Here is the next instalment of the fun and games that is The Biscuit Chronicles! Lucy and I will be heading up North to do a double biscuit whammy of show and body respect workshop on April 10th at the Anthony Burgess Centre. Here is the poster – come along! You could even take advantage of the bulk-ticket-bargain – 5 tickets for £30. Biscuits, love handles and body respect. What’s not to love?
At the end of my Health At Every Size Facilitator training last week I was in Coventry in a room with no windows, having as close to a religious experience as a totally heathen non-believer like me could possibly manage. Like a beam of light through a glass of water, my world-view had been all bent out of shape and was refracting at strange angles, breaking up into tiny shards before my very eyes. Even surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, the world seemed new and bewildering. At the end of the day I trailed silently down to the station and got on the train home feeling emotionally bruised, unsettled and more than a little bit overwhelmed.
Health At Every Size (HAES) might be an idea you are familiar with – it incorporates elements of mindfulness, such as intuitive eating, something Susie Orbach writes about so clearly and beautifully in her book On Eating. HAES is a philosophy on health that steers us away from assumptions based on appearance and suggests that a little more compassion for ourselves, and then others, could do wonders for our well-being, as individuals and on a wider scale.
So far, so manageable. These are all ideas I felt comfortable with – ya, ya, self-acceptance, listening to your body, blah blah, compassion – I was down with all that stuff. I couldn’t exactly completely do it, but I got the idea and I thought it was a grand plan in theory. I knew the basics, I had the t-shirt and I was ready to learn how to teach the good word to the rest of the world: “Being fat is fine, people!” I thought I was prepared.
As you can guess, it doesn’t go well. I wasn’t prepared at all. I wasn’t prepared to face myself with such honesty. I wasn’t prepared to give up the “ideal me” that I had been striving vainly towards for virtually my whole life. I wasn’t prepared to be moved and challenged by the Health At Every Size philosophy, the enormity of its meaning and its powerful argument for change, awareness and acceptance. I wasn’t prepared to be pulled apart, pummeled and reformed, a new, more resilient me
So, I know that it sounds a little like I just got smacked out on a heady combo of mushrooms and Marxism or signed away my first born to a fantastical cult – philosophy, you say, profundity and ideals? All that can ever lead to is a terrible come down or stockpiling for Armageddon. Well, yes…. And no.
In some ways, HAES requires such a shift in world-view that it is comparable to gaining or losing a religion. It encourages the kind of switch in perspective I associate with the fuzzy, fishbowl views and sudden epiphanies of being high.
It’s not just understanding the science of why diets make you fat, it’s asking you to abandon the binary system of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, right/wrong that we have grown up with, and grown into, that forms the basis of our ability to categorise and understand the world. It’s asking that you not only throw out all the pots and pans of the BMI as a tool to measure health, it’s asking that you burn down the kitchen and rebuild from scratch our concept of what health is and the ways in which we affect changes to it. It’s not just re-evaluating which nutritional expert is the best. It’s insisting that we interrogate the way we value information, and make a system where different forms of knowledge, such as lived experience, are just as valuable as biomedical or academic knowledge, where teaching and learning are one and the same. It’s not just about size, it’s not just about food, shit, it’s not even just about health – it’s huge.
But on the other hand, HAES is also the small fry, the every day. HAES is having a bad day, eating a whole packet of biscuits and, crucially, not feeling bad about it. Because the problem is not eating the biscuits, the problem is the judgment that leads to the cycle of shame and guilt that follows. HAES is being able to tune in to what you need right now to enable you to do whatever it is you’re doing, to begin to unpick the difference between a tool that serves a useful purpose for you and a learned behavior. For me, part of HAES is beginning to understand when I’m mistaking a non-food need as hunger. I might think I’m hungry for cake but I might just be feeling angry and have learned to self-soothe always with food. It’s also reassuring to know that food can serve many purposes including nutritional, social and emotional, all of them valid. HAES is a tool that can help you to choose whether it’s ironing, or running or cheese that you need – whatever it is that nourishes you and helps you fill the needs you have. HAES is keeping the faith and staying open to possibilities. More than anything it’s giving yourself options.
