Women and fat

I’ve put on weight lately, laid down some fat, and I’ve noticed when I meet up with women friends I haven’t seen for a while they sneak a look at my belly. If I catch their eye, they look away quickly. They never say anything. If I say something, I see momentary panic in their eyes, as if it might be contagious. Then they tell me I haven’t put on any weight at all.

I’ve wondered do I do this to other women? I’m sure I do. I check them for weight gain. Oh yes, I know, you shouldn’t carry fat. It’s bad for your heart and now it’s linked to cancer. Obesity and diabetes are the terrible twins. Hopefully I’ll lose weight now that I’m doing less sitting at my desk writing and more exercise. But my women friends who flick their eyes down to my growing gut and away are not worried about my health. And I’m not worried about theirs. We silently judge one another. The fact is that most of us are fat and spend our lives yearning to be thin. It’s the ideal we want, the all pervasise image of a woman who must be starving. If that’s not a recipe for unhappiness, what the Buddhists call samsara, I don’t know what is.

The medical profession is flummoxed by fat. They see the future, the epidemic of exorbitantly expensive patients who’ll persist in living and cost the health system billions. On the other hand, daily they deal with real people for whom weight loss is inordinately difficult. I imagine that’s tough.

Until this century, having a bit of blubber on board meant health; it was the preserve of the wealthy. Before antibiotics and vaccines, a thin child would lose vitality much more quickly than a fat child if disease struck. When Mummy greets her children again in Enid Blyton’s On the Farm, she comments favourably on how “fat and rosy” they now are, compared with how “thin and pale” they were before.

This last winter, I swam more comfortably in unheated water than I ever have. I couldn’t figure out why until I read the story of the 22-year-old Icelandic fishing boat steersman, the sole survivor when his boat overturned and sank. He went into a sea at around 6 degrees celsius, the air just 2 degrees. He should have died immediately like his crewmates. He swam for six hours to land and survived. Later testing showed that he had the BMI of a seal.

So fat is not all bad, although too much will make you sick. One thing for sure. My days of checking friends’ bellies just ended.