19 Mar 2009

Weight Watchers - is fat always a feminist issue?

As my nearest and dearest will know, I've recently lost 2.5 stone. When I say 'recently', I mean that it's been a long-term project that reached fruition when I reached my goal weight three days ago. My method was that selected by millions of men and women world-wide every year - Weight Watchers. Having been a serial dieter, binge-eater and bulimic from the age of 12 onwards, I can categorically say that the WW plan is the only effective weight management plan I've ever encountered. It has worked for me and I'm extremely pleased. However, there's vast scepticism surrounding the diet industry - most of it entirely justified - which prompts me to defend my decision. The scepticism seems to come in two forms: 1) The eternal pragmatists, who dismiss all forms of diet plan as unnecessary, exploitative, and only for the naive/stupid/those totally lacking in willpower. Their standard response to those wanting to lose weight is 'Eat less - move more. How hard can it be? You don't need to spend hundreds of pounds on x, y or z'. 2) The anti-body-fascism feminists, who dismiss all forms of diet plan as misogynistic, sexist and exploitative. Their standard response to those wanting to lose weight is 'Screw the diet industry, it's only out to promote and capitalise upon women's insecurities, and promote ridiculously unattainable standards for the female body. Love yourself.'

Looking at 1) first, I can only speculate that those who say it's 'that simple' to attain and maintain a satisfactory weight, have never struggled with their own weight, and have certainly never suffered from any form of eating disorder. For me, and I suspect countless other women, my relationship with food has been fraught from the moment my dad saw me reaching for the Hula Hoops as a chubby 10 year-old, and felt the need to remind me of that old adage 'a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips'. Cheers papa. Throughout puberty, teenagehood and beyond, I never knew what a healthy amount to eat was, what I should eat, what I should want to eat, or - and this is probably the crucial thing - what 'being full' really meant or felt like. I craved sweet, fatty and carbohydrate-laden food, and the idea of a diet that deprived me of all that seemed doomed to fail - hence I turned to bulimia for a while so I could continue to eat all the foods I wanted but keep their effects 'off the hips'. I was a normal, healthy weight for most of my teenage years, well within a respectable BMI, yet - like your average teenage girl - was convinced I was fat, ugly and hideous/invisible to the opposite sex. I had Cognitive Therapy for 18 months to deal with my eating problems (and the self-harming that accompanied it ) and to this day, don't consider it to have helped at all. At no point did I feel like anyone ever offered me a method of control over food and my weight that would allow me to relax the stranglehold that both things had over my mind. CT just relentlessly identified the 'errors in my thinking' whilst doing nothing to help me with what I was feeling or how to control it.

So yes, if you've never struggled with food or your weight in this manner, you will inevitably fail to understand why anyone could claim that they need artificial assistance with weight loss, and can't just focus on the basics (5-a-day, cut down on your sat.fats, try not to eat a 1kg bar of Dairy Milk each day) and that be enough. You should know that you're a lucky person, and I advise that you try not to piss off the gods of karma into withdrawing that luck by labelling those less fortunate than yourself weak, stupid or naive. Telling someone that they're 'weak' for having one too many Krispy Kremes is the same kind of talk anorexics give themselves when they slip and eat a handful of grapes. We're all human - get over it. You might be able to deal with food with no problem - do you also never indulge in a lie-in, turn up late anywhere, drive badly, or leave your home in a less-than-desirable state? If I say I need WW to help me maintain a healthy weight and a good attitude to food, then either clap me on the back for my honesty or say nothing. Don't use it as an excuse to belittle or harangue me - unless you fancy throwing your own life open for me to analyse in minute detail so I can identify the areas in which you require a little help, and then proceed to make you feel like shit about them.

