by Louise Hope
CN: psychiatric medication, psychosis, psychiatric hospitals, allusion to suicide, mention of clothes sizes, body image, depression
“It’s not fine to be fat. Celebrating obesity is irresponsible.”
This is the title of Lizzie Cernik’s recent article in the Guardian, in which she suggests that fat people are unaware of the potential risks of being overweight and that body positive campaigners are ‘promoting’ obesity. As an overweight person, however, I know full well that there are health complications linked to being overweight. I also know that my weight is currently the least of my worries, and that the body positive movement is not about promoting obesity but encouraging people to enjoy and accept their bodies.
The reason I am overweight is not because I’m lazy and spend all day eating junk food, but because I take a number of medications without which I would be dead or in hospital. I suffer from a condition called psychotic depression, meaning that when I reach a certain level of depression I start to experience psychosis such as hearing voices or experiencing delusions, which has led to multiple stays in psychiatric hospitals.
“The reason I am overweight is not because I’m lazy, but because I take a number of medications without which I would be in hospital”
Last time I tried to stop taking my medication, I became convinced that the government had implanted a microchip into my arm during a recent blood test, and that they were trying to kill me. Disconcertingly, the dishwasher, washing machine, oven and microwave began to scream ‘Brexit means Brexit’ in Theresa May’s voice: undoubtedly one of the most frightening things I’ve ever experienced. Needless to say, I am now back on the medication for the foreseeable future.
As with many medications, however, my life-saving little pills come with side effects including metabolic and hormonal changes which have caused me to put on weight. I started taking medication for depression at the age of 15 and started on antipsychotics, which caused my weight gain, at the age of 17. I did not choose to develop psychotic depression, or to need long-term medication, or to develop these side effects, and so I object to any assumption that being fat is my fault and that it could be changed if only I had more willpower.
“I object to any assumption that being fat is my fault and that it could be changed if only I had more willpower”
People who know about my medication – my immediate family, friends and thankfully most of my doctors – do not pass comment about my weight as they know that it is far better, healthier and safer for me to be overweight than to relapse with my mental health and end up back in hospital. Cernik does, at least, acknowledge several of the many factors which can affect weight:
“Medications, mental health, social deprivation, self-esteem and genetics all play a role in our ability to control our weight, and judgment is never a constructive approach.”
Out of context, this seems like a reasonable statement – there are a myriad of reasons why people are overweight, and judging fat people for being fat will not make miraculously make us all thin. However, she follows up with:
“Public health campaigns are not designed to flatter people’s egos, but to raise awareness about potential health dangers.”
It is naïve, and frankly insulting, for Cernik to assume that fat people have not been told about this, as is her assumption that being fat is as simple as personal choice. For example, she suggests that fat people like to ‘gorge on 3kg of chocolate’, a statement which, despite her previous disclaimer, does not account for the many, many people such as myself who have little control over our weight.
“The only people who I would accept weight advice from are my doctors, who agree that there is currently little point in pursuing weight loss”
I have heard from enough news articles, Facebook posts, TV adverts and more that this link exists, and I personally don’t deny that there are potential risks to being overweight. However, as someone who is neither fat nor a doctor, it is frustrating that Cernik is positioning herself as someone who needs to educate fat people about these risks. For me, the only people who I would accept weight advice from are my doctors, who agree that there is currently little point in pursuing weight loss.
She also argues:
“But while your own body is your business, actively encouraging unhealthy lifestyle choices and denying health risks in a public space isn’t promoting body positivity.”
Here, it seems that Cernik is misunderstanding the point of the body positivity movement – it is to promote acceptance, not obesity. I am lucky to have a certain degree of privilege in that my weight gain has mostly been distributed to my boobs, bum and thighs, giving me an hourglass shape which some (unfairly) see as a more acceptable type of fat body than those who tend to gain weight around their stomach or face. The point of the body positive community is not to celebrate obesity, but to celebrate these differences and to encourage people to love, rather than hate, themselves and their bodies.
As my body changed when I started my medication aged 17, I was anxious and frustrated: not only was I recovering from a serious illness, my body was changing in a way that I hadn’t expected (my psychiatrist, an 84-year-old man, neglected to warn me about the potential side effects). Luckily I found a small pocket of the internet, which has now grown far bigger, in which my new-found curves were accepted.
“Educating people about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle is one thing, but articles which attempt to ‘educate’ fat people about why we shouldn’t be fat are quite another”
The fact that there were blogs out there about where to find skinny jeans that actually covered your bum, or GG-cup bras that weren’t beige did wonders for my self-confidence, as did seeing pictures of fat people being happy and confident rather than the usual images in which a fat body is the ‘before’ picture and the skinny body is the ‘after’ picture. Far from promoting obesity, the body positive community showed me that just because somebody is overweight, regardless of why, does not mean they should resign themselves to a life of self-loathing and granny bras.
Educating people about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle is one thing, but articles which attempt to ‘educate’ fat people about why we shouldn’t be fat are quite another. I am aware of the potential risks of being overweight, but ultimately I am choosing to prioritise my mental health. I don’t know about Cernik, but if the choice is between taking medication that makes me gain weight and being stuck on a psych ward whilst hallucinating Theresa May, I know which one I’d choose.
All images by BarnImages