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.