Fat — it’s complicated

13 07 2015

This morning I read about a young female comedian who had been fat-shamed by a male comic who left much to be desired in the good looks department. He made fun of her size and her disability (she lost an arm in a car accident) by noting that she fat-smelled because she was unable to clean out her “fat belly flap” because she only had one arm. Apparently he did it for the sole reason that he could since they had no relationship other than a couple of passing hellos when working in the same location. It was an egregiously shocking and revolting example of what fat (and disabled) women put up with in this age of distorted body images and the infantilizing of the female body. A size 0 is a size that a child can wear and yet it is the size that mature women are expected to aspire to. By designating a size as 0, it is as though we are supposed to be seeking erasure. In saying this I am in no way suggesting that naturally slim women are infantile or lack presence but that the social construction of women’s bodies by others is a phenomenon that has beleaguered women of all sizes and needs to be stopped.

The female comic who was the object of this over the top example of fat shaming, responded online in a bravura show of strength and dignity that I suspect may be career altering for her tormenter. However, many like her live every day enduring taunts on the street, fewer job opportunities and promotions, exclusions from social occasions, and whispers behind her back. Fighting back are movements like “Big is Beautiful” in which those who are “curvy” are increasingly flaunting their more ample proportions in magazines, on high fashion catwalks, and in blogs, and public media.

For many of us, it has been a welcome change to see a more diverse representation of the female body in various media and while acceptance is beginning to shift, size still matters in the public arena of politics and commerce. For example, a highly competent and attractive politician who has come to power recently in a high profile cabinet position is regularly excoriated by ad hominem rhetoric that, if it were directed at her race would be considered the worst form of racism. She is a powerful woman who does not conform to the preference for vulnerable, tiny female bodies and so, when she enacts government policy with which someone disagrees, it is her female body that becomes the target rather than the policy. Unlike the comedian who took on her tormenter publicly, however, the minister must ignore these comments in order to minimize their effect on carrying on with her work effectively. So we see in these cases that power and influence wielded by  non-normative women in a predominantly male domain can become easy targets in a world in which male desire constructs and dominates public discourse.

Yet — and I am speaking from personal experience here — fat is uncomfortable and over time is highly destructive. My knees are testimony to the literally wearing effect of carrying far too much weight over an adult lifetime. For most of my adult life I carried at least 80 and, at my peak, 120 pounds more than my body could comfortably tolerate but for mCASWE Picture 018ost of my adult life I was able to do so with few health issues and few obvious experiences of discrimination. I hated the clothes I was limited to in “plus” size shops and lived in constant fear when I travelled by air that someone would need the middle seat as I sort of spilled over into that space. but, other than that. I was able to carry on with my life with few obstacles…until I was about 55. Then subtle signs of abnormal wear and tear began to emerge: my ankle injury from a car accident just would not heal properly so stairs became impossible, my back gave out on me with disconcerting regularity, my knee would suddenly give way and my whole leg from hip to knee would throb and ache while I hobbled along holding my knee stiff so it wouldn’t collapse on me with unbearable pain. Then it was my heart, high blood pressure, constant pain in my feet, knees that increasingly ached from osteoarthritis, shortness of breath…the list goes on. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t beautiful and it had to stop.

So, about four years ago, following two open heart surgeries to repair and then replace my mitral valve, I began to take some tentative steps to lose some weight. In years past I had tried Weight Watchers a few times and been completely unsuccessful — gaining back anything I lost and then some. I know others do it but I couldn’t. My doctor told me that even a 10% weight loss would really help my heart, so I figured that I might be able to do that…and I did thanks to help from a nutritionist at an extended care clinic.

With that bit of success under my belt, I looked for a way to keep at it in a way that was workable for me. That’s when I stumbled on to Fitness Pal. It took some getting used to but I found it a relatively painless way to figure out not just what the calorie value is of what I am eating but, more importantly, what its nutritional value is and how to balance carbs, fats, and protein. After using it for a while, I began to learn that, for example, if I chose to wrap my sandwich contents in a lettuce leaf — which is surprisingly good and nicely crunchy — I had calories left over for a nice apple for a snack. And, because I could make the choices around what I liked (with occasional treats to keep it interesting), I would stick to it. Progress has been slow and a bit uneven, but it’s been steady. I’ve now lost 85 pounds with another 35 to go. It feels great!

Exercise was my next addition and this was something I’d avoided like the plague. It hurt, it took time I didn’t have (or wouldn’t make time for) and it was not fun in any way. When I took my sabbatical, I moved to Victoria for the year and began moving more because it was more fun to do so. Then I took up pole walking and gradually, very gradually, I could walk longer distances. I had great hopes that I’d be able to ride a bike but that dream crashed when I kept getting big sores on my legs from the inevitable bumps and bruises of learning how to ride. And since I am on warfarin because of my artifical heart valve, a simple bump was not ever simple so that was the end of that. But I got a trainer — a wonderful trainer who patiently helped me build up strength and confidence — and now I love to exercise and have become a bit of a gym rat — being in Victoria with more time on my hands makes going to the gym so much easier than it was in snowy/icy/cold Edmonton when I was working 60+ hours a week. For someone who found walking a block a challenge, I can now comfortably do 2-3 km and am working on increasing that. I am beginning to be able to shop in departments with more clothing choices and I can wear shoes comfortably now that used to hurt.

I’ll always bear the marks of having been so overweight because I’m at an age where my skin doesn’t snap back to its former size so sags and bags are inevitable. But hey, there’s always Spanx! I’ll never be able to wear pretty shoes because of wear and tear on my feet and ankles. Fat does exact a price! But what hasn’t changed is that both versions of me that you see in the pictures attached here and the pictures still to come were beautiful in their own way and both definitely deserved respect and every opportunity that my abilities qualified me for. Judgements of my character, ability and worth were not and should not have been dependent on how closely my body conformed to norms constructed by what is perceived as desirable to the male gaze. Nor did I lose weight to do so. Having said that, I do wish I’d done it sooner for my health and my ability, as I aged, to participate more fully in life. However, at 70, I feel better than I did when I was 40 — much better! I can do more and enjoy it more and I have to say that, as recently happened at a special occasion I attended, it’s kind of fun when people I haven’t seen for a while don’t recognize me. It makes me feel like I have Ninja powers:-)

So, watch out those last 35 pounds…you’re toast!!! And all those who persist in constructing ideal images and using them to demean the vast majority of us who do not conform, one day you’ll be toast too!

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