Tag Archives: health

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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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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I Don’t Care if You’re Healthy

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan "NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS".Source: Everyday Feminism Shop

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan “NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS.”
Buy from the Everyday Feminism Shop

Let’s be clear. I don’t actually give a flying fuck whether being fat is or can be healthy or not.

A person’s right to an enjoyable life, to be treated with respect and to have access to all the things I want fat people to have access to, such as quality medical care and clothes that fit, is not predicated on how healthy they are.

I am not interested in proving my worth to others by living up to anybody else’s standards of healthiness. My worth, like the worth of every human being, is self-evident. The right to basic human respect is not conferred upon us once we fulfil certain conditions, every one of us is inherently entitled to it.

How healthy I am and how much effort I put into developing or mainting “good health” is nobody’s business but mine. Not mine and my friends’ and family’s. Not mine and my doctor’s. Not mine and taxpayers’. Mine.

Undoing harmful stereotypes is valuable work, and I completely understand the desire of fat athletes to push the message that you can be fit, athletic and fat, and that fatness does not preclude displays of physical prowess. I think fat dancers and fat marathon runners and fat gymnasts and so on are excellent, and deserve as much credit for their skills as any thin athlete.

But where does promoting the existence of fit fatties leave those of us who are not athletes, who are not paragons of fitness, who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, or simply don’t care very much about jogging or eating all our vegetables? To me, the dark side of “fat people can be fit and healthy too” is an implicit support of the notion that being fit and healthy is what confers on fat people the right to respect and fair treatment. It isn’t. Being people is why we have a right to respect and fair treatment.

That only healthy fatties deserve respect is not the message fit fatties are trying to promote; I don’t for a moment think that activists like Ragen Chastain or other fat athletes who spend time pointing out what they can do believe fat people who are less fit or flexible or active than they are don’t deserve the same respect they do. But it’s a message that sometimes comes across anyway. Fat activists seem to spend so much of our time and energy debunking myths about what fat people can’t do, and yet fat stigma persists (as is clear from Ragen’s numerous posts about confronting fat hate with demonstrations of her own fitness). How many times have I heard thinner people or media say “I’m all for body acceptance, but you’ve got to be healthy” or “fat acceptance is fine as long as you’ve got a healthy lifestyle”?

No. Fat acceptance is fine, the end. If your “lifestyle” is not hurting anyone else then it is nobody else’s business.

You know what does make fat people unhealthy? Internalised fat stigma. And as long as not being fit enough or healthy enough or active enough or not putting some arbitrarily determined amount of energy into “being healthy” is an excuse to treat fat people like subhumans, then fat stigma and its negative health outcomes for fat people will persist.

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Anorexia Jokes and Derailing

TRIGGER WARNING: Eating Disorders

I really don’t want this place to be about thinness. I don’t want to have to keep being distracted from the issue of fat liberation to talk about defending thin women, because that isn’t the point of this blog and it’s derailing and distracting. The whole world is about thin people, and this place shouldn’t have to be.

But eating disorders are part of my history and part of what has led me here, both my own and the experience of seeing far, far too many of my dear friends struggle with anorexia and other eating disorders. So when I see yet another stupid, ignorant comment about force-feeding someone a hamburger because she looks too skinny, I blow my top. Not because thin women have it harder than fat women, but because eating disorders are not a fucking punchline.

Have you ever sat at the dinner table with a loved one and begged her to eat just one more bite? Have you ever followed someone to the bathroom after lunch to make sure she didn’t throw up? Have you ever felt with crushing certainty that someone you love is really, actually going to starve herself to death? Sadly, I suspect plenty of you have.  I have, more times than I care to count. I’ve done these things while struggling with my own demons regarding food and weight, and felt the grotesque and horrifying combination of fearing for a friend’s life while simultaneously envying her for getting further along the path to killing herself than I had.

It’s not a joke, and it’s certainly not something that people who have never experienced an eating disorder – personally or from close by – should feel smug about.

The only time “force-feeding” someone who is anorexic is ever helpful is when they are actually about to die of starvation, and even then it’s not going to do a thing to “cure” the illness, it’s purely about keeping them alive long enough to find something that works.

Joking about force-feeding a person so her body won’t offend you, even if she is starving herself, is disgusting.

A person’s body is their home and who they are in one. Our bodies are how we constitute our experience of the world and our identities, whether our identity is in sync with the way the people around us code and interpret our bodies or not. And as the saying – now famous in body positive circles – goes, there is no wrong way to have a body.

Pause and let that sink in for a moment.

