This is why I’m fat*

Close up of a small, fat gold Buddha statue on a shelf, some books behind him (titles not visible). *I’m using this as a judgement-free descriptor like “brunette”, not as an insult.

Dieting

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.

Illness

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.

Brain chemistry

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.

Who cares?

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?

  • I was so angry with your D

    • Aw, yeah, I don’t want any kind of pile-on here. As insensitive as her comments/actions were, they weren’t meant unkindly. I may have done a bad job with this post, if people are interpreting it as “Look at this thing someone did to me!” My point is really that it was the first time I actually really understood in my bones that how other people react to me is not about me. So why don’t I just be who I am regardless. RELIEF.

      • The Goldfish

        It was just my evil thought that I began to write in my dopiness and since I’d already begun it and managed to submit the comment, you might wonder what I was going to say – I really didn’t interpret your post that way, though I’m cross you went through that.

        I was also going to say how tricky it is to juggle these things, to keep the messages of in feminism and fat acceptance in mind and at the same time make choices about food and health. Looking at it from the outside helps; last summer Stephen found out he had dangerously high blood pressure. He was only touching obese, but given his inability to exercise, weight, salt content and stress levels were the only things we could actually change and weight was going to be a long haul. So it was up to me to insist that weight loss wasn’t about looks (although perhaps inevitably, in our culture, his confidence grew as he shrunk), so that on the (many) weeks where his weight is stable, it’s just one of those things – not a reflection on how successful he is as a human being and absolutely nothing to do with attractiveness.

        It’s easier for S because he’s a chap, although he’s certainly been very conscious of his weight and subject to “helpful” remarks from family and friends (including weight & disability ones). But as someone whose weight varies according to how ill I’ve been in the preceding months, I’ve once again learnt the value of treating oneself according to the same values you’d apply to your best friend. And the love and respect you have for your friends, family, the heroes in your life, would never waver with their weight. Similarly, you wouldn’t be – and won’t be – any more lovely or valuable if/ when you are thinner.

        You’ve probably seen this, but if not, you must, from Shapely Prose: The fantasy of being thin

        • Well, I appreciate your empathy, and definitely understand the effects of dopiness 😉 That’s a great link too, thanks for sharing!

          I am trying to be kinder to myself and to remember that the people who really love and understand me don’t value me based on how fat or thin I am. The challenge is how to feel strong and defend those values in the face of being judged and told (or it being implied that) I’m not good enough because of how I look, or how ill I am, when I want to scream “There’s an actual person in here, you know!” and all that comes out is “Ah-ba-uh-ggg…”

          • MARILYN SHIPLEY

            (((((((((((((hugs)))))))))))))) and also, xxxxx ♥

  • Oh body image. Just over a week ago, I graduated from my five-month yoga teacher training program and officially became an RYT-200 (registered yoga teacher — 200 hours). I was deliriously happy, and immediately went into planning mode, as is my habit. I registered for a CPR course so I could apply for gym opportunities. I got on the sub lists at two studios. I started figuring out my niche and brainstorming targeted workshops.

    This past weekend, I decided to plan out the new yoga arm of my website and, as inspiration, surfed the web to see examples of other teachers’ sites. One common component: the photo gallery.

    And while a huge part of me thought it would be super-cool to have a photo shoot so I could show the world how much I love yoga, a bigger part of me thought: “A photo shoot would be dumb and wasteful. I’ll never look as good as these other yogis. I have a muffin top and thunder thighs and a big butt and I hate the way my shirt flips up and my waistband flips down when I’m in certain poses. Any photos I have taken will just look terrible.”

    And this line of thinking made me so sad.

    After all, part of the reason I’d embraced yoga was because of the way it made me feel about my body and its capabilities. I felt stronger. More flexible. I felt like a rock star.

    Throughout my teacher training, everyone I came into contact with kept telling me: “Oh my god you’ve lost so much weight!” and “Look at you skinny minny!” as if that was what I’d set out to accomplish. As if that — of all things — was what I should be proud of.

