Some days I look around me and see so much love and support for bodies that are considered big or fat*, chubby or enormous. I have been all of those things for as long as I remember. In fact, I do not remember a time when I was not aware that I was bigger than others. What is so damn maddening is that the problem long ago was simply, I had a tummy.
Today, things are changing a bit, the fat acceptance movement that was created in the 60’s is cracking through, however, my experience will always be colored by the lens of my youth, and the culture into which I was born.
The Dawn of Modern Diet Culture
I don’t know if there were growth charts in the 60’s, we had Twiggy instead. It seems like everyone was in a smaller body, and the expectations and pressures to remain slim were immense. My mother was regularly prescribed diet pills – speed, and I don’t remember when she, my father, or my grandmother were not on a diet. One uncle, with a penchant for marathons and science always arrived for holidays full of judgment and felt it was really important to shame my dear grandmother for her (not fat) body and smoking.
If only he was the only one, of course not. The sixties and seventies were the dawn of weight watchers, the Scarsdale, Atkins, and Stillman diets, so many variations of liquid protein, I drank mine with tab, then there was the grapefruit diet, and all the diet platters at restaurants – cottage cheese with canned fruit and the like. The “gym” had belt massagers. Dexitrim and Sweet & Low arrived. Marketing was on to the power of telling people (women) we weren’t ok as we are, there was big money in dieting and so many of us have suffered for it.
My first official diet came when I was in second grade, I had to walk home from school for a hot, low cal, lunch my mother prepared for me, and then walk back to school. I can just hear the adults talking; “She’ll get extra exercise, eat low calorie food, we will get this weight right off of her!” It was awful, I lost weight, I gained it back and more. This story repeats so many times that I can’t remember them all. As a young teen I had to go to the doctor to weigh in weekly, because clearly my parents weren’t doing the job, so I ate 1200 calories a day, rode my bike over (more good exercise!) showed my diet journal, lost weight until I didn’t anymore, and promptly gained it all back.
By college I was flipping between Optifast and bulimia, having developed an eating disorder in response to the binges I had been experiencing for years.
We can all agree that the world we grow up in, our family, society, and popular culture all have a significant impact on us. Back in the day any woman of any size beyond a 4-6 would apologize for being “fat” or tell self deprecating jokes. Looking back at TV and movies, the only large characters were lazy, slovenly jokes or villains. We are making slow progress on this, and we have so far to go.
Even from an economic standpoint women from small fat to super fat earn significantly less than their slim counterparts. The women who earn the most? They are about 25% underweight.
Perspectives Can Change
Now I know that binges are absolutely normal. A reasonable physiological response to the level of severe restriction I had experienced for years. Back then, simply I knew I was a failure. My body was my enemy, I had failed it and all the people who cared for me, I was awful, unlovable, an embarrassment.
Over and over I have tried to “let the slim, skinny, healthy Amelia out from her oppressive fat body.”
How about you?
I Got You.
So, my dear fat friends who are over fifty now, I’ve got you, I know the world you grew up in. Even if you were my skinny friend at the time, with a slim body through college, if you are fat now, you are experiencing that through a lens that was formed in the sixties and the seventies.
This battle of the bulge has been going on for a long time, it is painful and demeaning. For me the messages are so old and embedded that it is often a challenge to recognize them and respond kindly. Those who know me would never call me lazy, yet I have been calling myself that since before I could remember. Another internalized message. What messages have you got running around in your head?
Weight Stigma in Medicine
Our medical system has been deeply connected to Wall St. for a very long time – their symbiotic relationship too often seeks profit not health.
If you have a doctor who went to school in the 80’s or 90’s that is when the war on obesity started and became deeply entrenched. The medicalization of fat bodies continues today in med school. Sadly, medicine’s goal (War on O*#@ty) and to do away with fat bodies is deeply and seemingly unconsciously based on opinion and bias, with so little actual science.
This has happened to the point that our humanity is often disregarded. In 1998, I was experiencing a miscarriage and was sent from a midwifery center to a larger doctor’s office. When I arrived, I overheard the referring provider on the phone. I was described as a 300lb. woman.
In the shock, grief, and horror of a miscarriage, the medical profession characterized me as a circus side-show act.
If you have read any article written about any health condition in the last twenty years, the author has probably found a way to indict your weight, waist measurement, or BMI as a reason for the condition. Science based on correlation has been perfectly acceptable for decades when it comes to body size. Mostly, because there is a cultural bias against large bodies, and doctors (who are supposed to be so smart) have unconsciously and consciously found enough poor evidence to justify their vilification of fat bodies. This is weight stigma.
What Extremes are Acceptable if the Goal is No Fat Bodies?
We have had doctors leading the parade of body hate, body shame, and dysmorphia for a very long time. We are acculturated to believe doctors, they are the “experts on bodies and health.” They know best, even when what they are prescribing to large bodies would be considered a dangerous eating disorder in a small body. It has gone so far that now stomach amputation is seen as a reasonable and responsible medical choice. In what other situation would anyone suggest that amputation of a healthy organ would be acceptable?
It has become acceptable, because for decades, the population of the western world, especially the US, has gotten bigger and doctors think it is a problem they must solve, while their solutions are making the problem worse. Interestingly, there has been science since the sixties that demonstrated that intentional weight loss is not sustainable, and that it was most likely that the weight would be regained as soon as the diet stopped. What is even more sad, is that the more diets one goes on, losing weight over and over, the likelihood of gaining even more weight than where the dieter started increases.
