Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘fat’

No More Skinny? No More Scrutiny!

This week the Sun, that proudly misogynistic excuse for a newspaper, launched a campaign called No More Skinny. Fronted by 3 supposedly famous men (I haven’t heard of any of them but then I’m not really the Sun’s target demographic) it claims to be demanding that model agencies and fashion shows stop using models who are “stick-thin”. Now, the idea of campaigning to stop the promotion of generally unattainable thinness & the normalisation of disordered eating is one I could definitely get behind. But I’d that’s the case, why not call it “No more skeletal models” or similar? Well, because No More Skinny is all about men’s perceptions of women’s bodies . I shouldn’t be surprised, really, seeing as this comes from the “newspaper” that considers soft pornography suitable for a supposedly family-friendly title. The intentions of the campaign’s apparent founder, Dan Wootton, may have been good (he writes in this article that as a gay man who struggles with his weight, his concerns are genuine) but the result is not.

Mr Wootton’s co-campaigners are Olly Murs and Professor Green, and their attention seems focused on the attractiveness of the women concerned. “Sometimes skinny women can look attractive – but it is too dangerous. It is ridiculous when you see size-six, even size-four, girls on stage” worries Mr Murs. Professor Green (real name Stephen Manderson) chirps helpfully that “The most important things are health and happiness” and frets about women (he calls them girls but I assume he means women) who crash diet and have unnecessary cosmetic surgery. At some point Marilyn Monroe is cited as a desirable body shape.

And this is why the No More Skinny campaign is so useless. It’s not about discouraging the use of skeletal models, it’s not about encouraging girls and women to be body confident whatever their shape, it’s not even about the dangers of restricted eating and excessive dieting. It’s about what men find desirable. Let’s ignore the fact that female bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes – some naturally thin, some naturally podgy, most somewhere in between. Let’s ignore the objectification and othering of women that the Sun encourages on a daily basis. Let’s instead focus on what men find desirable in a female body and campaign for that.

For years women have been given conflicting messages about what men find attractive. There are two main points I wish to make about this. Firstly, men find a variety of body shapes attractive, they’re not a legion of robots programmed to admire only one type of figure. Secondly, and far more importantly, women and girls are far more than merely a lump of flesh for men to judge as aesthetically pleasing. Women run, walk, rest, have sex, dance, bear children, climb, work and many other things – and at no point is the superficial appearance of our bodies relevant, only their function.

Body confidence is just that, having confidence in your body. It doesn’t necessarily mean loving every inch of it nor ceaselessly working to maintain it. But it does mean finding the strength to ignore what society says is desirable and focusing on what works best for you. Ignore No More Skinny, ignore “real women have curves” (which always makes me wonder if non-curvy women are imaginary or maybe holograms) and use the body you have. Tall, short, fat, thin, hourglass, apple, pear, taut, wobbly, buxom, athletic, whatever your body looks like the only person whose opinion about it matters is you.

Sugar and spice and all things nice…

My daughter is 4 years old. Because of her age she receives a free drink of milk at school each day; once she turns 5 DH and I will have to pay if we wish this to continue (only 22p a day as it’s subsidised). I don’t know what the take-up rate for this is but today the company that provides the milk (Cool Milk) held an assembly at the school. From what DD tells me it was a fun assembly with singing and a bit of dancing. At the end of it each child was given a sticker to wear and a booklet was put in their bookbags for them to take home. The booklet had a comic strip in as well as a quiz, poem etc.

However, at the back of the booklet was this:

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Now, you and I know that too much sugar isn’t good for us. And I’m all for encouraging healthy eating in childhood. But do 4 year olds really need to be worried about how much sugar is in their drink? That’s for parents to worry about, surely? As a result of reading this booklet DD is now convinced that consuming sugar will make her fat. DH and I have tried to reassure her, explaining that our bodies need sugar for energy and that some sugar is ok. This is the stance that we’ve always taken, that everything is ok in moderation, but I don’t know whether we’ve reassured her or not.

I’m livid about this. Children live in a society where appearance is valued above all else and this has enough of an impact on them. A survey carried out last year by GirlGuiding UK found that 71% of girls aged 11-21 would like to lose weight and that a fifth (a fifth!) of primary school girls have been on a diet. I have no doubt that similar pressures are felt by boys as well, though probably to a lesser degree. Children need to be encouraged to value who they are as individuals, to value substance over appearance, and yes they do need to learn about healthy, nourishing food. However they do not need to be fretting at the age of 4 about whether what they eat and drink is going to make them fat. They certainly don’t need to be told things like that by a company who are merely trying to increase their profits by encouraging children to keep drinking their milk. (I concede that there may be a genuine desire here to help and educate children stay healthy but my cynicism leads me to suspect that money is the overriding concern).