2) is a little harder to navigate one's way around, especially as I am a proud feminist and anti-body fascist myself. I can't tell you how wonderful it feels at present to walk into every newsagent and see a naked 20-stone woman adorning the cover of a glossy popular fashion magazine. Like a lot of women, I love Beth Ditto and her unwillingness to be pigeonholed into the roles traditionally offered to fat women (cute, bubbly, frumpy but never EVER sexual, and certainly never nekkid). I love her choice of clothes, her make-up, and her unwillingness to ever try and 'blend in'. And I super-love her for getting naked and showing us what the average women is far more likely to look like than what 99.9999% of women's and men's magazines will ever show us. I believe in the right of women and men to look like and weigh whatever they damn well please, and I recoil in horror at how emaciated women with bodies like 12 year-old boys (Cheryl Cole, Victoria Beckham, Aygness Deyn, please stand up) are still unquestioningly held up as icons of fashion and beauty. I recognise there is great money to be made from making women feel like shit about the way they look, whether you're a magazine editor, a beautician, a cosmetic surgeon or the person who patented Slimfast.


But but but but.

I am not going to be criticised or accused of 'buying in' to an anti-feminist phenomenon, simply because I joined a weight loss programme I found easy, helpful and successful. I have seen discussions on feminist websites on whether Weight Watchers should be sued for promoting an unhealthy, unrealistic body image, and I'm frankly stunned that any feminist would encourage this kind of paranoid censorship. So most of the members are women - we can interpret this as evidence that the diet industry targets and hates women, or we can interpret it as evidence that women are more honest and pro-active when it comes to doing something about their weight. Incidentally, every WW meet I've attended has had male members, and one of them had lost 10 stone - I doubt many of us would want to detract from his healthy and wise choice, yet this is exactly what we're doing when we try to remove the choice that WW offers people. That's right - choice. No one made me go the meetings, no one pressured or oppressed me. Yes, you can argue that society at large has oppressed me through all its insidious messages that assault me every time I turn on the TV or open a magazine - that you can't be sexy, attractive or popular unless you have a flat stomach, matchstick arms and thighs that don't meet in the middle. My response would be that, having wrestled with those messages all through my teens, I've made my peace with the fact that kind of bullshit is always going to be out there, and a girl just has to find the strength go her own way. So why diet then, Chas? you cry. Well, in our effort to rescue women from oppressive expectations and offensive images, we seem to have forgotten that some women Might Still Want To Lose Weight Anyway. And I am one of those women. At my heaviest, I was 12 stone - 2 stone overweight for my height. However you slice the pie, this isn't a great thing health-wise, although health wasn't my over-riding priority. I was, quite simply, bloody fed up. I was tired of sweating even in cool weather, of my thighs rubbing together so much they bled, of having constant painful acid indigestion because of the pressure my stomach was putting on my oesophagus. I was fed up with none of my clothes fitting, of each pair of jeans starting to unzip themselves whenever I sat down, of trying to do a yoga move and being prevented from bending down by my own stomach. I was particularly fed up with the fact that I knew, deep down, I was getting fat from doing a sedentary office job, a job I couldn't have cared less about, but which nonetheless left me too knackered/demotivated to exercise, and drove me to comfort eat whenever I could during the working day, largely due to crushing boredom and dissatisfaction.

So, I took control and embarked on a plan that offered no quick fixes, did not require me to cut out any foods (as I knew what feeling deprived did to my binge reflex) and tailored its requirements to my height, weight, age, gender and activity levels (rather than offering one-size-fits-all advice, as if that's going to work). I was perfectly happy to pay the weekly meeting fee and buy some of the WW products in return for a manageable, easy-to-follow eating plan that has now became a way of life. I don't feel exploited or ripped off in any way - WW is a business that provides a service, and I happily and knowingly paid for that service. Not only has my weight loss made me feel fitter, happier and a lot less fucked off, it's also helped me get a handle on my appetite and cravings. As I lost weight gradually over the last 9 months, I've got into the habit of eating slower, actually tasting my food and enjoying it, and telling the difference between boredom/depression/habit and genuine hunger. As a result I've realised that my appetite is so much smaller than I believed it to be, the food I 'need' is probably half of what I was previously putting away. If I'm starting to sound like a testimonial, it's only because I'm trying to illustrate how WW helped me deal not just with the excess weight, but with the causes of it too - and that's what no one else had managed to do - not parents, not doctors, not dieticians and certainly not psychotherapists. I'd hope that those who consider themselves feminists would congratulate rather than berate me on my achievement, and I thank those who already have shared their good wishes.

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