THERE IS NO WRONG WAY TO HAVE A BODY.

Of course, it’s certainly possible to feel like your body is wrong, and that feeling is perfectly real and perfectly awful. As a fat woman I have definitely experienced the feeling that my body was wrong – inside every fat woman is a thin woman wanting to be free, amirite ladies? – but the fact I felt that way certainly doesn’t make it true. That sense of wrongness is externally imposed rather than self-evident.

You cannot cannot CANNOT forward the cause of fat liberation by making cruel jokes about other people’s bodies.  One of the first things we all need to do in order to achieve body liberty for everyone is let go of our judgements about other people’s bodies.  Even thin women. Even women who are thin because they are starving themselves.

And – here’s the important bit – until we can stop bandying about bullshit like “give that girl a hamburger” we will never be able to decentralise the thin, young white woman from our discussion of body image, body shaming and beauty idealism. We will never actually get to the task of dismantling the systems that keep most women preoccupied with their bodies and marginalise fat people, disabled people, trans* people, intersex people and people of colour on the basis of their bodies and their looks. Because as long as we keep making ignorant jokes about force-feeding people and walking skeletons and models who look like boys and “real women” and other such nonsense, we’re focusing the whole conversation on thin women. We just keep having the same fucking arguments about whether or not it’s okay to pick on thin women, and some of us will keep having to defend thin women instead of working to liberate anyone else.  You know what that is?  It’s derailing.  And I won’t have it.

Hopefully now I won’t ever have to write about this again and can get back to talking about fat some more.  I think my next post should be about cake.  Or dresses.

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Why I Don’t Need Any More Food Rules

I don’t want to talk about eating any more.

My socialisation around eating is fucked up enough as it is, and already plenty difficult to navigate without adding new ethical and health-related concerns. I am aware of ethical and environmental factors in the food we (and I) eat, and I hope people don’t assume that because I often choose not to engage with those issues I am not clever enough to understand or caring enough to feel. And if you have new rules (or new un-rules) to teach me about how to eat correctly or healthily or whatever then you can fuck right off. The truth is, I have little enough emotional energy to think about what I eat as it is, without adding more layers of guilt, shame or restriction to my diet.

As a middle-class westerner, I don’t conceptualise eating as being a purely pragmatic exercise to fuel the body. Whether I “should” or “shouldn’t”, the reality is that for me and my family and my culture, eating is not just fuelling the body, it is linked with pleasure, luxury, comfort, celebration, family togetherness and recreation as well as sustenance. As a social creature, I cannot separate myself from those things with ease, even if I wanted to (and I don’t want to – I enjoy the pleasures and comfort of food ).

As a woman, I’ve been socialised to view food in a number of gendered ways, both as one of the languages with which I can show love and caring (as the women in my family do and did for their loved ones before me) and as something vaguely dangerous that I need to be careful about. Not only should women worry about how fattening their food might be, we should also be aware of how eating might make us look. As a woman I have learned, without being explicitly taught by anyone, really, that I should eat delicately and neatly, never take the last slice of cake, and say “no thank you” when offered food even if I want to eat it, especially if I’m trying to make a first impression.

As a fat person who has never been thin, even as a child, my socialisation around food is even more complicated than it is for thinner women or fat women who were thin when younger. I am twenty-seven years old and even though I’ve I have spent the last five years learning about and campaigning for fat acceptance, I have still spent more than half of my life on a diet of some kind. I have so many rules crammed into my head about food that I’m not sure I know which ones are sane and sensible and which ones are crazy, dangerous or just plain lies any more. I do know that negative calorie foods don’t exist, and that spicy foods don’t really help you lose weight (or that if either of those things do result in a calorie deficit, it’s so small as to be meaningless). I don’t know if sugar and fat are good for you or bad for you or both or neither. My way of dealing with this has been to dismiss them all and now I really don’t care. I don’t know if it’s right that I respond (internally) to an acquaintance’s repeated assertions that she’s “just GOT to lose weight” by side-eyeing all the high energy food she eats and scoffing to myself that if I were her I would have been at my goal weight years ago. Actually, I do know that’s not right, but I am pretty sure that I am “better at” losing weight than she is, even though it’s been a long time since I did it. I’m a fucking expert at losing weight. For years and years, even while studying for my degree, there was nothing I put more energy into.

And wow, would you look at that. I’m still fat. Actually I am fatter now than I ever was.

