Is size acceptance too generous?

Image by Edith Dohmen
I'm reading Lionel Shriver's "Big Brother", which led me to checking out some size-acceptance blogs. 

The amount and intensity of denigration the bloggers (nearly all women) recounted was heartbreaking: snide jokes, insensitive "advice", exclusion: an Artesian well of pain, endlessly flowing, often pumped and bottled by family.

The poster at left, by Dutch fashion stylist Edith Dohmen, is from her series, "Musthaves in fashion", retrieved from her blog, Style Has No Size.

I eat up the size-positive material out there, pun intended. When I see a voluptuous woman in a body-hugging red dress, I beam at her. Sorry if I seem judgmental; it's just such a relief to not see women castigated for their size.

But then, I asked myself, is there a limit to saying any body size is OK?

Being overweight (at least up to the point of Stage One obesity) will not affect mortality, according to a widely-reported study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). (Readers of the NYT's article on the study note some flaws in the methodology.)

However, when a moderately-to-severely obese woman hits late adulthood, she faces a reckoning. She is at increased risk for many illnesses and conditions, faces decreased mobility, and might endure minor but uncomfortable annoyances like chafing. Whether the reasons attach to lifestyle, genetics, or medical issues, a woman can hit her 50s or 60s carrying considerable extra weight.

One day, such a woman might say, that's it, I've had enough. 

I'd like you to meet her.

My friend, Connie, has lost over 150 lbs.—over half her heaviest weight—in about two years. 

When we met, she had dropped 100-plus lbs. by eating consciously, but her history of knee problems made her skeptical about exercise. We discussed how she might edge into brief walks; she was also inspired by her daughter, a marathon runner.

She's now walking for nearly two hours most days, dividing time between early morning at her company's gym and using the stairs, and after work in her neighbourhood. (Yes, she works full time, and then some!)

We have pondered the process of casting off shame, despair and self-loathing; she is funny, insightful, committed. We have celebrated the ability to wear out your dog or just stay outdoors on a beautiful day. Her knees are fine.

An avid cook, Connie swapped out some recipes for healthier versions and rarely even tastes the rich desserts she used to enjoy. Like me, she logs her calories and plans for treats like a Girls' Night Out, but she does not follow a specific diet, just "lavish on the vegetables and lowish on the carbs".

She says her journey was not about vanity, but rather about health; she felt that if she stayed so heavy she would truly jeopardize her time left. (But she looks pretty cute in her new jeans, about seven sizes smaller!) Her favourite new accessory is her Fitbit.

When I asked to tell her story, she at first demurred, saying lots of people have done it. And in fact, I have other friends who have achieved triple-digit losses. But I also know some men and women who have not yet summoned their intention, and are even gaining as the years roll on and they think they're too old to change so deeply.

Connie attained her goal without a personal trainer, meetings, diet books or supplements, not that there is anything wrong with those supports. She just made her choice and got on with it.

I am deeply grateful that she did. 

Ta-da! Here she is— and this photo is a gift, because she's humble and low-key. ("But Connie", I begged, "how else will people know you're a real person?") She's chic in an orange quilted jacket and black jeans,but what's more important is that Connie can walk about in that jacket for hours, without feeling exhausted.

That a plushly-curved woman in a mini feels good about herself, I like. I applaud campaigns that show women of all sizes and shapes, and fashion writers who speak against the cult of super-skinny. I wish people wouldn't beat up themselves or others about weight.

But at the farthest reaches of the scale, where the body has a struggle sustaining vitality, I hope a post-50 woman takes herself in hand, and loves herself enough to step on the road of change.



Kristien62 said…
A wonderful post and best wishes to Connie for embarking on such a difficult and worthwhile journey. It is very hard to take that first step, so I applaud her decision to do so and stick with it. She looks lovely and happy.
Susan B said…
Connie looks fit and sassy! I'm glad she was able to avoid knee problems. And yes, we need to continue to push the fashion image makers to recognize that there's more than one type of body!
Anonymous said…
When I first glanced at that photo, I thought it was a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis! Good for Connie, she must feel great. I agree with you on this subject, Duchesse. Radiant beauties like Queen Latifah and Adele always make me glad that humans come in such diverse shapes and sizes, but the sight of a woman struggling to carry the weight of an extra person is saddening. It can be very difficult to lose weight, but I hope that more in this situation will find a way to ease the burden on their overtaxed bodies, and enjoy a long and active life.

