Being a ‘new’ you without taking everyone down with you

When breastfeeding went drastically wrong from day one, I discovered Fearless Formula Feeder and loved it – especially the tagline “Standing up for formula feeders… without being a boob about it.” Now, everyone loves a good boob pun, but it was the message of defending ones own space without insisting on invading someone else’s – one that is so often lacking in ‘lifestyle change’ discussions – that really resonated.

We get it: you lost weight, swapped a 20-fag-a-day for a 20-bowls-of-kale-a-day habit, went from not being able to run for a bus to doing ultramarathons… gave up sugar (ahem). It’s really helpful to hear about that change, and it can be inspiring, too. But the problem is that other people are just trying to steer a path of just getting on with living in their own bodies as they are and it’s hard enough to steer that ship already, beset as it is by a whole host of societal and media obstacles. Like being a fan of problematic things, there are ways to discuss undergoing a transformation, no matter how big or small, without becoming an iceberg in the path of the body positivity boat.

I hold myself accountable here. I have a massively complex relationship with my weight and my appearance. I was a fat child; one day a complete stranger I had to squeeze past to get to a seat in a cafe (because he had his chair flung out) berated me because I failed to apologise for grazing his elbow with my body. “Sorry, I didn’t realise,” I replied; “you’re probably too fat to realise” came the response. I was nine, and he said it front of his (thin) wife, who pursed her lips smugly, silently, and his son, about my age. I was also a fat teenager – 16 stone at 16 – and this was in the days where it was buy an ugly tent from Evans (it wasn’t cool then, well before Beth Ditto), make your own muumuu or don’t go out. For years and years I tried to lose weight. I was in a popular group weight loss meetings programme at 14 – I quit after I lost 4lbs in a week of illness and vomiting, eating nothing but dry toast, and was congratulated for it, then warned to ‘be careful’ the following week when I put on half a pound on returning to “normal” eating. I was still a teenager, being encouraged to be ill and vomit to lose weight. When I had my appendix out at 16, I had a dreadful reaction to an anti-inflammatory drug and couldn’t eat at all for four days – anything except ice-cold water, in tiny sips, made me vomit copiously. I became massively lethargic and my tongue furred up from dehydration. My mother called the GP, worried, and was told it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I lost weight. Again: Still. A. Teenager. And it wouldn’t be the first or last time I came across fat concerns being placed above good healthcare by medical professionals.

Anyway, I tried okay? At some point in my mid-20s, I drifted down from a 22 to a 16; I started a more regular gym habit with my now-husband, and we both got a bit fitter which also happened to coincide with a bit of weight loss (the two don’t always go hand in hand); I did not diet for my wedding, though I think I was probably incidentally at my thinnest anyway. I wore a lot of corsetry and insisted on a jacket. A year later I was pregnant. I gained a bit, I lost a bit… my body changed, as is wont to happen with pregnancy and childbirth.

Then, almost two years ago,  I quit sugar, and my body again changed substantially. And while everyone expects a pre-during-post pregnancy change, here it was a dietary one, and it got attention. I gradually shrank in front of my colleagues while at the same time having to voice that I was eating differently (our office is powered on cake, and you need reasons to avoid it). I went from tipping a 16 to being an M&S 12. I also began to explore fashion with something approaching a sense of self, rather than invisibility and comfort, for the first time. I began to feel vaguely welcome in that world.

Perhaps paradoxically, it wasn’t actually being a size that was available in more / most high street stores that did that initially, but the increasing proliferation of plus size bloggers showing that larger women could wear whatever the hell they wanted. I am smaller than I was, but I am not really thin, toned or fit, and I often dress with the same panicky considerations as I did when I was bigger: covering my arms, nothing above the knee unless it’s worn with thick tights / leggings, nothing too body con. Fatshion bloggers basically said “to hell with that” and they let me see a side to dressing that had been hitherto hidden from me: one that focussed on the gorgeousness of the clothes and the generally being fabulous and not having to achieve some special exclusive social value before being allowed to access those things or feel good about myself.

