Why I believe it was wrong to be ‘body positive’ about my plus-sized figure. There are proven health implications of being overweight – and it’s wildly unhelpful to tell people otherwise

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Written By Maya Cantina

Scanning the menu in a restaurant, browsing the sandwich options in the coffee shop at lunchtime or doing the weekly shopping in the supermarket might be simple, everyday tasks for most people, but for 30 years I found them confusing and difficult.

Why? Ultimately, I wanted two things that were in direct conflict with each other; to eat all the foods I knew I shouldn’t and not to be fat.

As a child of the 1980s – a fat child of the 1980s – I lived in the eye of the diet culture storm. Encouraged by my doctor, I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting at the age of 11, though that wasn’t my first diet. I have memories of ‘can’t eat this’ and ‘mustn’t eat that’ linked to my growing size long before I joined WW.

At some point during my childhood, I started to eat in secret. I’d sneak a packet of crisps out of a multipack in the middle of the night; slice slivers off cheese in the fridge hoping they’d go unnoticed or snap corners off biscuits in the biscuit tin. The binges would start with urges to eat those foods that every GP and diet told me not to. I knew what I should be eating, and that’s what I ate in public, and I also knew what I shouldn’t and that’s what I’d feast on in private.

If anyone asked me how much I was eating, I’d lie. The truth is, I couldn’t admit it to myself let alone anyone else.

For years I was on the diet rollercoaster many women know so well, though I took it to extremes. From the age of 20, I’d lose 40-50lbs every few years on an all-or-nothing exercise regime and restrictive diet going from 14+ stone, to 10 stone, or a size 16-18 to a size 12 – and then I’d gain it all back again.

 

Emma Gunavardhana posted a before/after photo to show the progress she has made in her weight-loss journey

With the advent of body positivity, if you were overweight and you weren’t accepting your body then there was something wrong with you, writes Emma Gunavardhana

With the advent of body positivity, if you were overweight and you weren’t accepting your body then there was something wrong with you, writes Emma Gunavardhana

But though my yo-yoing weight was frustrating, there was some comfort in knowing I knew exactly what to do to shed the pounds. All it required was the resolve to lose the weight and then I’d go on another diet. It wasn’t ideal, but it did work.

That was until the body positivity movement came along and turned everything I felt about myself on its head. And not in a good way.

When I was growing up, if you were overweight and you weren’t outwardly expressing your dissatisfaction with your weight and attempting to change it, then there was something wrong with you. This is why I’ve spent so much of my life telling people about the diet I was currently on or boring them with the latest fitness regime I was doing. I used to log my runs daily on social media, for example. I shared selfies from the half marathon I ran and posted photographs from the gym floor – all so other people would know I was trying not to be fat. It was so I had a line of defence if someone called me lazy or, worse, greedy.

But with the advent of body positivity and body acceptance, all of a sudden the opposite became true. If you were overweight and you weren’t accepting your body, its size and dimension, then there was something wrong with you.

For a while, I tried to embrace the idea that ‘all bodies are beautiful’.

Here they were on Instagram and Facebook, all these obese women who looked just like me, telling me the problem to be solved wasn’t our size, but the way the world responded to our size.

I wanted it to be true – but somewhere at the back of my mind, something niggled.

For logically I knew these women would be out of breath after climbing a few flights of stairs. They’d have thighs that chafed as they walked, and heart conditions developing even in their 20s and 30s. They were at greatly more risk of type 2 diabetes than slimmer women. And yet here they were telling me there was nothing wrong with them, and by extension me too.

Their message was that I didn’t need to diet or lose weight; it was the fatphobic society that needed to change. Instead, I should – I must – learn to love my body and ignore the looks I got as I took up space in the world.

Over the years, I have blamed many things for my size. My hormones (I have PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome, which has a close link with obesity); my genetics, glands, thyroid, and even the patriarchy.

Yet for me, accepting myself and my body when I was tipping the scales at over 200 lbs, would have been to ignore and enable a form of self-sabotage. I wasn’t happily plus-size. I was wrecking my health with food behind closed doors.

Plus, it seemed like a fool’s errand to focus on changing society’s views of fat people, something over which I had no agency, when I could focus that energy on myself.

After 30 years of dieting, at the age of 41, I came to understand I had an eating disorder.

It was 2019, and I had just had breast reduction surgery in the hope that it would ‘fix’ my body image issues, taking my size down from a F/G cup to a D cup, but instead, unable to hide behind my ‘large boobs’ any longer, I had to confront what I’d been trying to deny for decades. When left to my own devices – in other words, not following the rules of a diet – I’d eat more food than I needed and that excess food showed up as weight gain.

Emma Gunavardhana before her weight loss. She writes that accepting herself and her body when she weighed more than 200 lbs would have been to ignore and enable a form of self-sabotage

Emma Gunavardhana before her weight loss. She writes that accepting herself and her body when she weighed more than 200 lbs would have been to ignore and enable a form of self-sabotage

Still bandaged after my operation, I read the book Brain over Binge by Kathryn Hansen, which a friend had recommended to me months before. She was in recovery from an eating disorder and had gently suggested the book might be helpful. I, of course, was offended at the idea a book with ‘binge’ in the title could help. This was how deeply in denial I was about what I was doing.

Ironically, I binged the book. I read it from cover to cover in one session, highlighting the passages that struck a chord as I read, and by the end of it was in no doubt at all that I had an extremely unhelpful, complicated relationship with food.

A few months later on my podcast, I spoke to Dr Joanna Silver, Lead Psychological Therapist at Orri, an eating disorder treatment centre in London, and something she said clarified matters even further for me. As we chatted about different kinds of disordered eating, she mentioned a variant called ‘binge eating disorder’, which affects three times the number of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. She described ‘obsession with food, size, shape and weight’ – and immediately I recognised myself.

