In January of this year, I had a laparotomy. This is the fancy medical term for ‘an operation where the stomach is cut open’. Basically what happened was that I had developed a humongous ovarian cyst on my right ovary. These cysts are quite common, and normally they are removed with keyhole surgery. Mine was a bit too big for keyhole, however, so they had to go by the more traditional open surgery method. I now have a large scar right down the centre of my stomach, and one fewer cysts. It was a trade that I was more than happy to make.
I mention my laparotomy for an important reason. A couple of weeks after the surgery, I was talking to some loved ones about my recovery, and I mentioned that I was thinking about incorporating some light exercise into my day to help with the healing process.
If I were a thin person, I imagine that my words would have been met with a couple of “yeah, that’s a good idea”s and “but remember not to push yourself because you’re still recovering”s, and maybe a polite nod or two. But, because I am a fat person and I had just said the word “exercise”, the conversation abruptly changed from being about my recovery to being about me losing weight. The only slight attempt at a smooth segue was when somebody mentioned that the surgery might have been easier if the surgeons hadn’t had to cut through so much belly fat. Admittedly, that was a fair point.
I mean, the surgery was executed without a hitch, and none of the doctors said anything to me about difficulties related to my fat. But still. It was a fair point. Right?
As I was being cut open and having enormous masses removed from my insides, a fair few of my friends, family, and acquaintances were celebrating weight loss success stories. They posted photos of themselves on Facebook, they mentioned the amount of weight lost and the time it took for them to lose it, and they waxed lyrical about how much more confidence they have, how much better they feel about themselves and their bodies, and how much they hope it will keep going.
I don’t know about the rest of you diet culture abstainers, but when I am feeling vulnerable (as I was, two weeks after having major surgery) or when I see these admittedly gorgeous photos of my formerly larger loved ones, I sometimes find myself being a little swept up by ‘the dream’.
If you are fat yourself, or have ever been fat in the past, I am sure you know all too well what I mean by ‘the dream’. ‘The dream’ is to be thin, but, more than that, it is acquiring all the privilege that apparently comes with thinness. Being able to find clothes that fit well. Being seen as desirable. Being able to wear swimsuits without feeling the burning stares of grossed out passers-by. Being treated with respect by doctors, teachers, employers, etc. ‘The dream’ is a big deal, and it is what keeps the diet industry as lucrative as it continues to be.
When ‘the dream’ is particularly prevalent, it becomes all the more difficult to navigate the pressures of conforming to diet culture. Believe me, I know. I swore off diets six years ago, and yet I still occasionally find myself thinking that it would be easier to just give in and become the chronic dieter I was before. After all, maybe this time will be the time that works, and I will finally realise ‘the dream’.
Fortunately, I am now well seasoned in resisting ‘the dream’, and it never takes me long to remember that I stopped dieting for reasons that are important to me, both as an activist and as a person learning to make peace with and love her body. Diet culture is such a pervasive part of the society we live in, and the decision to evade it is one that has to be made consciously.
But, I can assure you that it is well worth doing, both for your physical and for your mental health. If you are finding it hard to navigate the pressures of diet culture, there are a lot of useful, practical actions you can take to strengthen your stand. Here are a couple of my favourites:
- Think about why you stopped dieting in the first place. This is the one that I always fall back on if I am in a frenzied, hating-my-fat-body, moment. I believe anybody who chooses to stop dieting does it for their own reasons, and I can sum up my reasons with the following three points. 1) dieting is pretty bad for one’s health, 2) feeling ill and faint from hunger/malnutrition/over-exercise/whatever the particular diet plan you are following entails, sucks, and 3) listening to people talking about diets is really, REALLY boring, and I would rather be an interesting person.
- Learn about the danger and/or futility of dieting. One of the real turning points for me quitting dieting was when I considered how unwell I always felt whenever I dieted. It gradually occurred to me that something that was making me feel so unwell could not possibly be good for me, and it turns out was right. Health happens to be a major motivator for me, so it makes sense that learning about the dangers of dieting has done a lot of keep me away. If health is not a big motivator for you, you might find that learning about the futility of dieting works better for you. I don’t know about any of you, but to me it seems somewhat futile to attempt to do something that has a 98% chance of failure.
- Talk to people who have lost lots of weight and ask them what has changed. When I have done this in the past, I have discovered that, actually, a lot of the things we believe will happen when we are absorbed in ‘the dream’ do not actually happen. Clothes still do not fit well, because ready-made clothes do not fit well on most people. Fat people are seen as desirable by many. Most people at the beach will be too busy doing their own thing to notice a fat person in a swimsuit. Losing weight does not magically change a person into somebody completely new, despite what ‘the dream’ might suggest.
- Refrain from diet talk, and ask your loved ones to do the same around you. I am not too bothered by diet talk these days, but I know that many people do not like it at all. If that is the case, I strongly suggest politely asking the people you know who have engaged in it in the past to stop, at least while you are around. If they refuse to do this, and continue to talk diets despite your polite request, you might also try leaving the conversation.
- Surround yourself with fat-accepting people. You might not be able to surround yourself entirely with fat-accepting people (we are a relatively uncommon bunch, for now), but if you can find a couple, you will find strength in that solidarity. Also, if you are able to do it, see if you can find yourself a fat accepting doctor. Having a medical professional who is willing to consult with you and not bring up your weight every single time you talk to them will strengthen your non-dieting stance.
- Last but not least, practice radical self love. I am not just saying this to nicely round off the article, I promise. When I was first introduced to the world of fat acceptance, I was highly sceptical. Never before had it been suggested to me that I could love myself and my body enough to actually be alright with my fatness, or to even find it charming, or cute, once in awhile. But it turns out I could, and I do. There are still occasional, fleeting moments of dislike, but those are growing fewer and further between as time goes on. Take it from somebody who now has a giant red scar down the middle of her tummy and thinks it’s awesome: radical body love really works. More than most diets will.
It is seriously challenging to learn how to navigate the pressures of diet culture, as it is such a prevalent part of our society. But if refraining from dieting is what you need to best take care of yourself and your body (as it is for me), then the resistance is more than worth it.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with long blonde hair blowing in the wind. They are wearing a red short-sleeved shit and wire-framed glasses. Behind them is blue water and blue sky with clouds. Source: Nicholas Erwin]
I stopped dieting fifteen years ago. And still, I have moments when I consider investing in ‘the dream’. I know I shouldn’t, but indeed, there are moments when I feel low (esp now I am awaiting knee surgery after an incident at work) where the pressure is high and defences are low. Hanging in there though. There simply isn’t a good and healthy way and it definitely isn’t worth the hassle. (depression, feeling weak/sick all the time, having to deny yourself basically to live)
I’m so thankful to be part of the fat-acceptance community. Been fighting on my own for way too long.