One side-effect of having an undiagnosed condition that causes fatigue and abnormal blood sugar control, a hormonal irregularity that nobody is treating, acting as a guinea pig for a range of different medications and the blanket of depression that is now covering all of it, is that you tend to put on weight. I gained about 4 stone over the course of a few years, much of it incredibly quickly. I should clarify that whilst I was overweight I still had the privilege of being a size 16-18 which meant I could shop at most high-street stores all be it for a limited selection of their range. I am also tall, which means that I carried the weight slightly differently and “could get away with it” as so many people would tell me, like I was carrying out a crime right in front of their eyes. I can only imagine how much worse the experiences of people, particularly women, in bigger bodies can be.
With that in mind, this is my experience of living inside a bigger body, and it was not the jolly time that I had been promised. It was actually, pretty awful. Not because of an overwhelming sense that I was robbing the NHS of its funds or because of my collapsing knees, but rather because of the expectation that people who looked like me would be experiencing exactly that.
Women have been raised to fear being fat. If you grew up in the 90s like me your mother was probably a regular devotee of WeightWatchers, or “fatty club” as my mother used to call it. Every Thursday I would sit in the car whilst mum would dash into the village hall (half-starved because she didn’t want to eat beforehand) and be weighed by a passive-aggressive woman call Carol. She, and all the other mums, would religiously count their calories and live on low-fat cottage cheese in an attempt to lose weight. They were all, without exception, very thin. One friend’s mum even suggested that you weren’t dieting hard enough if you weren’t fainting. We were 15.
I am not blaming my mum, or any of the other mums in that line, (except fainting mum, obviously). We grew up in a culture where being fat was the worst thing you could be. We were raised to be fearful of fat, not let ourselves succumb to it. And so it follows, that being the “fat friend” can be an awkward role to take. The elephant in the room, if you will.
Being friends with an overweight girl:
· Don’t assume it’s ok to borrow your overweight friend’s clothes. Firstly, they will hang on you in a different way to how they hang on her. This is the way that is generally seen as more desirable by society, and will be the way she first saw them displayed on a mannequin or the model on the website. She may well be happy with how she looks in the clothes, but seeing you in them may also make her feel like shit. Secondly, it is an unfair exchange if you can borrow her clothes when she cannot borrow yours. Saying things like “I love this baggy jumper” are also not helpful.
· Don’t talk numbers. This actually goes when talking to anyone. There is no need to discuss your weight with your friends, especially if you know that some of them have issues with their appearance. I remember vividly a close friend of mine telling me she had, at one stage, been 11 stone. “I was a big girl” she said, laughing at the idea anybody could be 11 stone. I sat there, weighing considerably more than that, wondering what that made me.
· Don’t tell her she isn’t overweight. I was clinically overweight and had to shop in plus-size sections of shops. Whatever your view, I was objectively at the bigger end of the spectrum. This in itself didn’t (initially) bother me. It is a fact after all; blonde hair, blue eyes, overweight. What bothered me was the insistence by some people that I wasn’t, the implication always being that being fat was the worst thing I could be. “I’m quite chubby” was met with “No, you look nice!”. Those are different things. When she says she is overweight she is not insulting herself, because being overweight is not an insult.
· Don’t offer her help if she hasn’t asked. The other response to saying you are overweight is, of course, the unsolicited advice. When I describe my hair as blonde you would not immediately suggest ways I could dye it lest somebody think I was stupid because of it. When I describe my skin as pale you would not immediately suggest we go and buy me some fake tan in case somebody assumed I was not well travelled. So when I describe myself as overweight, do not suggest we go to the gym together, or both stop eating, or I “hide the biscuits”.
· Don’t say that you are also overweight when you are not. When my BMI is over 25 (clinically overweight) or over 30 (obese) and I mention that I feel uncomfortable or insecure because I am bigger than a lot of people I know, do not offer as a consolation that you are also overweight, whilst standing there in size 8 jeans and my “baggy jumper”. I am not denying that you may well feel just as insecure about your body as I do, but until a sales person has announced loudly to you in Topshop that they “don’t make skirts in your size” in front of a queue of people, you don’t know how I feel.
Of course, girls who work at Topshop are not the only ones who want to shout their opinion about you being overweight. When you are thin, people do not generally feel the need to include that detail about you when they are angry or disappointed in you – how often have you heard anyone say “what would you know, you thin bitch?”, or “I don’t know, some stupid thin girl”. Being overweight leads people to assume that you are stupid, and also awful. God forbid you should accidentally push into somebody on the train, or take the last muffin at a coffee shop. Typical fat cow. When I was thin I had a huge appetite. When I was fat, I was greedy.
Many people will claim they are concerned for the health of overweight people, and that is why they will tell overweight people they are overweight all of the time. You know, in case they aren’t aware. That is why overweight people shouldn’t be on TV, or on the cover of magazines, because they are promoting “fatness”. The argument being, I suppose, that only healthy people should be visible. Healthy people like Kate Moss when she was shoving cocaine up her nose and telling young girls that being skinny felt better than tasting actual food. Healthy people like rock stars having their photographs taken whilst jamming heroin into their veins. Healthy people like Beyoncé when she was only eating maple syrup and lemon juice for some unknown reason.
I will believe the people who claim that they want fat people removed from all visible places and positions of influence for health reasons when they also demand that smokers, recreational drug users, everyone who doesn’t consume their five a day, everyone who regularly skips a workout, and, crucially, every single fashion model with a BMI below 19 are banished from public life. Until then, I will just assume you are a dickhead. But the world, it turns out, is full of dickheads. Despite knowing that I was overweight, people felt the need to remind me of it regularly. You know, just in case my house didn’t have mirrors or I hadn’t looked down recently.
