years, but our way of life has changed dramatically,” says Kapantais. “Thousands of years ago, people would walk 40 to 80 kilometers a day, depending on where they lived. Today we have a sedentary lifestyle. Between the car, the escalator and even the TV remote, everything conspires to keep us motionless.”
A lack of exercise is not the only reason why average weight levels are going up. Diet is also an instrumental factor.
“Just 50 years ago, most Greeks would only eat meat once a month and lived mainly on vegetables and pulses. Today we have access to incredibly calorie-rich foods like cakes, sweets, cheeses and processed meats, which we eat with much greater frequency,” says the expert.
For example, says Kapantais, 100 grams of cucumber has 9 calories, while 100 grams of olives has 900; 100 grams of chocolate has 550 calories but a piece of fruit of the same weight has between 30 and 50 calories.
The third most important factor, he adds, is stress.
“People used to have a very hard life but they didn’t suffer from stress to any great extent. Today, the endogenous stress we feel on a day-to-day basis has risen to unprecedented levels, fueling the need for satisfaction and pleasure. One of the easiest ways to satisfy this need is by oral stimulation. The easiest thing to do when you come home at night feeling spent is to eat something that gives you pleasure,” explains Kapantais.
The World Health Organization recognized obesity as a major health problem in 1998, warning that it can contribute to heart disease, strokes and some kinds of cancer.
“Obesity also has a negative impact on quality of life,” adds Kapantais. “People who are overweight should ask their doctor for help. They are usually quite sensitive patients, as well, as they have often been taken advantage of by self-proclaimed experts peddling methods and products that can actually be quite damaging to their health without offering them any help whatsoever.”