Content note/tw: discussions of weight loss and stigma.
That’s it. I’m finally frustrated and cross enough to post about this. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve honestly tried to write this post – or a post that is very similar to it – about five times. The beginnings are in my blog draft folder (along with an awful lot of other things). The reason I never finish this post is because, while I have no trouble outlining the problem, I fall short when it comes to resolving the conflict.
I think it’s better to accept that resolution is just not going to happen.
Here are the bare facts:
Firstly, I am a big proponent of HAES (Health At Every Size). If you think this is a movement that promotes obesity, then you’ve missed the point. HAES is a movement that proposes the radical notion of getting “weight” out of the framework we use to think about health. It’s about thinking about health independent of weight. It’s about promoting healthy lifestyle choices – whatever that may be for the person in question! – like good exercise, quality nutrition, and let’s not forget, good mental health as well – and not caring what happens to weight throughout any process of change. If someone adopts healthier habits and starts to shrink? Goodo, whatever. If someone adopts healthier habits and all that happens is they become healthier? They became healthier! That’s a win.
There is literally nothing bad about saying “Let’s focus on healthy lifestyle habits, won’t that be excellent, and focus on testing whether people are getting healthier,” while leaving out the body-shaming bullshit.
This is my basic framework for thinking about these things. I’ve only adopted it in the last few years.
Secondly, I’m losing weight.
Which is a little bit at odds with HAES.
At first, the weight loss wasn’t especially deliberate. I’d finally sucked up the gumption to look at my eating habits, because I wanted to be fitter and stronger. I wanted to be able to get more out of my workouts, and I was having trouble with energy levels. So I started tracking food and monitoring macros. This meant I started snacking on delicious treats a bit less, since I could now look at how much I was eating and think “Uhm, yes, Portuguese custard tarts are AMAZING, but perhaps I don’t need quite so many of them in my life. That pushes my sugars way too high.”
I started to shrink a little.
Then I cracked it about feeling sick after eating and, after what felt like a tonne of research and the blowing of my mind by various sources, I decided to try keto. This had the marvellous result that I no longer felt sick after eating! I had more energy! I started bouncing off the walls! I felt fed after a meal instead of simultaneously hungry, bloated and nauseated! What a glorious win!
The rate of weight loss increased markedly. I have a graph. It’s a little intimidating.
And now we get into the body image issues, and the background. I’ve always been on the chubby side, and as anyone who can make that claim knows, it can make life difficult and upsetting in a number of ways. It didn’t help that I was hypermobile (undiagnosed) and that high impact movement was literally painful all over my body, and that there was a physiological reason for me being hideously uncoordinated. It wasn’t until I got to my early twenties that I really made my peace with my body as it was, and decided to focus on just getting strong and fit instead, and screw everything else.
Discovering that people could actually be attracted to me – actual sexual interest! – made a big difference in how I saw myself. Suddenly being a wee bit chubs wasn’t the end of the world. Whoop!
Fast forward to my thirties, and here I am losing weight without effort (or at least, without trying to lose weight. I was tracking food and carbs and exercising a lot, but I was doing those things for other reasons). It was unprecedented. I’ve never crash dieted. I’ve never dieted. I avoided such behaviour on the grounds that being hungry is very unpleasant (saying that obviously as a person with the privilege of never having to worry where my next meal is coming from).
In fact, it’s not just unpleasant. It’s all-consuming. If I get a hunger crash, I can’t think about anything else. Need food. Need it now. And I can’t spend my life hungry – I have shit to do. I need to be able to think. It is literally my job. So sod that.
And I stand by that philosophy. Being hungry all the time is just nasty shit. No-one needs it. People should have access to the food they need, obviously, and people shouldn’t have to deny themselves food that they need for bullshit reasons.
But here I was again, somehow losing weight. And I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I wasn’t even peckish. It was all just happening. I think that part of the reason it was happening was because (1) keto promotes fat mobilisation, especially if your body might not normally be good at mobilising fats for energy, say if you are mildly insulin resistant (ooh, me! Me!) and (2) I’ve never crash dieted, and thus never yo-yo’d or put my body through the kind of deprivation that promotes a braking, screeching metabolism.
And what happened?
I got curious.
