Monthly Archives: February 2013

Chrissie Swan’s Body Isn’t Your Business Either

So, today Chrissie Swan “confessed” to smoking while pregnant. I’m putting “confessed” in scare quotes because every media outlet seems to be using it and everyone, even Swan herself, is behaving as if she has committed a horrendous transgression against humankind. She made the revelation under duress, because a paparazzo photographed her without her consent (as they always do) and then her management team lost the fight to outbid Women’s Weekly for rights to the photos. Swan has spoken on her radio show and on television, obviously very distressed and breaking down in tears during both speeches.

There are so many things wrong with this situation, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, I never stop being appalled at our collective lust for the private details of celebrities’ lives, especially our hyena-like hunger to tear them apart at the slightest hint of wrongdoing or flaw. Secondly, I’m disgusted by the way the media and audiences are treating Swan like a naughty child who needs to be scolded and patronised. It’s clear she knew perfectly well that smoking while pregnant was not ideal, and that she struggled desperately both with the smoking itself and the decision to keep it secret. She does not need to be schooled on the evils of cigarettes (I’d be surprised if ANYONE living in Australia is unaware of the health ramifications of smoking these days).

On that note, I’m sure everyone must realise this, but cigarettes are addictive. Nicotine, like any other drug of addiction, changes the chemical makeup of a person’s brain and makes quitting hard for most and all but impossible for some. Just because you – or your mum, or your auntie or your boss’s brother – have had success in quitting permanently does not mean everyone will have the same experience. We’re all dealing with different things in our lives and we all have different bodies which may respond differently to nicotine and to withdrawal. Lots of people quit multiple times before they are finally able to stop smoking for good and sadly plenty of people quit multiple times and still die of smoking-related diseases. It’s not an issue of sheer willpower. Willpower is not always enough.

There is a psychological and emotional component to cigarette addiction as well as a chemical one. When I was nineteen I smoked, at parties, bars and clubs, for a grand total of one month. I only got through one pack of light cigarettes before I decided to give up, so I was far from addicted and I didn’t so much have to quit as just not buy another pack. And even I found myself craving a cigarette sometimes, in stressful situations (especially social ones). As recently as last year – over seven years since my last cigarette – I smelled the nostalgic combo of bourbon and tobacco on a friend of mine and, to my great surprise, desperately wanted a smoke. There’s no possibility that I have ever been chemically addicted to nicotine, and yet the impulse remained.

I’m mostly in favour of the lengths the Australian government has gone to to restrict when and where people can smoke. I enjoy being able to go to a club or a bar without coming home smelling like an ashtray, and I imagine that would be even more the case if I worked in one of those places. I approve of making various public spaces no smoking zones, and from the research I have read on its efficacy in preventing uptake of cigarette smoking, especially in young people, the plain packaging initiative seems like an excellent idea to me.

But this incident and people’s reactions to it are not the same as a public initiative to restrict smoking and deter people from smoking. This is the court of public opinion attacking a single individual person for smoking while pregnant. The government initiatives, even where they add to stigma against smokers, are about reducing the harm caused by cigarettes (to smokers and others) and assisting people to make good decisions about cigarettes, by deterring them from starting to smoke or helping them to quit smoking when they want to. This furore isn’t about trying to help Chrissie Swan or anyone else quit smoking, and I suspect if she wasn’t pregnant there would be little scandal around the photographs at all, even though it might be embarrassing to her. This isn’t even about reducing the harm caused by cigarette addiction during pregnancy, or people might recognise that by limiting her smoking as much as she can Swan is trying to reduce harm to her foetus, and struggling.

This is about pregnant women’s bodies being public property. Because Swan’s uterus has a future person inside it, people not only believe that her body is no longer solely her own – which is a larger issue for another time, perhaps – but that her body is now THEIR property to comment on. Even when they have no relationship to her or the foetus she is carrying. Even when they don’t even know her. And pregnant women get this all the time, over all sorts of things; their eating habits, their weight, exercise, medication, alcohol and so on. Not just from the health professionals they deliberately engage to discuss their pregnancy, but from family, friends, and complete strangers in the street. The more information we have about possible risks during pregnancy, the more people think that pregnant women’s bodies and behaviours are their business.

