I was looking at a gif on my Facebook news feed the other day of a painting of a women from olden times. I don’t have the mental clarity right now to retrieve the right style/period of art but she was naked, reclined and quite round in her form. Certainly not a gym junkie. She looked very nonchalant and at ease. I can’t imagine a woman of her proportions being celebrated as an artistic centrepiece today – and it got me thinking.
So today I’m coming at this experience of chronic illness from a bit of a different angle.
(Because chronic illness is like a shiny crystal that sort of looks like the gateway portal in Stargate …taking you to a mysterious and intriguing universe….of…let’s be real, crap. Lesson: think carefully before jumping through mysterious portals)
Can you guess where I’m going? I’m actually feeling pressured already to convey this as best I can because this topic is already super saturated and has so much emotional charge around it at a social level that I don’t want to get swept away into the same tired debates that surround the issue of: *drum roll* weight! Yes we all have bodies, some are proportionally fatter than others. This is a FACT! We know this. Why is this such an emotional issue though?
It seems like a person’s weight, particularly if they’re overweight, is just one of those topics that virtually everyone is ready to weigh in on (pun fully intended) and I’m not taking the high road because it holds a morbid fascination for me too. And I sort of hate that about myself but it’s so ubiquitous to pass comments on peoples’ appearances now – and for women especially, the composition of her body.
On a personal level, I’m now the biggest I’ve been as an adult. About four sizes higher than before I fell ill. That’s a big change whoever you are. I immediately feel the need to qualify that statement by saying (for all the people who seem to jump on this issue with the full force of inexplicably previously unseen but apparently passionate concern for the wellbeing of a stranger):
It’s not because I overeat (my appetite is generally very low)
It’s not because I am lazy
It’s not because I don’t give a shit about my health
It’s not because I have self-confidence issues (I do, everyone does but I don’t blame myself for the way my body looks and I like who I am)
Yes, I am unwell – this is unfortunate
Yes I am very sedentary – this is largely beyond my control (for now)
Yes I know (a lot) about nutrition and the risks of being overweight
Now that that’s out of the way. The crux of what I want to dig into is the way we respond to people based on their weight because I have not always been overweight. This is crucial and I will come back to it.
I have gone up and down during my life – in part I believe because I had this illness (Lyme Disease) that has been messing with me on many levels for a long time – hormones, food intolerances, fatigue, anaemia, just always having less stamina than other young people. But in many ways this fostered in me a deeper interest in my health from a young age so I became dedicated to exercise in early highschool – let’s be honest because of vanity (I was a teenage girl, c’mon) but also because I liked it – the body knows what it’s doing with endorphins. It’s a little treat every time you get up and move around.
(This is totally what endorphins look like, for real.)
I miss endorphins so much now that I’m mostly couch-bound. I miss exercise to the extent that I ache with sadness about it. I have periodically attempted low levels of exercise in the years I’ve been unwell and without fail it has massively set me back. I’m talking about 2 mins gently using an elliptical machine, or about 8 repetitions with a bar (no extra weights) for upper body weight work. These attempts have sent me into months of intractable insomnia as the extra stress on my body pushed my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and my body couldn’t cope, and in one case it took me to ER because my arm swelled up.
Realistically I probably need professional help to move now. This is a really hard thing to grapple with for someone who used to push themselves to do a Pump (weights class) for 45mins at the gym and then follow it up with 20-30mins on the cardio machines, going hard enough to get my heart rate right up. Now when my heart rate goes up I’m lying on the couch and it’s the disease messing with me.
Even though I exercised a lot I never looked really toned (I’ve struggled to build muscle, possibly due to Lyme too) but I did lose weight and people treat you differently when you look slimmer or fatter. Very much so. I’ve been teased for being overweight as a kid and people made assumptions about my personality – that I was lazy or gluttonous. Then when I lost weight I received huge amounts of praise and as I met people who didn’t know me before the change, they would say things to me that made me really uncomfortable.
Like the time I was travelling and this gorgeous Canadian girl who I had befriended on a tour, who I thought was basically the stereotype of a pretty, blond, cheerleader in appearance confided as a joke how her brother used to play a game and pretend to hit on fat girls at parties and his friends would watch and laugh. She assumed because I was slim that I had never been overweight, and that I would think it was funny too. I didn’t, but I didn’t say anything about how horrible that comment made me feel at the time.