Madame Là-bas said…
Connie looks fit and attractive. It must have been difficult to start walking but it has paid off. Acceptance is a positive thing and we all have different shapes but health and mobility issues are important considerations for the 55+ woman.
MJ said…
I recently started using a Jawbone Up to count steps (similar to a Fitbit), mostly because my niece gave me hers when she was through with it. It's been a great way for me to increase the amount that I walk or run. I'm all for body acceptance but also recognize the health implications; I think the key is that we each need to find what motivates us and just get started.
coffeeaddict said…
Thanks for addressing this issue with clarity, respect and positive attitude :-)
At last someone had the courage to address this topic publicly and I applaud you for it. There is such a thing as body acceptance and then there's obesity and health hazard.
I really loved reading Connie's personal journey towards weight loss and healthier lifestyle. As someone who comes from a family where obesity has led to a permanent health deterioration I only wish more people would talk about this publicly and share stories like Connie's.
materfamilias said…
Thoughtful, nuanced, and encouraging post. . . and kudos to your friend--although I suspect that she finds reward enough in her newfound mobility. What a gift she's given herself!
Congratulations Connie!
You must be a determined and strong woman to tackle this alone. You look very fit and you must be proud of yourself too. Losing that amount of weight deserves applause. Standing ovation maybe, if you were at the WW meeting we would all be cheering your success.

Like you I had pain with the extra weight I carried and am feeling a sense of freedom now that I can walk for an hour a day. Losing weight was not on my radar until my doctor told me I had high blood pressure and losing was the best thing to do for my health.
I "bought into" the bigger bolder body image as self preservation when I really should have got on with the job of losing a decade ago.
Anonymous said…
I feel it's very much up to the individual to determine what body size they are comfortable with and what health hazards they are willing to accept. There is too much shaming of women on so many fronts and I can't bring myself to judge anyone regarding size.
Duchesse said…
Kristien: We both find it difficult sometimes, but knowing Connie has been out walking by the time I get up motivates me every day.

une femme: Sassy! She'll enjoy reading that.

C.: It's a delicate balance. Casting off shame is freeing, and why shame someone for the way she looks? So the question is, how do we get rid of the shame and degradation but still acknowledge the risks that arise in later life?

Mme. : One of her great qualities is that she tries new things, so she started quite slowly and before I knew it she had built from a half-hour to an hour, and never looked back.

MJ: You have to do something you enjoy (or at least can stand, at first). I noticed a ParticipAction campaign has recently launched to get teenaged girls to move more.

coffeeaddict: Thanks, the topic has been on my mind for the last year, during my own loss.

materfamilias: As Connie and I have said to one another, sooner or later (if you live that long) mobility is challenged by things you cannot control, so let's make sure we move while we can.

hostess: Did not realize you had same motivator as I did, high blood pressure. Scary, because you can "feel fine" but there it is. Hope your bp is normal now, it is no small achievement.

Anon@ 12:36: I hope health professionals make it crystal clear to elders what risks they are facing' my doctor did. There is also an attendant cost to the taxpayer, as with any lifestyle-induced or exacerbated illness. So while a person's weight is not my business, the cost of health care is.

D. A. Wolf said…
Hear, hear - to everything you've said, from body acceptance to, nonetheless, the heartbreaking realities of obesity.

I am the daughter of an obese mother, who was tormented by weight issues all her life, including a yo-yo history that had her going up and down 50 pounds at a time and even, at one point, losing 125 pounds (half her total weight at 5'1"), only to put it back on a year later.

The effects of obesity eventually killed her.

For myself, I've also lived with challenges from the time I was a child, and as an adult I've been everything from a size 20+ to a zero, and I'm not quite 5' tall.

Ultimately, the battles can be terrible and affect our lives in so many ways. Some of us will battle forever, but a healthy weight - whatever that means and especially as we grow older - certainly makes the outlook (and daily life) easier and more pleasant.

Brava to Connie, and thank you for writing her story.
LPC said…
She looks so great and so lively.
Duchesse said…
D.A.: This is one of those comments for which any written reply feels inadequate. I am so sorry that your mother had that struggle.

Connie and I talk about this sometimes: it seems there needs to be a 'click in your head', a moment when you realize you simply cannot live a certain way, because that leads to those outcomes.

Now, there are more tools to support both conscious eating and activity (Fitbit, online support via sites like MyFitnessPal,which we both use) and also more known about the science of nutrition and weight.

And ultimately living differently means every meal is a choice.