My mother told my a story as we watched the news this evening about when she was seven months pregnant with me. She went to a bar with some friends and had a single glass of wine, her first since she started trying to get pregnant, and a friend of hers came up to her and said “you’ve waited so long to have a baby, do you really think you should risk drinking while you’re pregnant?” This was a double shot of presumptuousness because mum hadn’t been trying to get pregnant for long even though she had been married for around eight years, but furthermore it was fucking rude.

Perhaps if there were not such stigma and shame associated with people being unable to quit smoking (or other drugs), and if it were not compounded with the additional stigma and shame associated with being seen as a Bad Mother (TM), it would be easier for someone like Chrissie Swan – who wanted to quit smoking while pregnant and found she couldn’t – to seek help and support from a doctor and those close to her.

It’s the golden rule all over again: Not your body, not your business. Not even if that body is pregnant. Not even if that body belongs to someone famous. Not. Your. Business.

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Inconceivable!

Name playing thingy in the movie The Princess Bride.

Wallace Shawn playing Vizzini in the movie The Princess Bride.  Inconceivable!

During a camping trip I went on late last year (during which I stayed in a cabin and most of my friends camped in tents), I was talking to some friends about how I wished tent camping were more viable for me. I have bad knees due to injuring both of them at different times in my life, which makes getting up and down off the floor difficult and painful. The others suggested I could try and buy a camp bed that would be off the ground, and when I said I didn’t think I’d be able to get one that would hold my weight, one friend said I’d be safe with a double-sized one because they’re usually rated for two smaller people around 80 kilos and “I don’t know how much you weigh, but you don’t weigh 160 kilos.”

I don’t weigh myself any more, but she was kind of right. It’s more like 170 than 160.

I let the error go by without comment. I knew she wasn’t being nasty and I didn’t want to embarrass her by making a big deal about it. But it struck me that the reality of someone weighing what I do was so far outside her worldview that even with my physical body right in front of her, where she could see exactly how fat I am, she couldn’t imagine anybody weighing that much. It’s not like I’m particularly muscular or dense – I know people who weigh more than they look like they do, but I am not one of those people. It’s just that 160 kilos was so far away from my friend’s reality that she dismissed it out of hand as being some unimaginably huge size.

I encounter the same issue with clothing sizes, too. I’ll complain about not being about to find specific clothing items (such as trying to find black concert dress for choir performances) and suddenly a flood of my thinner friends will inundate me with suggestions that, while well-meaning, are completely useless to me because the clothing companies they suggest don’t make my size. It isn’t that they don’t know what I look like, in fact they probably have a better picture in their minds of my appearance than I do, but once again imaginable clothing sizes for them extend a little past their own size and then vanish into the amorphous mists of “really really big”.

On the flip side, I can usually guess what size a woman wears and roughly how much she probably weighs from looking at her (though I usually don’t because what does it matter?). This was possibly a skill acquired through years of “thinspiration” in my dieting and eating disordered years (ugh), but it’s also the upshot of being exposed to far more information about thin people’s – especially thin women’s – bodies and clothing sizes and weights in popular media and everyday life than fat people’s.

Partly that’s because the thin bodies, sizes and weights are held up in advertising and other media as the ideal to which we should all strive, and partly it’s because the stigma against fat pressures a lot of fat women into hiding or lying about their own size or weight. I never would have even thought about publishing my real weight or dress size on the internet five or six years ago. As a result of this embarrassed secrecy about fat weights and sizes (which doesn’t, of course, trick people into not realising you are fat), people who aren’t fat themselves often don’t develop a visual vocabulary of fatness because the information to connect with the visual simply isn’t available. And what follows is an incredulity about the perfectly real bodies of fat people that only compounds and exacerbates the stigma and embarrassment associated with being fat. It is difficult and painful to have a body that’s not only not socially acceptable, but so socially unacceptable that your friends can’t even imagine it being real.

