Between you and me, I don’t mind telling you that am a rather rotund person. Cuddly, maybe. What my doctor cheerfully described as “morbidly obese” a while ago. Not that she seemed to mind, except insofar as it minutely limited my contraceptive choices to the thing I would probably have chosen anyway.
I’ve always been fat, ever since I hit puberty, pretty much. I went on my first diet at the age of 13, which horrifies me a little, looking back. It, like every diet I’ve tried since, didn’t really work. I lost weight, I felt a huge sense of achievement, but diets never end, they just peter out, and when they do, the weight inevitably comes back on, usually with a few pounds more for good measure. So, I lost weight at 13, I lost it again at 22, I lost it again at 28, and then I stopped bothering. For a while I was distracted by all the small children running around my feet – the idea of organising a separate meal-plan for myself was more work than I could face. And during this time, a couple of revelations hit me, and robbed me of any motivation for dieting that I had left.
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One was that I look just like my mother. Nobody ever wants to admit that, but I do. I have her precise body shape, which makes my weight issues genetic, and much harder to fight. She, mind you, does still try to fight it. Me, not so much.
The other was that obesity is not the be all and end all. It is a symptom, not a cause, and that means that diets are really only addressing the symptom. And you cannot live your whole life on a diet – it’s depressing, and hard, and sooner or later it always goes wrong. It is a symptom that is associated with other problems, but if you are basically healthy, then being fat isn’t, by itself, a health problem. There’s certainly evidence to suggest that it’s less of a health problem than significant fluctuations in weight, and every diet I ever did resulted in a fluctuation, not a permanent change.
As a result, I resolved, some years ago, to stop torturing myself about food. I like food. I like bad food. I like food with sugar and butter and cream in it. I like pasta and bread. I like cheesecake. Actually, scratch that – I like cheese, in almost every form it comes in. I had had it with depriving myself, because successfully depriving myself was at best a temporary fix, and failing to deprive myself made me feel terrible.
I was through with feeling guilty about food. People do, after all, need to eat food, and the business of how much, and what it should be was just too nuanced for me to manage it coherently. I gave up.
If I’m going to feel guilty, I decreed, then I will choose to feel guilty about being unhealthy, rather than about being fat. I will just buy better clothes, so that fat doesn’t matter. Because by itself, fat doesn’t matter.
For a couple of years, I ate what I liked (started buying real butter for the first time in my life – and it’s so good!), didn’t put significant amounts of weight on (maybe I’m just designed to be roughly this size? I said it was genetic, didn’t I?), and focussed lots of energy on trying to feel guilty for being unhealthy, instead of feeling guilty for being fat.
That sounds kinda stupid, now.
Because, feeling bad about what you didn’t do, is pretty stupid. Celebrating achievement, that’s where it’s at. I went for a walk – Woman of Valour! I swam – Eshet Chayil!
In the last few months, I have been trying to consciously add exercise to my routine. The first time I got my dusty old Wii Fit out, and tried some jogging on the spot, I lasted about 90 seconds. But do you know what? That’s 90 seconds more than I did the day before. Eshet Chayil!
Now, having worked very hard, not out of guilt, but out of choosing a goal that mattered to me (to be physically fit, and therefore not die of heart failure at 55), there has been something distinctly galling about the fact that I have not lost a single pound. Because, I know I said I don’t care about being fat any more, but guess what? I was totally lying. I would love to suddenly and easily become a size 12, and stay that way. But we both know that it’s not going to happen, and I’m no longer interested in a short-term strategy. I am taking regular exercise for the first time in my whole life, because regular exercise has to be a part of your whole life, if you want to stay healthy. I’m not swearing off cheesecake for a fixed period, hoping to solve a problem. I am changing my routine, my expectations, my default, because I want to be healthy. I am eating cheesecake, because I want to be happy.
People have the audacity to disapprove of what others eat. It’s an extraordinary imposition, but they do it. They see the fat girl, and automatically pass judgement on the cream cake. Actually, they also see the thin girl, and pass judgement on the salad. Maybe she likes salad! Maybe she’s not eating salad because she wants to be even thinner, when you already think she’s too thin to be allowed. Maybe what other people eat is entirely none of your business!
So, I say, let’s reject other people’s disapproval. You get to be as fat or as thin as you are, and you get to eat whatever you fancy. It’s up to you. Feeling bad about what you ate totally sucks. Not least, because nothing makes you want cheesecake like feeling bad about the cheesecake. But you can never really win, that way, because no matter how many days in a row you resisted the cheesecake, the emphasis is always on the day you succumbed. We quite naturally focus on the things we do, not the things we consistently avoid doing. So diets are made of feeling bad for what you did, without much in the way of achievements to celebrate, in day-to-day terms. Weight Watchers will give you a pat on the back when you’ve lost so many pounds, but you have to have resisted a lot of cheesecake on a lot of days to get to that point.
On the other hand, feeling thrilled and delighted by the tiny bit of exercise that you did, is a great thing. It’s a way to celebrate the good. You do something, and you feel proud of it. And more inclined to do it again. It’s a positive cycle of happiness, instead of a negative cycle of sadness.
If you want to be healthier, you could try some exercise. You might like it. You might hate it, but decide it’s important to you. You might decide you’d rather take your chances – it’s totally your choice, and other people don’t get to dictate to you. But do you know what? Feeling good about something you did knocks into a cocked hat feeling bad about something you failed to resist.