I am in an abusive relationship. It is one I cannot control, and from which I cannot escape. Nor do I want to. I am aware of the damage. The endless cycle of harm, misuse and guilt. That inevitable promise of it never happening again, this will be the last time, I love you, we will get through this. All the clichés wash over me, followed by care, kindness and acceptance. These periods vary in time and regularity, but ultimately, they do not last. I return to the murky loathing, the criticisms, denials and depression which are now woven into my normality.
Within this hatred lies love, and that is what I keep hold of. I love my abuser. I am reliant upon them for my happiness as well as my hurt. For all the positives, those grasped opportunities, the choices that have put me on wonderful paths. For all the chances to explore me as a person and for being allowed to fail as well as succeed.
My abusive relationship is not unusual. It is abnormally common. People live with these relationships unaware. It is dangerous. Because my abuser is me, and I have learnt to admit it.
I consider my body and the wonderful thing that it is. It does whatever I need it to do, attempts to do things that I know it will not achieve. For this I berate it. I look at the flaws and inabilities in my body as an enemy which must be destroyed. That nemesis will be thwarted and punished so that I can move forward and succeed. I deny it adequate sustenance or fill it with junk and expect it to perform. It is kept in pain, under stress, exhausted. I am aware of my relationship with food, and how toxic it is. I am aware of my bad choices and the consequences, which means punishment. I put myself through hard training programmes, which hurt, and will hurt for days to come because I have become indoctrinated with the belief that this is good pain. This is pain that leads to improvement. It is proven that overweight and obese people face stigma and discrimination regarding employment education and healthcare. We are stereotyped as lazy, unmotivated, slovenly, impoverished. My poor mental health was instantly diagnosed as a result of my obesity. The direct result of living within a fat body. Indeed, every ailment I had was caused by my weight. The belief that my weight was the root cause of all my unhappiness became more and more justified, underpinned by health professionals, educators and the world around me. I was fortunate enough to grow up without social media and the pressure it expels directly from the palms of our hands, but I knew my body didn’t fit, literally, in the space it had been assigned.
My physical self-abuse is directly influenced by my mental health, and my mental health can be tracked photographically through my fluctuating frame. Looking back through pictures there are times of extreme happiness alongside the darkest of times. Extremes mirrored by extremes, and neither end of the scale is healthy.
My weight has been problematic since childhood. I remained composed of circles as my peer’s puppy fat melted away revealing sleek greyhound-like limbs that frolicked in playgrounds and ate up the ground as they chased footballs and peddled bicycles breakneck along the avenue. Ever awkward I tried to keep up, following along, red-faced, puffing, ballooning cheeks always last. In the PE line-up, chosen last or second to last with the other fat child in the class. Each embarrassed with pleading tear brimmed eyes, looking to the team captains desperate to be valued more than the other.
I tried too hard, a trait that continues today. I try hard for acceptance in a world where face value is a universal currency. My self-depreciation was instilled young. Unfortunately, my sister was one of those childhood whippets. Blonde, blue-eyed, easily funny and likeable, I was eclipsed by her in many ways. I was compared to my sister. This was not her fault, but it has affected our relationship. I have a vivid memory of my Grandma Bumble saying with deep concern to my sister ‘You shouldn’t eat all those, you don’t want to be fat like Deelee.’ A flippant remark I was never meant to hear, but one that has burned its way into my subconscious like a superheated ball bearing through ice cream. I wasn’t even enough for those who were meant to love me. Instead, I was too much. I was ashamed of myself and embarrassed for them.
I dreamt that one day my curse would be lifted, that I would be able to do monkey bars, that the swing chains wouldn’t cut into my thighs, that I would be picked, not first, but third or fourth. I truly believed from my interpretation of a rudimentary skin cross-section diagram in the nurse’s office that I could make a cut in my stomach. The fat nestled just underneath. I could use a spoon and scoop out all the fat, but it would have to be long-handled and shallow to be most effective. I needed that specific spoon. I was certain that thinness would mean happiness and I unhealthily pursued it.