This disconnect is part of why I am writing this blog, why it is called what it is, and why I love seeing blog posts and tumblrs and instagrams and tweets and Facebook posts and everything about other fat people just living their lives and being seen doing it. I want us to be visible and known and understood, not freaky unicorns that people – even the people who know and love us – can’t quite comprehend. I want us to be free of embarrassment about talking about our weight and what size we wear (men and genderqueer people and genderless people as well as women) and demystify the reality of being really fat. I want people to hear 170 kilos and think “ah, that’s someone about the same size as my friend Sarah” and not “170 kilos, NOBODY weighs that much!” You keep using that word “nobody”. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A photo of me, a fat white woman in a black and white polkadot one piece bathing suit, posing with hands on hips in front of a hot pink background.

A photo of me, a fat white woman in a black and white polkadot one piece bathing suit, posing with hands on hips in front of a hot pink background.

To that end, here is a picture of me – in my cute ModCloth bathers, so as to give a good idea of my body size without the obfuscation of normal clothes – along with my clothing size (AU 26-28) and my weight as of this very moment (171.3 kilos, or roughly 378 pounds). Just for information purposes. Because yes, I am very real.

Not that I wouldn’t make an amazing unicorn.

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Comfort Eating or Eating Comfortably?

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons.  Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words "KEEP CALM AND OM NOM".

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons. Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words “KEEP CALM AND OM NOM”.

I know I said not that long ago that I didn’t want to talk about food, but it turns out I do. Hurrah! TRIGGER WARNING: The following post discusses mental illness and eating, and may be triggering for folks with depression, eating disorders or a history of mental illness in general, so proceed accordingly!

Yesterday I went to the doctor. I’ve had chronic depression to varying degrees of severity for my entire adult life, and right now I’m in a particularly severe depressive episode. So the doc and I were talking about my mood and how it is affecting my day to day life. I mentioned that most days I only get around to eating one meal, because I just can’t see the point of eating and don’t have the energy to prepare or find food. Non-ideal! Luckily at dinner time I usually have someone around to make food and thrust it at me, which is an excellent thing and ensures I get fed well at least once a day.

When I said this the doctor looked at me and said “if you’re only eating one meal a day, why are you the size you are?” I rolled my eyes (internally) and said “well, I’ve always been this size” and he went on to ask whether I was “comfort eating”. This post isn’t really about fat hating doctors; it’s pretty awful that fat hating doctors have become de rigeur for me and fat blogging in general, but they have, and that’s not what I’m writing about today. What struck me as I brushed off the doctor’s ignorant question was the concept of “comfort eating.”

It’s an interesting and loaded question – “have you been comfort eating” – and it got me thinking. Have I been comfort eating? What is comfort eating exactly?

What I usually think of when I hear the term “comfort eating” is binge-eating. “Eating your feelings.” I certainly have experience with binge eating as disordered eating; I don’t mean eating a whole! bag! of chips! in one sitting, I mean eating half the pantry in a self-hating, panicky frenzy. Not especially comfortable, let me tell you. Comfort eating is also seen as things like having a block of chocolate on the first day or your period, or ploughing through a tub of ice-cream after a bad breakup. I’ve done that kind of comfort eating too, choosing to eat something because I know it will feel nice and be calming and enjoyable when I am feeling awful. Homemade Prozac, in other words.

A screencap from The Simpsons.  Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff.  Marge looks on from the table in the background.

A screencap from The Simpsons. Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff. Marge looks on from the table in the background.  “My only hope is this homemade prozac.  Hmm…needs more ice-cream.”

There’s plenty of stigma attached to comfort eating of both kinds, which strikes me as rather silly in the second situation (and outright vicious in the first, which is a symptom of mental illness). In Australia and the US at least, we seem to have developed this idea that food is SOLELY fuel for the body and has – or should have – no other purpose. Shame on you if you eat anything when you’re not actively hungry, or eat anything that isn’t “nutritious” as determined by the food fashions of the day. And the kind of food matters too. Eating a slice of cake is “being bad” and chocolate is “wickedly sinful”, even when it’s soap! There’s a wikihow tutorial on how to “resist naughty foods cravings” but I’m not going to link to it; as far as I’m concerned, the only “naughty” foods are cakes with swear words on them (tee hee). If you’ve never heard someone say “no thanks, I’m being good” when you offer them some food, I want to trade lives with you. Feeling guilty about food is awful but common. And the kinds of food that people, myself included, usually think of when we think of “comfort eating” (whether it’s binge eating or the “homemade prozac” kind) are precisely this sort of high energy, fatty, starchy, sugary food. Dangerous food! Out of bounds food! Naughty food!

