Guardian :: Libby Brooks

Saturday March 16, 2002

Size Matters
For more than a decade, Shelley Bovey has championed the cause of fat women. Now the realisation that she could not accept her own size has led her to write a book about successful dieting.

Shelley Bovey owns a pair of calorie-counting scales. She really likes them. Each food has a number: she puts the food on the scales, keys in the number and it tells her the weight and number of calories. "Calorie counting is really not difficult," Bovey explains in her new book, What Have You Got To Lose?, which is subtitled The Great Weight Debate And How To Diet Successfully. "When I was eating a lot of apples, and estimating 40 calories for each one, I started to put on weight. When I acquired the scales, I found that the apples I was eating were around 100 calories each and, since I was eating six or seven a day, that made a difference."

This is not the obsessive counsel of the latest weight-loss guru to sate the public's appetite for deprivation. Bovey has been the most visible member of the size acceptance movement in the UK for more than a decade. In 1989, she wrote the ground-breaking polemic Being Fat Is Not A Sin, in which she argued, "If big women remain stuck with the propagandist notion that every woman wants to be thin, we will never find out our real identities." It was a clarion call to a group of women who were pilloried, despised, then told that it was their own fault.

Since then, she has appeared on countless talk shows and radio phone-ins, and penned hundreds of articles exposing the pervasive fat prejudice in mainstream soci ety. She challenged the medical profession and the weight-loss industry, which, she argued, had a vested interest in women wanting to be thinner. As well as encouraging a daily activism of confronting name-calling bigots on the street, she prescribed a dose of self-loving kindness for those assailed by censure: "Part of [our search for identity] involves coming to terms with the idea of accepting ourselves, forgiving ourselves and loving ourselves."

But by 1998, Bovey had realised that she could not accept herself. Weighing nearly 20 stone (127 kilograms) and at 5ft 2ins tall, she couldn't look at her reflection in the mirror or undress in front of her husband. She was suffering from ME, which had contributed to her weight gain from 16 stone, the size she was when she wrote her first book. On a weekend at Center Parcs, her family borrowed a wheelchair to enable them to take her around more easily. Her daughter, a fitness instructor, couldn't push her up a slope, and strangers stopped and offered to lend a hand.

Bovey now says that she finally consciously acknowledged her unhappiness after accusing a friend of fat prejudice. The woman responded, "How can you expect me to accept your size when you can't accept it yourself?"

"I don't know if I had actually known until that point," she says now. "You can be incredibly aware of things and not be aware of the most important thing of all. I still think society has got to change, because prejudice is always wrong. But I also knew that I had to do something to make me accept myself. It's complicated. I just knew I needed to be less fat."

Bovey returned from Center Parcs on a Monday. On the Tuesday, she went to her local Slimming World class, registering under a pseudonym. ("I didn't want anyone to know that I was the author of Being Fat Is Not A Sin.") Since then, she has lost more than seven stone, and some good friends within the size rights movement. With the publication of What Have You Got To Lose?, which offers a reassessment of size acceptance, along with advice on effective and permanent weight loss, she is expecting hate mail. Because Bovey threads her own odyssey of weight gain and loss through the book, one senses an underlying need to justify what many will see as a shocking volte face from fat women's most prominent advocate.

In a way, she argues against the prevailing wisdom twice over. In the first section, The Great Weight Debate, she suggests that weight loss is not incompatible with size acceptance. In the second, How To Lose Weight And Keep It Off Forever, she explains a regime that is, by any other name, a diet, while continuously referring to evidence that 95% of diets don't work. "I knew that there was going to be a reaction, but I needed to dispel the myth that I was fat and happy. I'd said that my size didn't determine my worth, my ability, my personality, but I never said, 'Gosh, I'm really happy being 20 stone.'"

Bovey is sitting in the kitchen of her home in Somerset. There are low ceiling beams and a book of poems by the loo. She is wearing a loose burgundy outfit, and is an average shape for a 52-year-old mother-of-three. Her movements are deft. She doesn't look like someone who has trouble with her weight. But when she is at rest, you notice that she still holds herself as though she were larger, hunching into her chair, covering her chest with her arms. "I wanted to say, 'It's not great being fat.' Of course, there are some people who truly are fat and happy, but I think they are a tiny minority. The truth is, most women have to pretend they are."

