Author's Note: This one is a like a new wine. Give it time. Let it breathe. Swirl. Sniff. Sip. Savour. Then decide if it suits your palate.
I am forever the optimist in believing that I cannot, definitely not, be the only one to have been hoodwinked. I must inform you at the onset though that I am not talking about conmanship of the Broacha and Bakra variety or any other such lovable pranksters plying their trade with an eye for dubious comic potential. No. I rather speak of things much more insidious in nature. A con of the proportions of The Truman Show, or systemically perpetuated illusions of the ilk of The Matrix. A truth that once known has the potential to forever change the way you look at life, how you have lived, and what continuing to live in the light of such information might mean. I promise you too that I am not engaging in self-serving hyperbole. This is not a ploy to engage your curiosity, though of course if it were to have that effect no one would be happier than me. It is however, a somewhat grandiose foray into introducing to you the duplicitous web of half-truths and whole-lies that once exposed did mean to me all the hyperbolic imagery I have sought to create thus far. The con? Being fat and being unhealthy mean the same thing, and in order for a fat person to be healthy they MUST lose some weight first. Pronto. As you must have guessed by now, it is not. Is the earth shaking yet? Is the world crumbling around your ears? Mine did. I hope you have guessed that too by now, or I might as well be speaking to the image Tom saw reflected in his mirror. As for me, sometime in early 2013 I realised that I had been a Jackass all my life and that I was not alone. The fact that it is late 2014 by the time I have gathered the courage and the clarity to tell you all about this should be considered telling of how very difficult the journey has been in so many ways.
This con then, that has been so masterfully perpetuated and continues to be so is at the same time ridiculously simple to bust and fiendishly difficult to detect. This I believe is because as simple as it is to find answers (just googling it would light the way like a marquee), one rarely questions the underlying assumptions because they are presented as fact and rather than being forcefully shoved down our throats, are allowed to gently seep through our skin and become a part of our belief system. Seriously, does one even remember the first time someone told us about God or made us do a prayer or go to a temple? Oops, sorry, I must remember I’m talking about health here, not religion. Anyway, so, I remember in one philosophy class in our second year, my professor talking about the concept of an “organic whole” and I still remember how he defined it as “distinct but inseparable”. He gave us the example of a ball of clay made up of orange and brown clay. You can distinctly see the orange and the brown, but you can’t separate the two. Ever since I stumbled upon this con I have been thinking about “fat and health” as being represented to us as an organic whole. It’s hard to make the distinction and see it clearly if one doesn't even think of there being one.
What do I even mean by that? Well, every time anyone has ever spoken to me, given unasked for advice, prodded, poked and generally made free with my weight as a topic of conversation, the issue of fat and why I need to lose weight has been couched in concern for my health. Even when I was 16, or 12 or 7 (years old that is). Even when I was physically active (very) and had no other health issues, and was eating wholesome home cooked food every day and my mother made sure about the less oil, no butter or ghee etc. (Ah, such awesome food). You’re getting fat they said, go on a diet – for your health. The shopkeepers would smirk and make comments about my size, and ask impertinent questions and of course dole out weight loss advice – all because they were so concerned about my health. We routinely make judgments about the health (that they are unhealthy and have or will have a host of illnesses in the future) of fat people based on how they look (fat). What is worse is we use our faith in these judgments as justification for making free with “health advice” which is more often than not nothing but “weight loss tips”. Firstly, that’s presumptuous, secondly, it’s highly intrusive and lastly, it’s ill-informed in more ways than one. If one were to believe that the concern is not feigned and that looking at my fat body somehow induces in onlookers a frenzied need to respond to a deep seated empathy and premonitions of a host of doom and gloom scenarios, one might maybe be inclined to let it go (though it does get harder with the number of people and the number of varied scenarios this happens in – shopping, visits to family, chilling with friends, doctor’s office, at the restaurant, out walking, on the train, in the bus, at the dance class, sitting at a café reading a book, at the beauty parlour, when you’re swimming, at weddings, at dinner parties…and just from memory, I could go on.). With all the not so subtle reminders of the fate of the fattie in various forms of media, the unrelenting news about the obesity epidemic as it were and a host of weight loss centres, diet guru’s, snake oil vendors, street magicians and your auntie’s neighbour all selling you guaranteed ways of weight loss (or your money returned), it would be a resilient person indeed who doesn't buy into the shtick.