What doctor would prescribe a medical intervention that has over a 90% failure rate?
This biological response to gain weight is completely protective. Our bodies do not know the difference between a famine and the latest Keto diet. After restriction the body will respond protectively by putting on weight. When you add all of the shame and blame layers from our culture, how fat people are characterized as lazy, stupid, non-compliant liars, it is pretty easy to see how easy it is to get stuck in a constant yo-yo dieting cycle. Constantly striving to be a good person, a good fatty who is losing weight, exercising, addressing their health concerns.
Yet does it change things? I fully lived as a “good fatty” for a long time. I was dieting, exercising, showing that even though I wasn’t slim, I cared, I was making an effort. That was very inspirational to others, it was “good.” Except it was unsustainable. Except that I was trading my humanity to be acceptable and lovable.
Except with every pound I lost I was set up to gain that and a bit more back…
At this point, it’s long been known that 90- 95% of people who diet to lose weight will gain the weight back. Do that over and over, the weight will come back and bring a few more pounds. Do it as often as I have over these 50+ years, it is no surprise that I am living in a very fat body.
Yes, and …
Good fatty aside, in-between all the body size trauma that diet culture and weight stigma has brought me, I have also experienced some amazing things in this body of mine. I appreciate all the nature I have enjoyed by sailing, windsurfing, hiking, and camping. I love the deep connection I find through grounding and connecting to the earth through this body. I am wired to see beauty and the world around me brings discoveries of beauty each day.
Yet, even with all of those experiences, my oncologist recently told me that she literally couldn’t believe what I reported about how I have been able to move in this world physically. Apparently, my body size precluded me from living an active and vibrant life. Now I live with an invisible disability, and dearly miss those times. It was a gut-wrenching sideswipe from a doctor I trusted. I had my life completely invalidated by medically trained and reinforced weight stigma.
What To Do Now?
Finally, I Stopped Dieting and Tossed Out “Healthy Lifestyle” Too
Now, I Push Back, I Educate, You Do What Works For You.
Yes, I pushed back that day. I fought back with the oncologist. I tossed in info and called out bias. I talked about all the harm that has been done in the search for smaller bodies. And I was hurt and felt I had misplaced my trust. That personal earthquake is still sending small aftershocks through my system.
This weight stigma filled feedback from medical professionals is not uncommon. I suspect you hear it as well. How many times do we have to be told to lose weight when we have come to the doctor for a head cold or a bum shoulder? Pushing back at this bias, bringing education and information, and simply telling people to stop it, they are doing harm is my personal response. I know that is tough, I don’t always have the capacity either. Yet, it is really important for me to remember that my size is not the cause of health problems. Even if it contributes (which hasn’t really be proven) changing my size is not possible, so I am left with working with what I have. Which leads me to…
I now live from the principles of Health at Every Size® HAES, simply put this means that everyone in any body can choose behaviors that can impact their health without dieting and restricting food. This has removed so much stress, blame, and judgment from my day to day life. With less stress and worry about my body, I am able to listen to my internal cuing better, Intuitive Eating becomes more accessible.
What supports me the most has been stepping into this knowledge and moving more deeply into Fat Acceptance and Fat Activism. Back in the day
Body Positivity was the thing, however it has been co-opted by many small bodies and is not longer a safe or welcoming place for larger bodies. Simply put, my body is so many people’s worst nightmare!
Yet it is my daily goal to find more ways to accept, support, and sometimes love it. Body diversity is a thing, it is real. We are not all the same, nor should we be. Shapes, sizes, colors, disabilities, strengths, and weaknesses – all different. My body, fat, sick, and somewhat disabled is still good and valid. My body deserves compassionate care.
I choose to fill my social media feeds with others who share large bodies as well as similar views and experiences. My library is filled with wonderful writers. My friends near and far live in many body sizes, and I deeply enjoy being with other fat people who are living comfortably in our skin. It feeds me, it feeds them. It is also much easier to go out with people who don’t need to be told that the dang booth is way to small.
And I know, what about eating, food, the stuff that makes you fat?!? That’s a whole other chapter, the short answers are HAES and Intuitive Eating, and a promise I will write more.
This is Life Work For Me, Not a Season
The work continues though, and for you over 50 it may for you as well. I don’t know if I will ever be fully done. The stigma and judgement about my fat body has impacted my entire life, I have always been fat, chubby, fatso! Even in this moment, sitting here writing I am aware of my belly touching the table. That is new, I gained weight this year as my body weight restored after being dangerously ill when I was diagnosed with the metastatic breast cancer. The weight has returned with a different distribution Even as I work to be accepting of my body, it continues to change and give me more to learn. Apparently, this is my life, and I am not complaining.
My hope for others is that I can shine a bit of light on some part of this that rings true for you too. Can you see that your actions, while so well meaning, were often so misguided? Mine were! Even medicine is steering us off the tracks too often. Doctors are a product of the environment and their education. Health is wonderful, it is not guaranteed. Compassionately caring for this body of mine is the best I can do, and that is enough.
There are a lot of links above – here are those resources:
- Detrimental effects of dieting and its inevitable consequences
- How your body responds to keep you in a certain weight range
- How historical famines changed people’s metabolism to survive
*I am comfortable with the word Fat and use it as a non-charged descriptor. It helps to de-stigmify it and gives me the power. I will not use the O words such as o*esity as they are full of medical stigmatization, shame, and most especially make my body a disease, a problem, something that is wrong.