'Why diet and exercise don’t work’ shrieks the headline from a fairly respected local magazine as I stand at the supermarket checkout with a bunch of fruit and milk. It's lunchtime, and I'm experiencing the still-novel sensation of being the least-fat person in the building, having lost around a third of my bodyweight a couple of years back. It’s not that I’m anything approaching slender- thickset is my morphological middle name- it’s just that everyone around me is fucking enormous.
As a forty-something punter I've been party to the entire extraordinary arc of personal expansion afflicting Western society, but still, it's scarcely creditable, even when explicitly exemplified as it is today. Every last one of the variously fat people nearby are unloading home brand fizzy drinks, shitty icecream, bags of biscuits and frozen yellow-encrusted shit from their trolleys onto the checkout conveyor, having completed the most strenuous part of their day- collecting that rubbish from the supermarket shelves and wheeling it to their cars. Diet and exercise don’t work. Someone should have told that to the junk I lost, well... dieting and exercising; it might have stuck around. Or come back.
I watch some of the significantly oversized people around me read the same headline and wonder if they take comfort from that declaration or despair at its toneless finality, trying to remember what I thought about that stuff when I was fat. A little bit of both, I suppose. Then I bag up my shit and walk home.
I’ve already banged out a few pieces on this painful and highly contentious subject. Before we begin this particular series of observational ramblings about weight loss, fitness and the sustainable habits that have worked for me, let’s get one thing absolutely crystal clear. This is not a fat-shaming, concern-trolling exercise. But I’m not going to pull any fucking punches, either. Being fat sucks arse for most people, despite the mass of fan-fic and commodification that is steadily gathering pace around it. I write for all my fat-and-over-it contemporaries and I certainly intend my observations to be a positive contribution to a topic soaked in hatred and disputation. Everyone else can go about their business without paying any of this a single speck of mind. This is just what I think.
I think we have established that. Even the models and athletes who supposedly embody this standard in the media do not, in reality, conform to it. I’m a photographer who uses photo manipulation software and am therefore aware of the extent to which published images are tweaked, but I worry that a lot of people are not. Even paparazzi shots, so often accepted by the unsuspecting masses as the epitome of candour, are usually quite heavily worked by the time they appear online or in print. Nutty, isn’t it? Our projected reality is now so thoroughly edited by hostile curators that we have truly lost sight of one of our most basic perpetual horizons; what a truly healthy human being looks like.
Let’s break all this crazy shit down into more easily understood principles. Why does the average person participate in this damaging delusion? Because we are primates. Primates tend to adopt the habits and preferences exhibited by high-status individuals in their social orbits. When a low-status monkey learns to wash dirt from food, other monkeys will ignore this beneficial behaviour unless it is modelled by a high-ranking contemporary (confidence and initiative are generally intrinsic to high status- let's keep that close to our hearts). So it makes sense that the human herd tends to accept the standards and behaviours exhibited by perceived high-ranking individuals. Other monkeys are more fortunate than us in that their archetypal tendencies are not exploited by corporate interests; no one is paying Alpha Macaque to show up to an event in an Atelier-whatever gown after fifty grand’s worth of surgery so their associated brands can sell bronzer or Bentleys or buttlifts.
This is just one of the reasons to loathe popular normative standards of any description; because they are now based on fucked up commercial imperatives and not the organic fundamentals that should underpin our ideas of healthful beauty. Nothing will convince me that a Bentley or a buttlift will make you a more valuable person. It could be pretty easily and not too subjectively argued that owning either marks you as less worthy of regard, but I won’t go into that now.
So, let’s reiterate this valuable foundational principle: people do dumb shit, even to our own detriment because we are socially conservative monkeys. And then there’s the timeless nobody really looks like that, not even the people in the photographs.
Accept this; let the idea of that visual fiction soak though the muscles of your face and into your brain. Really swallow it down, because unfortunately, we are have all been programmed to resist the simple organic realities that support mental and physical health. No one can monetise wild-type self-acceptance. It is the enemy of the sleazy, pitiless capital that sculpts and drives what we are trained to believe.
We should have binned all this damaging aesthetic fascism fifty years ago, and I’m delighted that diversity is finally making its way into public representations of femininity. Beauty belongs in the eye of the individual beholder. Other peoples’ aesthetic preferences should be so irrelevant as to be none of our fucking business, basically; in any balanced, salubrious society such things are trivialities. You know we are collectively doomed when the physical attributes of distant strangers command as much attention as armed conflict and the decay of democracy, etc.
BUT YOU KNOW, TRANSGRESSION IS NOT REALLY AN ACHIEVEMENT IN ITSELF
Being too fat is not the opposite of complying with an odious standard.
I wish I hadn’t taken so long to learn that.
