Diets don’t work. I know this. But I still went on one a few years ago. It wasn’t to lose weight, which allowed me to feel superior — it was to detox from sugar in an attempt to improve my health. (I failed, which allowed me to feel inferior again.)
My reasons for restrictive eating might not have been weight-related, but the effect was the same: when you start a diet, your body thinks you’re starving, so it starts storing fat. And when your body’s under stress, it craves glucose to give you the energy to deal with it, so your brain starts screaming, “PIZZA! MALTESERS! ICE CREEAAAAAAMMMM!” Within months, I was back on the sugar and fatter than before.
Despite what Louise Mensch seems to think, not everyone can exercise. As I might have mentioned, I’ve had a disabling illness for the last 14 years. Although I’m definitely unfit, that’s the result of being ill, not vice versa.
Exercise isn’t just unhelpful when you have ME/CFS, it can seriously exacerbate the condition: last time I pushed myself to do more than my body was capable of, I became horribly ill with bronchitis and took over six months to
recover end up less well than when I started. Graded exercise, a government-recommended treatment, is all about forcing yourself to do more than you can cope with (but you know, slowly) and its effects can be catastrophic.
I also have an underactive thyroid — an honest-to-goodness low metabolism. When I was about 26, it was like a switch flipped: one day I could eat whatever I wanted and lose weight easily if I cut down a little; the next I couldn’t lose weight easily even if I cut down a lot.
Eating sugar (and foods that quickly turn to sugar in the body, like chips) boosts serotonin and beta endorphin, making it a cheap, legal way to self-medicate for anyone with depression and anxiety for whom anti-depressants don’t work. Like me.
Eating unhealthy food
I’m not interested in beating myself up about this, I’m just saying yeah, I know.
This weekend I met my dad’s fourth wife for the first time, and she grabbed my stomach, said “Oh, Diane,” then told me, while laughing and kind of patting at me, that I needed to “get it down”. English isn’t her first language and we’re communicating across a cultural barrier, so maybe it wasn’t as appalling a breach of personal space to her as it was to me. I was so shocked and humiliated, all I could do was mutter “I’ve been really ill” as if that might justify my appearance/existence.
She nodded, my dad said something to the effect that she’d catch on, and I was grateful that the body commentary was over. But later, I realised that we’d all acted as if it’s (just about) OK to be fat if you have a good reason, but if you don’t, you’re public property: there to be grabbed at, gawked at, and shamed until you fall into line, lose weight, and finally become a worthwhile human being.
I’d made an effort that day: I got up earlier than usual, washed my hair, put on make up, practically re-pierced one of my ears with the post of my earring. I even brushed cat hairs off my trousers. But I was still found to be lacking. And I get it.
I used to look down on fat people. I wouldn’t grab their stomachs, but I was friends with a couple of fat girls at school, and took some comfort from the fact that in comparison, I was the thin, conventionally attractive one. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just lose weight and be more like me. I was insecure and reaching for something to make me feel better.
I didn’t want to hear that Fat is a Feminist Issue, I wanted to hear that I was special and pretty. But thin or fat, we’re all flooded with the same patriarchal bullshit, reinforced by the mass media. And none of this stuff is real: someone’s worth can’t be measured by how much they weigh.
Nor can you look at someone and know whether they’re healthy or not. Thin people get high blood pressure and diabetes and cancer, too, yet in debates about health, obesity is framed as a “crisis”, an “emergency”, even an “illness” in its own right.
Nobody cared how much chocolate I ate or that I often had six Diet Cokes a day when I was thin. Now I’m not, it’s assumed that I need to be “made aware” of where the vegetable aisle of the supermarket is. I’m not saying being fat is necessarily good for you, but conflating ill health and obesity is a socially acceptable way to promote prejudice towards an aesthetic (fleshy!) we’ve been conditioned to hate.
I get the part I’m supposed to play in this: I’m supposed to be contrite, and embarrassed, and hate myself, and be willing to be made fun of. I’m supposed to rush to starve myself so I fit in and don’t make anyone else uncomfortable. But what if I don’t want to? What if I never felt I was good enough, even when I was thin, and I don’t want to hate myself anymore?
The fact is, I do want to lose weight, but I want to do it as part of a plan where I heal my brain chemistry and my emotional issues, and learn to like my self and my body (even when it’s OMG F-A-T.) But how can you explain all that to someone who speaks English as a second language?
On Saturday, I wanted to cry, because that awful moment felt like a confirmation of my worst feelings about myself (oh, so I am worthless.) But it wasn’t. It was a wake-up call. And it said: STOP LETTING OTHER PEOPLE DECIDE YOUR WORTH.
I still don’t know how to cope when people are coming at me with a value system I no longer want to identify with, especially one that’s constantly reinforced by our culture. But I can at least recognise that if you think I’m disgusting and greedy and need to change, that’s your problem. Because my body is none of your business.
After words:: Lesley Kinzel’s writing about fat acceptance on xoJane has been a much-needed taser to my brain. In fact, at the weekend I self-soothed by imagining she was telling me, “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORLD.” This needs to be my manifesto: I Guess I’m Glorifying Obesity Just By Existing — Is This a Problem?