By: Jenny Marie
I’ve been told that many of my writings begin with a memory; a crystallized moment in time that etches, sharp as a diamond, a message into the fabric of my own reality. This piece is no different, and if I may, I’ll recount another pivotal moment from my past.
“Barrel on two sticks” my Nana says, and she knows the tiring weight-loss and weight-cycling routine as sure as my Mum and I came to as well. She struggled through the 1950s and three pregnancies, still trying to fit into those unforgiving tea dresses. And my Mum did the same through later decades, introducing me to Weight Watchers ‘cuisine’ at a very young age.
My Mother, a wheelchair-user from the age of 3, might ordinarily have struggled to maintain a level of physical activity sufficient to appease the various BMI-wielding medical professionals. But she was also a Paralympic swimmer, gaining a Commonwealth Games gold-record that still hasn’t been beaten. Nevertheless, marriage, inactivity, and two children still saw her reaching for the diet cookbooks. An amazing body capable of winning gold medals and growing two new humans suddenly became inadequate because it didn’t look like the 1980s said it should.
My own body first started to betray me in my very early teens. My family used food for comfort, and I followed suit. And so, as my weight ballooned along with my body size, I started to realize that I really wasn’t the “right” shape at all. I learned it from the posters on my brother’s bedroom walls, from Sugar/Bliss/Just Seventeen magazines (that told me I needed to start shaving my legs and using makeup to look “natural” ASAP), and from every form of media that saturated my young woman’s world. Both conspicuous and insidious, the message came through loud and clear: Not The Right Shape At All.
The onslaught of “real life” negative attention (bullying, street harassment…isn’t that enough?) was countered by the cushion of acceptance at home for a short while. But ultimately there was no fighting against the self-disgust, seeded and thriving, that supplanted the innocent self-acceptance of youth and led to two long decades of debilitating shame.
I went along to my first Weight Watchers meeting at 21. I’d spent the previous nine months living in The Netherlands, feeding an almost constant case of the munchies with a whole lot more pizza than I’ve probably eaten in the 15 years since. With a BMI level off the scale, newly single, and my self-esteem having last been seen on a beach in France circa 1990, I supposed it was time to take action.
At this point I may as well hit fast-forward, because what followed was 10 years of damaging weight-cycling, 70lbs off, back on, off, back on, ad nauseum. Of course, we know that this is typical and that effective, permanent long-term weight loss is incredibly rare. When I think of all the money I pumped into the Weight Watchers machine, rather than simply enjoying my life, I feel so sad for my former self. And they are indeed curious gatherings of folks who behave so sweetly to one another, all while we share in the disgust of our own bodies.
When I was around 26-years-old, I became vegan. Overnight I eliminated all animal products from my diet, and I waited patiently for the as-if-by-magic weight loss that I was assured would happen. When it never came, of course I returned to my old faithful Weight Watchers and, like a seasoned pro, sat through my “first” meeting where I was reintroduced to the group. Here comes the crystalline moment, a sharp stab of realization: The “leader” and I sat alone after all the other fatties had been weighed and shuffled out the door. We discussed menu plans, breakfast options, grilling chicken instead of frying. After milk and eggs had been mentioned quite a few times, I piped up helpfully: “Oh, actually I’m vegan so I wouldn’t be eating those, but I’m sure I can figure out the alternatives”.
And then it came: The Up And Down Look. The scouring of my body with the eyes, hungry for explanation or answers, desperately trying to reconcile the blubberous specimen of human female present in that moment with the knowledge that no bacon, cheese or egg-based desserts ever crossed these lips. Was it a lie? After all, us Weight-Watcherers are known to lie at every opportunity if it’ll explain away any baffling weight gain (or even the absence of a loss).
Fat folk are so often rejected from the vegan movement as “bad examples” of veganism, and vegans are so often rejected from the fat-positive movement as “restrictive eaters.” If we are unapologetically fat and unapologetically vegan, there are very few places we can go.
And so, now older and wiser and finally unapologetic in my fatness, a new project sprang up: the Big Fat Vegan Zine. I made it my mission to seek out fat vegan voices. One little space where we can speak up. It’s an attempt to tackle the fat-shaming endemic to the vegan movement, and the myth in the fat-positive movement that veganism is harmfully restrictive. (Because, actually, you are more likely to stick to veganism in the long run if you don’t do it for “health reasons.”)
Fat vegan heroes certainly exist, but I’ve always been greedy — I want more. So if you’re one of the fat vegan folk who currently occupies the overlap between fat and vegan, please shout loud: we are not bad fatties, and we are not bad vegans. In the wise words of Jes Baker: change the world, not your body.