I am a feminist and I have spent my whole adult life embracing fat (quite literally, with several of my partners). I believe bodies are beautiful and that we should riot, not diet, and that body image is a patriarchal construct imposed on women to control them and which sustains a whole industry of diet pills and potions, sells a shitload of magazines, special elastic knickers and fitness classes, and which is the ultimate smoke and mirrors game that keeps us thoroughly distracted by our waistlines while larger injustices like systemic sexism rage on around us.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which is what I have, is a hormonal imbalance and is in the vast majority of cases linked very closely to the person’s body weight. I can’t be bothered explaining this further but you’re just going to have to believe me. It’s amazing how few people do. It’s amazing how many times I’ve told someone in the last few years that I’m trying to lose weight in order to be more fertile, and the response has been, “Holly, you’re not fat. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re gorgeous just the way you are.” My feminist friends, I love you, I really do, but for once you’re wrong.
For most of my adult life my periods have been irregular. With PCOS, this irregularity invariably means that I am not ovulating properly. However when I lose a few kilos something magical happens and hey presto ,my periods regulate, and I get the egg white mucous in my knickers. It’s great that my body responds so effectively, but it also really fucks with my head.
When I first found out I had PCOS about ten years ago, the doctor advised that I lose a couple of kilos to kickstart my fertility. I bought a heart rate monitor and dragged my then partner up and down the Brisbane river, walk-jogging for precisely an hour every morning and studiously keeping my heart above 119 beats a minute. Then in a self-righteous glow we’d go to our favourite West End cafe and celebrate our goodness with eggs benedict with extra hollandaise sauce. It was hard to keep focused on the fat-fertility ratio, considering that back then the actual baby-making plan was still a speck on the distant horizon.
Six years ago, when my father died a particularly fast and traumatic death I lost six kilos in a week. People kept telling me how great I looked. I’d never felt worse in my life. But my ovaries responded joyfully, and for six months I was regular as clockwork. There was a mad grieving part of me that wanted to rush out and procreate in the face of death, but it really wasn’t the right time. Then I began a self-healing process which involved baking lots of cakes and tarts and cheesey pies and quiches, and my ovaries went back on strike. Fat and happy, my partner (not the hollandaise partner, but a new one) and I started talking about wanting to have babies. I went to a naturopath who told me what I already knew—I needed to lose weight. Again. Luckily for me a couple of months later my partner unceremoniously dumped me and my appetite (again) went on strike, and lo and behold I lost a heap of weight and started ovulating. Again. Except by then there was nothing further from my mind than becoming a single mum, being too busy trying to stop myself from jumping off a cliff. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the point.)
It was a year into that breakup, still skinny with grief, that I pulled myself together and called the fertility clinic. I was ready to take the plunge. I was healthy and fit and my weight was perfect and my ovaries were keeping perfect time with my cycle. Unfortunately in the year it took the public health system to organise my first appointment I finally cheered up, ate a heap of cheese, drank a heap of booze, and softened my sharp bony edges. This cycle had by now become so predictable it was boring. The same process happened again a year later when I got myself thin and fertile again, had a failed IUI (inter-uterine insemination where they squirt your frozen donor-sperm into your uterus) and then decided to take a break for a few months while I finished my thesis. This was a smart move. No one should be trying to get pregnant while putting the finishing touches on a 100 000 word document. Of course I got fat again because I was too busy and stressed to eat anything other than Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for three months straight. And then the clinic told me the IUIs weren’t going to work, and that I had to go to IVF.
I had major issues with this—it had always been really important to me that I fall pregnant in the most natural way possible. Ok, so having frozen sperm squirted into you by a man in a white coat isn’t exactly natural, but I really really didn’t like the idea of my baby being conceived in a petrie dish. It was so hard to stand looking in the mirror at my bulging hips and love myself. It’s your fault you’re having to do IVF, I’d berate myself. All you had to do was lose four kilos, and you couldn’t even do that. You’re a fucking fat failure. A feminist friend even had the gall at this point to suggest to me that I try doing a detox. I wanted to scratch her eyes out with a fork. And then eat them.
When winter began to creep in creepily and I realised that I was too fat for my jeans, the disappointment was two-fold—I couldn’t wear my jeans and I couldn’t conceive. The tightness of my waistline hurt in more than one way. But by then I was too tired to do anything about it, and by then I’d started on the hormones, and it had all been taken out of my hands. It’s an interesting conundrum for a feminist to be in, having the autonomy of her fertility being taken away from her because she’s too fat. And for once it’s not the fault of the patriarchy, and there’s no one to blame other than herself.