I knew something was invisibly sabotaging me from the second I woke up to the second I went to sleep, I just didn’t know until then it was this, a binge eating disorder.

It was a huge relief to understand I wasn’t choosing this; I wasn’t willfully eating to excess unbothered by the consequences.

The truth was, I thought about it more than I thought about anything else. As with all eating disorders, the physical impact is only part of the issue and, for me, it was the constant mental chatter that was life-limiting. I ‘postponed’ everything, from making career moves, starting relationships, even going on holiday. At the core of these decisions was the feeling that I could do all of those things, but only when I lost weight.

These dark, self-sabotaging feelings ran so deep that not only did I not fully understand them, it’s unlikely anyone would have been able to see all this turmoil from the outside looking in.

Joanna Silver reveals that ‘a lot of people who look really healthy or ‘normal’ are in fact gripped by a similar sort of mental suffering so ‘we mustn’t get too caught up in the physical’ aspect or be fooled by what looks like a perfectly average body size. Somebody with a perfectly average body size might be struggling with these issues i.e. It’s not just the stereotypical underweight white teen with anorexia who may be dealing with eating disorder issues.

Perhaps the most significant mental shift I made, and what started my road to recovery, was realising that using diet and exercise as the only tools to tackle weight problems is like trying to solve a problem by hitting it with a blunt instrument. It’s like telling someone with depression to ‘cheer up’ or advising someone who self-harms to ‘stop doing that!’.

I didn’t need another branded diet or exercise plan. I needed a strategy to help me behave rationally around food.

Installing that new rational behaviour meant doing something quite controversial in the current cultural climate, and certainly anathema to the body positive movement: I counted calories.

Unlike the metrics some diets give you, which you have to pay to use (Points, Syns, forbidden foods etc) calories are freely available and printed on pretty much every food product. Like many serial dieters, however, I hated calories because whenever I counted them, I was faced with the fact I ate more of them than I needed. It’s also why I hated scales for so many years – not because scale weight is meaningless or unhelpful but because it always told me a number I didn’t like.

Emma Gunavardhana before she lost 30 lbs in five months

Emma Gunavardhana before she lost 30 lbs in five months

This time around, however, I found calorie counting far easier because I finally accepted the logic and science behind it. Yes, I trusted the science of it. They may be an imperfect metric and not all calories are created equal but it was trusting the science of thermogenesis. By counting the calories in my breakfast, I would know there was no way I could be physiologically hungry an hour or so later, when my brain was urging me to ‘go on, have a snack’. That meant I was putting time between one meal and the next and not grazing constantly as I had been before.

I’d always craved foods I knew shouldn’t eat, but because I wanted this new way of eating to ‘stick’ for life, my rule was that nothing was off the table. I was done with restrictive diets and banning food groups, I wanted to enjoy everything, and calorie counting allowed me to accommodate the foods that diet culture had previously taught me were ‘bad’. If I looked at what I could eat for the whole day, sometimes the foods I’d crave just weren’t worth the calorie ‘expense’ or if I wanted it, I would have it and make adjustments accordingly. I also didn’t see it as ‘bad’ to go over calories just made sure it wasn’t a regular occurrence.

Over time I lost weight – 30 lbs in five months – and though it wasn’t easy at first, gradually these new habits began to stick. But so did something else. The mental preoccupation, the constant thoughts about what I was going to eat next, went quiet. It’s the way people who are on weight loss drugs such as Ozempic have described the way the medication has quieted their brain noise about food, yet this was by small behaviour changes alone.

I also dialled down my exercise regime. Instead of running 5km every day, which I had previously thought was the only way to be fit and lose weight, I did three strength training sessions a week, trusting that lifting weights in conjunction with a calorie deficit would get me the results I wanted.

Emma is now 10 stone and says that most people praise how she looks now

Emma is now 10 stone and says that most people praise how she looks now

A second significant mental shift occurred with regard to the ‘timeline’ I was on. Every diet I’ve ever done has you on a timeline, working towards a goal weight and/or date. Instead, I let go of any expectations and trusted that if I was consistent, then over time I’d see results. And the way I charted that progress was with the scales, by weighing myself every day and by looking at the trend over time.

In 2023, after maintaining a 30 lbs weight loss for nearly three years, I decided to lose another stone and it’s been interesting how people have responded to my new shape and size.

I’m now 10 stone and despite what the body positivity movement would have us believe, the majority of people praise how I look now, with comments such as ‘you’ve lost so much weight’ or ‘you look like a different person’. Sometimes, people will say, ‘well done, you’ve obviously worked really hard’, which I appreciate because it has been about undoing a lot of mental and emotional hardwiring to achieve a physical result.

There have, however, been some barbed comments from people who have embraced the principles of body positivity and who have expressed their displeasure at the changes I’ve made and how I’ve made them. One comment which really riled me was that I had a long way to go on my ‘journey of self-love’ because I wasn’t able to love myself in a bigger body.

It’s a notion I reject. I think the biggest act of ‘self love’, if that’s what you want to call it, is facing up to my behaviours, being realistic about the negative long-term impact being in that bigger body could have had on my health and committing to make change.

It’s not helpful to tell people who are struggling with their weight they need to eat less and move more. But it’s also wildly unhelpful to tell people who are overweight that it’s fine to be that way when there are proven health implications and, as in my case, the extra weight can be symptomatic of an eating disorder.

There is a space between what diet culture tells us and what movements such as body positivity tell us and it’s one where you can make long-lasting change. Sometimes though, as the saying goes, the first step to making that change, is to admit you have a problem.

The Emma Guns Show is published twice-weekly on all good podcast platforms. 

Instagram: @emmaguns

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