Then later that night we were at a nightclub and I wanted to dance and this beautiful girl cringed and said “You’re hot, you can get away with it” and I was stunned. I’d never thought of myself that way, I’d never imagined that dancing was limited to attractive people and I was astonished that someone as traditionally attractive as her would be so insecure. I wonder now if her jerk brother’s behaviour had influenced the way she felt about appearance and made her so self-conscious? It was disturbing.
I’ve also been hit on so much more when I’ve been in a certain weight range. Being fairly shy when this started happening in my teens I felt really taken aback. This guy at one point when I was travelling said to me, almost baffled, “you’re so nice for someone so pretty”. Like being a good person and being attractive can’t coexist? But I was very humble and quiet then because I was used to being treated ‘less than’ before I lost weight so maybe that was what he was picking up on.
Now it just makes me feel angry and frustrated with the world because regardless of how much fat I’ve carried, I’ve still been essentially the same person. I’m sure others can relate to this experience of being treated completely differently based on your body composition. If you’ve remained steadily at one sort of size throughout your life then maybe you won’t be able to relate but honestly it’s quite the headfuck. I think it also explains how people (including me at times) can become obsessed with trying to lose weight – when it’s reinforced through social experience so many times that this is more acceptable, attractive and just plain easier to get through the world as, then why wouldn’t you strive for that?
But I’m in an interesting predicament now because I have, through no fault of my own (I actually inexplicably gained about 20kg in a period of a few months after falling ill including a time when I had gastro for several weeks – so, you know, if anything I was in negative food energy intake) expanded to a size that society would deem ‘too big’. For who I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong, I personally believe this is too much weight for me to carry. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unhealthy. But that’s up to me to decide – and maybe my Dr. The thing is, it’s part of a larger picture where I have a lot of health issues going on: nervous system dysfunction, hormone imbalances, my immune system is struggling as evidenced by recent blood tests – my body is clearly struggling on many levels. But sometimes when I am out or meeting new people (not often because of the severity of this illness) I just wish I looked more like myself. That I didn’t have to deal with being overweight on top of everything – and part of me thinks it’s ludicrous that being overweight bothers me almost as much as when I have uncontrollable body shaking or I’m literally paralysed with fatigue. Being fat should not be on the same level as these issues. I’m working on my perspective on this all the time and I’ll keep working – it’s hard even as a grown ass woman to ignore all the messages that tell women your worth is based on your size and attractiveness.
I don’t want to get into the debate about body positivity and health that so often comes up with this issue. I will say though, even if someone is overweight and unhealthy and you don’t think that’s great, being harsh, critical or offering ‘tough love’ is probably a waste of time. If someone is overweight because of negative habits then that really is their business and life is stressful, lots of people adopt all kinds of negative habits – it just turns out being overweight is really bloody obvious at an immediate, superficial level so it’s easy to make snap judgements. My view: be supportive, try to lift people up and make them feel good – rather than cutting them down. Fat people are people too (I should not even need to write that, my god) and often, as has been my experience, they aren’t just ‘fat people’ they are someone who is overweight in that moment in time.
My main point is that when we look at another person, unless they’re a friend or we know them somehow, we really can’t judge what’s going on for them and even if we are close to them why so often do we feel justified in judging this particular aspect of someone else’s life? So many times I’ve been overweight or what society deems as ‘attractive’ and people in both instances have treated me like my body isn’t dynamic, like my weight is somehow fixed and representative of my deeper personal qualities. This is bullshit. Nothing will piss me off more than someone who doesn’t know me making a snap judgement about me based on how I look – particularly now I’m unwell and have little control over what my body is doing.
This sort of thing is not superficial in the long run: it has messed with my self-perception, caused me deep confusion, shame at times and led me to obsess over my body size. I’m much more mellow now – partly because I am physically incapable of following some sort of intense exercise/diet regime to achieve the kind of appearance that makes people tell me I’m pretty and causes strangers to look me up and down like an object as they decide whether they’d like to sleep with me. But despite all of this I still want to feel and look good. Life is easier when you fit an acceptable mould. But no one said life was meant to be easy, right?
What was the point of all this? I guess maybe I’d like it if we could all work to take people at more than face value, that we don’t make assumptions about someone and their life based on how they look right now and that we appreciate that every person has value regardless of how they appear. I think this is achievable and would be pretty bloody awesome move on the part of society at large. Let’s not relegate anyone to a stereotype because they look a certain way today. Because all those preconceptions crumble into ash when that person changes – and let’s be honest, we’re all changing, all the time, this is what life does. We know this. Now let’s go out and be kind to other people. Multi-faceted, layered, people… with stories and dreams and challenges they’re overcoming every day. You know, people – not bodies.