Writing by Alana Cole // Photograph by Leanne Surfleet
1 year ago, I arrived at the end of a 20-kilo weight loss.
As a bigger girl, I was sick of feeling invisible to men, sick of being the unattractive friend for women and sick of the unsolicited and smug weight loss advice of strangers. I will not deny that my weight loss was driven by a desire for good looks and status, rather than better health (though this is not to say bigger bodies are by definition less healthy).
Along with my larger income and evolving middle-class taste (out with white bread, in with quinoa salad), came a huge weight loss that took me from a curvy girl/goddess/Rubenesque/watermelon shaped size 16 to a slim size 10. The first time I heard myself described as tall, brunette, and slim was almost an out-of-body experience. For the first time in my life, the size of my body was not my main identifier; my large body the first, most obvious descriptor. This experience has prompted some personal revelations about the way society views women’s bodies; in particular, fat women’s bodies.
Firstly, it brought it home to me that bigger bodies are always regarded as a problem. The idea that a fat girl could be confident in her own skin is gaining traction, due to the hard work of feminist writers and activists (particularly the fat acceptance, or factivist, movement); but when an average to bigger woman tries or succeeds at losing weight, no one needs to know their motivations—weight loss is an unambiguously good pursuit. I am reminded of an article I read about a woman who lost a huge amount of weight because she was sick with cancer. The praise and happiness of friends and acquaintances at her new body was greeted with the fact that she had actually lost so much weight because she was very, very sick—her body was trying to kill her.
The assumption was that losing weight would make me happy, that I would be swept up in a tide of newfound confidence and embrace all the opportunities life had to offer. This assumption is, as I discovered, too true. In a society that detests fat, life is easier in innumerable ways now that I am a size 10. The world is kinder, it’s easier to make friends, I can be more assertive, and I can afford to be far, far more choosy with my men—in fact, I can be choosy at all.
At first I enjoyed being showered with compliments, but it began to get me down. Every time people fell over themselves to tell me how good I looked now, it was saying “you were less attractive before” or even, “I had a problem with your body before.” The praise “well done” was worse, as if my weight loss was a problem just waiting for a solution. Further, it was the first thing people wanted to talk about and the topic they wished to dwell on the longest. It wasn’t simply noted like a new top or haircut. Could it be that my body was the most important and defining thing about me? Nothing I have ever done before has garnered so many compliments, so much attention, and so many visibly excited friends and acquaintances. This includes getting a first class honours degree from the University of Melbourne, travelling overseas alone, singing on stage for the first time alone, and landing that competitive office job.
My experiences with crossing over to the slim side reveal that despite our efforts – genuine or not—to convince ourselves that happiness and beauty comes in all shapes and sizes; the ideal of happiness and beauty looks like a size 8. There is an assumption that a size 16 body should send you running for the hills in expensive jogging gear to collect some iceberg lettuce for your Friday night treat.
This brings me to my next revelation: fat people aren’t allowed to feel confident.
As a fat girl, you are often treated like a victim, someone who is almost certainly a loser. Sadly, there is some truth to this much of the time. I was always the bottom of the heap at every party and bar, the least sought after by men and the least glamorous acquaintance. No one needed to ask why I was single; the answer was staring them in the face.
After my weight loss, I received an unprecedented amount of attention from men, but also from women. Suddenly, it was easier to make friends, to talk about clothes, make-up, boys, and nutrition. My perspectives counted for more, untainted by my transgressive body. My appearance no longer undermined my every perspective on clothes and make-up (what would she know about looking good), sex and relationships (the type of men she likes probably aren’t the type of men that I like), and food (taking nutritional advice from her is simply out of the question). The question of why I am single now comes with genuine curiosity.
The weight loss clichés you see in the movies came true. I could finally take centre stage at the metaphorical prom. I could unashamedly seek attention rather than facilitate it for others, be the loudest and most obnoxious at the party rather than the less attractive and sensible sidekick, and expect friends to follow my lead, rather than blindly follow beautiful people like a baby lamb. I could be the fun girl, the glamor girl, sometimes even the hot girl. It was the Nancy show.
I enjoyed this sudden spotlight. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but not a bad one. I was an extrovert, and I was by no means shy.
And then I realised, I hadn’t been a shy introvert– I had just been fat.
After reaping the benefits of a significant weight loss, the novelty has worn off. These benefits are tainted by the knowledge that I wouldn’t have received these “thin privileges’  if it wasn’t for the shedding of 20 kilos of blubber. I feel pain for my old self, trapped in insecurity because of the hatred and pity levelled at bigger women. Can I engage in factivism now that I can no longer identify as fat? Have I sold out, given in to the high beauty standards demanded of women? Perhaps I have, to an extent. But I am firm in the belief that each person should do with their body what they will to cope with our complex world of beauty standards and gender norms. No single person should carry the burden of a political struggle.
Perhaps it boils down to a simple principle: women (and men, of course) should do with their bodies what they like, when they like, and however they like. The bodily scrutiny I received after losing weight stems from the fact that women’s bodies are seen as public property. How they are dressed, when and how frequently they engage in sexual activity, and how large or small they are is continually up for public discussion.
Next time you think about commenting on a woman’s body, whether it is a compliment or a bitchy remark to a friend, think again. Why do you care? Is it any of your business? Next time you engage in fat talk (“I am fat”, “No I am fat”) with your female friends, ask yourself whose standards you are living by. Is it the media’s, men’s, or your own? The more women talk to each other about other women’s or our own appearance, the more we prop up a system of gender norms where women’s bodies are subject to undue scrutiny and men’s are for the large part ignored.
The phrase “its what’s on the inside that counts” is ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives; however, my experiences demonstrate that we are distressingly far from reaching this utopia.