If this sounds like concern-trolling to you, it is not intended as such. If anyone had suggested to my face that I should lose weight with a view to being a bit more pleasing unto their eye, I would have cracked them in the fucking mouth, and women in general have been too passive in their rejection of such greasy, oppressive garbage. True and effective rejection of tyranny necessitates the construction of a viable alternative. We need to take the energy we're devoting to fat acceptance and invest it in linking self-esteem and perceptions of attractiveness to individual wellbeing.
WHO IS FAT, THEN, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
If we reject a ridiculously exclusive ‘beauty’ standard, what is fatness, really?
I suggest overweight should mean you are carrying too much fat to be as happy and as healthy as you would personally prefer. We could be stricter and more objective and say fatness is all about whether or not your health and potential are negatively affected regardless of your personal opinion, because that’s relatively easy to establish on an individual basis. Your fatness isn't a matter of communal aesthetic judgement; it is your distance from wholistic wellbeing.
After reading the literature from both a fat-apologist and a more health-inclined angle in accordance with my own venal imperatives, the evidence is pretty unassailable; being too fat really is comprehensively bad for us. I wish I had better news; I wouldn't have felt compelled to write all this shit for a start. Believe me when I say I scoured the studies and busted my arse trying to interpret their conclusions in my favour when I was fat. But there's no getting around it. While being slightly overweight can actually improve some of your health outcomes, especially recovery from crisis (this makes sense in the context of any animal that has reserves onboard), anything more than this can have effects that reach far beyond sartorial frustration into profound systemic disorder; clinical depression, hormonal and mitochondrial dysfunction, wholesale inflammation (perhaps the most serious precursory state), cancer, infertility, dementia, disability and grossly premature death, depending on circumstance and phenotype.
I'm not making any of that up. Looking good in a pencil skirt is cool, but knowing your bloodwork is fucked up, your knees are going to blow out and your fupa is rolling the cancer dice is what should concern you most. My dad died of oesophageal cancer and I watched that happen. He didn't know being overweight was a significant risk factor; I do now, so now I'm telling you.
Being too fat is also harmful psychologically. It fucked with me, and I don't really take shit from anyone. For one thing, I could never have written truthfully and positively about my own experiences if I was still nursing all those extra kilos and that is just one small, moist crumb of the experiential cake I was missing out on. You could argue all day that the mental/emotional impact is an artefact of the social toxicities currently being swept away by fat acceptance. But celebrating detrimental fatness is like congratulating someone for burning holes in their arm with a magnifying glass for the above-stated physiological reasons, even if you want to leave the less quantifiable psychological shit out of the equation. While it is socially vital to embrace physical difference, why are we attempting to legislate against the use of grotesquely underweight runway models whilst (increasingly) fêting the opposite?
Fat acceptance, eh? I don't think we should be accepting such a shitty deal for ourselves. Pretending to be happy being seriously fat is like orbiting a dead sun. Fatness is, at very best, an indifferent state; it radiates nothing, and that hungry vacancy exerts its gravity on so much of the rest of you. It's not that you're not entitled to and worthy of happiness when you're fat, it's that positive sources of happiness are fucking hard to find and maintain when you're dragging all that adipose around with you. Like the plight of the anorexic who worships at the other end of the calamitous scale- trying to train oneself to love being too big is a hiding to nothing. So many of our habits, attitudes and preferences are contorted by the psychic weight of fatness that we lose sight of the scope of its influence.
If you can find lasting auto-esteem in a mumu shop trying to tell yourself you look great when you'd be better off spending those dollars on nutritious food and walking shoes, you're tougher than I ever was. We are in distress when we are too fat. If you saw a Humpback Whale with a net caught round its tail would you A: want to help untangle that shit or B: buy it an XXXL bikini and post the pics on Instagram?
Fat acceptance boosters can slap back all they like with tales of plus-sized awesomeness but I think it's deeply unethical to polish a pandemic into an exculpatory consensus. When I say being fat largely sucks, it's because I have the privilege of viewing it from an objective distance as it recedes and becomes historical, a perspective apparently denied to roughly 95% of those who try to ditch the blubber. It's almost as though I know what the fuck I'm talking about and don't even want to sell you anything.
Being healthy and happy with yourself physically is entirely distinct from conforming to any stereotype. Wellbeing is a positive, fruitful, pragmatic truth from which benefit and ability emanate like interstellar rays, on levels you are not always conscious of. Feeling good and capable in yourself even when everything else is going to hell around you; I didn’t realise how much I missed this invaluable foundation, and how much its absence had deformed me. My life is still a sloppy bucket of mixed fortunes, but there's a lot more globs of yes/I can/what if I/that was easy/that felt good floating in its obscure soup. They glitter. And displace a fuckload of garbage water.
Fat acceptance is fucking ridiculous. It is just as much of a synthetic conceit as the bony ideal. No one should want it for themselves or anyone else.
Normal is blurring and receding in two unhappy directions. I had to spend two hard years establishing its whereabouts for myself and it's still an elusive little fucker a lot of the time. But it can be done, and most of us can get there, even after twenty years of self-delusion and shitty habits. More about that next time.