The book is not about justifying her own decision to lose weight, but carries "undeniable political importance", she asserts. "No matter what the politics of acceptance, the pride thing isn't going to catch on. It's not like colour or sexuality, because people live with the knowledge that, however difficult, theoretically they can change their size. What was happening in the movement, both here and in America, was an encroaching neo-fascism that said you must be proud to be fat. It's like saying you must be proud to be thin. And what about all the women I've spoken to over the years who were unhappy? Their unhappiness was being overlooked."

Bovey doesn't pull punches - losing weight is difficult, she says. "That's why the choice to lose weight has to be seen as a major life change." She giggles, recognising that this might sound absurd in a society that leapfrogs from one diet fad to the next. "There's no point in doing it unless it's going to be permanent - it is counterproductive in every sense. So what you have to live with is a body that is saying, 'I'm disappearing', and is bringing in all the mechanisms to stop that happening. You are never going to be able to relax and eat without thinking."

Her pronouncements may sound strict to the point of obsession. But anyone reaching Bovey's point of no return is likely to have a lifetime of chaotic eating patterns behind them, the physical and psychological consequences of which cannot be underestimated. She is not writing for the new mother with a postpartum belly to shift, or the tiny-waisted fusspot who wants her salad dressing on the side. Bovey is writing for women who are about to declare war on their body's most basic imperative.

She explains that the human body, designed for times of scarcity, will defend its weight fiercely. So any weight-loss programme is aiming to make the body burn its own fat stores. But the body responds as though experiencing a famine, slowing down its metabolic rate. Even a minimal loss of a pound (450g) a week triggers this response. And a dieted body, which is used to such periods of deprivation, functions even more efficiently in its determination to conserve calories. "But as your weight decreases, so does your body's basic calorie requirement," writes Bovey. "Your lighter body does not need as much fuel to keep it going, so in order to carry on losing weight your calorie intake has to go down (or your energy output go up.) This is the booby prize of weight loss: the more you lose, the less you can eat."

Finally, Bovey rebuts the consensus among obesity experts that, once you stop dieting, your metabolic rate returns to normal. If weight loss is sustained over a prolonged period, she argues, the body essentially becomes convinced that it is living in a country with a chronic sub-famine. It has marshalled its defences, in particular the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which aids the deposition of fat in the fat cells. Now, any return to a "normal" eating pattern will result in this enzyme compensating for the previous famine by storing away fat at a much faster rate than usual.

The body's superefficiency in regaining lost weight is stunning, she concludes. "Every time we get larger, more adipocytes [fat cells] are created to hold to extra fat. When weight is lost . . . these cells don't disappear, they hang around redundantly, like empty grain stores waiting for the harvest to come in. When it does, the body celebrates." Thus, 95% of weight lost is regained once the dieter returns to ad hoc eating behaviour. The unpalatable truth, she says, is that if you lose weight, you will have to stay on a diet for life.

Nor is the fat person's response to a weight-loss programme purely physical. Along with a dieted body comes a dieted mind. Those who have lost and regained weight regularly are more likely to say that they eat when under stress. Hunger may induce extreme panic in those who have previously used food to cauterise emotions, or who have come to associate eating with comfort or reward. As Bovey notes, emotional eating usually has deep roots: "It may be that the way of eating that has got someone to a very high weight is a pattern that is deeply ingrained. The emotional complexity is enormous, and that pattern is always waiting to reassert itself."

She documents her own erratic dietary behaviour honestly. On one occasion, she describes a craving for hot-cross buns: "So I decided to have a binge. I allowed myself 15 hot-cross buns that day - and nothing else. They were half-fat, and the day's supply came to about 3,000 calories. I thought I'd be in raptures, but I discovered I was much happier when I was on my diet, however difficult I was finding it. I've never been a control freak, but now I realised that the idea of con trolling my food was important."

Extracts from her diet diary reveal the agonising detail of deprivation: "Tea time was the lowest point of the day. Ate sugar-free jelly and a banana. Not satisfied. Feeling hunger of all kinds. Peanut butter sandwich led to peanut butter binge which I could have controlled but went ahead. Huge regret but maybe necessary."

Generally, her weight-loss advice is sound: she untangles the intricacies of metabolic rates and calorie counting, and emphasises the importance of support - though the irony of Bovey recommending Rosemary Conley's diet and fitness classes is not lost upon her.

