A Body Positive Woman's Reflections, And Struggles, With Weight Gain (Wait, Am I A Hypocrite?)
For the last two years, I have considered myself body-positive. To my mind, this means that I accept all bodies in their current forms, regardless of the social acceptability allocated unto them or the mainstream beauty standards that (let's face it) permeate so much of our world. I do not assume that thin people "eat like birds" or spend their lives jogging, nor do I assume that fat people are lazy, unintelligent folk who never get off the couch. Our bodies are fabulous assets and a means to existence and survival, not to mention, a gateway toward self-expression.
To be body-positive is to apply all of the above to every single body out there, including my own.
When I began considering myself a body-pos activist, so to speak, I was a size 18/20. I was wobbly and jiggly in lots of places. But I didn’t really feel particularly huge – despite the fact that I was considered "overweight," and even "obese" by some medical, and social, standards (and I won't go into whether or not these standards are questionable, because we know that they generally are). I was still able. I could walk for miles on end. I could swim and dance. In short, I never felt limited by my body. I never felt it presented me with any physical obstacles, as so many people seem to think that fat bodies do. I shouted from the rooftops that I was in love with my fat, and that I would never, ever allow anyone to make me feel unworthy or "less than" in the future.
An article about my fat pride in the local newspaper, The Liverpool Echo, circa June 2013.
The thing is, I have since gained a substantial amount of weight. I am now a size 20/22 at 5'6", and this weight gain has coincided with a quite a few changes to my physicality. For much of this year, I was almost immobile and suffering with excruciating lower back pain. The fact that my belly is much larger makes simple things slightly more complicated – think tying shoelaces. I became so angry and frustrated with my body because it felt like it was no longer allowing me to do the things I wanted to do. I couldn't walk for more than five minutes before needing to sit down, let alone for a few miles. My back pain was unbearable. And since I don’t drive, these changes had an enormous effect on my daily life. Despite being as body-positive as I intrinsically am (or, thought I was?), it was incredibly difficult to come to terms with what was happening to me.
My appearance on ITV's Daybreak earlier this year, debating obesity with Dr. Hilary Jones.
And so, I saw my doctor. He, somewhat predictably, told me that the lower back pain was due to my weight gain and that if I wanted my pain to ease, then the solution was simple: lose weight. To his credit, he performed an actual examination before telling me that all my problems were down to my fat body, which is more than many doctors have done in the past.
I was referred to physiotherapy and attended my first and only appointment. Upon asking me to touch the floor, my physiotherapist noticed that I am able to place my hands flatly on the ground, and that my knees bend backwards, rather like a flamingo. His interest was piqued, which led to another series of basic tests that examined my joints. The results, you may ask? I am hyper-mobile (I know, what does that even mean?).
To be hyper-mobile is, essentially, to have a wider range of motion in every single one of your joints than the average person. In and of itself, this is not a problem. In fact, many dancers and gymnasts use their hyper-mobility to their advantage since it allows for greatly increased flexibility. The problems arise when the joints are weak: the strain from the increased range of motion is too much for them, which causes the surrounding muscles to become worn and inflamed. My physiotherapist told me that my problem is, in fact, Hypermobility Syndrome. He actually did not mention my fatness a single time. Not once. Because, in reality, it was not the root of the problem.
I had mixed emotions surrounding this diagnosis. On the one hand, it was manageable: core-strengthening exercises would change my life, or so I was told. However, the condition is permanent (though some say their hyper-mobility improves with age as joints inevitably stiffen up).
I became angry and frustrated with my body all over again. Being flexible when you are a kid is fun (oh, the days of climbing trees and hopping fences), and it certainly has its uses as an adult (ahem!). But if the pain and discomfort were the downside, the whole situation seemed like a pretty poor trade off.
This change in my level of physical ability became incredibly depressing. I began to despise my body all over again, blaming it for all of my problems in the day-to-day. My decreased mobility caused my relationship to deteriorate. I fell so behind with my housework that I became ashamed to invite anyone in. Dishes were left piled high in the kitchen for weeks, or months, on end because standing hunched over the sink was too painful for me to bear. Even my beloved cats suffered as their litter trays were emptied less regularly than they should have been. After around six months of this reduced mobility, I entered the throes of isolation and loneliness to scary, harmful levels.
