Yesterday was International No Diet Day. I’ve been working on this post for a little bit, but then took a mini hiatus, so I didn’t get it ready in time. I’m so bad.
I made the mistake of watching some of The Biggest Loser this year. It started as a bit of an in-joke with The Fireman on a Friday damn-let’s-just-order-pizza night. The irony of watching a show designed to make any viewer lighter than a draughthorse feel self-righteous, whilst sliding fat-laden takeaway down our throats, is quite delicious. And I admit, there is an sentimental part of me that gets sucked in by the schmaltz that is the flipside to the show’s appeal: it’s okay to gawk at the fat rolls like it’s a freakshow because really we’re all full of sympathy for the contestants’ plight and admiration for their hard work. And it’s true that the trainers on the show seem to be genuinely concerned with improving the contestants’ outlook on life and their health.
But that’s actually the heart of the problem: what The Biggest Loser and actually the media in general does is conflate thinness with health. You only have to see five minutes of one finale show to confirm that in fact the series is not about health at all: it’s about looking good in a fake tan and new clothes. Success is judged by appearance rather than a health check. In fact, since the last leg of their ‘weightloss journey’ occurs at home, I have no doubt that at least a few of the contestants are cramming diet pills and possibly even more dangerous things into themselves in a desperate grab to be emaciated enough to win a helluva lot of money. Nothing healthy about that. But nevermind hey, because AJ says they look ‘hot’ on national television. Now that’s a self-discovery and lifestyle improvement for you!
It’s probably unfair to expect much more from a reality show on commercial TV. But it does grate a little that this stuff passes by largely without comment because most people genuinely believe that fat and health are mutually exclusive. Getting thinner is automatically a virtuous, and not merely aesthetic, pursuit. But the reality is that there’s little evidence to prove that fatness in itself is seriously bad for your health. Poor nutrition, chronic overeating and a lack of exercise certainly are. I’m not disputing that. Yet, research shows that unfit thin people die younger than fat people who are otherwise healthy. The risks associated with being underweight are high, and there is increasing concern that people of ‘normal’ weight are becoming complacent about heart disease because they wrongly assume that so long as they’re not fat they won’t get sick. We don’t hear much about this though because fat makes a sexy headline in places where it is implied that actual fat people being sexy impossible . (If you want to read more about fat=unhealthy myths I suggest a visit here.)
The thing is, I know you can be fat and healthy, just as you can be fat and unhealthy. I’ve been both.
I’ve lost a significant amount of weight twice in my adult life. Once when I was a uni student and so poor I ate less and walked more; once when I wanted to get my polycystic ovaries pumping out eggs and started going to the gym upwards of four times a week as well as following low GI eating guidelines. In neither case did I end up any smaller sized than what some people might refer to as Large Heifer. Admittedly, I wasn’t really aiming to get skinny but my intuition and common sense tell me that no amount of (safe) dieting and exercise would ever make me into a thin person. I am how I am.
Which is fine with me. Not so much with everyone else, apparently.
I went to the gym for a programme update a while back. The woman whose job it was to write up my programme had never met me before and she didn’t ask me many questions so all she had to go on was my appearance. And she was no mistress of deception: I practically saw a thought bubble with “Whoah, fatty!” popping out of her head as I approached her. And the programme she gave me was rubbish. Everything easy, everything the lowest weight, everything boring as hell. Because I’m fat, so I must be incapable of actual exercise, right? Needless to say I lost interest in that programme in about five minutes and that became one of the many excuses to stop going.
Next time I didn’t make the same mistake. I made sure that Erin did my programme – Erin who used to be my kick-arse personal trainer. Erin who knows I’m actually pretty strong because bracing the punching bag for me had her landing on her bum a few times. Erin who is stunningly beautiful and weighs about 45 kilograms but never once looked at me like I was disgusting or freakish. And the programme I’ve got now is so hard I did it once and was knackered for days. But it’s kind of fun, involves doing exercises I’d associated with superfit people, and is thusly good for my self esteem. (And I’d be doing it right now if The Bean hadn’t been too sick to take to the creche today. Excuses excuses!)
Now I haven’t written this post just to gush about a girl at the gym. What I want to say is that we simply need less of the Whoah, Fatty! and more of the Look, A Human Being. Not just from workers at the gym, but from clothing store assistants and people on the bus – and from doctors. For every doctor who bothers to take a patient’s blood pressure, general health check and history before declaring that they’re too fat to live, there are ten who don’t. Like the one who took one look at my friend and said ‘You’re way too fat for this surgery’ before he even introduced himself. Or consulted the chart to find out that she was 27 weeks pregnant.
I’m blessed because I have a partner who loves me whatever size I am, friends who are too interesting to harp on about diets all the time (is there anything more boring or self-indulgent?) and, at least these days, a healthy dose of self regard. I don’t let the body police get me down too often.
Not everyone is this lucky. And the most vulnerable of all are the young. I want my daughter to grow up loving her body, whatever it is like, for what it can do and not just how it looks. I want her to grow up with the confidence to go for a run or to play a sport, and the self respect to choose mainly nourishing foods, and the sense to know that eating a packet of Tim Tams because she’s premenstrual might not be wise but isn’t worth feeling guilty about. How this happens in a world full of photoshopped images and Diet! Diet! Diet! messages, I don’t know.
I do know that I’m not happy about her childcare workers spending most of the kids’ lunchtime chatting to each other about how ‘good’ they were on the weekend and fetishising deprivation and self-loathing. Not happy at all. At least I know Bean was way too busy eating and ‘mmmm mmmm mmmm’ -ing to pay any attention.