Well, that sure was an exhausting but very worthwhile couple of days!
As my first experience as a conference exhibitor it was possibly a bit of a baptism of fire doing two days @PrimaryCareShow, plus set-up and take down. Definitely a steep learning curve, but really excellent to have the opportunity to put our Parenting Science Gang Research findings before a wider (and very receptive) audience!
Met many, many lovely healthcare professionals across the two days, the vast majority of whom are totally sympathetic to the rough deal bigger mums often experience, and are all too aware of some of the hurtful and unnecessary things that can be said and done while navigating maternity services; some of whom knew from personal experience!
Some interesting discussions too with healthcare professionals who clearly thought their practice was empathetic, encouraging, and open, but whose use of language belied a weight bias, or a propensity to be dictatorial in their provision of care…
Did they notice my (hopefully subtle) efforts at positively reframing their words? Who knows, but I didn’t get into any heated debates, so my challenging of attitudes was at least successful in that I seemingly didn’t make any enemies or get anyone’s backs up, I just hope my words didn’t fly completely undetected under the radar!
We did raise some eyebrows with some of the quotes from the research, even from very experienced midwives, and hopefully prompted some thoughts and reflective practice. Also gained a few new followers on Twitter and some new sign-ups to the Facebook chat group, hi if you’re reading!
Although most of the time was spent in the exhibition hall speaking to delegates, I did manage to get along to 4 conference presentations across the two days – two in the Mother & Baby programme and two of the Obesity & Weight Management sessions, with mixed reaction!
I was shocked and frustrated to listen to Judith Stephenson, a Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health, waxing lyrical about a 2018 study which promoted a ‘drink only semi-skimmed milk for 8 weeks’ diet in order to facilitate rapid weight loss and thus be in a better position to enter into pregnancy – when all studies I have ever encountered suggest that restrictive diets and rapid weight loss do more harm than good, and while seemingly effective in the short term, are rarely successful in the medium to long term.
I was also frustrated that she feels that obese women planning pregnancy need to be told that they would decrease risks by losing weight. “This isn’t about blaming women” (except it sounds a lot like it!!). In my experience women are VERY aware that we should lose weight, and it’s not that bloody simple; repeatedly telling us this fact does nothing to help us, and just increases blame, guilt, and disengagement. If you actually want to help us, just ask if we’d like to do something about weight management/fitness or like to hear about local options available to help, and if we say no, move on!
I was at least able to put these points in questions after the session, and several attendees came and sought me out afterwards to thank me/agree/discuss further, so definitely glad I attended that one!
On the plus side, I do agree with her that healthcare services are missing a trick when women attending a family planning clinic for removal of a long-term contraceptive device are not given basic information about preconception health, e.g. to take folic acid, and offering signposting to services available to help with weight loss, smoking cessation etc. given that pregnancy is a very pivotal moment in a woman’s life and the likelihood is that we are at our most receptive and motivated to change any perceived negative behaviours, for the benefit of the planned-for baby.
I later attended an excellent talk by Debra Bick of the University of Warwick on the Care of Women with Obesity in Pregnancy which was far more supportive in the use of language, remembered that there’s often a husband or partner in this equation, and a really useful review of recent studies and their results – which I now need to seek out and read!
The following day was more of the same – firstly a really aggravating talk on
Weight Management During Pregnancy and the Post-Natal Period by
Dr Amanda Avery… who was billed as the chair of the BDA Obesity Specialist Group and an Associate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, but just so happens to be on the payroll of Slimming World and who uses a LOT of ‘they’/’other’ and presumptive-generalisation-speak when talking about women with obesity. Very judgemental/dictatorial/patronising – pregnancy is a “teaching opportunity”. All right, we get it: you’re not and never have been a fatty, and those of us who are overweight just need you to swoop in and educate us! Grrrrrr. Haven’t we moved on AT ALL?!?
She then went on to minimise the risks to the unborn of weight loss while pregnant, recommend Slimming World (of course!), push for encouraging obese women to lose weight while pregnant, and advocate for a return to weighing women at every antenatal appointment to encourage this – “it’s a low-cost intervention – you only need a set of scales!” – yes, that was dropped because it was stigmatising, anxiety inducing, disengaging, and showed no benefit to fetal and neonatal health!?! Then she suggested that the reason that childhood obesity has increased since the 1990s is because that’s when we stopped doing regular antenatal weighing! For goodness’ sakes – oversimplification maybe!?! I think quite a few other things may have changed in those two decades!?!
So. Many. Issues… I was really struggling to work out which points I was going to challenge about her talk when it came to question time – would it one of the above concerns, the persistent conflation of pregnancy weight gain with obesity, or for failing to adjust macrosomia figures to account for gestational diabetes… but no need – there was no opportunity for questions unless you stayed to listen to the following talk too! Arrrgh!
Fortunately my confidence was later restored by a lovely talk by Karen Gaynor, a senior dietitian from Dublin, talking about The Impact of Stigma and Bias in Obesity Treatment, who totally gets it: You want to build an inclusive empowering dietician service? Then ask your patients what they want and involve them in designing it!
Don’t push for dramatic and unachievable weight loss goals – 10% is about the realistic limit! Remember that around 85% of obesity is due to genetic factors – only 15% down to environmental factors, with only a proportion of that down to personal willpower. Never forget we’re in an obesogenic environment and change is a massive uphill struggle and life-long commitment! Don’t use shaming imagery – there are plenty of online free-to-use gallery images featuring empowering pictures of overweight and obese people (try https://easo.org/media-portal/obesity-image-bank/ ) – and if you see stigmatising imagery or language used in practice or the media, call it out!! Honestly, the talk, and the questions/comments from delegates which followed were so uplifting! What a great session to end on!
Most special thanks go to (in order of appearance) the wonderful El, Serena, Mawgen, and Dani; who worked charmingly and tirelessly along with me (with the aid of sugar and caffeine) in talking to dozens? hundreds? (wish I’d had the foresight to bring a tally counter – lesson learnt) of healthcare professionals across the two days.
Lastly (this is starting to feel like an Oscar acceptance speech, I’m sure someone somewhere is frantically gesturing me to get a move on as the orchestra pipes up!) huge thanks have to go to The Parenting Science Gang for making this happen, and Wellcome for funding it!
Lots of contacts made, lots of thoughts provoked, lots of ideas forged, lots of avenues opened.
Big Birtha x