Since May, I have lost twenty-three pounds. That is quite a lot and quite a little. It’s a lot because, well, try carrying around two five-litre bottles of water around all day and see how many chuckles you have. It’s a little because there is a lot still to go.
I know a lot about being fat – I prefer the old playground term of abuse to the more medicalised, impersonal term of ‘obesity’ – since I’ve been that way for all of my adult life. As it happens, at nineteen stones and three pounds, this is the least heavy I have been since I was a teenager. Put it down to being on a diet; put it down to doing Wake And Shake as a teacher; put it down to the ton of stress I’m under right now – whatever, I’m losing weight, and I’m quite pleased about it.
I find it interesting, then, as a self-confessed fatty, to hear people discussing whether NICE should tell people that fatness is their own fault or not. Most of the people doing the finger-pointing are professional trolls, continuing in public a trend of fatty-bashing that most of us learned through a haze of tears school and have had continued through the workplace and through most of our lives through snide comments and – shield your eyes from this next word – “banter”.
You know, when it’s someone’s birthday at work and you go to reach for one of the communal pile of doughnuts and you can see people watching you to see how gluttonous you are; sometimes some wag might offer “Haven’t you had enough of them already?” to make you feel that little bit more confident about yourself. That sort of thing. Or someone you’ve never met before coming up to you out of the blue in a pub and saying “You’re a fucking fat cunt, aren’t you”. Or the more subtle comments that come as a kind of helpful-sounding advice, where colleagues worry aloud that you might ‘squash’ the children you work with. Ah, yes. We fat folk have to enjoy such larks. That’s why we’re so fucking jolly all the time like Santa Claus.
When you see people in the media – not just the trolls, or people like What I Had For Dinner Correspondent Giles Coren – saying that we should shame fat people, you wonder if they’re doing it out of a genuine concern for the health and wellbeing of those folk who are putting a strain on their organs, or whether they’re just being the kind of bullying bastards you’ve encountered throughout your life. Pick on fatty. Why not? If they run after you, they won’t catch you, ho ho.
It’s part of the School Of Hard Knocks school of thought; that all that anyone needs is a kick up the arse rather than any kind of meaningful encouragement; that negative reinforcement is always better than anything else; that people must be given shame, and self-loathing, to succeed.
One problem I can see with that: shame is what got a lot of us fat in the first place. Shame and guilt can be easily transformed into feasting on sugar or carbs or fat or whatever you can get your hands on. Just as smokers (and I was one once) can light up at the thought of a painful memory, people who eat too much can reach for something unhealthy when they’re feeling low. We can comicalise it by references to Billy Bunters and cakes and pies, but it’s the same kind of self-destructive sadness – make the misery go away through something that gives you a little boost of chemical joy.
Perhaps the NICE advice is pragmatic more than a desperate PC-gone-mad attempt to avoid offending chubby folk. Telling that kind of person that they’re worthless and pathetic isn’t extremely likely to make it better – and might even make it worse. So what? you might think.These people should suffer; it’s their own fault they got where they are; they should sink or swim. It’s no coincidence that the type of person who enjoys picking on the fat is the kind of person who also likes hurling abuse at the ‘lower orders’ for being poor; it’s part of the same mindset, a fair-world fallacy in which everyone else experiences the world exactly like me, and has exactly the same chances and me, and I just happen to have ended up with a better time than them. It’s an inviting way of seeing the world, because it means we’re responsible for 100 per cent of our success, while the people who would say they aren’t as lucky are entirely responsible for their failure.
For me, I would always comfort eat as a child, as I had undiagnosed depression and found that I could use food as a handy way of finding a little pleasure in a world that seemed desperately dark. As I grew older, I continued to have that toxic relationship with food – sometimes it got better, and sometimes it got worse, when I was under times of extreme stress – and the results are around my belly right now. That’s me. Everyone’s story is different as to why they got fat. Most of us are trying to be not as fat – for health reasons, to look better, to be more attractive, because we just want to. In the meantime, there’s plenty of shame already and it comes from within more often than that; we don’t really need any more.
I think it says something about us as a wider society, the way we treat people who are ‘others’. We can see fat people as being like those on benefits (sometimes the fat people are on benefits and we can finger-point and judge with twice the self-righteousness!) and tell them that they are costing us our hard-earned tax pounds to fix. Or we can try and understand why they are how they are, how they got to where they are, and what might help. Just as no-one becomes homeless or poor overnight, no one becomes fat overnight. It doesn’t take one dodged salad, I’m afraid. It takes an awful lot of choices – wrong choices at that.
It’s the same thing that we as citizens always have to choose – do we try and understand, or do we try and punish? If fat people are going to be the new outcasts, then so be it: we’re used to being abused, and a little more is just another thing to add to the load. It says more about the people handing out the abuse than it does about us.