I went to a hospital appointment with my wife this week. We saw a therapist that is used to dealing with disabled people every day – it is her job to find people the best wheelchair for their needs. As part of her job, she will be used to dealing with people just like me. I am a disabled person who sometimes walks, sometimes uses crutches or sticks and sometimes uses a wheelchair. As it happens, this appointment was for my wife. I’ve been to her wheelchair appointments before though, so this therapist knows me.
At the moment, my legs are reasonably reliable. I’ve been able to walk more, though it’s painful and I am unsteady, it’s a real pleasure to be ‘on my feet’ a bit more. Coming to terms with my body as it is, means embracing all the things that are difficult and accepting my limitations while celebrating all the things I am able to do, even though they might be impaired.
When the therapist asked who I was, and I gave my name, she asked if Letty (my wife) and I were related. Letty and I looked at each other, and said in a slightly comical tandem way ‘we’re married’. I saw the light bulb click on. ‘Oh, it Imogen, she’s is stood up’.
Once all the work to Let’s chair had been done and we were finishing up, the therapist said her goodbyes to us and as I was leaving she said ‘and Imogen, it’s lovely to see you looking so well…’ To be fair, she stumbled over her words, I could see her realising what she was about to say just as it was leaving her mouth. Really what she meant to say was just ‘it’s nice to see you’, because she knew – as a health professional – that I wasn’t any ‘weller’ or healthier simply because I was standing rather than sitting. Funnily enough, when I sat on a chair during the appointment, she didn’t comment that I had started to look unwell….
This isn’t the first time someone has commented on my ‘health’ because of the way I look. And it is something I’ve noticed is a huge issue in the body positive community. It would seem that recently just as much as we are subject and held up to stupid, unobtainable beauty standards, we are held equally to ridiculous health standards.
Let’s start by being clear. YOU CANNOT TELL HOW HEALTHY SOMEONE IS BY LOOKING AT THEM.
You cannot assume that a wheelchair is unhealthy, just like you shouldn’t assume that a fat person is unhealthy. Conversely, there is no reason to assume a thin person IS healthy. Once again for those in the back .. there is NO WAY to tell how healthy someone is by the way they look.
Now, we’ve talked about my impairment before. So I’m sure you will remember that it is genetic. It isn’t going to go away, and I will never meet the ideal ‘health’ standards that some people seem very worried about. I will always have difficulties with day to day tasks and my body will always need assistance in maintaining homeostasis. As my body has been changing over these past few years, my impairment has changed along with it, and whilst a few of those things were impacted upon by weight, none of them were caused by weight alone. And conversely, as my body changes again in recovery, so will my impairments. The important thing to remember here is correlation does not imply causation.
The political rhetoric that fat people are ‘crushing the NHS‘ and that OF COURSE being fat will kill you, is everywhere, but when you start to break this stuff down, just how true is it and just how much of this is people buying into or perpetuating diet culture?
Let’s start with this, a 44yo ex-football player died suddenly this week despite having been incredibly ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ all his life. In fact, it’s not uncommon for seemingly ‘healthy’ people to die suddenly. And what about those incredible people who’ve lived extraordinarily long lives citing smoking 30 cigarets a day or drinking nothing but red wine as the secret. Why is it that we are so worried about the health of fat people and no one else when in reality we are all at risk of the same diseases?
And don’t be fooled. We ARE all likely to get the same diseases, regardless of weight. In fact, studies now are confirming what fat activists have been saying for years .. fat people are healthy .. .. overweight people are at no extra risk of mortality and even that overweight and obese people live longer! That’s if you can work out who the overweight people even are because it turns out the BMI index has been mislabeling people as overweight and obese in the first place.
All this focus on fat people though, and we’re missing the real truth. Diets are far more likely to harm your health. Fluctuations in weight have been proven to damage your health, in fact, weight cycling causes chronic inflammation and let’s not forget that eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. But why would the diet industry let those secrets reach you, they’re making millions by making you feel awful about your body, and the worse you feel about yourself the more likely you are to buy into their latest bullshit diet in a bid to ‘feel better’. The biggest laugh of all is that scientist have suggested that up to 80% of your body type is actually determined by your fucking genetics! And you can’t diet your genetics different!
