Thursday, 8 January 2015

We need to talk about obesity

It's that time of year again. The one where Channel 4 and Five get bored and start airing programmes which veer too far across the line from education into mockery and freak show.

Yep, I'm  talking about the all the fat programmes which seem to suddenly have hit the air. In fact it's almost so co-ordinated that the cynic in me does idly wonder if it's a quietly manipulative co-ordinated strategy emanating from the 'Behaviour Change' unit in the Cabinet Office.

So here's the other side. This post is entirely driven by the seering honesty of Tom Pollock's which you should read if you haven't though I warn for triggers if you struggle for whatever reason with details of an Eating Disorder.

Yep. A bloke wrote a post about his eating disorder. And he didn't pull any punches. What's hit me so hard in the stomach about this post? I've met the bloke in question. Briefly. And because I had at that point read the first part of his most excellent young adult aimed book trilogy, I gibbered, made a complete tit of myself and ran away rather quickly.

I looked at him and saw successful. Together. Confident. Like Tigger bouncing all over the sci fi/fantasy con I was at - every time I saw him he was the life and soul.

And then I read that post and I realised I'm still pretending. And I think it's about time we all stopped because it's not doing any of us any favours. Some of us are really good at acting. Acting fine, acting confident - essentially being performing seals and then crawling home after a social occasion feeling scrubbed from the inside out. And yet still we try. Still we perform. Because we don't want anyone to see.

So see me. I've spent almost all of my 20's and 30's trying to be invisible. Shall I tell you the best way to be invisible in this world? Be fat. It's ace. No really. Apart from the abuse shouted out of windows, or the tuts at your food basket in the supermarket, no one notices you exist. Barmen see straight through you, bus drivers wont meet your eyes, and doctors act like they'd rather do anything else in the world than look at you. Ask them about something which requires and examination and you can tell you're the last thing on earth they'd like to touch. But you're invisible.

This means you don't get whistled at, which used to make my shoulders tense immediately and me speed up. You don't get beeped at when you've made the mistake of wearing something out of the house that looked fine in front of the mirror but maybe that hemline is a little shorter than really it should be. Like above your knee. By an inch. You don't get people shoving their hands up your skirts on the underground - thank god for tights. You don't get men encroaching on your space on underground trains by slowly leaning further and further over to look down your top. You don't get taxi drivers offering to do creepy uncomfortable things for a free ride home in the cab. You don't get constantly harassed on dance floors when all you want to do is close your eyes and disappear into the music. You don't get asked whether you've got any drugs every 10 minutes either. You don't get asked where your top is from in bathrooms by women you've never met, but you also don't get asked for your phone number as you leave the same pub and then followed to the tube station.

I could go on. And on. And on and on and on and on. I was, when the right weight, rivalling Marilyn Monroe for her measurements. There is no 'subtle' way to dress when your tits are sticking out as much as your ass and your waist is disappearing in the middle. Shirts gape. I couldn't afford decent tailoring. Tunics which took the eye away from top and down to waist didn't exist. Skirts were either short or in M & S. There wasn't the internet where you could find your style and stick to it. You shopped on the high street or you didn't damn well shop at all.

I didn't know how to deal with it all. Moving to London the first time when I was 21 was by turns the best thing I ever did but also the worst. I went from a sleep provincial city where men were mostly respectful and boundary respecting to the insanity of a capital city. And I just couldn't deal with all the attention, got myself in some very stupid unpredictable situations, explored some boundaries which were perhaps better left unexplored and generally did not do my mental health and sense of self any good at all.

I'd never eaten a take away until I moved to London. A boyfriend who was averse to cooking and a lot of take aways later I noticed the problems stopped. All of them. And my boyfriend didn't seem to mind I was getting a little larger - he didn't have to feel inferior and paranoid every single time another man paid me any attention because it stopped. Yes, that's harsh, but yes, there's history and no, you don't need to know it.

