Growing up, I was never happy with my body. While I can look back and say I was a completely normal, healthy girl; young peers are unforgiving, and the social stigma of poverty conspired with my rapidly developing body to make me a perfect target for cruel bullying. I remember starting my first diet when I was 12.
I was never overweight, I just didn’t have the body of the tiny, pretty white girls that I had spent my life being taunted by. I admired their free-living confidence and effortless ability to gather positive attention and chalked it up to their looks. ‘If I looked like that,’ I thought, ‘I would be happy, fun, and loved too.’
It was around this time I decided to restrict my meals severely. I tried every diet that could be found in the pages of magazines or the early internet. The cabbage soup diet, the lemonade detox, even Atkins. At 17, I tried eating 500 calories a day in spinach and sandwich ham. I lost 60lbs in five months, and when my hair started falling out, it was like a ravenous switch flipped in my head. I binged, and no matter my attempts to get it under control, I couldn’t. It was as though I had expended every ounce of self-control I possessed in my months of starvation, and my body was no longer allowing me to call the shots when it came to food.
I ate everything. Sometimes I ate to the point of physical pain. I was most dangerous when I was alone and had some money to spend – It would all go to stuffing food down my throat in some empty corner of a fast food joint. Entire paychecks, gone in a few days. My binge eating disorder became so uninhibited that when I did not have money, I resorted to shoplifting and theft. You’d be absolutely right if you were to think that what I am describing sounds like a drug addiction.
I was 200lbs before I even accepted that I had gained weight, and my hopelessness let me swell to 300lbs by the time I was 25. I suffered repercussions for my weight in every area of my life. I routinely shirked my psychology classes because they were held in a lecture room with flip-down desks that were too tight against my belly. I started allocating basic household chores to my younger sister, the few steps up and down to the laundry room leaving me gasping for breath every time. More seriously, I was even passed over for a high-ranking role at the government office I was interning at because I was told I did not have the right ‘look’ for interacting with stakeholders.
When faced with this level of constant emotional denigration, both internally and externally induced, fat acceptance is a phenomenal coping tool. It was much easier to whinge about how the world was not built for me, or how social conditions themselves were discriminatory, than to face the fact that that my weight was destroying my life. It was at this time that I flirted very briefly with the Healthy At Every Size (HAES) movement, swearing to everyone of my great health. ‘Weight doesn’t determine health!’ I’d chirp happily, ‘Plenty of skinny chicks are unhealthy.’ I couldn’t muster up the breath to climb two flights of stairs without needing a private place to huff noisily, but would insist that ‘my blood tests are all normal.
HAES is exceptionally similar to pro-ana; the pro-anorexia online trend that has so dangerously taken hold of so many eating disordered young women. It provides a way to defer pain, and provides the emotional support necessary to continue the disorder without critical assessment. However, in my opinion HAES is significantly worse than pro-ana in that it has managed to piggy-back its way onto legitimate social justice struggles and has reframed its pain deference as a genuine issue of discrimination. Not only is the subject exempt from the emotional pain that would naturally come from being rejected by a crush or being unable to sit in a standard bus seat, but they have the ability to righteously demand these things as human rights.
A recent talk given by ‘fat activist’ Sonalee Rashatwar at St Olaf College decried the difficulties she faced in life not as an issue of her morbid obesity, but as ‘fatphobia‘. This is the essence of HAES logic. I could blame my inability to fit in the psychology lecture hall seats on how no seats had been installed to accommodate me. I could blame my lack of love interests on society’s mystical beauty standards which glamorised thinness and stigmatised fatness. It was pain deferred and sublimated into righteous indignation. Fatness became an identity, not a condition. My eating disorder was safely hidden beneath layers of politically correct pomp.
My wake-up call came when I developed signs of unchecked diabetes. With the emergence of a ring of grey, dying flesh around my neck, so did the unavoidable realisation that I was killing myself and wasting the best years of my youth. I adopted a diet which worked for me, going high-carb-low-fat vegan, and took up jogging in an abandoned park. Well, tiny bursts of jogging between long ‘bursts’ of walking. I shed nearly 100lbs in a matter of a year, dropping 8 trouser sizes and even a shoe size. I’ve still got plenty to lose, but I don’t have to worry about lecture hall flip-desks anymore.
If I can impart a single piece of knowledge from my experience, it would be this: Be kind. HAES is often reinforced by the cruelty of anti-HAES trolls who believe fat-shaming to be the answer to obesity. It is no more the answer than thin-shaming would be to an anorexic. It firmly reinforces HAES ideological postulates on society’s inherent, arbitrary cruelness towards fat people. It is important to recognise that the vast majority of obese people are disordered in their eating and thinking and that much of their self-abuse is out of their control. HAES is dangerous, yes, but we need to realise that it is a disordered coping mechanism, much like the pro-anorexia movement.
To those reading this who might be struggling with overeating or obesity, I want to speak directly to you. I want you to understand that you are valuable. You are not stupid. You are not lazy. What you are is a human being who, like every other human being, deserves to live their absolute best life and is struggling to do so for reasons that might be out of your control. There is no shame in seeking help, or comfort from others. As cliché as it might be, one more day of trying truly is one less day towards your goal. A goal I know you can achieve.
Image credit: CGP Grey
Anna Slatz is a Canadian writer. Follow her on Twitter at @YesThatAnna.