New feature: F.A.T.

// 7 May 2008

Girls and women need to give themselves a break from the endless preoccupation with fat, argues Katie Muller

Why are so many women ashamed and repulsed by the fact they take up space? Oh to be smaller and slighter, to be less, less, less! But worse than size, far worse than taking up space at all, is what women take up space with.

Dare I mention what that space-filler is? Dare I even whisper the word? Fat.

It’s a word that could make the toughest cookie crumble, it reverberates through our bodies, settling in our stomachs, a knot we can’t untie, uncomfortable and embarrassing. We don’t like to talk about it, or even think about it. Push it away, out of our minds. Hide it. Or even better, but slightly more challenging – let’s get rid of it, this fat altogether and be free of it.

Weight loss is possible. Of course there are a million fad diets, a million lies weaving traps that leave you frustrated and as substantial as ever. But we won’t fall into them. All it really takes is the right mind, the right attitude. A strong will, a fierce determination, a sense of inadequacy, a lack of self-confidence, a touch of brainwashing and skills at self-deprivation and then, you’re set. The path of the eating disorder is yours to take.

Read on here

Comments From You

rooroo // Posted 8 May 2008 at 12:00 am

Interesting piece.

If you haven’t read Stumptuous: the woman who runs the site wrote a brilliant piece on body fat and how its perception in Western culture.

Louise Lewis // Posted 8 May 2008 at 2:48 am

It’s not only fad diets now. It’s the whole anti-obesity panic, summed up as “Fat is bad. It’s ugly and you’ll die!” based on no real evidence whatsoever. Everyone, but especially women, are under the Moral Imperative to Be Healthy, or else. Public health authorities’ eagerness to be rid of fat has given the despisement of fat a legitimacy in the name of ‘health’. If you are watching your weight, you are good and righteous; if you have abandoned weight loss as the canard it is, then you are the subject of contempt and derision, or at best, pity. And this is the official word.

Young children are subjected to anti-obesity programs that are not actually about a healthy relationship with food and exercise, but instead instill a fear of fat, something that makes you bad and unhealthy: foods are labelled “good” and “bad”; teachers are made to police lunchboxes for “bad” food; children are weighed, measured, labelled, and reported; fat children become even more targeted for bullying as it’s “their fault” the canteen doesn’t sell crisps anymore; growing children are placed on restricted diets; and children who are “too fat” are removed from their parents as it is assumed the parents are morally deficient (also a class issue). These programs are little but an excuse for adults to bully fat children and instill their own disordered food/exercise relationships upon them.

This is bad enough on its own, but the attitude from far too many people is that if some kids develop an eating disorder as a result, then it’s acceptable “collateral damage” in the crusade against fat. This is proof enough that it is not about health at all, but control and aesthetics. Even if all the worst predictions about fat and health were true, it still does not justify the demonisation of body fat and fat bodies.

Adults, particularly women, are not immune from this madness either. [Men are granted leeway to still be ‘acceptable’ at much higher levels of fatness than women, but once they reach a certain fatness, they become “soft” and relegated into Other-ness.] Orthorexia is the new virtue. Women wish they could “catch a little anorexia” to lose weight. It is quite bad if you are very fat: Dysfunctional relationships with food and exercise are officially encouraged and praised because you are especially immoral if you are “morbidly obese”. Anorexic and purging behaviours are just fine as long as it turns you socially-acceptable slim. Other serious eating disorders such as Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Overeating Disorder are often not taken seriously because many sufferers are fat, and hey, if only they showed a little willpower they could stop eating and lose weight, right? Likewise, slimmer women with BED and COD are dismissed because they’re “so lucky” they can “eat all that food and not get fat!”. Sexism moulds recognition and treatment for eating disorders: The dominant image of EDs is of the damsel-in-distress, a fragile, starving, pretty white girl. Sympathy lacks for others: “not submissive enough!” is the judgement. (NB: The woman or girl with AN who fits that public stereotype is not to blame for her situation. As ever, I blame the patriarchy.) Very fat people are even encouraged to let surgeons mutilate their bodies to induce an eating disorder: gastric bypass and gastric banding are sold as cure-alls and the serious and life-altering side effects are glossed over. At least 85% of these surgeries are performed on women, many of whom do not even have any illnesses associated with being fat. And I do not blame them for trying desperate meaures: being considered sub-human all one’s life takes its toll.

Dieting and weight loss have another insidious control over women: inevitably, in nearly all cases, weight will be regained, and often more weight than was lost. Because women are sold the “Fantasy of Being Thin” (see the blog Shapely Prose for an excellent analysis of this) all their lives, that they will fulfill all their fantasies, hopes and dreams only once they lose weight, it results in psychological distress when 1. weight loss does not solve their life problems and 2. when their body “turns against them” and returns them to their previous weight or higher. We are made to feel like WE are the failures, rather than the people who sell us weight loss and diets. We are labelled failures when our bodies do what they naturally do.