It’s not easy. Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t set my feet on this path and that I could return to the comfortable discomfort of knowing that all I needed was the right kind of hair to be happy. It’s been a grieving process to give up the perfect me I knew I could become one day, to let go of the familiar smokescreen of fat as the root of all my unhappiness and my old friend, the cycle of dieting that I knew I could fail at so successfully. It’s hard to meet yourself where you are. If, as HAES suggests, your socio-economic status and your environment have as much impact on your health as lifestyle choices, then the problem with people’s health is as much the massive inequality in the world – in education, income, rights – and what the hell do we do about that? The day after I took the course came a crash and burn into despair at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of social injustice.
But I have recovered and am putting the pieces back together, renewed and hopeful. HAES gives us the tools to be proactive at every level – at a personal level, at a peer level and politically (with a small ‘p’, y’all). It gives us agency and the ability to understand why agency is crucial to health and making positive change. HAES is a philosophy of health that is relevant to everyone and it gives us options outside of hating our bodies, beyond competing fruitlessly against ourselves or each other, and the chance to be connected with others in a powerful, compassionate way. If you can just sit with the discomfort until it settles, the future looks bright.
I’m only halfway through my training and there’s a long way to go. Accepting that you are a process, a messy, non-linear process is key. To take your eye off the physical perfection that seems tantalisingly just out of reach and to fix instead on the distant goal of equality and the broad expanse of horizon, is no mean feat. But it can make the process more pleasurable in realising that, with a switch in perspective, your ultimate destination is the path you’re already on.
I’m still afraid that if I begin to believe that this really is a genuine shift in my relationship with myself, with my body and with food, then it will escape and disappear into dust like any previous dieting ‘successes’. I am terrified, and exhilarated – the possibilities for joy and pain are all too real – but for now I will just keep putting one foot in front of the other, be brave in my contentment with myself and hope that this one, this time is for keeps.
A few weeks ago, the sun was out, the commuters were commuting and Meet and Two Veg were kicking up some breakfast fun times at Liverpool Street station. Armed with folding tables, frocks, teapots and a bundle of home made goodies we set up shop just outside the station, got the tea brewing and set about interfering with some people’s days. Our first visitors were the police, who clearly didn’t know what to do with us and wouldn’t have a muffin so in the end, they just pretended they didn’t see us.
After a slow start we had bankers, businessmen, the chap who was cleaning the station, pensioners, day trippers and even some railway staff join us for tea. ‘What are you promoting?’, they asked and we just smiled and said ‘Talking to people’. People’s smiles and willingness to join in and chat pretty much made our day – we hope we made theirs a bit more interesting too… thank you Silvio Palladino for the beautiful photos – your talents (and hairy chest) know no bounds.
Having been lucky enough to get some funding from the Our Food project run by folks at the University of Edinburgh to run two small projects , I have just been up in Ullapool finding out what it really feels like to hold the reins to my first very own funded project. Or, rather, what it feels like to be responsible for careering off the path, crashing into trees, upturning the cart and scaring the pony whilst getting horribly lost before clawing my way back to something approaching the right direction.
It’s been a steep learning curve – did you pick that up?
I went up to Ullapool with the intention of… doing a nice project about local food, y’know? Talking to some folks about veg and stuff, hanging with all the cool fishermen I’d met before talking about, like, fish or whatever, eat some cake, make a little show, get loads of praise for basically being really, like, creative and intuitive and everything.
I ended up in Ullapool finding out how little I know, being totally terrified, totally lost and ultimately totally humbled by the generosity and knowledge of a the community and the complexity and sheer incredibleness of a local food system as organic and resilient as the landscape.
So it turns out that you can’t totally wing a project, not even a creative anthropology project, and that two weeks isn’t really long enough to do much more than scratch the surface of a lifestyle hundreds of years in the making. And even though I’ve read about it in text books and all that, I learned, for real this time, in the flesh and by the failure of my own actions, that this kind of research is not just a nice chat with some locals – this is people’s lives. It’s their lives, their livelihoods, their hearts and minds, their past and future and for them to let you in is a huge leap of faith, an honour and not to be taken lightly. And I am honoured – touched and very grateful.
Although not all my plans panned out and halfway through I was freaking out that I didn’t think I was learning anything and that I was jus having random chats with people with neither them nor I knowing what I was doing, by the time it got to be time to leave, I realised that I’d learned more than I had imagined and had actually begun to form some interesting thoughts and connections.