Occasionally, one suspects that her own personal peccadilloes are overwhelming a more considered distillation of the evidence. For example, she advises against joining a gym. "The thing about gym culture," she explains, "is that people are putting a lot of faith in it as a means to lose weight. Anything you do to lose weight has to be permanent, and I don't think for most people they will keep going to the gym for the rest of their lives, and so you get rebound weight gain." But one senses that this is not unconnected to the fact that Bovey herself prefers a brisk walk or 10 minutes' worth of disco dancing around her front room. Also, if you shouldn't join a gym because you're likely to give it up, should you start a diet?

As American academic Richard Klein notes in his book Eat Fat, our reaction to fat is steeped in puritanical moral judgments - to be overweight is to be sinful, greedy, indulgent of one's most basic desires. The non-fat may think that being fat is a sin. They also think that being fat is a choice. But choice is a red herring, Bovey argues, because prejudice is always wrong. There can be no such thing as self-induced discrimination: "Even if all those fat people could lose weight, the movement has to be as strong as ever. They have a right not to change and they have the right to be treated the same as the next person."

But then, within the movement, she asks that fat people don't discriminate against those who can make a choice to lose weight. "I'm saying that, with people who are abused by society, I would rather give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they don't have the choice, because a lot of people don't. Losing weight is terribly difficult. You have to be in a very stable psychological place to do it. You have to have huge support, a little corral of people around you who really love you, no major stresses in your life, no unresolved emotional issues. I had loads of them, and that's why it never happened before.

"A lot of fat people are grappling with those things, or they live in some dreadful place, or they're single mums without enough money." Certainly, diets cost - fresh and low-fat foods, gym membership, are expensive. There is a strong association between weight and class, particularly for women, with those in the lowest social class at a far higher risk of obesity than those in the highest. "I think it's quite a privileged state to be able to choose to lose weight," says Bovey. "It's a middle-class, privileged, professional position to be in, and an awful lot of people are not. For me, that invalidates that perceived sense of choice."

The size acceptance movement began in the United States in 1969 under the auspices of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (Naafa). As Bovey writes in her book, "Even now the movement is relatively small; unlike similar human-rights causes such as the battle against racism, it has touched the hearts and minds of relatively few people. In every part of the world, except a few places in the USA, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against and abuse the overweight." Why should it be, she asks, that society experiences no sense of discomfort that an increasingly large group within it suffers persecution?

If current trends continue, more than a quarter of adults in the UK will be obese by 2010. Yet discrimination remains startling - one recent study for the University of Michigan found that, for every extra stone (6.4kg) a woman carries, her average salary drops by more than 1.5%, with the benefit of being thin being equivalent to an extra year's education or two years' experience in a job. In the UK, the Equal Opportunities Commission has no policy directly relating to weight discrimination.

The medical profession is notoriously hostile to the obese - Bovey began interviewing GPs about their attitude to her weight before registering with them - and hopelessly inept at treating the condition. "Fat people are supposed to do it by themselves," she writes. "When you consider the complex causes of obesity - the genetic and emotional components combined with the havoc wreaked on the body by low-calorie dieting - it should make you see red. The body police in the government and the medical profession thunder on about the health risks and the cost to the nation of obesity, but provide precious little in the way of resources to help people combat it." There are only eight obesity clinics in Britain, she adds, and they have long waiting lists.

Meanwhile, the connection between overweight and ill health remains highly contested. The world's largest epidemiological study, which monitored 1.8 million participants over 10 years, found the lowest mortality rate among those who were approximately 30% overweight. But it would be foolish to deny that there are health risks at very high weight, says Bovey. "In America, the movement does tend to, and enough is known to show that there is a connection between enormous obesity - and I would put myself in that category at 20 stone - and ill health."

But these risks induced by a high stable weight must be balanced against the risks of dieting and regaining weight, she adds. "The link is so distorted by the medical profession and society. You can't give an arbitrary figure. It just makes me really angry the way that fat people are frightened by doctors. They have said to me all the way along, 'You're not going to live very long.' I really thought I had heart disease, and I haven't. I wouldn't be surprised if people didn't go on to contract the disease because of what they are told by the medical profession."

