Posted in Feminism, fitness, Reviews, women

Book Review: Happy Fat- Sofie Hagen

One fine day towards the end of lockdown I decided to do something I haven’t done in the three months that we’ve all spent at home wondering whether some stupid little virus was going to kill us and everyone we love: I stepped on a weighing scale.

People respond to stress differently. I happen to do it with a burger in one hand and a red velvet cupcake on the other. I have been told for years that I needed to find a new way of coping with stress, one that does not involve consuming massive amounts of calories, but it is as ingrained in me as the urge to pray like a good little Catholic whenever I feel afraid. Whatever logic I come up with doesn’t compare to something I’ve internalised from the moment I understood what stress meant.

Anyway, seeing as how nothing was more stressful than a global pandemic, it shouldn’t have surprised me to see the numbers on the scale, flashing like great big neon signs telling me I now weighed more than I’ve ever weighed since I lost all my college weight.

I went into a spiral.

I spent nearly 100£ at Marks and Spencer buying”healthy” food and vowing to only eat greens and fish from now on (this lasted about a day, and the expired cucumber and kale eventually made our fridge smell like something had died in it). I downloaded the couch to 5k app and bought a new series 5 Apple Watch to give myself further motivation to run every morning. I reinvigorated my complicated relationship with MyFatness Pal and told myself I would stick with the limit that the app has set to presumably give me a caloric deficit which will then enable me to lose weight.

This is a cycle I repeat at least once every three months for the past two decades of my life. I have been on a diet since I was 10. I was taught from a young age that fat is something to avoid at all costs. Fat is a word that boys in my class would use to tease girls who do not conform to the accepted standards of Filipino society, where the default setting is skinny. This is a society that considers a size 12 fat, a society where it is acceptable to make tsunami jokes when someone who looks like me even thinks about wearing a bikini in public.

I could write a whole book about this and someday I probably will. But for this blog post I refuse to waste another paragraph dwelling on all the slurs and bullying I’ve received AND GIVEN to people who are fat (in fact, I just realised I’ve already written a post about this). I will instead talk about how reading Sofie Hagen’s book made me feel.

First, it made me check my own privilege. I may consider myself fat but I can still buy clothes in an ordinary store, run, climb several flights of stairs without feeling like I’m going to die (most of the time anyway), and fit into regular airplane seats. Before I read this book, I didn’t realise this was a genuine problem for other people, that for them going on an airplane is akin to their worst nightmare, a danger-filled safari where they have to pay for two seats just to have leg room, because if they don’t, they have to spend the next 12 hours or so in physical torment, trapped in something that is literally a cramped metal box, all while feeling like they have to apologise to their seat mates for being who and what they are.

I don’t have that experience. Knowing that some people do makes me feel ashamed of ever moaning about how my life is over because I’ve gained a kilo. I used to hate that sentence. Check your privilege, I mean. I used to think it was incredibly judgmental and holier-than-thou. As if I have no right to complain about how I feel shitty because other people feel shittier. But it’s true. You don’t realise how good you have it until you gain some perspective about how it could be worse.

Second, by the time I got to the end of this book I had unfollowed everyone on my social media feeds who is or has ever been a Victoria’s Secret model. I remember this sinking feeling in my stomach every time the annual VS Fashion Show would come around. It sent every millennial I know into a tailspin of delight and frenzy and for weeks my feeds would be filled with photos of Candice and Kendall and Behati and Alessandra and Adriana. People who are so abnormally fit and beautiful they make you feel worthless because you don’t have a thigh gap. I consider myself to have a healthy-ish self-esteem but now for the first time I can admit that I have never been able to sit through a VS Fashion Show without feeling the need to run to the nearest gym and stay on that treadmill until I achieve this mythical thigh gap.

This impossible standard of beauty…where the hell did it come from?

How many people I know actually look like that in real life? Why are they considered something to which all woman should aspire to? Do I really want to date men who will think less of me for not looking like every man’s wet dream? I have this thing I tell myself, that I’m happy with the way I am because I’ve long ago accepted the fact that I will never be beautiful but will have to settle for “cute” instead. I regarded my intelligence and sense of humour and all my other achievements as compensation for the fact that my looks are fairly average and ordinary.