By this time, I didn't just blame my body for being weak – I blamed that weakness on my fat. If I were thinner, my joints would not be so strained and then they would hurt less, right? Well, not exactly. Being thinner couldn't, and wouldn't, solve the problem in my case. Perhaps it could alleviate the symptoms to a degree, but even thin, my joints would remain weak and unstable. And then what would happen if I ever got pregnant and suddenly had to carry extra weight? Or, heaven forbid, if a diet didn't work, and I regained the weight? This happens in the case of 83% of dieters over two years, because the diet industry is not designed to create sustainable weight loss. That would mean no repeat customers, after all. In sum, I would be back to where I started.
After a lot of despair and self-loathing, the key became clear: I had to work at strengthening my joints. So I took up Aqua Aerobics, and twice a week I had a great time splashing around in a pool with 30 other aquatically-bobbing lovelies. I invested in a Pilates DVD, a yoga ball and the accompanying mat. I replaced my office chair with the ball for an hour each day to force myself not to hunch over my desk. As a back-up, I even got a prescription for some high-strength painkillers from my doctor, for the really bad days.
None of it worked. Not even a little bit. Not at all.
The spiral of deep depression ensued, and I just stopped everything: living, working, eating. I slept for days and days. I stayed away from my desk and my computer.
But after just two weeks of not sitting at my desk – of not being constantly hunched forward over my keyboard – something incredible began to happen. My back stopped hurting. I first noticed it on Guy Fawkes Night when my boyfriend and I went to a firework display at our local park. The last time I walked to the park was in September, and on that occasion it took around 20 minutes to walk half a mile. But on the 5th of November (which I will always remember), we had to get there fast in order to ensure a spot at the firework display. To my amazement, I was able to walk fast enough to get to the park within ten minutes, without needing to pause for a break even once. I was absolutely thrilled! Last week, I walked four miles in one afternoon, whilst carrying two bags and keeping pace with my power-walking partner. And I was in no pain (admittedly, there quite a bit of sweat – but who even cares?!).
My body is just as fat. My joints are just as weak. But I no longer hurt. I had been convinced that the problem was with my body and its inability to cope with day-to-day life. But it turns out, the issue was actually my office chair, and the way I sit in it. I have a terrible habit of hunching forwards over my desk and keyboard, and sitting in the same position for hours on end. Over the course of time, this has weakened the muscles in my lower back, which is especially bad for me being that my joints are already prone to wonkiness.
Coming to this realization was absolutely incredible. The joy I felt in being able to walk somewhere and have it not be painful is very hard to describe. I believe the words I used at the time were that I felt "like a new woman,". But at the risk of this descending into serious hyperbole, I genuinely feel I have gotten my life back.
I continue to exercise to strengthen my joints, because obviously strong ones are always a good thing to have. But my body is not the enemy I had considered it to be for such a long time.
In retrospect, what I find the most frustrating about this whole scenario is that I was left hating myself and my body because of my size and weight. I felt like such a hypocrite – how can I truly be a body-positive woman when I have been so negative toward my own? I began to ask myself whether I was actually body-positive, or whether my positivism only applied to bodies within certain parameters; parameters outside of those which my own had now expanded to.
I have been so conflicted, ashamed and lonely; feeling unable to share my concerns with the body-positive community for fear of being branded a fraud (which I'm sure wouldn't have happened, but my own anxiety successfully convinced me that I was the WORST. PERSON. EVER).
I guess what I'm really trying to say is that my body was never the enemy, and if I can just keep that in mind in the future, we will have a long and happy life together. Generally speaking, whenever we find ourselves with health concerns the first thing we blame is our bodies. Even those of us with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety tell ourselves that we will be happier if we could just lose weight. This kind of thinking is often supported by the medical profession too. I have even been known to joke that if I weren't fat, my doctor would not know what to say to me, considering the suggested treatment for absolutely everything that has ever been wrong with me is to simply lose weight.
I am not a medical expert or a scientist, so I wouldn't go so far as to say that being fat never has its risks, but I do know that fat cannot be blamed for the vast number of diseases and conditions for which it so often receives credit – for which the fatness itself is deemed a disease. The danger of this thinking is that when fat is not the true cause of an illness, the real issue is overlooked. And personally, I find that pretty disgusting.
What I have learned from all of this is that even the most body-positive people have their off days. We all do! Days when our hair won't do as it's told, or when none of our clothes look quite right, or our skin breaks out for no apparent reason WHAT-SO-EVER. That is just human nature. And this knowledge reassures me that I am not, in fact, a hypocrite. I am just a human.
Images: Emily Louise Holton; Daniel Yates