I started to use weight as a defense mechanism. A way of becoming invisible. I loved being invisible. And I didn't know the damage I could potentially be doing to my body by being overweight because this was the late 90's, early 00's and I was severely in the minority in being overweight. Shops didn't stock sizes over 18. Seriously. None of them. There was Evans and that was it. So I shopped in Evans and parked my love of clothes because the difficulty of choosing what was safe to wear had been removed from me - now I only had to think about what fitted. Much simpler, no?

I have, essentially, worn a fat suit as a cloak of invisibility for somewhere around 15 years.

I don't have diabetes. No heart problems. No blood pressure problems. No cholesterol problems. Systemically I have problems, but they're genetic. X-rays on my knees reveal perfect knees for an approaching 40 year old. Yeah, sorry, I know I don't look it. I have no wrinkles. Whole other blog post. What I do have is hypermobility. And my weight doesn't help with the dislocations and so I've lost 8 inches around my bra line and 3 inches from my waist. And probably that's why I feel comfortable writing this down. Moral high ground. Perhaps.

I've had to use some serious visualisation to do that. Because every time I see new bones I haven't see for years I panic. Every time I feel my hip bone I panic. I don't know what else to call it. So I consciously talk myself through this - I'm a different person, the world is safer, I am in control of my world, I am not equipped to punch people in the face if they step over my boundaries after I've asked them not to. I am in control.

Food is about control. Ultimately. It's about emotion too. It fills the void of fear in your stomach. Anxiety lives in my tummy. Every time I talk about anxiety to my counsellor, where does my hand go? Straight to my tummy. Food comforts. Food prompts the release of adrenaline. Food hides. Food feeds.

For those of you for whom food is just fuel with the occasional treat, I appreciate this language is completely alien to you. But I'm afraid this is what food is for millions of us. It's a battle as well, it's evil, something that waits to trip you up, consumes you with lust and greed, then spits you out feeling sicker and more shameful than you could ever imagine feeling if you haven't felt it.

Once you let food take control, once it becomes about control even, you've lost. And some days it feels like I'll never win this battle. But mostly, now, I know what my relationship with food is. It's something to be managed. The same way my mental health is something to be managed. I must be conscious of it. I cannot be thoughtless. Not ever.

But what I want more than anything for you to understand, is that the food is tied to my mental health. I feel well at the moment. It's only been for the last week, maybe two. I'm not better. But I want you to understand that when you look at me, when you see my weight, you see a visual representation of something that for others manifests far more privately and less visibly. You are seeing my battle with the world. My logic makes complete sense to me. Made complete sense to me. It wasn't until I went to counselling and got called on that logic that I realised how flipping ludicrous it was. But my weight wasn't the reason I was in counselling. Being diagnosed with Aspergers was. And yet I found it so helpful, combined with seeing a nutritionist as part of the Healthy Lifestyles team I self referred to that I so totally don't understand why tackling obesity involves counelling as a default.

I get some people are fat cos lack of education. I get some are fat cos they just didn't pay enough attention. Or they were busy. Or they just suddenly stopped exercising and it piled on. But there is a sub set of us for whom our weight is a visible and physical manifestation of mental health issues. Or self esteem issues. And whilst I get that some of you have no empathy for 'issues' the simple fact is, you don't get to do that. You don't get to be dismissive, because this is a very real problem affecting a very real NHS, potentially taking resources away from treating your cancer. You don't get the luxury of not thinking about this any more. It's a problem, and looking away from it, or worse laughing at it, is just not solving the problem.

So. We really need to talk about obesity. Honestly. Openly. Freely and with no holds barred. I have no health problems as a direct result of my obesity. I've got a set of bollocks genetics which I can do nothing about which obesity exacerbates. So you know what, I'm gonna stand up. Yes with the help of a stick but this is me standing up. This is me saying, this is an issue and can we please please please sort this out now?

Otherwise, people are going to start dying in their thousands, not in their tens and we really will have a problem on our hands.

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