“Before losing the weight, I didn’t have a life,” says Dibsy McClintock. “I just existed. I couldn’t fit in a car, I couldn’t use public transport, I couldn’t get in the bath… I couldn’t even tie my own shoelaces.”
Dibsy had always been big, but it was only in his mid-twenties that the problem became more urgent. In late 2018, he was hospitalized due to atrial fibrillation, a heart condition. At 560 pounds, his weight made surgery too much of a risk–“If they put me to sleep, I wouldn’t have woken up”—and he was issued an ultimatum: Lose the 140 pounds required to perform the procedure, or don’t expect to be around much longer.
That’s when he met Mike Hind (above, pictured left), a PT specializing in body transformations and owner of a local meal-prep company. Mike agreed to take him on, providing his food and training free of charge. “He could barely walk,” Mike recalls of their first meeting. “We had a chat and his mum just broke down. It was heart-wrenching. I said, ‘I’ll do this, but you need to give me 100 percent.’” Dibsy’s goal? To lose 280 pounds in a year.
Dibsy had consulted with NHS dietitians and personal trainers without success. As Mike puts it, “Nobody had worked out the root cause: he was addicted to food.”
At first, Dibsy says he struggled with the exercise and dramatic drop in calories: “I’d get aches and pains. It was absolutely brutal.” But he persevered, and the weight started to fall away. As it did, he and Mike set targets unrelated to the scales: climbing Ben Nevis, completing the Great North Run.
As impressive as these feats are, many of Dibsy’s biggest milestones were considerably less Instagram-worthy. “Getting into a car with a seat belt—I’d never been able to do that before!” he says.
Late last year, Dibsy hit his 140-pound target after 358 days, one week ahead of schedule. “My family doesn’t have to worry about me any more,” he says. Acknowledging the changing nuances of body image and obesity rates is a positive step. However, in which direction that step takes us is still far from clear.
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The statistics make for heavy reading. In the most recent annual figures, 711,000 hospital admissions were directly linked to obesity; of these, obesity was the primary diagnosis in 10,660 cases. The NHS spends £8.8 billion (about $11 billion US) per year on treating type 2 diabetes—a disease with established links to weight gain. Aside from smoking, obesity is the UK’s biggest cause of cancer, and a BMI of 35 or above has been shown to reduce life expectancy by an average of eight years. To bring these figures into context, consider that more than six in 10 adults (and more than a third of children aged 10-11) in the UK are overweight or obese.
When you examine the impact of this on our overloaded health services, it may even make you angry. But where you direct that anger is important. In an interview with the BBC, Nick Finer, honorary clinical professor at University College London, agreed that many still believe that it’s legitimate to blame people for being overweight, but argues that condemnation ignores the role of our food environment.
“If somebody falls off a boat and they can’t swim and they drown, nobody says, ‘It’s your fault,’” he said. “They happen to be in an environment where it’s very easy to drown. We’re in an environment now where it’s very easy to over-acquire calories.” Being fat feels almost inevitable in some cases. And so emerges the body positivity movement, a backlash against this blame game and fat shaming.
A spokesman for the National Obesity Forum perhaps put it best when he said, “Fat shaming is a disaster.” Multiple studies corroborate the fact that feelings of shame and guilt tend to lead to poorer self-care as a result of worsening mental health, and thus make further weight gain more likely. As actor and comedian James Corden, no stranger to size jibes himself, recently said on air: “If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, I’d have a six-pack by now.” A different approach is required—one championed by the National Obesity Forum—in which people with obesity can be provided with the facts in no uncertain terms, but without moralizing or judgement.
“I have no interest in aesthetics, other than as a side effect of weight loss,” says Dr. Eric Asher, a GP and medical director at Third Space in London. To him, weight loss is far from a dirty phrase in the battle against obesity. It’s an imperative. “The more fat you accumulate centrally, the more you raise the chemical somatomedin, also called IGF-1. That turns on everything you don’t want,” he says. “If you name a 20th-century disease, this will activate it–tumors, heart attacks, thrombosis, immune diseases.” According to Dr. Asher, the most effective tool for measuring your risk of multiple diseases is a piece of string. “Wrap it around your waist at the belly button,” he says. “Take the length, double it, and if that ends over your head, you have two choices – lose weight or grow taller.”
You don’t need a visible six-pack to enjoy the health benefits of weight loss, however. Small steps earn exceptional rewards. “For every half stone you lose, the effect is the same as that of taking one hypertension tablet,” says Asher. “Measurable shifts will already be occurring in your blood pressure. Your blood sugar levels will start to re-regulate. You’ll also feel better and move better. It’s like taking bricks out of a rucksack.”
Arguably those best placed to appreciate the nuances of this discussion are those who are
already working towards a healthier lifestyle–and a healthier bodyweight. Pontificating from the two extreme sides of the argument risks drowning out these voices. To understand
the issue better, we reached out to our readers and interviewed a range of men who had lost anything from 50 to 200 pounds.
The responses we received were diverse–equal parts heartening and heartbreaking. Their reasons for becoming overweight in the first place varied: some had gained weight as they recovered from injuries or surgery, while others had struggled with obesity since early childhood. Many had experienced periods of poor mental health. Others preferred to explain their rationale more bluntly: “Food made me happy at the time,” said one interviewee.
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Their motivations for deciding to change their circumstances weren’t all the same, either, though most were driven by a complicated mixture of poor self-confidence, concern for their health, a yearning to enjoy life more fully, fear of judgement from others and a desire to change for the good of their families. One man lost weight so that he could donate his kidney to his mother.
Most of the men felt proud of their achievements. A few were waiting to reach their target weight before “allowing” themselves to take true satisfaction in their accomplishments. One interviewee told us that changing his habits for the better was “the thing I am most proud of achieving in my life.”
Clearly not all of these stories end with unfaltering confidence, washboard abs and bulletproof self-esteem. Loose skin and stretch marks were cited as downsides by almost everyone we spoke to, creating a roster of new body hang-ups. Some of our interviewees had tried to “fix” the problem by putting on muscle mass, though working to grow bigger again once you’ve put so much effort into getting smaller is fraught with complications, both physiological and psychological.
We believe these are the bodies that should be spearheading the positivity movement, coming as they do with the battle scars of a hard-won fight—in some cases, fights to save their own lives. No one should be ashamed of how they look. We should be able to celebrate these men for their achievements without sneering at those who are yet to take their first steps on the same journey.
What we need for the obesity epidemic is a movement similar to the one that has been belatedly embraced for mental health. Where once there was stigma attached to anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, there is now an emerging compassion and understanding. Even those who aren’t personally affected are learning how to be empathetic towards those living with these conditions. Crucially, positive action is also taking place alongside the new wave of positive understanding. We can look for ways to manage and reduce anxiety without passing judgement on those who struggle with it. It’s the same with obesity. It’s possible to accept the nuances of an overweight society while simultaneously supporting efforts for a healthier, happier life. There’s no shame in that.