“Hello, I’ve come to take my clothes off.”

The announcement was offered with self-assurance and my widest ‘no big deal’ smile, but scrutiny would have revealed the tremble in my fingers as I released each button and allowed my clothes to drop to the ground.

“Who are you?” We ask each other in self-development workshops, gazing into each other’s eyes with what we hope is unconditional acceptance and gentle curiosity. Well, I’m Larissa. I’m single and childless, mostly by choice. I’m a vegetarian, I’m a hypnotherapist, an internal seeker who values self-awareness and self-inquiry. I’m a psychology student, a traveller, and a singer. These are the answers I’ll offer in response to this inquiry, but this workshop-appropriate list lacks an important classification, perhaps the most important one. It whispers to me from shadows of shame.

I’m Larissa, and I’m fat.

As a size 16 woman weighing in at around 90kg, I’m labelled ‘obese’ on the BMI, my defining number languishing chubbily on the red end of the Heart Foundation scale, reminding me I’m in danger of keeling over from a fat red heart attack at any moment. The underweight end is blue, by the way, which hardly offers the same sense of health-shaming alarm, even though the risks are of similar magnitude. My ‘obesity’ is not unusual, it doesn’t render me disabled, I don’t have diabetes or heart problems, and you probably know people fatter than me. But this story isn’t about superlatives and bizarre events. It’s about the very common experience of being a fat person in a fat-shaming society, and how the tendency to store calories like an efficient famine-ready camel can completely shape your life.

Do you cringe or feel uncomfortable every time I use the word ‘fat’? Good, me too. That’s why it’s important. Let’s work through this together.

Born 6 weeks premature and heavier than the average full-term baby in Whyalla hospital, I started this life big. I was 8 or 9 when I was referred to a childhood obesity specialist and sent for tests that involved gagging down a salty orange drink they told me would taste like flat Fanta (lies) and being jabbed with needles that made me cry. The wiggly line on my chart indicated thyroid dysfunction, and marked the beginning of a youth full of doctor’s visits and medication.

At the age of 9 I learned to diet. I learned that food was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and mostly the enemy, that my body was wrong, and to feel shame if I ate food that made it more wrong. I saw dieticians who made me keep food diaries, and berated me if I ate cake at a party. I remained chubby, but medication and diets kept me out of the ‘obese’ neighbourhood, and experimenting with eating restrictions to manage my weight became a major part of Who I Am.

“Love yourself!” The holistic practitioners sing to us now, “Love yourself no matter what size you are!” and they Insta-pose with hearts and flowers in their thin bodies that have always been thin, pleased with themselves for having distributed the new gospel and therefore solved the problem and fulfilled their purpose.

Self-love is great in theory, but allow me to present you with the front page of Realistic News, smacking it loudly with the back of my hand. How do you love yourself when you’ve been given the opposite message from every angle for 40 years? Every billboard, every movie, every TV program, advertisement and magazine shouts ‘Beauty is thin!!’, Disney princesses are thin, the fatties are all villains or comedic characters. These are the subconscious programs we receive when our brains are still forming, they mould our neural pathways and create our hard-wired beliefs when we’re too young to question them. Thin = good, Fat = bad.

A large woman on social media commits a daring rebellion, posting a picture in a bathing suit with a real message of messy, difficult self-love. Inevitably the comments are littered with disgusted reminders that promoting obesity is bad, deeply held fatphobia and thin supremacy disguised as concern for her welfare and the welfare of others. Cover yourself up, your body is a harmful message. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Think of the children. Go for a walk.

But you know, love yourself.

I can’t remember when the teasing began, but by the ninth grade I hated school. I started skipping classes, and by my final year I barely turned up at all. I had no problems with the work. I had problems with not being able to get through a single day without a fat joke, comment on what I was eating, or contemptuous giggles. Best years of your life, my arse. I didn’t learn strength in the face of adversary, or how to rise above mockery. What I learned was the art of avoidance and walking away, which combined with the freedom of adulthood I have refined into a superpower, departing painful situations in a single bound, with a smile and a wink and a hefty dose of non-attachment.