    And those comments made me feel good.

    I wish I could get to a place where I didn’t need that body validation.

    Thanks for the post, Diane!

    • Thanks for the reply, and WELL DONE on your yoga training, that’s amazing! It makes sense though that despite your achievements, you were congratulated on the weight loss (and felt good about it) because that’s how we’ve all (especially women) been encouraged to value ourselves. Sigh. FWIW though, I think photos of a woman who isn’t a size 0 can be inspiring, like “Oh, she looks like me, maybe *I* can do this…”

  • Jean Hannah Edelstein

    This is a great piece! Thanks for writing it.

  • Antonia

    Oh Diane, once again you write my LIFE. I know most of my comments sound like this but, it’s because it’s true.

    I’m fat. Really fat. There’s the degenerative back condition, which doesn’t respond well to exercise. And by “doesn’t respond well” I mean: I lose all sensation in my left leg if I try to walk further than 20 metres. That’s coupled with far too much sensation in my lower back, as in, agonising pain. I genuinely couldn’t work out if I wanted to. Then the steroids for aforementioned back condition, then the OCD drugs that made me little more than an 18-hour-a-day-sleeping mess, and the digestive disorders which need carbohydrates to soothe their thrice-daily fits.

    I guess I’m lucky in that my GP totally gets this. I eat quite well, if a bit high on the carbs, and I have none of the medical signs of overeating (cholesterol, diabetes etc). She sent me to see a dietician to try and help me find foods I can eat without my stomach going crazy, and to help the numerous vitamin deficiencies I possess, and what does the dietician care about? Weight. That’s it. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a bit slimmer?” She asked when I raised the issue that she seemed to be obsessed with the wrong thing. Well, yeah, sure, I guess. But I have MUCH MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES. I need to not be in such terrible pain all the freaking time, and to sort out the anaemia and its ilk, and also somehow stop getting so many infections… “being a bit slimmer” is pretty damn low on the list. But when I said this (in nicer terms) she seemed shocked. It’s pretty clear her remit isn’t really nutrition at all, but weight loss. And I’ve seen the letter my GP sent to her as referral: it acknowledges I am overweight, but stresses this is not the issue at this time. More. important. concerns.

    I guess because in a lot of ways I’ve opted out of conventional society (I am disabled, I am childfree, I don’t drink alcohol, I prefer a night with my husband and cats to “partying” urgh), I don’t really get bothered by the weight thing. I know why it’s there, as do my friends and family, and if some stranger wishes to judge me for it then who cares? I know this sounds a bit like an ideal attitude, but it’s manifested largely from the simple fact that I have higher priorities. I don’t like those priorities, but they provide a sense of perspective I guess.

    But sometimes I meet people, like the dietician, who seem to think I should be ashamed. I’m pretty bullish about it: I survived childhood abuse, my OCD crashing down on me, and I live in moderate-severe pain every single day. But people don’t see that, they don’t give me credit for just being here and managing to find a smile as another rip of pain shoots down my leg, they just see the weight and think I must be lazy and slobbish and gluttonous. My attitude is a simple: screw you, I’m awesome, your loss 😉

    … and I’ve written another essay in your comments. Sorry *winces* I just identify with what you write a lot; although this particular thing is an issue I’m doing okay on, I’ve still felt it, and I know how it hurts.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! I knew I’d badly neglected the blog and felt guilty, which kept me away longer… (Oh, perfectionism.) I’m sorry you went through that with the nutritionist but glad you’ve reached a place of zen when it comes to this kind of situation. I must admit, as un-selfconfident as I feel when people bring my weight up apropos of nothing, I’m equally baffled by their expectation that I should be abashed and apologetic. Part of me wants to scream, “What? You don’t get that I’m awesome?!” I can only hope that it continues to grow 🙂