Big changes happen in my life when I get curious. That’s how I roll. “I wonder if I would be good at this?” “I wonder if this would be interesting?” “I wonder if that would solve the problem?” It generally starts with a bucketload of reading, but I’d already done that, and I refused to search for information on weight loss on the ground that the internet is, as a friend put it, a “big ol’ bucket o’ crazy” when it comes to all that shit.
And I thought, “I wonder how far I can push this?”
So, instead of setting my tracker and my macros to “maintenance” (under which regime I was, remember, already losing weight very slowly), I set it to a very modest caloric deficit.
There have been hiccups, certainly. There was the time when I got too sick or injured (can’t remember which) to exercise for a while, so I recalculated my macros for a person who sits on their butt recovering. That was fine. The problem was when I returned to intense working out, I forgot to recalculate, and for few days I was desperately tired, and I couldn’t work out why until eventually I got a sudden newsflash from my body that I was abruptly, out-of-nowhere, stupidly-hungry and if I didn’t find something to eat then I might have to chow down on the nearest co-worker (fortunately I located a Quest bar in my bag). I then recalculated my macros. Whoops.
There have been bonuses to this process. In particular, planning my food ahead of time has meant that we eat out less as a household, and save money (not heaps of money because we buy expensive ingredients, but a significant amount). It’s also hugely reduced my anxiety around food, because now I have a framework I can plan around, and as long as I can fulfil my requirements without having to run headlong into my disastrous sensory processing issues, I don’t have to worry about how or what I’m going to eat or whether people are going to judge me for not eating salad.
But what happened to my commitment to Sparkle Motion, here? I’m still keen on HAES, I still believe in Size Acceptance (which is a different thing). I still believe that people shouldn’t have bullshit diet advice flung into their face every thirty seconds, or be made to feel miserable and less than human because of the way they look or move or honestly anything other than being an actual asshole (I am totally down with stigmatising assholes). I still don’t believe that being smaller is necessarily healthier. I still believe that the stigma needs to go, and needs to die, and people need to learn to be compassionate and mind their own business.
And yet here I am, deliberately losing weight, because of curiosity.
Curiosity is how it started.
Then it became vanity.
I’ve never been slim. I wanted to know what it would be like to be slim. It’s not quite that, though; it would be more accurate to say that I work very hard on my muscular development, and I’m vain as a peacock and shallow as a puddle, and I want to be able to see those muscles. In order to be able to see those muscles that I work so hard on, I need to remove some of the padding that blocks them from view.
That’s a surrendering to the arbitrary common aesthetic. I’ve had our various socially constructed beauty standards drilled into my vulnerable little brain the same as everyone else has, and sometimes I’ve surrendered to it, and sometimes I’ve stood my ground, and I was surprised to realise I did want to cave a little.
I have a pretty good medical clinic nearby. I know most of the GPs there pretty well. They all know that I work out a lot and they know my basic health and they know how I eat (it’s all in my file), and we’re good.
Sometimes, though, you run out of a prescription and abruptly need a new one and for some reason you can’t go to your usual clinic – due to the timing, most likely. So you walk into the office of a GP you’ve never met before, and they try some bullshit like weighing you before prescribing you the fucking oral contraceptive pill.
A doctor should take your blood pressure (or be otherwise aware of your blood pressure) before prescribing you the Pill. This is a basic standard of care. That’s no problem. My blood pressure usually makes doctors smile (when I am very sick it is sometimes high, but more commonly it is low. Depends on the illness).
There is no reason – ever – to weigh someone for a Pill prescription. It is bullshit. So walking into the office of a doctor you don’t know to get a script for the Pill on the way to work because you lost track of when you were going to run out and then being told you need to lose weight? Not the best start to the day.
And I thought, “If I get my BMI down [literally an index of height/weight ratio and that is all], they’ll shut the hell up and I won’t have to deal with this crap.”
That’s what we call surrendering to stigma. And I started to wonder if, instead of just calling Crappy GP on their bullshit, I was somehow throwing my fat friends under the bus. This is where I feel conflicted.
I felt like I wasn’t standing up for them. And I felt like, by being vain and wanting to lose weight to show off muscles, I was saying that my fat friends couldn’t look pretty or fit or strong without losing weight. I don’t actually believe that. I actually do think my fat friends are pretty and in many cases do look fit and strong, and actually are pretty badass.
Where do I draw the line between what I want to do with my body and what message that sends to people who need support and backing?