Given many fine dinners, lots of lifts to and from the village, accommodation and pints, to name but a few gestures, I felt very touched at all the generosity, but it’s pretty standard up there. As my friend Emma always says, ‘Don’t see yourself stuck’ – no matter if it’s a lift I need or a bed, she’ll always offer.
In wondering out loud about the lack of local produce available to buy in the village despite some of the best soft fruit, meat and fish I’ve eaten being grown, hunted and landed locally, I was allowed a window into the ingenuity of Ullapool folk who know more about sourcing and bartering than I ever will.
And it was in the attempted (mostly failed!) managing of my two Meet and Two Veg compadres who had come up to help out with the project that I was faced both with the paucity of my own knowledge and the gradual dawning insight into what I was really looking at and interested in in Ullapool’s questions of local food.
With the totally invaluable help of Cathy and Mary at the Ullapool Community Trust, I made some great contacts, managed a couple of interviews and even had a very short notice cookery session which Anne, the Home Ec teacher from Ullapool High School let us use the school kitchen for (thank you!). With barely a couple of days notice Cathy helped me pull together a 3 hour open cook-in for free with everyone invited.
People came! And they cooked! And we ate many tasty things! And I was a whirl of unplanned food prep, mixing, greasing and generally trying to direct whilst also trying to navigate the unfamiliar kitchen (why, why only one fork in each drawer? What does it mean?). In a hot and sweaty three hours we produced:
Courgette chutney, courgette fritters, broad bean and chorizo on toast, sorrel sauce (from foraged sorrel) and sweet chilli sauce, all containing some home-grown ingredients.
SO chuffed! And it was afterwards, in discussing future plans that Cathy opened my eyes to some of my own assumptions and awkward prejudices about highland life and residents, its trials and triumphs – man, was I one chastened ex-anthropology student. I saw how many opportunities for learning and sharing learning I’d missed, saw in my effort to ‘give’ I’d forgotten to ‘receive’ – but I’ll just have to remember that for next time.
Still, despite all the tears and tribulations, sitting on the windowsill of a beautiful cottage on the lochside, looking out over the water, wine in hand, as the sun sets pink and gold over the hills, I was totes emosh about how lucky I was to be there, to have the chance to learn by the generosity of others and my own regular ballsing up of many a thing. Even better, I managed to hang on to the conviction that, even though I felt like a total failure in some moments, it was part of the process. Eventually, I started to see some thoughts emerge from the fog – perhaps the barter exchanges that kept local food out of the tourist market played a part, along with the generosity, in a form of social insurance that’s so necessary where livelihoods are so tenuous? Perhaps also a small rebellion, similar to an example of Weapons of the Weak?
Hopefully, this tiny project might lay some foundations for a future project – perhaps more cookery sessions, a food swap? But I’ll need to remember to take one step at a time, check myself and my assumptions, have a little faith and a lot of humility and just keep listening.
Here’s some photos from the awesomness that was the cookery session – Ullapool peeps totally rocked the freestyle cooking!
That’s my Edinburgh cherry well and truly popped with my first ever performance as part of the festival. As a last minute replacement for Deadbeat Poet I found myself (or rather Ms Beeton found herself) mucking in with the wonderful Someone’s Mum and Jay Walker as an honorary part of the LGBT line-up without needing to be L, G, B or T (although I am reliably informed that one need only be Queer in the broadest sense to be able to be in the gang). We had veritable spoken word orgy, flinging raw eggs (literally), feminist ranting and managing to produce an edible cake at the end of every performance except the first.
It was a hard act to follow Jay Walker’s erotic lesbian poems but with help from my most illustrious academic friends (I’ll name no names) I came up with a suitably lewd script and managed to curl a few toes, not to mention smother myself in icing and ping out of my suspenders more than once.
I had a brilliant time and even managed to see some other shows and mount Arthur’s Seat – I’ll definitely try to come back next year. Thank you to everyone who came – even our enormous audience of two on the last day made all the difference (and gamely took home the spare cake). As Eliot says, it’s not the size of your audience, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Will keep you updated with any reviews…
One of the interesting points that came up at the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum was that advertising is always getting the blame for people being fat/violent/irresponsible but, as Mr Advertising Industry Man pointed out, “Adverts don’t make people fat, people do”. Not meaning that there’s a team of people out in the streets, pinning people down and force feeding them lard, but that the decision to buy and/or eat something rests finally with the individual, not the advertising company. Essentially, you can choose not to buy something and, even if you don’t choose what food you have available, you can choose whether or not to eat it.