When I think about it, yes, I have certainly been eating more high fat, high sugar, high starch foods than usual lately. But I don’t intend to feel guilty for it. On the one hand, guilting people for eating anything at all is rubbish, and I don’t believe that any food is morally inferior to any other. But furthermore, I feel like I need to defend this kind of eating even more than social eating (like having cake at a party) or self-medicating comfort eating. I feel like I need to fight even more fiercely to be allowed to have this kind of eating guilt-free, because it feels less like eating solely for comfort and more like eating in the way that is comfortable, because that’s been necessary for my survival lately.

Let me explain by referencing Satter’s hierarchy of food needs, which I recently read about on The Fat Nutritionist (great post, by the way – it’s about eating and poverty, and it’s important stuff that is well worth reading). As the Fat Nutritionist says, “the idea is that, before we worry about nutrition […] we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it.” She’s talking about this in reference to a scarcity of affordable food, but I think it also works when the thing getting between you and eating is your brain.

On a particularly bad mental health day last month, if I didn’t eat, say, a bag of chips for lunch then the alternative was not a salad or a sandwich, it was not eating at all. Chips felt unthreatening and, yes, comfortable, but it was not a matter of eating just for fun (it was usually 3pm and I was ravenous) nor was I choosing “comfort” food over healthy food. It was simply that I didn’t have the energy to both get out of bed AND prepare food, so the food I was going to eat had to be both appealing and pre-prepared, ready to eat, in order to convince me to try and eat it. And, as the Fat Nutritionist points out, fatty, starchy, high sugar foods are really, really appealing to most of us (especially when we’re hungry) for perfectly sensible biological reasons – when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from and it’s been a while since the last, pick the food with the most immediately accessible energy and the most energy to store for later.

Obviously I’m privileged enough that I’m not usually unsure where my next meal is coming from. But I’m not making these decisions consciously, so it makes sense that when I need a quick energy hit (because I’m really hungry) and I need to not have to think about it or do much to get it into edible form (because I’m severely depressed) the things I reach for are fatty, sugary, starchy junk foods.

So no, I haven’t been comfort eating. I have been eating comfortably, to keep myself from starving because I was too depressed to eat. Even though years ago – when I still subscribed to the idea that eating is something nasty you do when you run out of willpower – I probably would have described the eating I do on a bad mental health day as “comfort eating”, it really isn’t.  I refuse to feel guilty for keeping myself alive with “unhealthy” food, and neither should you if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

Of course, even if I were comfort eating in the true sense, that isn’t something I should feel guilty for either.  Because eating is not a moral issue.

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Thin People Problems

A straight-sized friend of mine who has an interest in fashion and always looks fabulous recently posted the following link on Facebook. The article advocates a curated or “capsule” wardrobe as an antidote to the problem (caused by so-called “fast fashion”) of having a huge collection of average, mismatched clothing items and never knowing what to wear, which seems like a cool idea. The thing is, I’ve never had that problem. The article states:

The ability to access fast fashion has grown at a rate faster than Zara have been able to open their 1,700 stores. Comprehend that figure and add to it the an imaginary figure of just how many stores there are for other fast, fashion-foward brands such as H&M and you realise that fast fashion, and the dream of the massive wardrobe that it enabled with an affordable price tag, is now commonplace. It’s not just available to everyone, it is everyone. – Fashionising.com

But Zara doesn’t make clothes in my size. Neither does H&M, not even in their plus size and “Inclusive” collections. The line between “fast fashion” and “high fashion” is blurry and indistinct in the plus size world, because the plus size clothing industry is so much smaller and the options for fat shoppers so much more limited, so even items that have the quality and lasting value of fast fashion (i.e. not much) are often priced like high fashion.

