25 October 2011,

Learning about how living with obesity feels… On the way back from Edmonton, I am writing about visiting Alberta Diabetes Institute, and my sincere gratitude goes to Dr. Arya Sharma and Rebecca Tuepah for the tour of the lab.

Referring to the Alberta Diabetes Institute as a “lab” is just about the shabbiest of understatements. The availability of sophisticated technology here would be second to nowhere.

In spite of the hologram rooms and apartmet style calorimeter suites, the biggest shock of the day came from wearing a suit that mimicked obesity. Indeed, I had the opportunity to wear a set of carefully engineered foam pads that realistically portray the way fat is distributed for a person with morbid obesity (photos to come). After I explain what it feels like to put on pants – one leg at a time with my new experience of being overweight – I hope your opinion about obesity might change, too.

Time was of the essence- the ADI is massive, and we had a list of things to see at ADI – those hologram rooms were waiting, and the calorimeter apartments needed to be visited – so Dr. Sharma offered me a quick session with The Suit. The first task would be to put my own clothes on.

The good news first. My shirt came on without a hitch. Thanks to the advances of professional sports and especially the demands placed on athletes due to how much they sweat, we have created a wonderfully silky material that seems to just glide on over everything without too much of a hitch. Plus it’s breathable!


So, now onto the next step: my trousers. Jeans, the original functional fashion item, have not really undergone the same kinds of transformation as things like t-shirts (what I’m assuming people wore before the polypropylene material I had in the shirt). Jeans are a heavier, crunchier material.
Less glide. More friction. You don’t have to be obese to sympathize here: put on a pair of your favourite jeans after the Christmas Holidays. No cheating. They must come directly out of the dryer.


With this analogy in mind, I started to recognize how daunting the task of putting on pants may prove to be. Bending down to pick them up, and manually tracing the circumference of my Levis with my hands in attempt to strategically hoist the material over my body was my first (unsuccessful) attempt at dressing myself. You know, jump into the pant legs and sort of skip my way through the legs.

Thus far:
Pants= 1, Maargi= Nil.

Balancing on my right foot to lift up my left and slip it through the pant leg – without getting it caught or tripping – was the first hurdle. Next, I had to squat to angle my right foot, and ease the pants up over both knees – deep breath here – and pull my pants over the rest of my legs only to realize that clasping the button would prove to be another problem. What a total nightmare it is to find bloody buttons after sorting out how to find them without being able to see.

The logistical and strategic efforts were extreme, and at this point it should be noted that “The Suit” is not entirely accurate – the fat reserves are all carefully distributed, but they are made out of foam. It weighs about 30 pounds, providing merely the Training Wheel Variety to how “Real Deal” Obesity feels.

Apparently they are working on making a heavier version, just to ensure that empathy for obesity increases by another magnitude of about a million. And if empathy isn’t how one feels at the end of this experience, than maybe a friendship with the likes of Hannibal Lector might prove to be a rewarding exchange.

In other words, never before have I been more strongly convinced that obesity is not, in fact, a personal choice.

Obesity is probably the most complex, misunderstood condition of the 21st century. Right now, obesity expenditures in the US hover around $167 billion dollars, and back of the envelope calculations indicate that it is responsible for over 100,000,000 jobs lost (you arrive at this number by calculating presenteeism numbers)1. I finally got a sense of why these costs are so high when I had to try and live for one hour in a simulated suit. No wonder obesity related complications lead to an increase in absenteeism – this had nothing to do with even getting to a bus stop, let alone the kinds of responses one might encounter on a daily basis. Fat prejudice is probably one of the more rampant and accepted forms of bigotry, after all.

…But I guess to call this health crisis “misunderstood” would represent the second shabby understatement for this article.

Here’s to hoping that we can make some progress in this domain.

Living with obesity – sources
(Finkelstein, DiBonaventura, Burgess, & Hale, 2010)
1. Finkelstein, E. A., DiBonaventura, M., Burgess, S. M., & Hale, B. C. (2010). The costs of obesity in the workplace. J Occup Environ Med, 52(10), 971-976.

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