The causes of obesity are complex. Some doctors believe that up to 80% of eventual height and weight is determined by genes. The ability to attune appetite to periods of greater or lesser activity, our tendency to be tempted to eat when we are not hungry, and our interest in being active rather than sedentary, are thought to be under considerable genetic control. Although scientists have yet to locate a gene or sequence of genes for human obesity, it was first discovered in mice in 1994, where it was found to control the production of leptin, which regulates appetite.

But the current global epidemic of obesity would suggest that genetics are not the sole cause. We live in an obesity-inducing environment. The advent of processed foods that are extraordinarily high in calories and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle have combined to override our biologically controlled ability to regulate appetite. Add to this the enormous psychological complexity that characterises our relationship with eating. "Everything around food is incredibly emotional," says Bovey, "especially for women."

She is quick to insist, however, that "we should not claim the problem of fatness as a female thing", and argues that the feminist movement has not embraced size acceptance any more than the rest of society. She remains exercised by Susie Orbach's now dated assertions that fatness is a protest against patriarchy, and that every woman wants to be thin.

But if feminism has failed to embrace size acceptance, does this simply reflect the fact that the majority of women have at some point felt conflicted about their own body size and shape? "A lot of fat women deny that they eat too much," says Bovey, "and I find that a terribly painful issue, because of its all-round interpretation of 'too much'. If you say that someone eats 'too much', it's an immediate moral judgment. A lot of the 'too much' is for emotional reasons. But then you've got women eating for emotional reasons who don't get fat. There are those who eat to excess but never show it on their bod ies - the bulimics, those women who repeatedly lose and gain the same half stone."

According to Bovey, fat is the place where feminism breaks down. But in her own way, she, too, judges other women, asserting under the heading The Trivialisation Of Weight Loss, "I don't care that the majority of 'normal' weight women are insecure about their bodies. I am unmoved by their plight." Yet elsewhere she rails against a medical profession that pledges more resources to the treatment of anorexia than of obesity. Here, isn't she herself making the same arbitrary distinctions between "good" and "bad" eating problems? It is women's narcissistic obsession with the way they look, and their lack of charity about the way other women look, that frustrates Bovey. "I get so bored because women talk about and care about weight so much. I get far more judged by women than by men."

It is indeed a conundrum when, although the female form is considered the chief weapon in competition for men, women may diet for other women. As Susan Brownmiller once wrote, "An excellent dinner in good company is one of the rewards of life that never fails, but I am too competitive to stand by and watch my middle thicken while other women parade their thinness like an Olympic medal."

Why are we so unforgiving of one another? And, in spending so long censuring our bodies, what happens to our minds? As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, "If a woman can be made to say I hate my fat thighs, is it a way she has been made to hate femaleness? Hunger makes women feel poor and think poor."

Bovey retains an ambivalence about people's reactions to her own weight loss: "I did want people to notice, because it's a lonely thing to do. But I thought, 'People are going to perceive me as being better' - because that's the way people look at weight loss - and what was that saying about the me I was then?' Did people really love me with reservations, because when I lost weight they would love me more?"

She is feeling gloomy about the future of the size acceptance movement, she tells me. It is weakening both here and in the US. Size, the British size acceptance network, has recently closed. "There aren't enough people who want to change the world with regards to this issue," Bovey sighs.

But as she expands on the political salience of her book, one is struck by a crucial oddity about Bovey's position. For her, unusually and setting her apart from the majority of other fat women, her weight brought status. Of course, she suffered discrimination. But that discrimination kicked Bovey's campaigning talents into action. And her campaigning achievements provided her with a position on the socio-political landscape that she understandably enjoys. The pseudonym at Slimming World, the certainty that her personal choices will have a political impact, testify to this.

As does her continual insistence that she is still fat. "I'm still a fat woman. I still have to live in a society that hates me. I still have to live with people who might love me but wouldn't want to look like me. I may have lost weight, but in the eyes of the world I am still a fat person, and it is fat people who are hated. I don't think it matters whether you are 19 or 12 stone [her current weight]."

But this is a strange and arbitrary insistence. Of course there is a difference. She adds that she "will go on being abused, unless I ever hit nine stone". But is this really true? Her determination to hold on to fat status is unsettling. Particularly as, arguably, she has not accepted the responsibilities of that status by losing weight.