We’ll probably never get away from that as an argument, so long as we’re not fed by a tube directly from the central government into our bellies (freaky), but I don’t think it gets advertisers off the hook entirely. We may have the final say as what goes in our mouths, but the advertisers have a huge sway over the factors that influence that final decision and what exactly we think we might be doing/saying/being when we make that decision.
For example, here is an advert for Galaxy chocolate – you’ve probably all seen it.
This advert disturbs me (almost a much as the comments underneath – ‘what an ugly looking slag’ – issues much?). To me, this advert appears to be normalising and even glamourising a whole bunch of stuff that I think isn’t really cool. It’s normalising associating food and emotions (‘I know what I feeeeel like’, keeping a Galaxy bar in your ‘special place’ with all other treasured photos, trinkets, mother’s ashes, any other things that have a special emotional quality and significance), and it’s totally, totally suggesting that eating alone and stashing food is A-OK, comforting and even a little bit sexy.
We have a problem with capitalism leading to over-production and, once we realised that we only have a finite physical need for all that crap, we found that we had to create an emotional sink for it instead. We’re being trained up to associate any number of high fat and sugar foods with any number of emotional states – I see it in myself. When I’m bored I think ‘mmmm cake’, when I’m feeling depressed or a ‘bad thing’ has happened (most recent example, falling off bicycle with giant rucksack, lying in street with feet waggling in air like upended super-beetle whilst uncaring Londoners streamed round my prostrate form like the tide round a shipwreck) I think ‘mmmm cake’, when I do something amazing and want to celebrate I think ‘mmmm cake’, when.. you get the idea.
Even more worrying, I notice this happens irrespective of whether any other part of my body wants cake. This is not my belly making this association, it’s my brain. As a general rule, I think we’ve started looking outside of our own bodies to make decisions about what and when and why to eat. Particularly as a fat person, I seem to be trained to look for external cues for eating as, clearly (I mean, just look at me) my own natural inclinations around food are wrong. It’s lunch time – now I must eat. This article tells me I must eat porridge – I must eat porridge. This advert tells me that I should eat a Magnum in order to appear alluring – I’m feeling unalluring, I’ll eat a Magnum. At no point do I really reference my own belly. I think that’s probably a bit weird.
Still, I’m having a bash at this whole mindfulness thing – paying attention, eating mindfully (although frequently I’m just too late, too hungry or just somewhere too public to smell each mouthful/chew everything with my eyes closed/hold one item of food in my mouth for an extended period of time) and it’s certainly interesting.
I was going to have a piece of chocolate to celebrate finishing a post but, actually, I’m not really hungry (when I think about it). I might just go sit in the sun for a bit instead.
I know, I know, if I go to an event about obesity in Whitehall, I’m going to get mad – it’s inevitable. Bu how can it be that we know so much more about how dieting doesn’t work, about how weight-based health paradigms make people feel bad about themselves and don’t help them be healthier and yet still we bang on about labelling, about dieting and the ‘fact’ that we all need to lose weight or we’ll die. Like ANY MINUTE. When are we going to start thinking a bit more HEALTH and a bit less WEIGHT?
Thanks to the splendid Dr Eliot Marston who bunked off to do something more important (Get his hair done? Lance the cat’s boil?), I managed to get my foot in the door to the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum with his hand me down ticket. Normally, they don’t let unqualified reprobates like me in, but I wore a hat and tried to behave in a stately fashion.
Finally, I would get to see the terrifying Dr Susan Jebb (of MRC, Dispatches programmes and shutting fat people in a room to see how much energy they burn fame) in action, alongside various fun and games from healthcare, government and industry to talk food labelling and what to do about this wretched old obesity crisis. Because, gosh darn it, despite the fact that ‘all obese people will die early’ (thanks David Haslam from the National Obesity Forum for that enlightening direct quote), far too many fat people are not dying early enough and end up being expensive.