15kgs down, with a BMI shifting from 27 (technically – sigh – overweight) to 22 (comfortably in the arbitrary land of “normal”, a magical word that solves all problems!), I’ve found there are significant pros and cons to this shrinking business.
In terms of pros, yes, it is nice that it is a bit easier to find pants that fit. It is not 100% easier, because apparently my waist hip ratio is still odd (my waist is apparently both smaller and higher than expected for my size/height relative to the position and width of my hips. This leads to some odd looking pants issues). It is nice that it is easier to find appropriate tops – although, once again, it is not 100% easier. My boob/shoulder-waist ratio is apparently as problematic as what happens with my hips, so button down shirts are still a no-no unless I get them tailored (which I have never done. One day I should try that out).
It is nice not to feel self conscious in more revealing clothing (by which I generally mean tank tops, anything which shows shoulders and upper arms – I always wore these things, but now I don’t have weird moments about it. I do not like sleeves. I feel they are an imposition on my person).
It is nice that the pretty bras are, once again, within my reach (depending on brand).
There has been a significant improvement in the health and stability of my joints. There’s this idea floating around that the less weight your joints have to carry around, the better, and there’s some truth in it, but it’s also vastly exaggerated in significance. Many fat people, for example, are very strong – they are carting around more weight, after all, and their muscle development reflects that. In particular, fat athletes might do extra work to strengthen the supporting muscles to increase the amount of high impact work their joints can take, just as non-fat athletes might also do.
As a hypermobile person, I already do shitloads of work stabilising and strengthening my supporting muscles, so it might be a bit of a furphy, but let’s not forget: I have a degenerative connective tissue disorder. It’s a mild to moderate presentation, but even so, I’m a very active person and my joints need all the help I can get. If losing the non-contributing insulation makes it easier for me to do what I need and want to do with my body, then sure, I’ll take advantage of that.
As for diving (the reason I started working out in the first place about eleven or twelve years ago), well, fat is positively buoyant. The more body fat you have, the more floaty you are. This means you need to wear more lead to weigh you down, and you need to walk around in that lead. It can be a very serious request you’re making of your body.
So, that pretty much covers the pros. Doctors not giving me crap – check. Sheer vanity (cringe) – check. Less stressed joints for high impact work – check. Less weight needed to dive – check. More clothing stores catering to my every whim but apparently forgetting that women have different shapes regardless of size – check.
So what about the cons? How could there be cons?
Spoiler: There are cons.
Firstly, there’s some weird identity issues. There was a very disorienting period when the first, very rapid weight loss was happening, where I didn’t quite recognise myself in the mirror. It wasn’t the “Hey there, slender hotty!” reaction you might be expecting. It was “Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my bathroom?!” It was discovering that my knees are actually bony as fuck and want to stab me in the night.
It was wondering how much I’d integrated “chubby and quirky” into my identity and worrying if I was going to be boring if I ended up “looking like everybody else.” Yes, it’s stupid. Yes, I shit you not, that thought actually passed through my mind. To be fair, think about how often body type seems to determine personality in any sitcom or TV drama you’ve watched, in books you’ve read. There’s a lot to be said about that which is beyond the scope of this essay, and I’ve internalised most of it.
It took a while for my anxiety about my new size to die down – a few weeks of feeling very odd, like a stranger in my own skin.
The con of feeling like a total hypocrite is still hanging about. That’s a worry.
The con of having a collection of beautiful dresses I’ve built up over the years that now hang off me like tent canvas – that’s upsetting. I buy cheap shirts, but save up for pretty, quality dresses for special occasions, and having these lovely garments no longer fit is actually upsetting. The same goes for various shirts, pants and skirts. Many of these items have been bequeathed to happier homes, but some I have surreptitiously kept aside. I’m not naïve enough to believe I’m going to stay this small, after all. The statistics are fairly clear. And if I do gain weight back, I still want to be able to wear my Lucksmiths shirt.
The con of having to buy new clothes – yeah. I’m still losing, so I’m a frequent visitor to Target, trying to find the cheapest jeans and shorts and shirts that will fit my person. This means navigating Target’s notoriously inconsistent vanity sizing, which also drives me bonkers (can you just make a 10 or an 8 mean the same thing NO MATTER WHERE I GO IN THE STORE?). This has played havoc with my credit card pay-off plan. I could go to secondhand stores, but I’m not as much of a fan of those as I used to be (I find them stressful for some reason. It’s weird. And some of my friends are really, really good at secondhand shopping and for some reason I suck at it).
