During my three miscarriages, between June 2018 and May 2019, I had watched my weight steadily climb. A combination of hormones and distress, leading to comfort eating, left me seeing numbers on the scale bigger than I’d ever seen before. And I hated it. But I also struggled to do anything about it.
It’s a complicated issue, body image. I know very few people who are completely at ease and happy with their body. Looking in the mirror – and liking what looks back at me – is the dream. I’m just not entirely sure how to get there. The old adage of ‘eat less, move more’ should, in theory, be simple to follow. But consider the range of psychological, environmental and physical factors that also affect us, and it’s not quite that easy.
At around the age of ten, I began the transformation from a happy and slim child to a shy and overweight teenager. There were multiple reasons for that change, but needless to say I became very aware of how negatively the world views people who are larger than average.
NatCen conducted a survey in 2015 to find out British views on a range of topics, including obesity, and the results weren’t altogether surprising. Over half of respondents think people who are overweight can lose weight ‘if they try’, demonstrating a belief that obese people simply lack willpower. And three quarters believe that someone who’s very overweight would be less likely to secure a managerial position than someone who’s only slightly overweight. This belief illustrates how body-size prejudice can also potentially have an impact on success in the workplace.
Stigma against obese people is ingrained in society and it starts young. An article from the World Health Organisation in 2017 claimed that obese youngsters are 63% more likely to be bullied than other school-age children. The stigma can lead to depression, anxiety, isolation, fear of being seen in public places and even avoidance of seeking medical care for fear of being turned away or judged negatively.
There are social expectations coming at us from all angles. In TV, film and magazines, which often feature slim people ahead of larger people. In social media, where comparing ourselves to each other has become an everyday pastime. Yet, when I feel bad, what do I do? Reach for some chocolate. Have another glass of wine. Calorie-filled treats are my go-to. And how will I feel after? Generally – awful.
So, on the one hand, to be attractive and valued, I’m taught that I should be slim. But on the other hand, I’ve come to associate comfort eating with emotional support. Knowing unhealthy foods keep me from attaining the ideal body shape isn’t enough to make me avoid them, but is enough to make me feel bad about myself for eating them.
Further adding to the negative attitude I have towards my body are the feelings I experienced during and after pregnancy loss and infertility. For me, these circumstances have introduced an extra element of self-hatred, because my body couldn’t sustain a pregnancy and now it can’t get pregnant at all. My husband has recently been diagnosed with male factor infertility, but given we got pregnant three times in 18 months, I question whether this is the real reason why we can’t conceive. Could it be my obesity that’s causing the issue instead?
Perhaps if I hadn’t eaten my way through the first weeks after each miscarriage, things would be different. Or if I had continued with the gym visits rather than stay in bed and cry, I could have lost some weight. Perhaps if I had managed my grief ‘better’ I wouldn’t be in this situation. Perhaps I would be pregnant again.
When I became pregnant the first time I’d just snuck into the obese weight category and I remember expressing my worries about the impact this could have to my midwife. She reassured me, saying the majority of women she sees are a similar weight to me and that it has no significant impact. Yet now, speaking to another part of the NHS about IVF, I’m told that I’m too heavy, that I need to lose weight to receive NHS-funded treatment. The rationale behind this is that obesity increases the risks during pregnancy to unacceptably high levels.
So who’s right? It’s difficult to know how much of the advice is due to medical evidence and how much to funding cuts. But nonetheless – and despite agreeing that losing weight will benefit every area of my life – at the heart of this, it feels that my weight is being used to decide whether I deserve to become a mother or not.
This is why, in 2020, I want to change how I feel about my physical self. Spurred on by having to lose weight for IVF, I’ve begun to eat healthily and go to the gym. I’m having regular at-home pampering sessions – simple things like lighting a candle while I take a bath or listening to soothing music. I’ve started a gratitude journal, and I intend to use it to remind myself of all the things my body can do, rather than focusing on what it can’t. I’m also seeing a therapist who is reminding me of the importance of self-kindness and acceptance.
I hope that by introducing all these positive habits, I’ll be able to cut out some of the negative self-chat that permeates my thinking. And however much weight I lose, and however my fitness improves, I hope that by the end of this year I’ll be on the road to believing that, actually, I really am ok.