After all, even doctors are no better. In all the years of shuttling from one doctor to another, there has been only one doctor who actually asked me what my dietary habits and physical activity was like. Everyone else just assumed that I sit and eat all day. Their advice reflected their assumptions. For the longest time I never corrected them. What was the point? I have hated going to the doctor. The moment you walk in and they get you on the scale and then shake their head in disapproval (only a theatrical “Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!” needed to complete the picture) your visit is done. You’d might as well walk out now because you know what they’re going to say regardless of the ailment you’re presenting with. “You need to lose weight.” Why, thank you doctor! Till I stepped on your scale I had no idea I was fat! When I visited a top endocrinologist in Pune with my thyroid issue hoping for him to correct my dosage, he put me on a scale, looked at me, told me I would get diabetes, get a heart attack, that I was a ticking time bomb, that the solution was me losing about 60 kilos, that that was impossible to do with diet and exercise and hence, I should get bariatric surgery done. They’d start with the simplest, and then move up from there. It was that visit that got me started with this blog, and at the time I took umbrage at the fact that he said it was impossible to achieve this through diet and exercise. I’d show him! How weak willed did he think I was? Also, I was opposed to surgically mutilating my body for weight loss.
Turns out, the only thing he got right was that it is near impossible to lose 60 kilos with diet and exercise and keep it off. I still remember the turmoil of those days; the turmoil of a lifetime, in fact. When you keep hearing that you need to be thin in order to be healthy, when no matter what you do the weight keeps coming back every time you lose some, when you hear it’s all about “eat less and exercise more” and you look at what you’re eating and wonder if you’d need to starve – if that would be enough, you learn to blame yourself. You learn to apologise. Be it the doctor, the neighbour, the stranger, the relative, or your friends and family – when it comes to your weight you learn to feel sorry and feel the need to justify why exactly it is that you’re fat and why despite everything you’re not losing weight and in an appeasing tone you say, “but I’m trying.”. Not all of this may happen in words – but the apology of being remains.
For me it did despite the fact that somewhere I knew this wasn't right – that there should be no shame or blame or guilt or obligation. Yet, coupled with the belief that in order to be healthy I needed to lose weight, it was a torturous. Here I am thinking, I deserve respect no matter my size. I can dress well, be happy, live life fully no matter my size. I want to be loved for who I am, not only if I lose weight. But, if I don’t lose weight I will have health issues. Being fat is unhealthy. But I love myself. Doesn't loving myself mean that I should do the best I can to be healthy? But losing weight is so entrenched in ideologies of “not good enough” “not attractive enough” ----and so it went. All this, when I also mistakenly and rather naively believed that it was in my control to lose weight.
This time when I started on my quest to lose 60 kilos I also wanted to find peace. So far I had followed a pattern of ‘live life, do things, be prolific, have something happen that puts me in a space of “must actively do something to lose weight” and then would start the dieting or whatever else accompanied by all the issues of reconciling a weight loss culture with an ideology of self-love (I had an inkling that it just didn't make sense), lose weight, continue living life, put weight back on, have something happen to trigger weight loss programs once again’. So, in the in-betweens I could be somewhat at peace; time when I wouldn't consciously think of weight loss or gain or reconciling anything. Now however, I was embarking upon a journey that I felt would be the final battle – 60 kilo’s, it’s on – and it’s high time, at 26 one isn't getting any younger! And since it was the final battle, I HAD to figure out how to do this in a way that I could come from love and not hate. I wanted to arm myself with knowledge – about how our bodies work, how weight is lost and gained, what PCOS, thyroid, insulin resistance entailed – I was taking charge dammit! Then, as I was looking for healthy weight loss and coming from love paradigms I came across “Health at Every Size”. The movement, the book, the blogs, and fat acceptance, body positivity, size diversity related articles and it BLEW MY MIND. I do not use those words lightly. It did. To be fair, it didn't happen overnight, or over one book or article or whatever else. It was a lot of things. Some things that completely shook my sense of reality were:
1) There is no evidence that weight loss by itself is a desirable health goal. There is nothing to show that a fat person who has lost weight does better health wise than a naturally thin person or a person who is fat and fit.
2) BMI is bullshit. It’s not a bad measure of health, it’s not a measure of health at all.
3) There is no known way of losing more than 10% of your body weight and keeping it off. 95% of people who lose weight gain it back within 5yrs, and a significant number of them gain back more.
4) Diets don’t work. Rather, they work in the short term but in the long term you gain back the weight you've lost. This is not because you stopped dieting (you may continue), but because of how our body regulates weight.
5) Diets and weight cycling (weight loss-regain-weight loss- regain) are not harmless. They actively ruin your metabolic health among other health risks.
6) Healthy behaviours are a better indicator of health for people of all sizes. These are moderate exercise 5 days a week, a variety of food including fruits and veggies every day, less drinking and no smoking. This however, may or may not lead to weight loss.