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that in 2010/11 more than 6,500 children were treated for eating disorders (up from 1,718, in 2007/8). This includes 79 who were less than 10 years old when they began treatment, and 56 children who were aged 5 or under. Of course the causes of eating disorders are many and nuanced, but idiotic marketing ploys like Cool Milk’s certainly aren’t going to help matters.

I appreciate that these children are far from the norm, and I also realise that I may be over-reacting a touch here. But I was one of those children who don’t make it into the HSCIC’s statistics, the ones who have an eating disorder but remain undiagnosed. I’m not sure when it began but I clearly remember secretly bingeing at the age of 7, gorging on any kind of food I could lay my hands on. I also remember tightening the belt on my school dress until I could barely breathe, convinced that I was fat. I don’t want my children to walk the same path as me and if that makes me over-sensitive to things like this booklet then so be it.

How to get the perfect body

You can tell it’s the start of a new year when the supermarket shelves are groaning with books on how to lose weight, and every other television advert seems to be for yet another weight-loss company. Social media becomes overrun with people discussing how much they hate their bodies and their preferred methods for that miracle fix. Magazines, especially those aimed at women, feature photographs of celebrities who dare to be less than airbrushed perfection at all times (for a great article about this phenomenon have a look at this post by my fabulous friend Pols).

I’m not immune to all this hysteria – in fact, as an obese woman with an eating disorder I’m very sensitive to it. I too hate my body and wish that I could magically transform it into a shape that I, and society, deem to be acceptable. Over the years I’ve probably tried most of the well-known diets, and although my spinal problems limit the amount of exercise I’m capable of that doesn’t stop me poring over fitness magazines, desperate to find a way to change my appearance.

But do you know what? These companies who promote their diets and weight-loss plans make millions, if not billions of pounds in profit from people like me. Because inevitably dieters fail (there’s a great discussion of the reasons for this here). But our society is so obsessed with bodily perfection that even knowing this, many of us continue to try new diets. Because we know that if we just try that little bit harder, obsess a little bit more and deprive ourselves of an assortment of foods, we can get the perfect body that society requires us to have. And then we’ll be happy…

Absurd isn’t it? And this kind of attitude is considered normal! But over the years I’ve come to realise that although it may be normal it certainly isn’t healthy. I have children now and I’m very careful not to talk negatively about my body when they’re around. They don’t even know that I have a set of bathroom scales, let alone see me use them. We don’t talk about good foods and bad foods but about foods giving you energy; some give you energy that lasts a long time and some give you energy that your body uses up quickly. My children (currently aged 4 and 2) don’t care what their bodies look like, only that they work. Sometimes that involves running, sometimes jumping around, sometimes climbing and sometimes contorting themselves into positions rarely seen outside a circus!

It’s dawned on me of late, as I’ve become increasingly irritated and impatient with the avalanche of body-hatred on social media, that we should all try to be more like this. After all it’s not what your body looks like that’s really important but what it can do. And I’m not just talking about physical activities either but the things our bodies do that we take for granted. Our bodies breathe, they give us information about the world around us, they absorb nutrients from our food and expel toxins. The majority of us are fortunate enough to have bodies that are pretty functional, enabling us to walk and talk, to think and feel physical sensations.

So to hell with the obsession about physical appearance. Yes, we should all eat as well as we can and exercise as much as we’re capable of in order to keep fit, but the perfect body is the one that enables you to do as much as you want to. While the popular “real women have curves” trope helps women larger than the ideal to feel more positive about themselves, it does a disservice to the hordes of women who don’t have curves. They’re just as real and just as prone to hating their bodies as their larger sisters.

The perfect body can be fat or thin, tall or short, apple-shaped, pear-shaped, in fact pretty much any shape! What I (and you, if you’ve been nodding along in agreement) need to do is start to respect our bodies. Ok, so my body is flabby and wobbly and parts of it don’t work as they should but it’s the only body I’m ever going to have. It’s sustained me for almost 33 years and hopefully will continue to do so for many decades yet to come. I have no wish to lie on my deathbed, looking back on my life and desperately wishing that I’d spent less time hating my body and more time using it to enjoy myself.