I have spent most of my life on a diet. When I was thirty, I decided that I really needed to do something. Thirty is an age that I dreaded and one I was determined to enjoy. The death of my uncle at thirty made me realise the fleeting nature of time. I had spent too much of it unhappy. I dieted and trained hard, for months. It became obsessive and driven by a combination of desperation and an addiction to people’s approval. With each kilo I lost I was praised. I was suddenly worthy of notice, I was valid. Yet I was very unwell. I dropped forty kilos. I should have felt amazing, but I felt exhausted, confused. I stumbled over words, forgot things, was in constant pain. Things that had previously been considered weight-related were worsening. At sixty-eight kilos I returned to the doctor, who dutifully did my BMI and said I could easily lose another seven, but he would investigate my fatigue, abnormal menstrual cycles and discomfort. Now, these things could not be attributed to my large and unhealthy body. I was sick. I suffer from hyperthyroidism, polycystic ovaries, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and OSFED as well as bipolar and anxiety.
Diagnosis with any long term or life-changing condition means suddenly you become powerless. There is no control. You must succumb, it is terrifying. I felt instantly guilty for all the mistreatment I had put my body through. All the deprivation of love and nutriment. All the bad relationships I allowed to happen because I felt I didn’t deserve better. My body was already suffering, and I was willingly maiming it, I didn’t appreciate it when it was well. The realisation that my lifestyle needed to change was something I was unwilling to consider. I was accepted in this thinner frame, but the regime needed to maintain it was unrealistic. These problems were not solely caused by my weight, some of them had caused it. The knowledge that I had the condition became eclipsed by the treatments for it. The multiple concoctions of medications would immobilise me for weeks. Only able to get up and see to Blossom before returning exhausted to bed. The weight which had taken 12 months to lose was regained within 2, and with that, my mental health deteriorated.
Where there was little space for a larger body, where would there be space for a larger and less able one? A complicated body with additional needs. This stage of self-pity was valuable in my recovery, and in hindsight, I am pleased I allowed myself to have it. There is huge pressure to make the best of things, to always look to the positives in situations and move forward. But sometimes you need to stop and admit that it’s all fucked up and that you’re angry, and frustrated and for you, at that moment it’s the worst place to be. I was aware that other people were worse off, we all are, but for that time I couldn’t care, and I cried repeatedly for my nonfuture.
I grieved for my unrealised future. The one where I could run 10km without pain, buy clothes from Topshop, knew I could fit into a space that previously I would spill out of. My work tattooing was thwarted as I lost concentration and feeling in my hands. I couldn’t work, write, paint or ride. As my identity diminished my weight and depression increased like a taunting balancing game. And I was angry. Angry at doctors for not taking me seriously for so long. Angry that I hadn’t done more with my ‘healthy’ time. Angry that I had treated myself so badly. And that now I was less likely to fit into any society made mould.
So, despite my pain and fatigue, I returned to the gym and conscious food choices. But instead of using it as a weapon to punish myself for that packet of Jaffa cakes, the inhaled Mars bar, extra toast at breakfast, or like now the Maltesers I chose over the fruit bag in the meal deal. (I got a smoothie, so it balances out right?) Now it is a tool that I can use against my condition. I can try to be as healthy and strong as possible, then I will not be as affected by my illness. This attitude baffles many. I have the perfect excuse not to go to the gym. The perfect excuse as to why I’m not slim. Why do I stay working when I could claim sick? Why do I study and write when I lose words and cognitive function at the drop of a hat? I do these things because I am not defined by my body and its limits. If I keep doing as much as I can then my future is not a bleak as I first believed.
Despite my new attitude, nothing was stable. However, much I tried to be accepting and receptive of my new body, I was frustrated by it.
We are dandled in a state of constant anxiety. A state where we are shown we are not good enough, but also placed on a pedestal of beauty and worth. Bombarded by images of extremes, it is a constant struggle against ourselves. It is capitalised on. I bought diet pills, meal replacements, followed regimes with celebrity endorsements. I wanted the before and after miracles. The promise that everything is better once you conform to society’s stereotype. Money flows from our insecurities.