How far should the positions we advocate publicly intrude into our private lives? It's a vexed question. Should an MP who openly supports family values policies keep a mistress? Should a size acceptance campaigner accept her own size? No, says Bovey. "You don't have to be black to campaign against racism, do you? Do I have to be 20 stone to be anti-discrimination? How does my own weight loss, going from being a very fat woman to a fat woman, disqualify me?"

In the book, she suggests that being fat is anarchic because it doesn't accord with the prescribed social order. "Even though my personal choice has been to lose weight - though not in order to become a thin woman - my political stance is still 100% anarchic." But people don't shout at you in the street because of your political stance.

And isn't it counter-intuitive to support and campaign for the acceptance in others of the very thing that you have been unable to accept in yourself? No, she says, because her passion comes from a belief that everyone has a right to happiness, which has nothing to do with self-acceptance and everything to do with society. "It makes me so angry that everything is accepted but being fat. That there exist no restraints on saying, 'I'm not going to give you a job because you're a fat slob.' I can't believe that we have this ridiculous contradiction." She pauses. "And, for me, I've been fat since I was 11, and maybe I just couldn't take any more of it."

Carmen Douglas-Howse says that she knew she had to do something when she started worrying about the number of calories in a paracetamol. "I now feel that I've made a positive choice to be the weight I am [a size 28-30]," she says. "I put that down to age and experience, and having a husband who loves me the way I am. And since I had my son, I think there are other things to worry about. Worrying about your weight is a very selfish state of mind."

The 37-year-old has lost five stone (32kg) twice in her life, and put it back on again. "You are made to feel that if you are fat, you are not a valuable person. The media tells us what we should look like, that to be a good mother, partner, friend you should be thin. But I have never been more miserable than when I was on a diet, and most people I know who have lost weight are still miserable."

Fat itself is not the issue, she believes. "In a lot of cases, fat is a protective layer, an externalisation. When a person is fat and unhappy, often the first thing they can see is the fat, so they reason that the fat is the cause of the unhappiness. It's too difficult to look further into the reasons why the weight went on in the first place - protection against unwanted emotions, difficult childhood, abusive relationships. By losing weight, they fail to address the real issues, so they're still unhappy and, by now, locked into the misery of dieting, obsession and self-denial."

And as for the proverbial magic pill to make her slim tomorrow? "If you'd asked me five years ago, I would have taken it. Now, I think I would have to consider my husband's feelings - he loves me the size I am.

"Being fat is a huge part of my identity. Because I have been big since the age of about six or seven, it is something I have always carried with me. When I have been thinner - though never below size 16 - I felt unnoticed, I didn't get the attention I got when I was bigger, and I was just one in a crowd. As a big woman, I feel a lot more complete. I'm now happy to be the person I am the size I am."

Lisa Lee is 28 years old, with the kind of presence that bounces off the back wall of the tapas bar where she's drinking a glass of white wine after work. At 18-and-a-half stone (117kg), Lee is used to people making assumptions about her ability to control her life. "It's seen to be my fault, that I'm responsible for the way I am. And I know I am, to some extent, but that doesn't take away my basic human right to be treated well."

It took her years to realise that life's too short, she says. "If I could take a pill and be slim tomorrow, I would. But I accept that this is how I am today, and I'm going to go out and enjoy myself. It's not that I feel inherently unhappy with my size, but losing weight would enable me to do the things I want to do - buy the clothes I like, get the man of my dreams."

Of course she has dieted in the past. It didn't work. "You have to change the way you think about food, and I don't seem able to do that. It's an emotional thing - when you're bored, when you're lonely, when you can't get clothes to fit you, the first thing you reach for is food."

Lee is used to people judging her, but other women are the worst. "Part of it is jealousy. They would love to let go like that. My thin friends say, 'I wish I was as carefree as you are.' I'm sitting there thinking, 'Do you honestly think that every time I put something in my mouth I don't torture myself?' They have this stereotype that if you're a big girl you don't care, you're jolly, you're happy. But it also brings home to them their own frailty. They don't want to see what they could become if they stopped watching what they ate. It's a cross between ridicule and awe. They think, 'Here's me trying to hide my tummy in my size 12 jeans and she's in a size 28 mini-dress.' They would love not to worry about their little bit of flab."