Of course, there are those out there who make no attempt to cloak their hatred of you as a concern for your well being. These are the cat-callers. It is a special type of aggressive misogyny that effects bigger women, a brand of misogyny that doesn’t just want to intimidate you because you are female, but also wants to make it clear you are absolutely undesirable. They will cat-call you simply to tell you they don’t want to fuck you, a fat-call, if you will. The men whose only shred of respect for a woman is directly linked to how “fuckable” they deem her, are bemused by the existence of overweight women. The message is clear; “I don’t want to have sex with you, so why do you exist?”
Of course, unsolicited and damaging comments about women’s bodies from men do not always play out as insults hurled from van windows, they can be subtle and come from the people you love. It is not always somebody screaming at you to eat less, sometimes it is simply somebody taking away your plate before you have finished dinner.
We first started dating because options were thin on the ground. Honestly. I was stuck working at home, all my friends had gone to university and I hadn’t dated anyone for ages. We were introduced and quickly found out that neither of us drank alcohol. What an absolutely excellent basis for a 3-year relationship. However, the reason for his not drinking – the fact he was a personal trainer – eventually led to a lot more problems than the occasional beer ever would have.
People often describe their partners as their “other half” and whilst I would never use this phrase (because it’s gross and weird and sounds like something somebody called Beverly would say about Geoff at a dinner party) I do think that the longer you are with somebody the closer you get to being a single ‘unit’. This is why when your partner completes a Masters degree or climbs Everest you feel a swelling of pride, and why when they shout racist abuse or get caught weeing in public you end up feeling half the shame. It also means that you begin to see each other as an extension of yourself. And so there is a problem, it seems, when half of your unit is slaving away at the gym for rock-hard abs, and the other is lying in bed at home, unable to walk to the shops. The problem, you would be forgiven for thinking, is how upset and concerned “rock-hard-abs” would be for “stuck-in-bed”, but you would be wrong. The problem, it turns out, is that one of you is fat.
For a myriad of confusing medical reasons, for a long time, my hunger really had no logical link to the amount of food or calories I consumed. I could go days feeling nauseated and barely eating anything, and then within 24 hours become a ravenous madwoman determined to consume everything in my path.
We are standing in the kitchen and we have just finished dinner. My body doesn’t seem to realise we have just finished dinner, and I am starving. I am also visibly shaking. I start to rifle through the cupboards to see if there is anything to satiate this bizarre wave of hunger. I can’t find anything and the room is getting a little bit blurry. I ask him to help me find something, I really don’t feel well, I explain. “Are you sure you need anything else?” he asks, raised eyebrow. I snaffle a single jaffa cake and eat it quickly, ashamed.
A few months later and we are watching a film on the sofa. I am hugely bloated and keep joking that I look like I am carrying twins. There is a clear pattern now that whenever I am very bloated I always seem to get this insatiable hunger and overwhelming craving for sugar, but I try and fight it because I am very, very desperate to be thin. I ignore the screaming in my head that demands glucose and instead, simply have a glass of water, because that’s what the doctor has told me to do after a recent weigh-in. Other advice included “chopping up broccoli and pretending it is pasta” and “not eating so much”, both of which were incredibly helpful.
He goes to make a toasted sandwich for himself, and I can smell the bread cooking from the lounge, my resolve is weakening and my body is crying out for something to eat. Dinner was just vegetables and a small piece of chicken because I had the audacity to eat some pasta at lunch. I wander into the kitchen and ask if I can have one too. He looks at my distended stomach.
“Are you sure you need anything else?” he asks, “You were literally just complaining about how fat you are.” I say nothing and sit back down to watch the film. He sits next to me eating a plate of toasted bread and cheese, which seems to take a lifetime to finish. I sit next to him, starving hungry, drinking my water.
We are on holiday. I haven’t been in a bikini for a while, and all the ones I have brought with me are from the year before. I have just got back from travelling in South America where I caught dysentery and so have lost a (literal) shit-tonne of weight. In a testament to our truly fucked-up culture, everybody who I tell that I have had dysentery replies with “well, you look fantastic!” which honestly makes the mouth ulcers, anaemia, haemorrhoids and the fact that I am losing my hair all worth it. Everybody thinks I look thin! What an absolute result.
It’s a surprise, then, when I put a bikini on and still look fat. Yes, I have lost about a stone whilst I have been away, but that still makes me far heavier than whenever these were purchased; my stomach still hangs over the waistband, my thighs still swallow up most of the pattern. I had been so confident in my post-dysentery body that I hadn’t considered I might still be fat, just not as fat as before.
I sit on the sofa in the apartment and begin to panic at the absolute horror of going outside. He comes into the room and asks if I am ready to head to the beach. A little tear escapes from my eyes, “I look horrible”. I stand there, lip quivering on the cusp of tears, searching his face for reassurance. “It’s not your fault,” he replies.
It’s near the end now, we are lying in bed talking about things that need to change in our relationship. We both know it’s everything. I say I will try to be more affectionate, and less exasperated by his constant attention-seeking (of course, at the time I was more diplomatic than this). He pauses. And then, just when I think he might acknowledge his own points for self-improvement, he hugs me, and puts his face even closer to mine. He kisses me on the head. “We need to get you down the gym.”
This gentle form of constant put-down seeps into your mind. It is one thing to be described as looking “like a fat Lily Cole” by a stranger, but it is another for somebody you love to lie next to you in the dark and tell you that you could do better, siding with the voice in your head that says you are simply not trying hard enough. The logic, I suppose, is that if somebody is fat, then they cannot possibly know about it, otherwise they would ‘do something’. Well I will tell you about my attempt to “do something” and then we can decide whether it really was for the best…