Bloody hell, just reading that sentence makes me want to shake myself and scream at myself until I start to see sense.

I’m intelligent but I’m fat. I’m funny but my looks are average. I have a good job but men don’t immediately think ‘hot’ when they first see me. These are three of the stupidest sentences I have ever written in my life.

I feel obligated to say that I don’t hate people who fall within the accepted standards of beauty. Its no one’s fault that they look the way they do. In fact, please find below two of. the most accurate and reaffirming statements I have ever read in my life:

Beauty is a tricky one – because you can’t blame someone for being beautiful , but you can blame the culture that created the idea of ideal beauty.

Beauty is so subjective. It is laughable that we have somehow been tricked into thinking we should all find the same thing beautiful.

I think its healthier for me, now when my mental health feels a little fragile after the experience of the pandemic and having to face all my worst fears and insecurities during lockdown, to not look at yet another photo of Kendall Jenner in a bikini so tiny she might as well not be wearing anything at all. I wish full-figured bodies were better represented in mainstream media and social media (maybe they are and I’m just not looking hard enough because my head is still obsessed with the beauty ideal), I wish I lived in a world where people don’t think fat means unlovable and unF**able (sorry, have to censor that, my conservative family reads this blog lol). I wish we had, as Sofie says, a fat Disney princess.

I have to write a line here about exercise and fitness. I’m writing a separate blog about this but just within the context of this post, I feel the need to point out that exercising doesn’t mean you subscribe to the notion that fat is ugly, as long as you exercise to achieve a goal, because it makes you feel good about yourself in that moment, because of the endorphins and the rush you get after completing a run for example…and not because you are perpetually running after a vision of a thinner, more desirable you.

Thirdly, this book tells me that the road to accepting and loving your body is not a straight path but one with curves, where you might find yourself doubling back to that point where you hate the person you see in the mirror. The trick is to always bounce back from it, to rise above every fat phobia and misogyny and every capitalist message telling you that you are not good enough because of how you look. We ned to challenge every norm and cut off things and people that make us feel that way.

This book made me realise that I should and could be doing something to change the narrative for people who look like me and for fat people whose experiences I will never come close to understanding (again, check your privilege), and it starts with something as simple as not seeing the word fat as a negative. It is simply a description of a type of body structure. Its people who add all sorts of negative connotation to it. People say fat like its a bad thing, and it’s not. At least, it shouldn’t be.

There are other things I should be doing too. Like maybe stop making weight such an issue. And to have entire conversations with my girlfriends that do not centre on our diets and exercise regime. And maybe standing up for those who aren’t able to walk into a restaurant without worrying that they’ll break one of the chairs made by a world that tries to exclude, marginalise and erase them.

Okay, FULL DISCLOSURE TIME:

I’ve just read what I’ve written and it all sounds so good and positive and yet, I know that the process of applying it in my own life is far more complicated. Even as I type this I am looking at the clock and counting down the hours until I can eat because I am currently doing intermittent fasting. I am still in a relationship with MyFatness Pal and I still zoom in on my stomach in photos before I post them to make sure I don’t see a bulge.

I am not fooling myself into thinking I will change overnight or if I could even change at all. So what was the point of posting this blog? Am I just one big giant fraud? When it comest to my weight, I am never certain. I always feel like I’m only paying lip service, because I have spent my whole life equating my value with how far down the numbers on the weighing scale goes.

I suppose I am writing this stream of consciousness to first of all, encourage everyone to read Happy Fat. But mostly I am recording these thoughts here for posterity, like I want to capture this moment in time where I am fully lucid and cognizant that everything I think I know about being fat and being beautiful is a pile of rubbish.

So that the next time I spiral, or if there’s even one person out there who feel like they’ve been helped just by reading this post and they find themselves spiralling, we will have something to go back to. Maybe someone will read it and think twice the next time they find themselves thinking negative things about a fat person who is simply trying to eat their carrot cake in peace.

P.S. Sorry Sofie, if you ever read this, its not much of a review at all. But I love you. thank you for this wonderful gift of a book you’ve given to the world.