Duchesse said…
LPC: Behind that wide grin is a petite, determined dynamo. She really is my hero.
Connie said…
Those of you who follow Duchesse's blog know her as an articulate, fair, positive, witty, diverse, kind woman. I am a real person. My real name is Connie and I have gone from morbidly obese to "normal" weight. Both Duchesse & I, and many others, have done it through the website MFP she spoke of. I lost the weight on my own, but the mobility part gets a huge amount of credit from the encouragement and example set by my friend and peer, Duchesse. Her gentle encouragement gave me the motivation to try. She is a remarkable woman and I owe her a debt of gratitude. She helped me become a healthier senior citizen, and has been instrumental in my success. Her advocacy of women's issues is a gift to us all. Thank you Duchesse, and thank you all, for your kind and positive comments. I am overwhelmed by the responses to this blog.
Anonymous said…
Congratulations to Connie, she is an inspiration as well as you Duchesse. Your posts should be read by everyone. My 14 yr. old daughter recently was told by a PE teacher that she is medium-framed and will never be slim looking because of it. Of course after that comment my daughter now thinks she is fat, even though her pediatrician has told her, year after year at checkups, that she is at a perfectly healthy weight. This issue with weight is beyond frustrating. Your thoughts on the issue parallel mine, thank you.
Duchesse said…
Anon@1:12: Some women will indeed never be slim-looking- and how I wish you (or someone else) had been standing there to say to that teacher, ""

Women of several generations have been taught that "slim-looking" is the •only• desirable body type- and that belief is still rampant. The PE teacher's insensitivity is only part of the problem.

Terrific example on how culturally-blinkered thinking contributes to a young woman's worries about body image.

Unknown said…
Connie looks youthful and fit. I'm very glad to hear her mobility issues have improved. Thank you Duchesse for tackling this topic -- it's complicated!

It's great you and Connie have been able to support each other in your fitness endeavors. I'm trying reach fitness/weight goals as well, but none of my local women friends are inspired in this way. Most have decided to live with the extra weight. It would help to have a buddy to keep me motivated.
Marla said…
This was a very timely post for me, and your last sentence spoke directly to me - at 58, I've been sitting at the intersection of the past and the road to change for over a year now. I have lived my life as what Anonymous called a Queen Latifah or Adele, and it never stood in the way of anything I wanted to do and it didn't impact my health. I went through menopause late (concurrently with having a long term relationship end), and in the year plus since, I feel as if my weight has caught up with me...I am no longer as flexible or energetic and generally feel sort of stretched out and saggy. I'd love to stay in pajamas all day. I tried to blame it on age and stress, and I'm sure those are factors, but in my heart I know I'd feel so much better if I'd just lose some weight. I've been working part time since taking an early retirement a few years ago, and earlier this month I quit, so I have no excuse for not taking care of myself properly. Thank you for a gentle kick in the butt and for introducing us to Connie who is a beautiful inspiration!!
Duchesse said…
Susan Partian: I can think of the obvious answer: join Weight Watchers. There you will meet women who share your purpose. If there is not a local group, join online. Online support is very real.

Also, if you join MyFitnessPal, you have an opportunity to ask for online Friends, but only if you want (and you can accept or decline their invitations.)

But for real women, I suggest you look to your community, WW, the Y, local hospitals all are good places to look for weight loss groups. Even if you join an exercise class you will be around people with the same intention of getting in shape.

MD: I too have a major thing for Queen Latifah, and love Adele's elegance. And if your health is sending you signals, time to admire, but not necessarily emulate them.

I was generally fine with some extra weight and felt strong- exercised nearly every day. Then my dr. took my blood pressure during a routine physical, super high. I kept re-taking it (hoping it was a freak reading.) Nope. It was then a simple decision.

There can, with some luck, be lot of good years left at 58, and I hope you do what it takes to enjoy them.
Eleanorjane said…
What a brilliant post Duchesse and what a great role model Connie is!

It is a tricky issue, but another thing to bring into the mix is Type 2 Diabetes - it's a modern epidemic and it is causing a rise in blindness due to Diabetic Retinopathy. A healthy diet and exercise brings the risk factors for this disease way down.

I'm certainly focussed on spending the rest of my life trying to keep my weight down, eating reasonably healthily and keeping my body moving so that I can feel comfortable and be as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
Duchesse said…
Eleanorjane: A close relative was dx'd with type 2 diabetes and permanent weight loss is part of its management. But I have also seen diabetes' effects even though weight loss has helped. That certainly was on my mind when I decided, like Connie, now is the time.
Anonymous said…
The problem with the fat acceptance blogs is they are all geared to younger women. You won't find any women that were 100 pounds overweight their entire life and didn't end up with significant health problems. I was in the Target store behind one of them, a 30 something year old woman getting her second knee replacement. 10 pounds or 20 pounds may be all right, but the huge amounts that is supposedly acceptable is not, it's just about denial.