It is a huge business, and we are exploited. Gym memberships, supplements, specific foods, exercise DVDs. All things I buy into. I follow lifestyle bloggers, Instagram influencers from all angles. Body positivity pioneers and healthy lifestyle promoters. They use the same tools. Spew the same rhetoric. The same messages. Fuelling the same anxieties. Keeping alive the same questions.
It is evident that fat-shaming does not aid weight loss, but in the early 1990s body positivity was not as visible as it is now. I looked to the body positivity movement. The concept that we should be accepting of ourselves and our bodies for the wonderful things that they are is for many inspirational. I agree with the sentiment that we should not be criticised or shamed for our bodies not being ‘perfect’. Beauty ideals have evolved through history. We need only to look at icons such as Marilyn Munroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Naomi Campbell, Dita Von Teese, to see changing fashions. Now the rise of the ‘plus size’ is upon us, but I am unsure if this is any less damaging than the heroin chic of the 1990s, or the wasp-like corseted eras gone by.
I am not disrespecting those that take pride and pleasure in their size, those who are in love with their bodies regardless of weight shape or ability. But how can anyone love themselves and be wholly accepting of themselves all the time? I know that as a species, humans are becoming larger. We are becoming heavier. Hurrah for sedentary lifestyles and easy accessibility to food. Two-thirds of Britons are overweight, and the normalisation of this is prevalent on social media and within the body positivity movement. Yet even if it is becoming more common, does it mean we should be fully accepting of it? I have been at both ends of the scale, within the destructive grip of eating disorders and obesity, and I can say that neither is recommended. I wonder why it is acceptable to celebrate obesity when anorexia is condemned. Each is a disease. Each focus on the external. The façade. The look. But my perception as an overweight individual is that the body positivity movement is inadvertently dangerous. By vilifying those who continue to struggle with body image the movement asks us to accept our flaws. I accept my flaws, but I am frustrated by them. I still dream of that long-handled spoon that will magically scoop out my unwanted rolls and flatten my dimpled thighs. It is unrealistic. Instead of feeling like a failure for not being thin, I feel a failure for not loving being fat. For not loving all the faults with my body. I now have a right to demand room for my size, but not a right to demand room for my insecurities or frustrations. These emotions are invalid in a sphere where they should be most visible.
You can be fat or thin, but the focus is still on how you look, not your capabilities, intelligence or worth. Celebrating obesity is irresponsible. It is unhealthy. My obesity stemmed from my addiction to food. I caused my obesity, which was then exacerbated by my poor mental and physical health. Yet ultimately, I was responsible, and I am responsible for my recovery. Accepting obesity as a positive state is irresponsible. By celebrating the result of a disorder, the underlying causes are overlooked. We are not allowing space to say, ‘this is why I am not happy, this is what has caused my weight, and I want to change it’. Looking back through my journals, I lost count of the entries promising to be better, to lose weight, to look after myself, to try harder. yet I had not considered the source of the problem, only the result. Losing my weight and accepting my flaws was a step on a long journey to discover my self-worth. I allow myself days where I hate everything about myself, from my greying eyebrows to my stretch-marked tummy. I do not apologise for these days. Neither do I apologise for the days where I feel incredible. When my skin glows and I feel strong, toned and most of all, worthy. These days are becoming more frequent as I continue to build a different future which my illness will mould.
People have always faced marginalisation. There has always been fear of the ‘other’, whether that is physical, psychological, gender-based, or religious. Humanity has a way of wheedling it out and exploiting it. We need only look to our recent past where those with mental health issues were incarcerated and subject to horrific torture, those with physical disabilities segregated from society. Luckily most of humanity are educated and aware. Most, but not all. Acceptance and celebration surround the diversity of individuals. And with social acceptance, there arises the pressure for personal acceptance, and this is where I remain very much in conflict. I refuse to apologise for my conflict.
true life events