A woman who refuses to submit to this damaging life is out-of-bounds, but can (whether she likes it or not) often “pass” because their body size is naturally smaller, and it is assumed that she is Good. The transgression is amplified when the woman is visibly fat: subjected to vitriol and abuse because she will not submit to the requirement to resemble an arbitrary beauty standard. And as slim women know, that’s still not good enough: there’s always something to criticise about womens’ bodies.

Women cannot win this game: the only way forward is to refuse to participate, a difficult task when the exits are guarded heavily. Feminists must take to task the anti-obesity crusaders: they are destroying your sisters and children, fat and thin, as much as misogynistic media, institutions, and anything else anti-woman. Once again, these crusades (for they are indeed a war of righteousness) are not about health: they are about controlling bodies and legitimising hatred of fat, and it’s womens’ heads on the pikes first. Be thin or die trying.

Molly // Posted 8 May 2008 at 3:51 am

Gotta say, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the direct line she draws from “Weight loss is possible” to “[t]he path of the eating disorder is yours to take.”

Do we really want to suggest that the only way to lose weight is eating disorders, or that all women who lose weight have disordered eating?

Y’know, I lost 50 lbs over the course of about a year; I went from obese to “healthy” (though I could always use a bit more outside activity!). I didn’t cultivate anorexia; if anything, I fought off the disordered eating that caused me to gain the weight in the first place: guilty hoarding, bingeing, two days of whoops-just-have a salad followed by two weeks of can’t-keep-that-up-have-three-desserts.

I just don’t like that in the quest for fat acceptance, we have to instead shame people who have chosen to throw off that *other* area of eating disorder. Just because anorexia and bulimia get all the press doesn’t mean they’re the only eating disorders out there. And just because someone loses weight doesn’t mean she’s a traitor to the cause.

Shea // Posted 8 May 2008 at 9:24 am

I think Jess you make a good point. It is a very short step from rigidly controlling what you eat to stopping altogether. A good friend of mine who had managed to quit smoking for 3 months (she used to smoke 40 a day!) has just started again because she put on 5lbs and well, like 68% of female smokers she’d rather get lung cancer than be fat. It is a catastrophic situation.

And of course all the demented women’s magazines are full of it. “Lose 10lbs for summer”, “get your body bikini ready” ( I don’t buy them anymore, unless I really want to indulge in some self hating). Its women hating at its best. Hate the grotesque thighs, the rounded ass. It’s gruesome, it really is.

Rooroo // Posted 8 May 2008 at 10:43 am

Molly – I was a little uncomfortable with that too. Congratulations on the loss, by the way! I lost about 10% of my body fat over the past year and a half and if anything, my relationship with food, exercise and my body is at its best.

One thing I intensly dislike about the messages that the dieting industries/supermarkets etc have put across is our polarised relationship with food: food is how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – there are so many messageboards where I see, “I’ve been so bad today/I cheated/I had some sinful food/must be good tomorrow”

Anne Onne // Posted 8 May 2008 at 12:48 pm

The focus should be on health. And it really isn’t.

Yes, there are health issues associated with a high proportion of body fat. It’s true that fostering a healthy diet and ahbits would benefit many people in the long term, and should be encouraged. I want to be careful and emphasise the importance of being aware of the risks (heart and diabetes) because I come from a high risk background, like many people do.

But the way society goes about this is wrong. Currently, it’s all about appearance, all about looking like a celebrity, fitting into clothes your body is not built to fit, and living up to some glamourous image that has little to do with physical reality.

Smoking is also bad for your health, and a lot worse that being in the overweight category. But it doesn’t get the same press, the same revulsion, the same comments from outsiders demanding you justify your lifestyle choice, telling you you’re killing yourself and nobody will love you, that youre repulsive. Why? Because smoking isn’t uncool. It doesn’t make you ‘ugly’. People get points for being un-PC and defending their right to smoke, but nobody ever wonders why people who are overweight aren’t given the same freedom over their choices.

Demonising food, and alienating people will not help anyone. It won’t help those who want to change, and it won’t help those who don’t. The current fad diets are usually also bad for your health (the Atkins diet, particularly, is appaling!!), and crash dieting is not doing the body any more of a favour than bingeing to begin with.

The emphasis should be on personal encouragement and support of people to be active, and wider availability of healthy foods, and wider awareness of what really is healthy. But in the end, people should be given the option of what they want to eat, and be treated like people, whatever their size. The obsession with guilting people reinforces problems we have with food, and makes it harder to have a balanced relationship with it. And in the end, people should be encouraged to treat themselves, and not miss out on everything!

Lisa // Posted 8 May 2008 at 1:24 pm

There is a real ‘gap in the market’ for health-focused material for women and I mean genuine health support. Fat really isn’t the priority. The number of women who do not exercise because it is ‘unfeminine’ (presumably because of the sweat !), who are drinking too much (presumably because of stress) and who are neglecting their psychological health (exercise is a great vaccine against depression) is tragic and heart-breaking. As the government and popular culture is failing so miserably in this regard, it has to be down to women’s groups and individual women to step up and do the necessary for themselves and girls (lifestyle habits are wll-established by the time of adolescence). There has to be a wide variety of physical activity available to suit all interests – running, team sports, dance, yoga, martial arts, sailing, horse riding – the wider the variety the more likely girls/women will find something which appeals. A female of any age who is sufficiently active automatically drinks lots of water, eats her 5 fruit/veg a day, has protein/carb balance etc because it’s necessary for her sport. The whole diet treadmill becomes irrelevant and women will find themselves liberated almost without noticing it. (BTW I speak from personal experience – I need exercise like I need sleep and water and without it life starts to go downhill pretty fast ! Fellow converts report the same)

Sarah // Posted 8 May 2008 at 1:38 pm

“and crash dieting is not doing the body any more of a favour than bingeing to begin with.”