I’ve tried all the diets. The thing about diets though, is that they are more highly correlated with weight gain than weight loss. In fact, weight gain is the most likely outcome of a diet. When you intentionally drop kilos, your hormones and metabolism adapt in such a way as to practically guarantee that weight will return. On top of that, it now appears that health risks such as heart disease and diabetes may be caused by weight cycling rather than obesity itself, a result of constantly losing weight and gaining it back in attempts to comply with society’s insistence that we must be thinner.

I gave up alcohol this year. Feeling inspired and motivated, I started implementing food changes in my life, and by that I mean I went on another diet. I gave up wheat, sugar, vegetable oils, trans fats, all grains, starchy vegetables, and all dairy except for grass-fed butter, which is a ‘good fat’. I ate mostly veggies to keep my fibre intake up but I didn’t lose weight, so I started intermittent fasting 3 times a week and exercising daily. Two months later I still hadn’t lost any weight. Upon stepping off the scales that day, I cried and ate half a litre of ice cream, and gained half a kilo.

Eat less fat, eat less sugar, eat more protein and fat and avoid carbs, fruit is good, fruit is bad, meat is good and also bad, go on a juice fast, try intermittent calorie restriction and don’t starve yourself, eat a big breakfast, don’t eat until midday. Being overweight is bad, losing weight and putting it back on is worse. This is diet culture. Work your butt off, all the time, following some arbitrary rules for minimal rewards and then despair in the experience of your body fighting you to keep or return to its heavier weight. Rinse and repeat.
This week I started a new diet called a ‘thyroid protocol’. Yes I do know the definition of insanity, but what else is there to do?

Around the end of high school, new government guidelines meant I lost my thyroid medication and in the space of a year, my weight skyrocketed to more than 100kg. I was wearing a dress size 20 at age 20. The world is not kind to those of a dress size 20, in my experience. I could not get a job, people regarded me with irritation and scorn, and I learned to shrink myself energetically in attempts to be inoffensive.

If you’re reading this and thinking “She must have been eating a lot of cheeseburgers though,” you’re both wrong, and just like everyone else. It’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that we attribute other people’s perceived failures to enduring negative personality traits, even in the face of disconfirming evidence, because it gives us a sense of control and boosts our own self-esteem. This is why it feels acceptable to judge fat people. People blame us, our personal failure, a lack of willpower and excess of overindulgence that they personally would never fall prey to.

Harvard conducted a study on ex-contestants of The Biggest Loser who had regained weight, and found that their metabolisms had undergone ‘adaptation’. Their bodies now refused to burn calories in the same way as other people, making weight gain inevitable. When the results were published, thin people squinted at them, skimmed over the bits that challenged their beliefs and typed “They must have returned to their old habits” into the comments before continuing with their self-satisfied thin lives.

I have not experienced self-love as a destination, but as ongoing choices. The first time I got naked for public scrutiny, I stood terrified in the spotlight of their gazes, half-waiting for their expressions of disgust, knowing glances and smirks as they considered the ‘wrongness’ of my body. “What beautiful curves,” they muttered as their pencils scribbled over paper and I stood as still as possible, breeze caressing my skin and courage in my silent affirmations. I still have many of those drawings, gifts from the artists, tucked away as a physical reminder of my beauty and bravery.

I life model professionally now, and every pose I offer is a statement of my rebellion. This is me. I am art. I am beautiful, and I refuse to be ashamed. The loveliest renditions I’ve seen are not the ones that slim me down and gloss over my imperfections, but the ones that capture my bulges and cellulite whilst revealing the radiance of a bold, imperfect woman whose worth comes from somewhere much deeper than her physical contours. This is my rebellious self-love, and no matter how hard that choice feels sometimes, I keep making it. Because THIS… is Who I Really Am.

Care to join me?