[Content note: food, food-shaming, fat-shaming, and all the toxic stuff that goes with it, plus mental health issues.]
I’m one of those people who loses weight under acute stress. I also used to do it when I had depression, but mercifully I don’t get that any more; I just get anxiety, which is bad enough, but it still beats depression. This is why I tend to prefer to be on the larger side of “normal” (a word which isn’t easy to define when it comes to weight, but I suppose for me it’s the natural weight range of my body). This means that if I do happen to get very stressed and lose weight – and it can be a lot of weight – then it does no harm, and I’m not getting stressed about the weight loss in addition to whatever else I’m stressing about.
Well, a few years ago I had some really serious stress over several months, and I lost a lot of weight, as I do. The stress was just starting to lift when I ran into… let’s call him Diet Man. That makes it simple. He was hovering around outside my usual supermarket trying to hawk diets to people, and I was coming out with a trolleyload of groceries.
So there I was, minding my own business, and Diet Man came up wanting to know if I was interested in his diet. I looked him up and down.
“Do I look as if I need a diet?” I demanded.
He eyed my underweight frame a little nervously. “Oh. Well, no, but of course everyone could eat better…”
I said nothing. I just let him tail off as his eyes fell on the contents of my trolley, which was probably about two-thirds fruit and veg, because, guess what? I like fruit and veg. There were also a couple of bars of chocolate. Because I like chocolate, too.
I waited. When he looked up at me again, he stammered something about how that was very good on the whole, except for the chocolate of course, and I should be proud of myself because “most people just eat what they like”.
That was it. I’d had enough. “I eat what I like, you silly man!” I snapped at him, and left him standing. I was almost tempted to go back for more chocolate, but I didn’t; he had annoyed me, and I just wanted to get home.
Now, if he hadn’t caught me on the hop, there would have been a great deal more I could have said, and that’s even if you accept the validity of dieting. (I consider it a highly problematic area in and of itself, but that’s a matter for another post, probably by someone else who is far more eloquent than I am.) Let’s start with the fact that he was there in the first place. Even if dieting always worked and the weight loss was always beneficial to dieters, selling diets by buttonholing people in a public place would still be wrong. It’s simply rude to walk up to a complete stranger who is doing their shopping and imply that they need to lose weight.
Of course, the reason Diet Man and his ilk get away with this rudeness is that there are so many people out there who do want to lose weight, even if they are actually underweight, as I was at the time; that, surely, was the only reason why he would have approached me. Let’s be clear; I don’t have any beef against any individual person wanting to lose weight. That is, or should be, a personal decision. I do, however, have an enormous beef against the amount of media and society pressure there is to do so, of which Diet Man was but one very tiny part. We are constantly bombarded with images of people who conform to one very narrow ideal (and, let’s not forget, this is highly gendered; much more is expected of someone who is read as female than of someone who is read as male), and we are told in all kinds of different ways that this is how we are supposed to look. It’s impossible in any case; the people who are held up as models of how we should look are invariably heavily retouched. They don’t even look like that themselves in real life, so why should the rest of us bother trying?
Let’s be real. Just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, so also not wanting to lose weight is a perfectly cromulent attitude. If your weight is so far to one extreme or the other that it’s affecting your health, then certainly it would help you to gain some or lose some, depending on which end of the spectrum you are; and if you have an actual eating disorder and your life is at risk, then you’re going to need some medical help to do that and I wish you all the very best. But, for the overwhelming majority of people, whether you want to put on a bit, lose a bit or stay where you are is entirely up to you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s your body, not theirs.
And while we’re at it, can we all agree that food guilt basically needs to get in the sea? I honestly think it’s the most toxic thing anyone can possibly swallow. Again, I could write a whole essay on this, and many people have done so; they’ve looked at it largely from the point of view of economic privilege, and that’s certainly a huge factor. To eat what is generally accepted as a healthy diet, you first of all need a living wage, because fresh food is more expensive than heavily processed food. Then you need to be able to get to places where you can buy food at reasonable prices, which, if you’re short of money, probably means you’re reliant on public transport; lugging a load of shopping on the bus can be difficult at the best of times, but if you’re elderly and/or disabled and/or have preschoolers in tow, that’s bordering on nightmarish, so you’ll probably tend to go to the corner shop most of the time, although it’s more expensive and doesn’t sell anything fresh. Then you need time to prepare and cook the food… and so on. This has all been said, and better than I could say it.
What is said far less often is that it’s not just food that impacts health. Health also impacts food. Even among healthy bodies, there is a large variance in ideal diet; I, for instance, have low blood pressure, which doesn’t cause me a problem as long as I remember to keep up my salt intake. I’ve learned from many years’ experience that I won’t get dizzy spells if I treat the government salt guideline as a minimum rather than a maximum. That’s a relatively trivial example, though. I have friends with serious gastric conditions such as IBS, who have to live on bland, low-fibre foods. Those who tut-tut at white bread and fudge blondies on health grounds need to be aware that they’re among the very few things some people can eat in order to avoid suffering serious ill-health. Again, people who are on chemotherapy often can’t eat much at all due to nausea, and the standard medical advice in such cases is to eat whatever they can get down.
And, let me tell you, the same goes for mental health. When you’re depressed and you can barely eat, you shouldn’t have to feel you need anyone else’s permission to eat whatever you can manage. You’re barely functioning today, so your total food intake has been a bit of leftover cheese, a litre of fizzy lemonade and a packet of Jaffa Cakes? Congratulations; it’s keeping you alive. That’s what food is for. It’s awesome that you’ve managed to eat enough today to do that. Get through the immediate crisis first, do what you have to do to stay alive, and start thinking about what you’re eating only as and when you feel well enough to handle it. Don’t let anyone try to guilt you into doing otherwise. They are not in your situation, they can’t tell you how to handle it, and they are not your boss. (Even if they are your boss, it’s still none of their business.)
I haven’t seen Diet Man since then, nor any of his kind. I hope this is because the company he works for has realised that this is a lousy way to sell diets and has put him safely behind a desk, where he is possibly doing something useful like research. I don’t know, but it’s a nice thought.
In the meantime, please pass the chocolate.