On being fat – a revelation

I first remember being unhappy with my body when I was about 7. I remember standing in the playground at school and cinching the belt on my dress as tight as it would go so that my stomach wouldn’t look so fat. I remember spending the rest of my school years miserable that my thighs were fatter, my bum was bigger and my stomach was more wobbly than most of the other girls. I remember being at university and feeling like a balloon next to my slender friends. But the stupid thing is that looking back, seeing photos – I was never fat. Not as a child, not as a teen, not as a student. I was built differently but I wasn’t fat.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have struggled with disordered eating and weight gain for many years. My most recent post was about how much I dislike myself. But some of the responses I had to that post really made me think. I had a lot of supportive comments from followers, Mumsnetters and Twitter friends; I was linked to a couple of amazing and inspirational blogposts about being fat and the fantasy of being thin. And as a result, over the last couple of days I have had a bit of a revelation.

Firstly, how I look isn’t the most important thing about me. It doesn’t even come second or third. It baffles me that I have let this define me for so long. As Georgina (the author of the “Being Fat” blogpost I linked to) says “I have fat on my body, but I am not fat – a mere lump of the stuff”. And she’s right. I have fat. I also have muscle, skin, nerves, bones – that just tells us that I have physical form. It says nothing about me, about who I am.

Secondly, my body is pretty amazing. In my younger days before the degenerative disc disorder really kicked in, this body was very flexible and I did a lot of dancing – mostly ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. This body has done bungee jumps, white water rafting, a skydive. It has carried and borne 2 babies. This body has been solely responsible for sustaining those infants until they were ready for solid food, and then continued to supply sustenance for as long as was needed. This body is awesome, despite its structural issues. 😉

The third part of my revelation was that while my body may be fat/big/obese/however you want to put it, it is merely incidental to who I am. I need to stop saying “I am fat” and start saying “I am me”. I am Sam. I am kind, friendly, intelligent and frankly a bit daft. I am a woman; a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. I am a graduate, a stay-at-home-parent, a role model. I am so many different things that I can’t list them all – why then should I focus only on my physical appearance?

That appearance has to do with the fourth and final part of this revelation of mine. For the last 15 years I have been trying to lose weight. I have followed exercise plans and all kinds of diets. I have promised myself that I will be more confident when I am thinner, that I will be more outgoing and that I will be happy with how I look. I now realise that unless this weight loss comes with a free personality transplant these things are very unlikely to happen. I have wasted 15 years being miserable about my appearance. I don’t want to waste any more time; I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and look back on a lifetime’s misery about a few extra inches.

I need to stop wishing for a body that I am never going to have and learn to be comfortable in the body I have. I do need to eat more healthily and tackle my disordered eating, and hopefully that may have the side-effect of losing a little weight but you know what? If it doesn’t that’s ok.

I am what I am. And I am fabulous.

Do you love yourself?

My daughter asked me this last night as I was tucking her into bed. We had been talking about family and love and she was earnestly insistent that everyone should love themselves as well as other people. I smiled and replied “Of course I do!” and she went to sleep happy.

I lied, of course. Not a little white one either but a big fat whopper of a lie. Some days I loathe myself to the point of repulsion; some days I merely dislike myself. But I certainly never even come close to loving myself. I just don’t want my children growing up to feel this way about themselves and the longer I can hide my self-loathing from them the better.

So what’s so bad about me? To be honest the reasons are pretty feeble. The first one, always top of the list, is that I am fat. But then I have always hated my body and been convinced that I was fat, even when looking back I can see that I plainly wasn’t. However these days I really am. Measuring in at around a UK size 20 I have rolls and flab and looking at my body fills me with revulsion. For a variety of reasons losing weight isn’t easy for me but the 2 main ones are that exercise is difficult because of my back pain, and that my eating habits are disordered to the point of possibly having an eating disorder (I’ve written about this before). I don’t really believe that though – I’m just greedy and have no willpower. My size is my own fault.

Moving on, another reason I dislike myself is that I am needy. I want others to approve of me and other people’s opinions, even those of strangers, matter to me. That’s why the previous paragraph was so hard to write – I don’t want online friends to know what I look like below the neck, I don’t want them to know how awful I look. I crave friendship (after the events of the last few years I have few real friends left) but I struggle to bond with anyone offline, perhaps for this reason.

There are yet more reasons and I can’t go into them all. But off the top of my head? I despise my inability to cope with normal, everyday life when I used to be highly successful at a complex job. I hate what I’ve become & hate that I seem unable to escape this fate. I loathe my anxiety because I know that I am being irrational. I detest myself for not being as good a mother as I want to be, as I had always assumed I would be. In short I am ashamed of both who I am and what I look like.

