Dear Jamelia and Protein World
Well, it’s been quite a week for us all, hasn’t it? Last week you each, in your own distinct way, claimed that championing a particular body ideal is good for the health of the nation and were both, in a number of distinct and unequivocal ways, told to fuck off.
Putting aside whether only slim people should be able to buy clothes, or feel comfortable on the beach, or whether the presence of overweight people in mainstream culture can in fact ‘promote’ obesity, I thought I’d take the opportunity to dispel a misapprehension you appear to be labouring under: Let’s be clear - body shaming does not work. In fact, if your goal is to improve wellbeing (as opposed to becoming the next Katie Hopkins/peddling your product respectively) you have probably had the opposite effect to the one you intended.
By the time I was twelve years old, I was already almost six foot tall and a size fourteen. I loved sport and I ate healthily. I was (and continue to be) simply a big girl. In those days, the high street was nowhere near as progressive as it is today. ‘Trendy’ shops, the ones my friends wanted to visit on a Saturday, only catered up to a size 12, if you were lucky. You would have loved it, Jamelia. I started to avoid saying yes to hanging out with the girls, because I knew it would involve endlessly traipsing around the shopping centre, telling my friends they looked lovely whilst ‘guarding’ the bags outside the changing rooms because nothing fit me. I began to understand that fashion wasn’t for big girls like me, that this was a world from which I was excluded.
According to your logic, the misery of not being ‘normal’ should have motivated me to diet. Fortunately, it didn’t, because dieting at that age might have stunted my growth, caused osteoporosis, anaemia, lack of concentration and subsequently poor grades. I did, however, start to develop an ‘us and them’ mentality. I always felt I was orbiting outside society’s parameters. I stopped playing sport because it drew too much attention to my ‘abnormal’ body. I didn’t think physical activity was for ‘people like me’. I started to think that the body rules everyone else was abiding by didn’t really apply to me. The world didn’t want me to be proud of my body, so why shouldn’t I spend Friday night shovelling Maltesars into my mouth? Inevitably, I started to gain weight.
There is an interlude in my story, one in which I was scouted by a model agent, developed a severe eating disorder and dropped a dramatic amount of weight. Even then, because of my broad shoulders, large bust and wide hips the smallest I could attain was a size 10 (despite regularly being hospitalised with dehydration and suffering from malnutrition). High fashion continued to brand me ‘plus size’ and once again I was operating outside what my environment had deemed as ‘normal’.
…But less of that. It took a long time for me to embrace my body type, to rediscover my love of exercise and to realise that I deserved to look after myself. Today, I am right back where I started at a size 14 (16 sometimes – quel horreur!) – The way my body is naturally supposed to be. I am content in the knowledge that should I fall pregnant, be injured or become ill or (god forbid) age, the now diverse high street will still cater to my needs. It is partly this knowledge that lets me be kind to myself, not yoyo diet (and therefore ensure future weight gain) or panic and fall into my old ways.
I am now entirely at home with my body. In fact I love it. So, Protein World, your ‘are you beach ready?’ advert has absolutely no effect on me whatsoever (other than thinking it shows a distinct lack of imagination and probably belongs in 1995). Yet I can see how anyone vulnerable or struggling might feel differently. I know my twelve year old self would have done. Of course, advertising like this has existed pretty-much since capitalism was invented - that’s part of the problem.
No one has ever claimed health is not important. Yet you can’t make broad assumptions about people’s health based on their shape and size. And even if you could, Jamelia, this shouldn’t impact their right to buy clothes. Unless of course you are proposing that smokers, drinkers, drug-takers, people who live in cities and who are excessively stressed shouldn’t be allowed to shop on the high street, either? In which case I think our economy would probably collapse. Mind you, there’s nothing like living in Third World conditions to ensure rapid weight loss…..
Our bodies are not commodities and we should be allowed to embrace fitness, fashion and beauty on our own terms. It is by empowering people of all body types to do this that you truly have a positive impact on their health.
Journalist & Body Image Campaigner who has interviewed dozens of global health experts; or
‘Fat Feminist with a Bee in her Bonnet’ (Protein World Customer).