I didn’t quit sugar to lose weight – I’d finally given up on that, but it came as a side effect. If I’m totally honest I suppose it was welcome in that way that you’re glad to see a long lost relative even if they’ve turned up days late with a friend you weren’t expecting and the spare room is still full of junk. I have massively mixed feelings about it all. But perhaps because it was unintentional, I also have massively mixed feelings about the way that people respond to me post-weight loss. In fact I frequently resent my new-found visibility and newly-won respect. In so many ways, I am still very much the same person I was before, just thinner. But at the same time, I might not seem it.

I cannot fail to respond to the receptivity shown to my bid to be that bit “better” dressed, that bit louder and brighter with my look, that bit braver in tarting up in vintage or pulling on nerdy leggings. I have started deliberately posting outfit pics on Instagram, doing actual fashion blog posts, growing my hair long – in the past I subscribed to some weird rule that being bigger meant I should have short hair? – and slapping on a host of red lipsticks. That has led to more people commenting (positively) on my appearance. And while I enjoy that and am grateful for any and all well-meant kindness, I feel angry for my past self and the lack of love she got. Angry at myself, for spending all those years hiding myself and waiting to be more ‘acceptable’, and angry at others for refusing to notice that girl until she made herself noticed by finally doing what the system insisted she had to do. Would owning it then, dressing up more and wearing those lipsticks have achieved more respect then? I’ll never know, because I didn’t feel ready to do it until after people started making a fuss of my weight loss. I feel like maybe I could have if I were 15 now, but back then there were no social media, no inspirational bloggers, no accessible, progressive clothing stores or lines – no online communities for someone like me to turn to to make me part of an incredible movement and not just a funny fat girl trying. There’s a messy, painful symbiosis between the emergence of my confidence and the diminishment of my body, where no good can ever be entirely good.

The extraordinarily luminous Bethany Rutter often posts examples of the harmful narrative of former fat people – that is, those who say they’re a different person / healthier / happier / full of love and light since making a physical change. I’m not going to speak on behalf of fat women, because you need to read the discussions coming directly from fat women about all sorts of things; here’s another example on the same topic, Lesley Kinzel’s entire XOJane back catalogue, great fashion inspo from my darling friend Kitkeen and a wonderful summary article on not diluting the radicalism of body / fat positivity to get you started. (It should go without saying that you should follow those women for their general brilliance as interesting, smart – also fat – women; they’re not paid to educate us but if we happen to learn something along the way that can only be for the good). But it has dawned on me that, like men calling out other men to battle misogyny, I should reach out to others ‘like me’ – others who have made some sort of change and found themselves in a new category, treated with a new respect and handed a tiny sliver of the privilege others have been basking in for some time. And what I say to us is: THINK. Think about what you’re saying when you say things are much better now. Think about what – again, in Bethany’s perfect words – fat shaming really is.

Of course you must speak your truth – for me, it would be lying not to suggest that I feel healthier off sugar; of course I do, that’s why I did it and kept doing it and wrote about it. But you do not do this in a vacuum. Furthermore, to go that step further and suggest that being treated better means I am better, and advocate for you to all join me and be much better too would be frankly awful. The assumption that everyone wants to lose weight and that this would also happen in exactly the same way for them, the underpinning of a royally messed up status quo that rewards you for physically diminishing yourself, the value judgement implicitly levelled at anyone who doesn’t change themselves to please the public anti-fat narrative (whether they can or want to or not)… how would that be helping anyone except myself and my own validation?

It can be tempting when you’ve been part of one group and you find yourself in another to try and be all things to all people. As radical movements go mainstream, the demand to become accommodating forces them to be stretched like an old piece of chewing gum that’s lost its flavour but can still be relied upon for a few attention-drawing pops. This is disastrous, and erasing – yes, we are all objectified and victimised by a thin-centric social narrative and media, but if you’re about to say something about ‘skinny shaming’ ask yourself if this would ever happen to a thin person and remember that ‘reverse’ isms do not really exist. That doesn’t make the person benefiting from privilege bad, it just makes them privileged. Different responsibilities come with that.  I am not thin, and I am now over 35, but I am still more welcome in any space than a woman identical in all other ways to me but fat would be. I have a responsiblity to not further pollute the little space afforded to her by grabbing at it to add at my new-found wiggle room. And I think too many ex-fats like me do that without even being aware of it.

