Sheree Bell is a community worker who I am fortunate to know and call a friend; she also writes very well, and this is a particularly evocative piece about society’s obsession with weight loss. I urge you to read these words very carefully and take them on board.
I should be dead by now. Somehow, I have managed to survive all the morbid predictions made by the NHS through the course of my life and, at nearly 60, am living to tell the tale.
My first visit to the GP concerning my fat body was at 4 years old. My mum, worried about my growing tummy, took me along for advice. My mother was of the generation that revered the doctor and. in her early life, her own father had had to pay for a visit to the GP. In my mum’s mind, doctors were Gods and you did not question their wisdom. You were lucky to have their counsel.
The doctor prodded and poked me (a distant memory now) and told her that I needed to lose weight, handed her a diet sheet and warned that if she didn’t sort my weight out soon I was unlikely to be alive by the time I should be going to primary school. My mum told the doctor that she just fed me ordinary food and that I had a healthy appetite, but the doctor scolded “Even if you feed this child a lettuce leaf a day, it is too much!” There started my mum’s obsession with feeding me salads and my regular meal of grilled beef burgers with a handful of boiled runner beans. I often went to bed hungry and irritable.
My mum told me this story of our doctor’s visit many times, and it was the start of my life long experience of diet sheets, weigh-ins and the NHS trying to ‘fix me’.
My next prophet of doom was a doctor I saw when I was about 10 years old. Despite my mother having spent six years putting me on a variety of diets, and my weight yo-yoing through primary school, they had still not been able to turn me into a thin person and I was not yet dead. I endured the humiliation of being taken to Weight Watchers – with my GP’s agreement – and much to my embarrassment, be the only child in the room. I was an active girl who loved sports and games at school despite having a class teacher who referred to me daily as ‘Fatty Bell’ and ‘Bully Beef’. I was popular with my group of friends and did moderately well with my studies but I was still far from acceptable in the size department. I had dreams of running a little restaurant in the future and looked forward to studying cookery at secondary school. Mum thought this was a ridiculous idea because it would allow me to be near food and I would just get fatter and fatter. Yet even without the cookery classes I still wasn’t thin. Mum took me along to the GP again.
When we left the surgery this time, mum had been given a sheet of paper with a triangle on it. This triangle was called ‘The Food Pyramid’ and was supposed to offer my mother guidance on what to feed me most and what I was to eat less of. The foundation of the Food Pyramid was to ensure your daily diet was based largely on carbohydrates and so then ensued some of the most wonderful, nostalgic meals of my life – faggots, boiled potatoes and gravy; sausage, mash and onions; corned beef and piccalilli with home-made crinkle cut chips; tiny loaves of Hovis bread with butter; home-made milky baked rice puddings; tea times with toasted crumpets and potatoes baked until their skins were crispy and their insides were sweet and fluffy . Oh those were the days! All this delicious food was based on an unscientific food plan that had no nutritional basis, had not been thoroughly tested and yet it was heavily promoted in all NHS settings (you may even remember the posters on the walls of GP surgeries). It wouldn’t be recommended now.
But even the Food Pyramid didn’t make me into a thin person and so it was back to see my GP yet again.
This time the doctor had a brilliant idea – she prescribed me Amphetamines. Of course they didn’t call them by that name; as far as mum was concerned, I’d been put on ‘slimming pills’ and over the course of the next five years, I was on and off these drugs all through my secondary school years. Did I lose weight? Hell I did! My weight went rapidly downhill and then the drugs would be stopped, I’d put the weight back on and the drugs would be prescribed again. I grew to be very familiar with that little blue pill and so did my body, so the dosage would increase with every new prescription. When I look back now I can see why I messed about so much in secondary school, why I was naughty, why I played truant. I just couldn’t sit still in class! But it all had to be worth it if it would turn me into a thin person and at 15 years of age the doctor told me and my mum that if I didn’t get rid of my weight then I was likely to be dead before I reached the age of 21.
At 21 I gave birth to my daughter. Through the pregnancy I was addicted to jars of pickled onions and boxes of Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. After she was born I rapidly lost weight through breastfeeding and became a very rounded and acceptable (to me) size 18. I walked for hours every day in the sunshine with my baby in her pram. I was contented and healthy. However in my post-natal check-ups, (I had had a difficult Caesarean birth with an ongoing stubborn wound) the old advice to lose weight slipped in again. I was fit, happy and active but still I was not good enough.