I find this whole concept of the overflowing wardrobe fascinating. I’m a size 26-28. My wardrobe is “curated” in the sense that there is nothing in it I don’t regularly wear, but that’s because it has to be, because shopping at my size is an exercise in frustration and careful planning. Because plus size clothing is expensive in general and hard to find in my size, I can’t afford to ever buy something that I don’t know I can wear straight away. I don’t have drawers overflowing with skirts and t-shirts and random bits and pieces that don’t go together because I simply never buy them; not because I’m a particularly clever or stylish shopper but because I have about fifty dollars a month to spend on clothes and accessories (including underwear and shoes) and if the item is not something I can either wear on its own or immediately mentally slot into an outfit with pieces I already have, I do not buy it even if I adore it. I just can’t guarantee that I will ever be able to find anything else affordable and in my size that I can pair it with. There simply isn’t the same variety, even of perfectly ordinary basics or disposable knockoffs, in size 26/28 that there is in, say, size 12.

Do straight sized women really have this problem of trying on multiple outfits of a morning and not being able to find one that “works”? I always thought that was just in the movies, not the lives of real people. For the most part, me deciding what to wear for the day or to a particular event involves picking a dress and then accessorising it or, more often than not, putting on one of my three pairs of shoes – two black, one white – and just going with it.

I’ve got about ten day dresses now, far more clothing than I have had at any other point in my life, thanks to internet shopping and staying the same size for several years (this is the first time in my life I’ve been a consistent size for more than a year at a time, thanks to previously either being young and still growing, or being on or off various weight loss diets). My dresses are all variations on a theme – high waisted, stretchy, knee-length and usually A-line, although a few have straighter pencil-style skirts. This is because that style suits my shape, and it’s pretty much the only option in plus size clothes other than sleeveless empire-line maxi dresses, swing dresses and bodycon. I’ve got three cocktail dresses (two of them are the aforementioned swing dresses) and one ball gown, so if it’s a formal style event it’s fairly easy to choose. I imagine most women my size – actually, most women in general – probably don’t own a ball gown, but I do actually go to a formal ball once every couple of years. Plus my mum bought it for me.

I’ve also got three or four jackets and cardigans, which keep me warm or extend the wear of some of my dresses to a more corporate type context, graphic t-shirts, mostly bought from clubs I am in, a black three-quarter-sleeve stretchy top I wear exclusively for choir performances, and two skirts, one black and one leopard print, both long and stretchy. The black one has a hole in it and needs repairing. Then there’s a lot of leggings, some tights and socks, two bras and a bunch of underpants. I have quite a bit of cheap costume jewellery too, because it’s an easy way to spice up an outfit without spending much money or having to find the right size.

It is a capsule wardrobe. There’s nothing I don’t wear regularly (apart from the ball gown) and no pieces that don’t currently fit into an outfit of sorts. I don’t think of it as a luxury, except in as much as being able to buy new clothes at all is a mark of privilege. To me, being able to buy something without working out where it would fit in the collection would be a luxury. My “curatorship” of my wardrobe is the resourcefulness and care that comes from caring about clothes at all when you are fat. It’s a necessary response to the dearth of options out there for people like me, not the result of me being more stylish than other people or having the resources to make more of an effort in planning my wardrobe. Like plenty of other fat women, especially those of us who are 26+ and sized out of even many plus size collections, I simply have no option but to make an effort. And I’m lucky enough, though it seems hilarious and horrible (horrilarious) to say it, to have more options than just “baggy black” – if I were any bigger than I am now, my “capsule wardrobe” would probably be entirely long black skirts and baggy black tunics unless I made the clothes myself.

So no, a massive wardrobe full of fast fashion isn’t “available to everyone”, even if you are only looking at the financially comfortable middle-class. And a smallish, carefully selected collection of clothes that has no redundancy or frivolous items isn’t luxurious and special for everyone, even those of us who do care about fashion. For some, it’s just how clothing works.

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