As one of the most painfully honest pieces I’ve ever written, I will find it very hard to publish this. It will feel exposing, and raw, and I will fear it being taken the wrong way or being seen as appropriative (and if I am told it is, I will be prepared to remove it). But this, really, is my love letter to those people – particularly fat women – that are changing the landscape so that there never needs to be another child or teenager miserable in the way that I was, not because I was fat but because of the way fat people are treated. I salute them, I love them and – from the bottom of my heart – I thank them.

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5 responses to “Being a ‘new’ you without taking everyone down with you

  1. I admire the honesty of this post. Telling you not to give a sh*t about what other people say and think probably won’t stick until you yourself get good and sick of the kneejerk reaction we all have to nagging, belittling and criticism. We can’t ignore it organically. Like losing weight, learning to accept our bodies, our selves, it is something we must FORCE ourselves to do. That is, MOST of us feel this way. Some of us seem to have been born with a backpack full of self-confidence and an “Your-opinion-means-nothing-to-me” attitude that some call “sociopathic” but I can’t help but admire. For example, Kim Kardashian. She’s reviled for the very things we all wish we could do- admire ourselves endlessly and not give damn if others don’t agree with our assessment of ourselves. Isn’t it ironic that if you want to compare bodies, you know—she’s actually fuller figured than you are. Just putting that out there as food for thought—with no sugar added. Except this: you’re gorgeous. And a great mother, and a damn good writer to boot.

    • Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

      I’m beginning to rather like Kim – or at least I can’t bring myself to feel that strongly about her. She’s living her truth. It’s weird to us since its vastly financially privileged and the priorities are different but she is pleasantly unapologetic.

      I certainly have a way to go forcing myself past that line. And my heart jumps at the sweetness of your compliments which I know are honest because I know you!

      I think the harder lesson was understanding that not only is that not contingent on ticking size boxes, but it’s damaging to a lot of other women of I imply that it is. We’re in this together but they’re at the front line while I’ve been shoved back a row simply by circumstance. Guess all I can do is have their backs. 🙂

      Thank you, always xx

  2. This is such a great and important post, Alex.

    I think the “new me” evangelism has so much to do with capitalism and the way that women’s bodies are framed as a collection of problems for which solutions can be bought. So much of this is, “Look at the shiney new me I bought! Isn’t it so much better than the old one?”

    Even when no money has been spent – on books, the specialist food, the classes, the exercise equipment etc. – there’s still often an element of a wise acquisition in these narrative because that’s how our culture frames it. You should be congratulated on your conscious resistance – it’s very hard to tell stories in different ways when there’s already such a familiar script.

    Folks like to give me the “new me” sermon because I am sick, so anything vaguely health related is considered of profound interest to me. And tragically, while I have had the “new me” sermon from folks who have made big changes over a long period of time (which is bad enough for all the reasons you explain), I most often hear it from folks who are just a few weeks into a new regime. I have a couple of friends whose weight goes down dramatically the back up just as fast, because of fad diets, but every new (always expensive) fad is preached as The Answer as soon as they’ve lost the first few pounds. And part of that’s because, as soon as they get a little lighter and receive a few compliments, it’s like they are gaining the moral high ground with every pound they lose.

    Which is, of course, the problem. There are all kinds of ways in which we change and make life better for ourselves, but with weight, it’s seen as a matter of personal virtue.

    • Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

      This is so true. Had I not run to 2,000 words already I wanted to touch on health as a separate but related narrative but aside from the fact that I didn’t feel really qualified, it deserves – and has had, from people who really know what they’re talking about – a much richer level of examination. But there is an element of this that definitely does down that road, such as the newly evangelical runner / swimmer / whatever who insists that if they can, everyone can. I get that it can be inspiring and I’ve said it myself during the brief period I took up jogging, but now that I’ve been barred from doing it I finally, selfishly, realise how there were much better ways of telling my story that didn’t exclude / imply. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments that mean a lot to me. x

  3. Pingback: The top three red lipsticks (that I’m thinking of right now) | ALEXANDRA ROUMBAS GOLDSTEIN

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