Duchesse said…
Anon@10:49: That was one of my points; respect is one thing, acceptance may not serve a severely obese woman well as heads into senior years.

Some persons carry way more weight than the medical community thinks is optimal, and have no health problems. (And there is a contingent who protest conventional medical norms.) But aging changes things, and not just for obese persons.
Unknown said…
Thanks for the suggestions Duchesse. What I meant to convey is not so much that I seek new friendships with women wanting to get in shape, but that I wish my existing women friends were more interested in getting in shape. In other words, it would help if my existing buddies were a source of support but they are not. My husband is incredibly supportive though, so I do have someone in my life cheering me on when I make progress and encouraging me when I get off track.
Duchesse said…
Susan Partian: I believe that I understood you. If your last sentence is what you would like, and your present circle does not include people who are presently interested, perhaps you might make room for new friends, as well as keeping the old ones.
the veg artist said…
I'd like to throw something else in here.
I am the aunt, by marriage, of two teenage girls who have been in the morbidly obese category since they were tiny. Their mother is very large, with gathering health problems. The youngest girl is developing multiple issues, diabetes, hormone problems, joint problems, and spine problems because her young frame cannot take her weight.
Why is nobody saying that this is no way to raise children? I accept that older children can go and buy unhealthy food, outside of the control of the parents, but in this case, each child was severely overweight at the time when every scrap of food was being provided by the parents.
They are beautiful, funny, lovely girls, but with a very poor future in front of them.
Yet my husband and I do not say or do anything. Should we?
Duchesse said…
Veg artist: It's hard to consider what to do without knowing your relationship (including the history) with this family. Some aunts-by-marriage are extremely close to the parents and children, others, not very. So I'm wondering what kinds of conversations have been had around the parents so far (within the family).

To raise an issue that has its roots in parent's choices is to be on very thin ice indeed, and yet I am not saying, Don't have it. You will need love and compassion, and even then what you say may be heard as shaming (a terrible motivator for anyone.)

The key question is, what can be done going forward, and who is best positioned to point out the present reality. The prediction of serious health issues at some later date is not usually a powerful deterrent for teens.

It's also hard to say what's the root cause; sometimes a familial predisposition to easily gaining is then exacerbated by the parent's choices.

Very, very few parents deliberately jeopardize their childrens' health.

Imagine if mother and daughters could join together in a reasonably-paced, supportive program!

Unknown said…
Okay, I see what you mean. Thank you for clarifying. I will think about it.

Martha said…
I think that it depends on where the acceptance is coming from. If a person decides to stop accepting *their own* choices and make a change for their own health or happiness or both, sure, that's dandy.

But I've occasionally seen people argue that as a society we owe it to society to be non-accepting of the overweight--basically, that shaming based on weight, including hiding the overweight and making a point of labeling overweight people as unattractive, is a way of communicating good values about health.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not accusing you or anyone here of saying that. But people have said that. And if we don't make a point of distinguishing the issues, it can be easy to slide into a tangle of cruel illogic.

We (that is, "we" meaning the majority society opinion) don't say that extremely tanned people are unattractive. Or people who are extremely thin, model-thin. Both of those states can be a result of unhealthy choices, but our society instead deems them to be attractive. Sodium is supposed to be bad for us, but we don't try to foster low sodium diets by encouraging people to say "I hate to watch those ugly salt-vampires just shovelling the salt into their gullets." Our duty to shame the unhealthy is apparently not applicable in these cases.

Again, I know that no one here is advocating shaming the unhealthy. But I still think it's valuable to straighten out the tangles.

Melissa McCarthy--for example--is simply beautiful on that Elle cover. She's more beautiful than most women of any size are in real life. If we saw more women her size, on more magazine covers, we'd be much more inclined to understand that large women can be beautiful.

And that would be a good, not a bad, thing, even, in fact *especially*, if it makes a lot of large women feel less ashamed of their size. Shame is never a valuable motivator for change. Caring about your health starts with loving, not hating, yourself.
Duchesse said…
Martha: A key question is, does a given behaviour harm anyone but the person practicing it? And, if it harms only the person practicing it, but is freely chosen, what's it to anyone else, or the state?

This is the heart of social policy, and resulting laws are continually in flux as times change and we accrue more evidence of what actually happens- not what people like or think, or convention.

When you encounter those who you believe show a "duty to shame the unhealthy", I hope you express your concerns.

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