Hello! Thanks to Jennie for letting me borrow her blog. I would like to join in and broaden (pun intended) the conversation about body confidence that was triggered by the comments on this post
on Lib Dem Voice and continued in these three posts
. This post got a bit delayed but this is such a pervasive issue that I think it is always worth talking about.
I am a 33 year old woman, size 24 and with a BMI of over 40 (charmingly termed morbidly obese) which puts me in the group where there is reasonably good science linking obesity and health problems. I’m surely the ideal candidate for being shamed into health by the media, doctors and the kind commentators at Lib Dem Voice.
I was struggling to work out what to say here. My first instinct was to write a polemic about Fat Acceptance, but that’s already been done by much better writers. (Don’t you Know Being Fat is Unhealthy?
and the whole Shapely Prose
blog are a good start). I could write about the way society’s pervasive fat shaming damages people’s health but my experiences are pretty minor. (For a heartbreaking example of how fat hatred destroys lives, "Fat Hate Kills
", . For rage inducing medical negligence, First Do No Harm
I could write about the science about dieting and the way our bodies react to it (from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment
to the oft-quoted figure that diets fail 95% of the time*), about the complex biochemical systems our bodies use to control our appetite and hunger, metabolism, and behaviour, about the astonishing studies that show generations of lab mice getting fatter despite eating a controlled diet for 40 years
. I could point out the obesity paradox, which is only a paradox if you assume fat must be unhealthy and are confused by any evidence to the contrary. I could point out all the dangerous diets and pills and surgeries which have been medically recommended in the past (innumerable crash diets and diet pills, fen-phen, horrific surgeries to wire your jaw shut or make it painful to eat, tube-feeding) and wonder how we will view gastric band surgery in few years. I could point out the thin, sometimes non-existent line between these medical recommendations and the self-destructive behaviours of eating disorders. But would any of that have an impact on the sort of moron who believes that size 16 mannequins are a threat to the nation’s health?
More importantly, would it give any comfort to people who understandably hate their own body after a lifetime of swimming in this stew of body hatred?
Fat shaming did nothing to make me slimmer. It taught me that my body was defective and that exercise was a miserable penance for the sin of being fat. It forged a deep connection between feeling sweaty and feeling intense shame and failure. It made me so ashamed to be seen exercising that I wore sunglasses to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes. It taught me my body would only be worthy of care and love when I was thin. It taught me that gyms and sport shops were not places for people like me. It taught me that being fat meant I was also stupid, lazy and weak. Why else was I still fat when it was such an awful thing to be?
Gradually I started to get cynical and then I started to get angry. I started to wonder why I was being encouraged to spend my time and energy hating my body. I started noticing how profitable it was to market body hatred to people and then sell them expensive fixes. I started noticing how articles about obesity were illustrated with pictures of headless, often naked people and how that dehumanised the subjects. I noticed how narrow the band of ‘acceptable’ bodies was, compared to the range of people I saw around me.
I realised that hating my own body was not making me thinner or fitter or happier. This gradually transmuted into an intellectual acceptance of the idea of liking my body and eventually into an emotional acceptance as well. I slowly began to think of my body as an ally instead of a lazy, sullen tag-along. That feeling comes and goes and there are still things that frustrate and annoy me about my body. I wish I could explain this better. No, I wish I could project this feeling into the brains of everyone who hates their bodies.
I started noticing beautiful larger women and discovered that their bodies had the same ‘flaws’ I found unforgiveable on my body. I discovered that I did not care and fancied the pants off them anyway. I decided to challenge myself to do some of the things I dismissed as ‘not for me’ and began training to do a triathlon. I finally understood how it feels to exercise to become strong, not to hammer my body into a more appropriate shape.
I’m larger and less fit than Jennie or Debi. There are people much larger than I am. There is not a line where stigmatising fat people stops being cruel and starts being ‘for our own good’ because there is not a point when fat shaming suddenly becomes effective at supporting positive change.
Which brings me to the photo below. Fat, unfit, lumpy, bumpy, bulgy. Size 24, morbidly obese.
But also happy, alive, loved.
*This figure is disputed but I have not seen significantly higher success rates. This .pdf is a few years old but does a good job of summarising the different results measured, which rarely exceed a 90% failure rate. This blog post has links to studies at the bottom.