As a person with a history of eating disorders, my internalised ideas about food are still more messy and complex than those I’ve associated with the categories of “western middle class”, “woman” and “fat”. I have spent my entire adult life struggling with disordered eating of various kinds. I’ve engaged in most of the eating disorders I’ve ever heard of; some of them were mere exerimental dabblings and some of them I committed to with every fibre of my rapidly shrinking being. I learned (and sometimes made up) even more rules about how one should approach eating. I spent so much of my energy in my early twenties trying to deny my body’s urges regarding food that I no longer feel regular hunger or satiety; I don’t notice I am hungry until I am so ravenous I want to throw up, and I don’t notice I am full until I am so full I feel sick (I don’t always eat until I am that full, but I sometimes can without realising I am doing it). That is what comes of spending all of your days permanently hungry; you learn to ignore the messages your body is giving you, and then you forget how to pay attention to them again.

I realise that in the process of explaining why I don’t want to talk about eating, I have now spent about eight hundred words talking about it. But I just had to get that out there. I don’t want to talk about eating. I am sick of thinking about eating. I want to just eat and get on with my life, without having to justify it or discuss how to do it correctly ad nauseam with my every friend and acquaintance. Perhaps one day I will want to think about it more, and I can certainly say that I’m almost guaranteed to post about it here again someday.  I do get why people want to talk about it – it’s such an integral part of our lives that of course we’re all going to have opinions on the subject.

But I know how to eat. You put edible things in your mouth and chew and swallow. Right now, for me, everything else is just indigestible garnish.

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Fat and the “Unhealthy Role Model”

I enjoy using Pinterest to find new plus size items, labels and stores and to share my favourites with other fatties. I have a Pinterest wardrobe a hundred times bigger than my real clothing collection, but I have actually bought things I first saw on someone else’s clothing board, been inspired by outfits, makeup and creative accessorising I’ve seen on Pinterest, and pinned things I liked which I later went back and bought (and reviewed on my board).

But you can’t go a day trawling through the plus size pins without seeing something like this:

“Kaitlyn Jenkins: I love this, but I hate heart disease and diabetes. It’s a shame girls are growing up in America thinking they can live healthy lives although they ultimately can’t.”

“Gelynne Smallwood: Hmmm… I don’t hear a bashing going on, but a reality check. Eventually the extra weight takes its toll on the body leading to disease. I agree she is a beautiful girl, in a beautiful outfit! But the reality of carrying extra weight catches up with you eventually. But until that woman can figure out how to shed some of her excess, kudos to her for workin’ it and looking gorgeous!”

Notice how Gelynne manages to turn a compliment for “a beautiful girl in a beautiful outfit” into a concern troll about how the “extra weight” will “catch up eventually”? She doesn’t hate fat people! She’s just worried about this poor model (whom she has never met and probably will never meet) getting sick!

Forgetting for a moment that the science about fat is not a simple matter of a specific fatness threshold tipping us into inevitable disease and premature death, why is this sort of discussion relevant to a picture of a plus size model on a pinboard dedicated to “Beautiful Plus Size Fashion”? Why do people feel like it is necessary to remind fat people that they believe (rightly or wrongly) we are at risk of disease, in the context of admiring fashion designed for fat women? Remember, we’re not talking about a post exhorting readers to spend all day on the couch eating nothing but deep-fried cheeseburgers for a year, this is an image of a fat model in a plus size dress. There is no indication of her habits or medical stats (except that she’s a bit fat, of course). As another commenter pointed out:

“Bex Loudmouth: Kaitlyn, this whole supposed ‘role model’ thing is making me mad. No matter you’re health, size, height, skin color, you need clothes. Not to mention, none of those things effect whether my currency is any good.”

Even if you believe that every fat person is minutes from death at any given time, surely you must agree that they need clothes to wear – and are fair game for companies who want their money – in the brief window of life they still have left?

I think the issue that is really behind these comments is hinted at when Bex mentions “role models”. The idea that a women is obliged to act as a suitable “role model” for other women from the moment she is photographed and her image is displayed publicly is a bit ridiculous. But fat haters are afraid that if fat people have attractive, well-dressed, confident and happy looking role models to identify with, we will start to believe that it is possible to be attractive, well-dressed, confident and happy while still remaining fat! If fat people have stylish, nice looking clothes to wear that give them an opportunity to take up and participate in fashion trends, they might start to actually like the way they look! As plus size fashion (as opposed to simply plus sized clothing) becomes more and more available and plus size models and celebrities become (however slowly) more visible, fashion’s power as an incentive to make us diet is beginning to wane. And we can’t have that.

So in the face of fat women starting to like the way they look, and starting to dress unapologetically and joyfully in bright colours, prints, tight stretchy fabrics and fashion forward styles, the attack must shift to a focus on health.