What about all the other things that can cause illness? How about stress? Because it turns out that low-calorie diets cause cortisol levels to rise, meaning your body is under physical stress. The sad truth is that psychological stress is just as likely to raise mortality also. So why the fuck are we adding to the distress people already have to deal with in life? If we know that the mortality rate for those with mental health conditions is three times higher that those without, why on earth are we creating a world where people are literally driven to the edge of sanity purely because of how they look? What’s really fucked up is that those feelings start in childhood, I couldn’t believe it when I read that 80% of 10yo are scared of being fat and 90% of teens are unhappy with their body shape. Is this really the life we want our children to grow up into?
Let’s pause for a moment though, because maybe there is a chicken and egg element here too? Imagine you have been going about your life with no issues around food or movement, you’re at your set point and life is peachy. But then something happens, you break your leg, you develop cancer or an autoimmune disease, I mean just any number of life-altering things could happen .. but you go on with life, only now you’re not able to move as much, or you can only eat specific foods, or you throw up all the time and your weight changes. Have we considered that health might trigger someone to become fat rather than fatness triggering health problems?
A recent study proved that fat shaming actually makes people’s health worse. The notion that you might be encouraging someone to lose weight – or even ‘focus on their health’ by shaming them actually has the reverse effect..
“We are finding it has quite the opposite effect. When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.
And what’s worse is that by isolating people, by pushing them to the edges of society because their fat, you’re adding loneliness to the list of things that might actually harm their health. As someone who has experienced fatphobia and fat shaming first hand, I can assure you the knock-on effects are huge. You might think that hearing things from your friend or family are specifically bad, but actually, strangers making comments in the street is something I found to be especially embarrassing. The worst of all though was the bone crushing shaming I received from medical professionals.
As someone who has experienced fatphobia and fat shaming first hand, I can assure you the knock-on effects are huge. You might think that hearing things from your friends or family are specifically bad, but actually, strangers shouting comments in the streets is something I found to be especially embarrassing. The worst of all though was the bone crushing shaming I received from medical professionals. I wonder how many fat people struggle to maintain health because they are shamed out of visiting their medical providers or refused treatment until they’ve lost enough weight to satisfy some doctor they’ve met once. I remember the outrageous things doctors said to me, denying me treatments that could have been considered life-saving, simply because they decided I was too fat.
I still can’t seem to get people to understand just how unwell I was at my lowest weight. Whilst still meeting acceptable beauty standards, I was so malnourished that my hair started to fall out, my periods stopped, my bones started to weaken and my sex drive completely disappeared. The psychological effects were even more difficult to deal with though, I couldn’t focus on anything except food, I was absolutely exhausted all the time, I felt perpetually anxious, and life felt totally unmanageable.
What makes me more frustrated today though, is that people who claim to be body positive, who share their thoughts in a supposedly safe space, are still insisting on health shaming. The knock on effects of this is enormous and you don’t realise the damage you’re doing to all the intersectional members of the community.
We seem to all be able to agree on one thing, that the ideal beauty standards are bullshit, that they are damaging and that we should be fighting as a community, to change the fucking world. So why is it so hard to understand these impossible health standard are just as unobtainable, just as irrelevant and just as harmful.
If you are in the body positive community and you believe that you should only accept your body when it is healthy, then you’ve already excluded me from your movement. If you think that your healthy body will last forever, and you are only worthy while it does, then you’ve just excluded yourself from this movement. You’ve just excluded every person who ever experienced any aspect of poor health, illness or disability. You’ve just excluded who this movement is for, those who have no access to representation, no access to a message that they are good enough, and no access to a world that tells them they have any fucking value.
There are two things that we as a community need. The first is to stand firm together to not only to reject beauty standards but also to dismantle this idea that we need to be healthy to be worthy. Without that, we are tripping ourselves up and selling ourselves short, we are taking away a vital element of our movement that lets everyone know they have worth regardless of health and ‘wellness’. But secondary to that, we have to find a louder voice for disabled people. That voice has to reach not only the corners of the community but the corners of the world. Just like fat people, people of colour, queer people and those from all of our wonderful intersections need to be represented out in the world, so do disabled people. I want to see bodies that represent me in the media. I want to voices that represent my voice in the media. I want to know that the world outside the body positive community values and respects me and bodies like mine.
It might seem like a long way off, but the fat acceptance movement has been doing amazing things with body positivity. We see plus size models in our media more, we see fat bodies on our TV screens, we even celebrate beautiful fat bodies sometimes.. and that’s what I want for disabled people. I don’t want us to be Paralympians, I don’t want us to be pitied, I don’t want us to have to be inspirational or the curse of the NHS, I want us to be accepted and celebrated just as we are.
Unhealthy, disabled, broken, fat, fucking glorious, fucking proud and so fucking worthy.