What this amounted to then, was, that nobody knows how to successfully lose weight. Thankfully though, weight loss wasn't necessary to live as healthfully as is within our control (after all, doing all the healthy behaviours one might still get a stroke, or cancer, or be struck by lightning!). In fact, if I really wanted to do what was good for my body, I would have to give up dieting in any form (seriously, it really messes your body up). Even though one would think this is glad tidings, it wasn't. (Not really. May be. Sort of.) This information, and subsequent realisation brought forth an interesting mix of emotions.
The hurt and anger was first and foremost directed towards the doctor who pushed me for surgery. The idea that a doctor would be willing to actually recommend, and not just recommend but tell me in so many words that if I didn't I would die of being fat, that I willingly mutilate a perfectly healthy functioning part of my body so as to render it ineffective (cut a part of my intestine or staple my stomach so that I couldn’t absorb the nutrients from food, in effect a forced diet) and take on (cheerfully too) a host of side effects that would last me a life time (if I lived long enough that is. Mortality rates in the aftermath of bariatric surgery are not insignificant. Also, depression.) just so I could maybe lose 10% of my body weight was preposterous! Whatever happened to first do no harm? I trusted these doctors, as we invariably do. How could have another endocrinologist put me on a 1200 calorie diet, don’t they know what dieting does to your body? And the last one who prescribed weight loss medicine that has been banned in the US due to its side effects! Why couldn't they have been supportive, and actually treated my conditions and told me that healthy eating and moderate exercise would be good for me whether or not I lost weight? Among this hurt and betrayal, were feelings of frustrated anger towards myself. How could I have never questioned any of this? Why did I not research all this before? How could I have wasted so many years punishing myself, blaming myself, resisting, not understanding? I truly deserved the jackass label! I even did this whole montage with a comically braying background sound effects.
Then, even as I was reading Linda Bacon’s Health at every size, I felt resistance. This couldn't be. This is just another excuse for not dieting and exercising like a maniac – voices in my head said. You don’t want to be a quitter, do you? – another set of voices chimed in. I researched more. Read up original studies. Looked for loopholes. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. My rational enquiry had led me to the indisputable conclusion that I couldn't logically continue with weight loss as a goal if what I truly wanted was to be good to my body and myself – it wouldn't just be unnecessary, but incompatible with living healthfully. Reticence still stared me in the face. Having come to my previous conclusion, I knew the way forward and so I punched reticence in the face. Like a hit me doll, with every step forward and every punch it kept popping up over and over again with an inane annoying grin plastered on its unfeeling face. Then of course, I had to ask myself- why?
Turns out, weight and health aren't the only players in the field. As much as when trying to stand up against all the stigmatising, offensive, bullying bullshit that goes on when one is fat, the guilt associated with “but fat is unhealthy and it’s somehow my fault if I can’t lose weight” makes it difficult to do so, so it is when trying to adhere to health and self-love, the long held dream, the mirage of “thin someday” snaps at your ankles, throws up reticence, panic and regret. For ultimately, though we justify the quest for weight loss with the party line of health, we live our lives learning that fat is unattractive, fat is ugly, fat is lazy, fat is undisciplined, fat is my fault, fat is unlovable, fat means no pretty clothes, there are no fat leading ladies…Weight loss carries with itself the promise of “someday” and after all the chest thumping about how size doesn't matter but health does, when it comes to choosing health over weight loss, “someday” is a lot to let go of.
Thus it is, that it is over a year since my realisation that I had been hoodwinked and I am here, talking to you only now. My wings have been fragile so far, my flight wondrously new. I've been learning to walk on wobbly legs along this path of unraveling the browns from the orange and if there’s one thing I am firm on, it is that ‘health and fat’ is no organic whole. It’s possible. It’s possible to distinguish the two, and to separate them. There is freedom and peace in unraveling the threads that have bound them together. Threads that run through our lives and influence so many aspects of living. There is triumph in silencing the voices, inside ourselves and out there trying to control, and brow beat our bodies and our lives into a uniform ideal. There is also heart ache as we learn to learn different dreams, and then joy when we realise that it’s not a different dream that we need dream but believe that none of our dreams need a different body. It’s a long journey, and it’s far from over. Thank you for being part of this journey…I can promise you that it won’t be uneventful.
~The Fat Chick
- Linda Bacon, Health At Every Size
- Ragen Chastain, Dances with Fat
- Virgie Tovar, Hot and Heavy
- Hanne Blank, Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on sex for people of size and those who love them
- Marilynn Wann, Fat!So?
- The Adipositivity Project
P.P.S: Though I talk in this post about the pursuit of health, I do not believe that is an obligation for anyone. Nor should it be something on which ones being treated with respect and dignity be dependent on.