The con of discovering that you can lose weight from your feet (what. the. Fuck?) and, alright, tightening a few buckles and laces on shoes here and there is not too bad, but if it keeps up, I’m going to have to replace some very expensive items. I wear orthotics. I don’t have the option of cheap shoes.
But the greatest con – the con that is pissing me off – the con that has me jokingly suggesting that I might as well just commence eating pizza and trying to get the extra body fat back on as quickly as I possibly can – is related to diving.
“But Kate!” you cry. “You just said that losing fat was good for diving, because you’re less buoyant!”
Yes, and that’s still true.
But I’m also fucking cold.
I can’t believe I never made this connection. For years I’ve looked at people who refuse to dive or snorkel in Melbourne because it is too cold for them year-round and thought “Huh. It doesn’t bother me. Oh well, everyone’s different,” and never worked out that most of them were very slender. They mostly – not all, but mostly – tended to be ectomorph body types. Not a lot of body fat on them. I look at the guys that tell me I’m soft for wearing a dry suit in Melbourne in winter and, okay, yes, they’re a bit more well-insulated than the average, as a general rule.
I wear a Lavacore (a thermal undergarment) underneath a 7mm neoprene semi-dry wetsuit. That’s the equivalent of 10mm insulation in total. I used to wear just the wetsuit when the water was about 14 degrees, and I was pretty comfortable. The first shock of the water took a moment to settle, but I tended to get through one hour dives at that temperature with little difficulty. I just didn’t feel very cold.
Obviously, when I started to wear the Lavacore, my tolerance got even better. How marvellous!
And I admit that, when I sold my faithful dry suit, this was some of my thinking. I hadn’t dived in Melbourne in winter in years – I’d always meant to, but somehow never got around to it – and thus hadn’t used my dry suit. A friend needed it for a course, and I felt I could certainly use the money, so I sold it to her. Besides, I was okay with my Lavacore and my 7mm wetsuit, so I didn’t really need it, did I?
And then, like an idiot, I went diving in Melbourne in winter.
It was 12 degrees.
My feet went numb in under five minutes.
Between dives, I walked to the toilet block, and because I couldn’t feel my feet, I broke my toe. I stubbed my toe on the gutter so hard that I broke it, and I barely noticed other than to think “Huh, that seems sort of painful. Oh well.” It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning to find it still throbbing that I decided to hobble down to emergency and get an X-ray. Avulsion fracture of the big toe.
Look, when I do things, I don’t do them by halves. This apparently includes toe-stubbing.
I recently went for a dive in 14 degree water. Again, wearing the Lavacore and the 7mm neoprene.
By the end of the second dive, I was shivering violently. I was cold enough that, if it hadn’t been a training dive (that you just have to get through) and a safe shore dive, I would have aborted the dive.
So what’s the lesson?
Fat keeps you warm. Fat is a fucking insulator. Fat is useful and don’t let anyone tell you different. When it comes to diving, I miss my fat. Fat is, sadly, really good at absorbing nitrogen, so the more fat you have, the more risk you have of decompression illness (dammit), and even so, I think the fat was a net win.
The other problem, of course, is that my Lavacore is now too big. It wrinkles up and presses into my skin under pressure. My wetsuit is also too big by about three sizes and I think the only reason I’ve been able to continue wearing it is because the Lavacore bulks it out. When your wetsuit is too big, not only does it not seal properly (meaning that, instead of just reheating the water once with your body heat – the way a semi-dry should work – you’re constantly reflushing it with cold water), but it obviously holds much more water relative to your body volume (meaning that it is much less efficient for your body to heat it).
So I’ve just lost weight to the point that I am now too small for eight hundred dollars worth of exposure gear – the gear that I wear in the summer.
And I’ve lost weight to the point that a new dry suit is rapidly becoming an absolute essential item, instead of a “nice-to-have” – and they tend to run about two thousand dollars.
So yes. Changes in weight and size are not minor things.
[Edit: since I wrote this post, I have bought a lovely new wetsuit and some new thermal gear to go under it. I have plans to buy a new dry suit before next winter. I suppose at least it’s tax-deductible, since I need it for work…]