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!



It’s paying off…

4 08 2013


Since my sabbatical year in 2011/12 I’ve been working on several wellness issues including my diet and exercise. At times, my progress hasn’t been what I wanted it to be, but I have lost 60 pounds and counting, have learned how to eat food that is both healthy and delicious (they are not mutually exclusive), and tentatively embarked on a fitness program.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit — no, it’s really embarrassing to admit — that when I began this journey, I would think twice about going to the end of the long hall in my building to get my mail, walking to the pharmacy a block away was a big deal, and bending down to tie my runners was a challenge. I started off slowly by joining a pole walking group. (Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about pole dancing…LOL). After learning the technique, we would set off to walk the promenade at Willows Beach — about 4 blocks long. Fortunately there were benches spaced strategically along the route and we enjoyed every one of them. My friend Lynne had a good excuse as she was about to have knee surgery but I was just plain completely out of shape. Slowly we would stop at every second bench, then every third until we could walk the whole distance, take a break and walk back again. Next we tried the Gorge walkway which is about a mile long. We took breaks and did the slopes up and down fairly gingerly but we did it and eventually we could do the 2 km route fairly handily.

In addition to the walking, I also worked with a great trainer at Vibes Fitness who took me from barely able to get up on the machine to working out with greater strength and endurance. I also did Aquafit but fairly sporadically as I kept getting terrible sores on my legs from various attempts to learn how to ride a bike. That activity was sadly taken off the list but a trike is still in my future.

By the end of my sabbatical year, I was doing pretty well — if I were an eighty year old, out of shape woman — but not for someone my age and I was kind of frustrated. I was grateful for the positive changes that had occurred but knew I needed a whole lot more fitness if I was going to be able to really enjoy my life on the island.

After my stint teaching in the Fall term 2012, I returned to Victoria and sought a more rigorous program that would bring me to the next level of fitness. I signed up for the Saanich Rec Centre programs and loved the centres — they’re really well equipped, they cater to all ages and stages of fitness, and they are bright and clean and kind of inspiring. I then decided to work with a trainer and signed up but had to have a form signed off by my physician. It was gruelling getting that d$%&n form signed. My own doc was away on paternity leave and his locum would not sign the form permitting me to work out with a trainer. I could have gone and worked out until I collapsed on the floor on my own, but working out with a trainer was considered dangerous?…go figure! Given my medical history I can sort of understand but one of the best antidotes to heart disease is healthy changes in diet and increased exercise. I tried three different times to convince her that I would not keel over at the gym but she wouldn’t budge. Finally my own doc came back and I talked him into signing it…yay!!!

My trainer is Cheryl. She’s perky, fun, knows her stuff, endlessly patient, and is not a twenty year old who can’t imagine what it’s like to be in your sixties and overweight. I expected her to show me how to use the machines and bark out some orders to keep me at it and that would be my session. It turned out that she had quite a different philosophy for fitness training — provide me with the understanding, knowledge, and skills to work out my own fitness. I learned not only what to do but why and how I could extend exercises as my skill level increased. She sent me pictures and notes for various exercises because most of them I could do at home. I ended up getting weights, a step, half pipes, tubing, a ball and various other pieces of equipment that make my exercise program possible at home and, unlike some big bulky machine, can be hidden away at a moment’s notice if guests drop by. She even gave me a set of exercises specifically for the office that will allow me to complete part of my exercise program while attending meetings (although I may look a little odd at times. I mean, you try doing a butt squeeze without anyone noticing:-))

Cheryl also recommended a great therapeutic massage therapist who has made a huge difference in ways I’m not sure I could even explain. For example, my hips don’t hurt if I take a long step and my back no longer twinges after a good strong cardio workout. It’s like magic…

Okay…so what’s happened as a result of all of this work (and it has been work at times although I can honestly say that I enjoy it now) and massage therapy? Well, today my daughter and I went to Saltspring Island. It’s a holiday weekend so there was a crowd everywhere on this charming hippie island. We walked all over the place and my feet didn’t hurt, we stepped down and up some pretty challenging steps and I didn’t need Melissa’s arm to maintain my balance and my knees didn’t hurt nearly as much. I didn’t take any extra medication to help with joint pain during or at the end of the day. In fact, when I got home, I stood for about 45 minutes straight while prepping my dinner — something I would not have been able to do in the past because my right ankle and knees would have been throbbing and my back would have been too sore. My legs don’t swell nearly as much (a problem that is the result of my heart issues) and are not tender to the touch any more. Like I said…magic!

I know these improvements are baby steps in many ways, but they are steps in a direction I never thought I’d be moving. My goal for this academic year (I still think of September as the beginning of the year) is to increase my endurance walking, continue to pursue good nutritional, heart-healthy eating habits, lose more weight (20 by Christmas I hope), and continue to exercise so that I don’t lose what I’ve gained.

Once I get back to Victoria after teaching at U of A this Fall, I’ll step up my fitness program, get my tadpole trike to tool around the park and neighbourhood, and work on losing the last of the weight I want to get off this old bod. I’ve proved to myself that this is do-able and that my goals — modest for most — are just fine as they are but I can also challenge myself. I don’t have to be able to do the Ninja moves one older guy does at my gym on a wobble board, but I can learn to balance on one leg on a wobble board and walk heel to toe on a half pipe. I may not be able to take stairs two at a time, but I will be able to walk up and down stairs without stopping at each step because my knees hurt and my muscles don’t support stair climbing. And I don’t have to lift 30 pounds overhead or 50 while doing biceps and triceps, but I can move up to 3 and then 5 from 2 pounds overhead and 30-40 from 10-20 when doing biceps/triceps. And I may not do it gracefully, but I will be able to get up and down from the floor for mat exercises. It will happen with persistence and commitment. And the motivation? It comes from the way all of this effort is really paying off one small increment at a time as I work to reach my goals for a life that finally includes the wellness that is possible for me.

It will be fun to discover just how far this journey will take me but the pay off so far has been incredible!