Ah, health. It’s such a curiously vague concept when you really look at it closely. What does “healthy” really mean? Free from disease? Free from physical or psychological impairment? Those definitions are a bit of a problem for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and besides, many clinically “overweight” or “obese” people are currently free from disease or impairment and we are told unequivocally that fat is unhealthy. Free from the risk of disease or impairment, then. But then nobody can ever be truly healthy, since anyone can fall victim to an illness or injury, anyone may have the potential for illness or premature death hidden in their genetic code, or may be unlucky regardless of the steps they take to maintain a supposedly healthy lifestyle. Elite athletes, people we often praise as role models for good health, are at risk of injury all the time and are frequently impaired for long stretches by sports-related hurts.

The reality is that “health” is a socially constructed concept that changes across historical periods, cultures and individual beliefs. That doesn’t make it meaningless, but it does make it rather problematic to use it as a measuring stick against which to test the worth of individuals.

A friend of mine once suggested to me that health – whatever we may define it as – is useful only in so far as it allows us to live the lives we want. The things we want to do (or not do) and the way we want to feel determines the extent to which the pursuit of healthiness is important to us. Some want to run marathons, play wheelchair basketball, hit home runs. Some want to bake the perfect sponge cake, paint landscapes, go for leisurely walks. For one person, wearing a size six might be more important to them than eating cake, whereas for me eating cake whenever I feel like it is more important than being a certain size. Neither is wrong, but our desires for our own lives are relevant here.

Personally, I know from experience that being a supposedly more healthy weight than my current weight involves a lot of work. Previously I considered that work worth doing. I thought about food and how much or what I was eating constantly, I spent hours at the gym and I endured physical and emotional pain, and at the time I enjoyed the results and believed they were worth the sacrifices I was making (and they did feel like sacrifices to me, although they don’t to everyone). Whether or not those results included a reduced risk of heart disease or cancer (both of which are in my family history anyway) is impossible to know. But my priorities, and what I desired from life, changed. I found that I did not want to do the things I had to do to attain and maintain that lower weight for the rest of my life. I found that there were other things I wanted to do more, and I found that the “sacrifice” of being fat no longer felt like a sacrifice to me.

I will not know if my decision to stop dieting forever has doomed me to heart disease until I either get heart disease or die of old age. And if I ever am diagnosed with heart disease, it will be hard to say whether my fatness or the eating disorder of my early twenties or simple genetic predisposition was “responsible”. I’m okay with that. I would like to contend that, on an individual basis, health statistics don’t really matter unless they are actually important to you individually.

You may argue that fatties who get heart disease will go on to use your! taxpayer! dollars! to access treatment, and so their healthiness (meaning their willingness to undertake behaviours that may or may not change their individual likelihood of developing a disease) is your concern. My response would be that – my personal belief in a right to free healthcare aside – the majority of fat people are themselves taxpayers, and are surely just as entitled as any thin person to access the fruits of their taxpayer dollars.  I have private health insurance, myself, and don’t tend to use public healthcare much anyway.

What about fat people who diet stringently, successfully reduce their weight and get heart disease anyway? Or born-thin people with heart disease? Perhaps you would only bar those who live “risky lifestyles” from getting medicare-funded treatment for heart disease. In that case, should people who use mobile phones be turned away from brain cancer treatments? Drivers barred from the emergency room when they are involved in car accidents? We won’t need sports medicine any more, since athletes are well aware of the risks involved when they strap on a pair of running shoes. Surely you agree that these people, just like wilful fatties, are taking up valuable medical resources that should go to the blameless sick people who bear no responsibility for their illnesses!

Well, heck, maybe you do. I don’t, though. I think the health imperative in Australian society, and its increasing use as a weapon against fat people (not to mention other marginalised groups, which often overlap), is a problem. And health – whether it’s current lack of illness or statistically lower risk of illness in the future – certainly shouldn’t be a determiner of whether or not people deserve nice clothes.

But in the interest of fairly documenting the risks of fatness, I’ll leave you with this particular gem from the Pinterest comment stream:

“Rachel Jones: For every extra pound of fat, your body has to produce 400 miles of extra veins. This DOES tax the cardiovascular system. Is she beautiful for who she is? Sure! Everyone is. Is she overweight? Maybe so. Is obesity a problem? YES. I’m on a weight loss journey myself, so I don’t say these things lightly.”

Gosh. That would tax the cardiovascular system, wouldn’t it? It’s a wonder my heart is still beating at all.

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