When I was a small child, I was very skinny. This is me, aged six.
Unfortunately for me, I come from a family of big women on my mother’s side, so genetics were against me, and when I was about nine, I started to put on weight. My mother, who is a large lady herself, was horrified that I was becoming fatter. Her way of dealing with it was to insult me. I remember once, at about the age of ten, I’d just got out of the bath and was wrapped in a towel. She told me I looked pregnant.
This is the first time I remember being shamed for my weight, and it certainly wasn’t the last. And, of course, Mum wasn’t the only one. Society is conditioned to despise fat people. We call them greedy, or lazy, or worse. I’ve been told off in the street when I’ve been eating, shouted at on the bus, had a small child say “Mummy, why is that lady so fat?” whilst the mother stood by and said nothing (she did look embarrassed, but she didn’t scold her child).
I grew up with a very skewed view of my body, and ultimately of myself. I believed that if I just tried harder, was less greedy or lazy, I could lose weight and all my problems would be solved. I went on countless diets, even managing to lose four and a half stone at one point in my 20s, but as soon as I started eating “normally” again, the weight would creep back on.
I know now that my genetics and the mental and emotional abuse I suffered around my weight growing up have made it extremely difficult for me to lose weight and keep it off. Being thinner didn’t magically solve all my problems, and I didn’t feel like me.
When I met my wife, suddenly here was someone who told me I was beautiful. Nobody had ever told me that before. She loved (and loves) me just the way I am. It was a revelation. I decided to work on loving my body as it is. I stopped shunning mirrors. I gazed frankly at myself, droopy boobs, big tummy, stretch marks and all, and I tried really hard to love what I saw.
Over time, this has worked. Don’t get me wrong, there are still days when I look at my body in the mirror and feel disgusted, but they’re much fewer and farther between. I focus on the bits I really like, and the bits most people see after all – my eyes and my smile, for example. And I do my best to accept the rest.
So, having reached this place of acceptance of my body and how it looks, I am now dealing with chronic illness and how that affects my body image. When you live with an illness like fibromyalgia, it can make you feel invisible. I no longer work, I am often unable to do much due to severe fatigue and pain, I sometimes feel I have no purpose. Sometimes I really hate what I see as my useless, broken body that refuses to work properly.
On top of this, about five years ago, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This was not a surprise. My mother has had type 1 diabetes (where she has to inject herself with insulin several times a day to stay alive) and if you have a diabetic already in your family, you are much more likely to develop it yourself, particularly if you’re overweight. I have tried hard to manage my diabetes through diet alone, but about three years ago I had to go on medication to try and control it. I don’t have very high sugars in my blood, but they’re higher than my GP would like them to be. And even with the medication, and with me pretty much cutting sugar out of my diet and doing my best to eat healthily, I’m still struggling to get it all under control. I am fully expecting to be put on different or stronger medication in the near future.
Having diabetes has made me face up to the fact that, despite all my work to love my body as it is, it needs to change. I need to lose weight. And because I now have trauma associated with losing weight, this really scares me. Will I still be me if I’m thinner? The rational part of my brain tells that of course I will, and if I can lose weight and get my diabetes under control I will live longer and have a happier life, hopefully free of the horrible complications that can come with uncontrolled diabetes (leg ulcers, kidney failure, amputation, blindness). But the part of me that has worked so hard to accept my body as it is just wants to cry. It feels like my body is letting me down again. And what will happen to my body if I lose weight? I’m 45 now, and my skin will not spring back the way it did in my 20s. I am going to be left with a lot of saggy skin if I manage to lose weight, and that really scares me too. I know how difficult it is to get saggy skin dealt with by the NHS, and I know it will look very ugly.
Despite these conflicting feelings, I am determined to do something. Exercise is very difficult with fibromyalgia, but I have started going to a weekly hydrotherapy class and I intend to buy a treadmill to encourage me to walk. I live in a very hilly place, so walking outdoors can be a struggle. I am still cutting sugar out of my diet and eating as healthily as I can. I have lost two stone (about 13kg) over the last two years, and I intend to keep that up, even though I’m noticing the saggy skin already.
I’ll just have to learn to love my new body as much as I love the one I’m in now. I hope I can.