I have a confession to make: I’ve always been a little intimidated by feminism. Not because I didn’t agree with it, of course – I’ve just always been a bit afraid to engage in discussions about it, because most of the encounters I’d had with ‘proper’ feminists had seemed just a tad… Angry.
I realise now that part of the issue there was that I wasn’t confident enough in myself – as a girl, or as a woman – to feel like I could convincingly argue either way. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t against it, by any means. I love my rights as a woman, and I appreciate all that the ladies before me had done to make it so that I had the freedom to do what I want, and think what I want. That’s always been the case. But I’d just always felt that the discourses around feminism didn’t really apply to me.
I’m aware of the irony in the fact that losing weight has made me a feminist, because having the freedom to look and be the way you want to be is one of the central tenets of the feminist cause. But when I was obese, I felt myself defined more by my weight than by my gender. And when I was disabled, again, that outweighed the way I felt I was perceived – so in the order of things, I was disabled first, fat second, and a woman third. I know that in an ideal world, I wouldn’t be defined as a person by any of those things – but this world ain’t ideal, and we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. That’s why, for a long time, I didn’t feel like I could identify with feminism – because it just wasn’t about me.
Now, though, I’m neither obese nor disabled, and I realise that the way I live my life is determined more by my womanhood than it was before I lost weight – in ways which are both positive and negative.
It seems to me now that the road to fitness is littered with traps if you’re a woman. Firstly, the fact that weight, generally, seems to be equated with self-worth, means that how you feel about yourself on any given day can be all too easily determined by the number on the scales. This means that most people who start out on a weight loss journey are starting from a place of lowered self-esteem, and no concept of positive body image.
That’s because our culture seems to make it acceptable for us girls to snark and shame each other. I’m pretty sure the movie ‘Mean Girls’ was supposed to be ironic – but from my experience, all of us at one time or another have gotten involved in that sort of bitchiness, and it’s not doing us any good. As I said before:
I’d like to call time on ‘shaming’ of all descriptions – fat-shaming, thin-shaming, slut-shaming… What has it come to when all we ever do is try to bring each other down? No wonder our conceptions of body image are so skewed – and no wonder we’re all getting sick with everything from type 2 diabetes to anorexia. Nobody knows what they’re trying to achieve, but everyone’s safe in the knowledge that what they’ve got isn’t good enough.
We need to stop the negativity, and cancel out the attitude – because I swear, life is way more fun when we’re nice to each other. Promise. Because, to be honest, as girls, we’ve got bigger issues.
Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that if you’re a woman with weight to lose, you should be eating lettuce and necking Slim Fast. You should also be fantasizing about ice cream but NEVER EVER TOUCHING IT, and you probably ought to spend a few minutes a day pinching your stomach whilst gazing sadly into the mirror.
What you shouldn’t be doing, it would appear, is lifting weights.
When you first lift weights – as a woman, and, in my case, weighing 290lbs – it can be a very intimidating, and very lonely experience. And even to this day, I find myself made uncomfortable by certain men who feel the need to shout and grunt and crash their weights down. Especially when they’re lifting lighter weights than yours truly, yet acting like they’re the Incredible Hulk. ‘Scuse me while I shoot a disdainful look in their direction.
I wouldn’t switch my weight training for anything these days – there’s nothing more satisfying than being a strong woman, and, frankly, it feels amazing – but it took a long time for me to reach a point where I feel completely at home in the weights area. I’m quite lucky that, in my gym, it’s all very welcoming – but my experience of other gyms has been very, very different. Intimidating, even.
And when you leave the comfort of the gym, it gets worse. Before I lost weight, when I’d go out to a bar or club, I’d always find that – as the biggest girl in the group – I didn’t get a lot of male attention. And believe it or not, that was fine by me. I’d go out, I’d have a great time, and I’d take a nice sexy bag of chips with cheese and curry sauce home with me. Happy days.
I’m not kidding in the slightest, there – just so we’re clear. That’s infinitely preferable to the situation I’ve found myself in a handful of times since losing weight, wherein I’ll go out, I’ll have a great time as before – and, suddenly, I’ll find myself very uncomfortable indeed. I am by no means anywhere even close to the most attractive person in my group of friends, and I’m certainly not irresistible to men – but when you’re being ogled, groped or even maneuvered into a corner (!) it’s hard not to feel like you’re being singled out. And frankly, it freaks me out.
Which leads me to wonder – if I’d always been fit and healthy, and I hadn’t spent my formative years snuggled up in my fat blanket when I went out – a blanket that protected me from this sort of behaviour – would I be bothered by it? Or would I be used to it?
I mean… Is this sort of thing acceptable? And did I not get that memo because I was out buying a burger?
Now, in the interests of full disclosure: in 2011 – when I was still considerably bigger than I am now – I got mugged, and had my purse and passport stolen. It wasn’t a major crime, and I wasn’t really hurt, just shaken up – but I felt completely violated. Bearing in mind how much worse it could’ve been, I was lucky – but for a long time afterwards, I’d get anxious if I was on my own, and I’d feel uncomfortable in situations which, previously, wouldn’t have bothered me at all. I’m sure this is at least part of the reason my outlook has changed – because when you’re a woman, and you’re made in any way uncomfortable by an intimidating male figure, it does bring the gender divide right to the forefront of your mind.
However, since I’ve lost weight, I’ve been more aware of the way I’m treated by both men and women - and while I’d be lying if I didn’t say getting mugged hasn’t had some kind of effect on that, I’m pretty sure some of this stuff would’ve become apparent whether that had happened or not.
And what this makes me realise is that I’ve been lucky. I’ve gained a huge amount of self-confidence, happiness and strength over the last few years, so when I’m in a situation that requires me to be strong, I’ve got the resources to do that. But when I look back at my old self – she of little confidence, no sense of self-worth, and all too easily engaged on both sides of the snark-fence – I realise that there are still a hell of a lot of things that need to change.
Nobody should be defined by their weight, their gender, their looks, or their choice of weight – and no woman should ever, ever have to feel intimidated in any situation, be that in the gym, the street, or a club. But unless we make some pretty serious changes to the way we treat each other – girl to girl, woman to woman – we can’t make that happen.
We’ve got a lot of work to do. And that is why I’m a feminist now.