Weighty Issues

12 Nov Weighty Issues

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 16 November 2020

Actually, I’ll tell you what, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to achieve and maintain a healthy weight ever since obesity became a topic of conversation near the end of the election campaign. So grab yourself some frozen vegetables out of the freezer and do something with them, and then let’s have a little chat.

New Zealand is listed by the OECD as the third fattest country in the world, with 31% of Kiwis regarded as obese. Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32%) and the United States (38%). Two in three Pasifika (66%) and half of Māori (48%) are obese. So collectively we have a problem – which already suggests that we might need to look collectively for the causes and find solutions.

I’ll start with my own experience of weight loss and gain. Like a lot of women, my weight has fluctuated over the years – weight “loss” is something that happens when I work really hard at it, weight “gain” is something that seems to happen by stealth. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently – unaware that I’m either eating more or exercising less – but suddenly my pants feel tight and someone will say, “You’re looking well” which is code for, “You’re chunkier than you were last time I saw you”.

But I am old enough now to be able to look back and spot the patterns. I have been at my lightest during those months and years when I’ve been able to focus on me, and take great care with food by spending time on it, and also money. There was a patch there after my daughter left home and before I was daily involved in caring for my parents when I achieved and maintained exactly the weight recommended for a women of my height. It took effort, focus and cash.

On the other side of the bathroom scales, I have been at my heaviest when I’ve been broke and busy – time poor plus actually poor – and in a situation that demanded I put my own needs last. “Busy” meant I had little time to plan meals or prepare them from scratch. Exhausted, and dearly wanting a nap or an early night or a sleep-in but unable to arrange my life that way, I’d reach for fast and easy fuel. And when I was poor? That fuel was high-calorie cheap stuff – bread, baked beans and sod all kale – nothing that involved long preparation or cooking time. Get some food in to me, race off to the next task. Anyone on a tight budget knows that healthy food costs more and the quick high carb/salt/sugar options are constantly on two-for-one specials. If you’ve been broke all your life, then win Lotto, you will suddenly notice there are better options on the shelves for people with fatter wallets.

The suggestion that obesity is a “personal choice” is about as nuanced and therefore useful as suggesting that poverty itself is a personal choice – when in fact how much you earn is very much down to a range of factors, including the big ones of gender, age and race, and other contributors like physical and mental health, disability and medications.

I often look at slim, fit women and assume, wow, you are lucky enough to spend time on yourself. You have been able to arrange your life to go to a gym or Pilates and pick up some fresh fruit and veg on the way home in your car. There are times when, no matter how much I have wanted to, I could not arrange that. I remember someone saying to me once that, if I really wanted to join a gym, I would miraculously find the time. I probably don’t need to tell you that the “someone” was a man with a nine-to-five job and no kids.

And then I look at plump women and assume, you are probably very busy taking care of a lot of people – so much so that you have little time to even think about what you might like to do for yourself. I bet you do a lot of kind things for other people, and maybe even make it possible for them to still fit into the pants they wore last summer. You’re a good egg.

Both of which assumptions may well be wildly incorrect. A much wiser person has pointed out that the so-called “plump” woman I am assuming has no time for herself may very well be spending hours at the gym eating fruit, and the “slim” person could be a chain-smoking couch potato. We make a mistake when we associate “thinness” with health. And while, for me, weighing less might be about taking time for myself, for someone else it might be the opposite – self-care will involve taking medications that might lead to weight gain. You can’t read anything at all about a person from the shape of their silhouette.

In my case, you know what would have helped me lose (or not gain) a few kilos? Pay equity, affordable and accessible childcare, and a world that was safe for women to go for a walk or run or bike ride after dark. And for so many women, a better division of domestic labour that would offer them time to focus on themselves for a moment. All of which requires changes to the system, and to the way we socialise boys and how we value unpaid care work.