And yet…

And yet there are things about myself that I quite like. I am intelligent. I have a great sense of humour. I like my green eyes. I may not be as good a mother as I thought but I’m not a bad one either. I like my breasts (even if they do make buying clothing tricky!). I’m not bad at baking. I am a good friend. I care about people.

So maybe I should try to stop focusing on the negatives and recognise the positives. This may sound easy but it is a daunting prospect – even writing down those few good things took me ages. There’s a constant little voice in the back of my mind criticising and rubbishing and belittling my every attempt at positivity:
“You think you have nice eyes? It’s a shame the rest of you is so hideous”.
“You’re a good friend? That’s easy to say when most of your friends have vanished from your life” and so on.

But I am going to try to drown out that little voice and attempt to like myself a bit more. I would hate to see the sadness and disappointment on my daughter’s face if she ever learned how I really feel about myself so I need to change that. I need to learn to like myself despite my faults and flaws instead of focusing on them to the detriment of everything else.

It seems an impossible task but I have to try.

I am, therefore I eat

Fat. Greedy. Obese. Disgusting. Pathetic. Ugly. Stupid. Weak. These harsh, hurtful words are all hurled at me on a daily basis. Not by family, friends or even strangers in the street but by me. My self-loathing spilleth over. Two of these words are incontrovertible – I am fat and I am obese. There is no proof for the accuracy of the others but I know that they’re true. Well… I have always been convinced that they’re true but lately chinks have begun to appear in the armour of my certainty.

I wrote here about the discovery that I apparently have an eating disorder, specifically binge-eating disorder or BED. At the time I was reluctant to apply the label of having an eating disorder to myself but I was able to admit that my eating is definitely disordered. I think about food all the time, from the moment I wake to the moment I go to sleep. I eat 2-3 meals a day and I graze in between whether I am hungry or not. Sometimes I will invent an excuse to go to the shops just so that I can buy chocolate or biscuits, either to eat in the car before I get home or to hide away and eat in secret where no-one can see. If there isn’t anything sugary or fatty for me to graze on I begin to panic and until I find something acceptable to eat I am unable to focus on anything else. If there is food around I’ll be picking at it.

So why haven’t I admitted that I have an eating disorder? Because I honestly believe that I am just greedy. I’m deeply ashamed of myself for this and for my lack of self-control but to label it an eating disorder seems an overreaction. Even considering the possibility makes me feel like a fraud, as though by comparing myself to people who really do have eating disorders I’m belittling their struggles. It feels like attention-seeking.

And yet… Friends who are far more knowledgeable and experienced in this area than I am are adamant that I have an eating disorder. A psychiatrist said that it was BED. The NHS website has a section on binge-eating which says:

In diagnosing binge eating, your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:
1) you eat much faster than normal during a binge
2) you eat until you feel uncomfortably full
3) you eat a large amount of food when you are not hungry
4) you eat alone or secretly due to being embarrassed about the amount of food you are consuming
5) you have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating

Three or more? Well I tick all five boxes. So why am I still so reluctant to acknowledge this?

I’d like to say that it’s due to a lifetime of internalising society’s disdain for the supposed weakness and greed of the overweight and obese. I’d like to say that years of seeing people mocked and targeted purely because of their size and presumed inability to eat healthily has had a profound effect on me and left me able to only blame myself for my problems with food. And there may be some truth in that. But in reality I had issues with food long before I became aware of these things.

I wasn’t an overweight child but I was convinced that I was. I remember crying in the playground because I didn’t want to be fat any more. I remember binging from the age of 7 or so and guiltily hiding the evidence. I remember almost flooding a childminder’s bathroom once when I panicked and tried to flush a handful of chocolate bar wrappers down the toilet. I remember my first year at secondary school, when I would barely eat Monday to Thursday but on Friday spend my entire week’s lunch money on a mountain of food. After one of the staff told my mum about that I began taking packed lunches and supplementing them with food from the canteen when I wanted to binge – a much more subtle approach, I felt.

I have no idea what caused my problems with food (I had a happy childhood, I was well-fed, looked after and loved) but I doubt that the emergence of these issues at around the same time that I began to self-harm is a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I have been doing this for about 25 years and it is time to face up to this, to allow myself to admit that this problem may be greater than I have believed for the last quarter of a century. I need to be kinder to myself and recognise that perhaps I am not as weak as I think, that maybe the root of my obsession with food is related to my mental health rather than a character flaw.

My name is Sam and I have an eating disorder.

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