Naturally, the event was in Whitehall, which was very exciting for a scabber like me who doesn’t normally get to go into the posh buildings in Whitehall, unless it’s slung between four policemen as I’m carried away kicking and screaming. It looks different when you’re upright, I can tell you. It all began in grand ironic style when I turned up on my bicycle (as ever) and was not able to park anywhere, in case my bicycle was a bomb (note: going to an event in Whitehall about obesity? Better get a taxi). Very sweetly, they let me bring my bicycle in and park it in the cleaners’ cupboard – thank you lovely staff people. Once in, we were all greeted with tea, coffee and mountains of biscuits (note: going to an event in Whitehall about obesity? Have some high sugar/high fat snacks at 8.30am). Talk about setting a good example.
The event itself was mad interesting although, as you might imagine, by about halfway through I was incandescent with rage and also terrified to try to speak in front of all the suits and policy making/industry bigwigs so had to sit with my hands clamped over my mouth, trying to form a coherent yet penetrating question.
The absolute disdain was palpable in the room in the constant othering and describing ‘the fat’ or ‘the poor’ as if they were some strange and incomprehensible life form that needed saving from themselves. Most of the discussion centred around labelling – whose responsibility it was, who was doing what and how, self-satisfaction from some and responsibility shirking from others. There was a great deal of talk about calories, calorie counting, the terrible impacts of obesity and how it makes everyone die horribly, that it’s expensive, that when you diet most people can successfully lose 5% of their body weight after 3-6 months (hallelujah) and blah blah blah. It was all same old same old.
David Haslam was kind of great and kind of awful – he had a great manner and a admirably sensible approach to the NHS box ticking and point scoring but he was being clear that the problems with fat people were that they were mostly unaware or even proud of their bellies (how dare they be proud of their vile and irresponsible paunch?), that they would all develop health problems as a result of their fat and that healthcare professionals weren’t taking the opportunity to hammer home how fat people are. And then he ended with a comical picture of headless fatties and encouraged us to laugh at them. Champion. And he seemed surprised that fat patients weren’t ‘engaging’ with the system, because yes, the best way to get fat people to ‘engage’ is to to tell them they’re going to die young and then laugh at them. Dear Dr Haslam, healthcare professionals have a hard enough time as it is trying to broach this awkward obesity issue, many obese individuals struggle with mustering the self-worth to indulge in self-care – when we said maybe some humour would help, this isn’t what we meant.
I managed to ask him why he was surprised given that he seemed to be mocking and condemning fat people and why didn’t we try separating weight and health but I was so cross and petrified that I was totally incoherent and rambly. Nonetheless, he did say he agreed with me and Mr Professor Someone From Oxford did point out that they’d seen recent research that suggested you didn’t need to lose weight to get the health benefits from making lifestyle changes. So why don’t they separate weight and health I asked? And then they shushed me, said they got what I was trying to say, took the microphone away (really, literally wrested it from my sweaty palm) and moved on.
On the plus side, I met a reeeeally interesting lady from the MRC who was a little bit radical and a little bit experimental and up for doing things with theatre and obesity…
Shame on you Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum, I laugh in the face of your weight-based health paradigm! *fist shaking* I WILL make change…. *more fist shaking – eats handful of biscuits from plate and puts rest in tupperware box for later* I’ll show you!
Only slightly… Last week the Guardian were looking for responses from readers about dieting and body size so I had to submit something. I only found out about it at the last minute from my best beloved up the duffer, Kate Ebbutt, and was at work. Nonetheless, totally illegally, whilst at reception with people yelling ‘BENGALI’ in my face, or thrusting pots of wee and test results at me, I frantically scraped together something halfway coherent. Tis not my best, but it made it to print. Very proud…
So, I see that I’ve done Sweet Fanny Adams on here since September of last year, which is poor. Very poor.
My bad, I will get my finger out and try to be a little more regular (figs aside) – if only so that my grandchildren will be able to see all the crazy schtick their granny got up to in the good ol’ days before, y’know, hover cars or whatever.
There is so much catching up to do that I will do it slowly, one thing at a time, one thing a day. First off:
Jolien, Thalia and I got some funding to set up our wee venture Meet and Two Veg (I done a pun!). We plan to do cooking and eating sessions with the local community, more ‘flash meals’, collect stories, take pictures and maybe (organisational skills, suppliers and venues permitting) supper clubs with a less exclusive feel. But there will be no sleeping – we don’t have time for that.
It’s early days, we’re still battling the setting up a bank account bureaucracy nightmare and our desk/office space looks like this (we love Pellicci’s):
but we’re making progress and have our next ‘flash-meal’ on the cards…
Watch this space.