By this time I was starting to get wise to the NHS. I realised that their staff were as caught up in the fallacy of ‘weight loss = healthy’ as I was. I started to explore fat politics and had a good hard look at my life so far under the ‘care’ of the NHS. I realised that the advice they repeatedly offered me and my mum was one dimensional. Good health was not the priority at all, being thin was the goal. It didn’t matter that my mum, with all good intention, served me an imbalanced diet that made me tired and grumpy. It didn’t matter that at 9 years old my growing body was thrust into the indignity of a ‘Pantee Girdle’ (and how I got taunted in the swimming pool changing rooms over that one). It didn’t matter that between the ages of 10 -16, I was repeatedly prescribed ‘Speed’, which affected my progress at school and my relationships. All this was absolutely acceptable as long as it made me thinner.
I still had one more prediction of death to contend with. After I had embraced fat politics in my early 20s I allowed my weight to blossom. I embraced size-acceptance. I stopped weighing myself. I avidly studied Metaphysics. I took on a vegetarian (and later, vegan) diet because I had compassion for animals and not because I wanted to lose weight. I read every book about Sizeism and fat politics I could lay my hand on and I started to build resilience. I took up Tap dancing and then Ballroom dancing, both activities my mum wouldn’t let me do as a child because I was too fat. I flied in the face of the stares and the fat-phobic comments from strangers and started to go back to swimming every Sunday morning. I had qualified as a Social Worker and was happy in work that fulfilled my desires to affect social justice and equality. But then, following the death of my father, I developed Psoriasis and its associated Arthritis. It was my first real taste of disability and ill health.
I was referred to consultants in Dermatology and Rheumatology and thus began my late life battle with the NHS – that of refusing to be weighed. I refuse to be weighed for a number of reasons, but mostly because there is no good reason for it. Every time I go to a clinic I feel as if I am entering a war zone and, despite me explaining why I don’t want to be weighed – that essentially it would be really bad for my physical and mental health – staff are usually extremely irritated and argue with me. I push them to tell me why they need to weigh me and when it comes down to it, they don’t have an answer. It’s just something that they do – usually because the consultant has requested it.
And so it was in one of these battles with a registrar that I was told that I needed to lose weight, and that if I didn’t I would probably be dead by the time I was 40. He said that to me without asking me anything about my lifestyle or my history. He didn’t know about the quality of food I ate, the exercise I took, the work I did, the hobbies and interests I had, where I lived and who I lived with, my friendship circle, how I felt about my life and how balanced I was emotionally and mentally. He had no understanding that it is ALL THESE influences in our lives that constitute good health. All he saw was a fat person that needed to be fixed.
Somehow, amazingly, I did survive the outcome he predicted and celebrated my 40th birthday by dancing on a chair and doing karaoke with family and friends in the award-winning vegetarian & vegan restaurant that I had bought, developed and successfully ran for 6 years.
So as I approach my sixth decade now I feel very lucky to have outlived these predictions by health professionals who are now my colleagues. I see them look at me and secretly wonder why I don’t go on a diet and lose weight. I sit through meetings where workers discuss the ‘obesity crisis’ and yet rarely ask for or take on board the views I put forward – valuable reflections from someone who is often the only ‘Expert by Experience’ in the room. I go to my medical appointments and brace myself to go into battle, knowing that even though I have asked them to write in red on the front of my file that I do not want to be weighed, they will still ask me to get on the scales and so we will have to go through the argument yet again. I endure judgement, disrespect, fat-shaming and humiliation from medics who ought to know better.
Is it any wonder that government schemes to get people to lose weight don’t work? Is it any wonder that people still turn to unhealthy faddy diets and weight reduction programmes that depend on repeat custom to fill shareholders pockets? Is it any wonder that fat people don’t want to exercise or engage in sport when we as a society don’t tackle fat-phobia and size discrimination? Is it any wonder that people like me are completely sceptical of any advice a health professional might want to give me, because we know they haven’t thought things through and are just spewing out government guidelines without really investigating or reflecting on the real issues?
I look around me and see thin friends being treated for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart troubles, gout, migraines, intestinal problems and I wonder to myself “How have I escaped all of that?” According to the professionals I should have died a long time ago. I am on borrowed time. I still have treatment for my Arthritis and Psoriasis but I am fortunate to not suffer any other health complaints. I rarely get coughs, colds or infections and my emotional and mental health is pretty stable considering the almost daily onslaught of covert and subtle prejudice and body-fascism I endure. I definitely want to build stamina and become more flexible and agile, be able to walk farther for longer, but this is motivated by the need to keep up with my little grandson, not a desire to lose weight.
I thank my lucky stars that I have cheated death. I don’t know why I outlived all those medically founded predictions – unless they perhaps weren’t medically founded at all? If I die tomorrow at least I will have lived my life on my terms and at least I will have proved the medics wrong.
Now, let’s hope I’m not tempting fate!