This is probably true, but there’s also the fact that severely restricting food intake can actually trigger binging problems, both because of the physiological ‘starvation response’ where your body desperately starts to crave high-energy food, and because of the all-or-nothing thinking usually involved in strict dieting. That’s why it’s important for people recovering from bulimia or binge-eating disorder to stop dieting or restricting or purging, to break the self-perpetuating cycle of binge/starve/binge. Even in people who don’t have an eating disorder, I am sure that strict or extreme dieting causes problems for the same reason.

I realise some people might have the medical need to try to reduce their weight or body fat, but for most of us, it’s best to ignore diets and instead try to cultivate a balanced, healthy, enjoyable lifestyle (good food, in appropriate amounts, enjoyable forms of movement for physical and mental health etc), and accept the weight we settle at, even if it’s more than the currently fashionable weight. Diets and attempts to lose weight often do more harm than good.

That’s all easy to say, of course, and I struggle with it as much as anyone. But it’s worth trying to resist the lure of the diet industry, and live in a way that makes you healthy and happy.

Anne Onne // Posted 8 May 2008 at 5:49 pm

Lisa, Sarah, definitely. Severe dieting

To be honest, I wouldn’t call ideal healthy eating ‘dieting’, because of the really negative connotations of the word, in the way diets are curently enforced and seen. If someone genuinely wishes to cultivate a healthier life, I think the important part is to enjoy what you eat, and to not stick to ridiculous portions, or make it about sin, because feeling guilty every time youeat anything is not right.

We need encourangement and advice that encourages people to eat a lot of vegetables, and focuses more on that, and on genuinely healthy food, and how to balance that with ‘indulgences’ to reach something you are comfortable with, that is giving you the vitamins and nutrients that you need, but that is not constricting or causing you to feel sugar cravings and hunger the whole time. And that you ENJOY!

The best nutritional advice I’ve seen tells people to eat healthy snacks often (and eat loads, as much as they want, of healthier food), and not deny themselves totally when it comes to less healthy food, and it works so much better than severely limiting what people eat and guilt-tripping them, because nobody can stay on the wagon of a ridiculous diet forever, and the demonisation of enjoyable food just makes people feel worse when they do finally cave. Unfortunately, any useful advice on how to find a balance that works for you, involving lots of varied healthy food, and the odd indulgence, doesn’t sell half as well as the ‘eat nothing but celery and lose a stone in a week!’ diets.

Katie Muller // Posted 9 May 2008 at 12:42 pm

Molly – the leap from ‘weight loss is possible’ to ‘the path of eating disorders is yours to take’ was made to illustrate thinking that was specific to anorexics, not all women. It was not to imply that all women who lose weight have eating disorders.

I think that if you lost weigth by eating healthily and finding balance, that is fantastic and as great a triumph as if i could gain weight in the same way. I do however suspect that what you accomplished by warding off disorderded eating and improving your health puts you in a minority because many more women succumb to fad diets and appallingly disordered eating in their attempts to lose the dreaded fat. If only there was more emphasis on gaining health than losing fat! But so much needs to change in our minds and society at large for that to happen. Anyone who can fight the system is a hero.

Also, I realise that there are other eating disorders out there that don’t get press because the sufferers are not skeletons. That is just proof of how intolerant the media is to fat. It’s appalling because any eating disorder is awful and destructive.

By the way, I wrote this article in the hope that i could start a discussion. This is great. It it is a bit nerve-wrecking putting an article on the web (exposure feels dangerous) so it is good to get positive responses. There is so much i would like to respond to, unpicking these issues should be part of recovery.

Sam Jones // Posted 9 May 2008 at 7:42 pm

I think that the big issue with fat today is all about consumerism. In “The Beauty Myth” it mentions several times is that the beauty ideal held by the media is always designed to be that which is the least obtainable so that the media can sell the most potions and lotions that claim they can make you that way. Unfortunately it has also latched onto the health market stating fat is unhealthy. On the contrary, there are probably many people considered “overweight” and therefore socially unacceptable who end up making themselves ill by buying into all of this and eating a weight-watchers microwavable chemical-fest rather than having a sensible meal with real vegetables in it. It’s just all very sad. Real scientists have never claimed that all fat is bad, and recent discoveries have pointed out that having fat under your skin can have a protective effect on the body against fat that can surround the bodily organs. At the end of the day it all comes down to eat what you like so long as you have a fairly balanced diet, exercise in a way that you enjoy and learn to love who you are. : )

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