Debate: Can you be fat and happy, or are the 'big is beautiful' lobby fooling themselves?

Having crash-dieted herself 20lbs lighter, Oprah Winfrey has just made the cover of American 'Vogue'. Winfrey's constant battle to be slim is proof, argues Kia Hansen, that fat people can rarely find happiness as they are. Untrue, says Lisa Colles, who claims 'size 10s' don't have the monopoly on feeling good about themselves

BEING BIG is great, says Lisa Colles. It's diets that make fat women miserable

At her heaviest, Jackqueline Hope weighed 340 pounds. For years she tried just about everything to lose weight and lived in a cycle of despair. She binged, she purged, and she became anorexic. Hers was a world of yo- yo dieting, self-loathing and misery, but her driving force was to get thin and conform to society's narrow perception of beauty.

Today, in her 40s, Jackqueline still weighs over 200 pounds, but has stopped waging a war against her body. She believes she's found the right weight for her, and is fit, healthy and loves her body. "Now I like being a big woman. I love having large breasts. I love having big hips and a belly. To me, I'm Rubenesque. I look in the mirror and I like what I see. And who the hell is out there to tell me there's anything wrong with it?"

Jackqueline has battled hard to get to this level of self-acceptance but unfortunately the message still worming away at many of us is that there is something wrong with being fat: in order to be seen as successful, desirable and attractive in our society, the pressure is on to be thin.

The reality, however, is that only about five per cent of women are genetically predisposed to have figures like Claudia Schiffer or Naomi Campbell, yet so may of us miserably pursue this impossible "ideal." With girls as young as four starting to diet, things have clearly gone frighteningly awry.

A recent study found that 80 per cent of Western women are unhappy with their bodies, and 84 per cent have dieted to lose weight. And although advertisers and the media consistently bombard us with images of the thin minority, the fact is that at least 47 per cent of British women are size 16 or over.

While it is true that obesity is on the increase and that being overweight or obese can cause health problems, it is also true that many women who diet and believe they are fat are actually perfectly healthy. Experts have found that for each of us there is a broad range of weights at which we can be happy, fit and well, and that for the vast majority this does not mean having to be a size 10. Eating well, exercising and finding a weight at which you're personally happy and healthy is the key, not trying to conform to some arbitrary aesthetic.

In our body-obsessed society it's not easy to be overweight and happy - but it's certainly possible. Jackqueline Hope is not alone in rejecting societal pressure and finding peace and personal happiness in the process, though doing this takes courage. The bottom line, however, is that for many women it's not so much being fat that causes unhappiness, but the message that they are unacceptable, the relentless pressure to be thin, and the constant dieting and anxiety that accompanies that.

Locked in a battle with their own bodies, and trying to mould themselves into a shape they were never meant to be, many women lose touch with themselves, and what is truly right for them, whether it be a size 12, 16 or 20 body.

We are quite simply not all meant to be the same, and it's time to celebrate and embrace diversity. After all, not so long ago curvaceous, full-figured women were widely considered not only fashionable, but sexy and desirable. Why can't we all just be accepted as we are?

BEING FAT is bad for self-esteem. Dieting can give a sense of control, says Kia Hansen

Being happy should have nothing to do with what you look like and certainly shouldn't hinge on what size clothes you wear. Happiness comes from within, but women everywhere will be aware that it's a "Catch-22" situation - when you know you look good, you feel good and have lots of confidence; it's difficult to feel on top of the world if you think you look awful because you're overweight.

When it comes to happiness and weight, it's all relative. Some overweight women claim that they are happy with their size. But it's important to consider what "happy" means to them. Are they happy because they like the way they look on the outside and feel on the inside; or is it a case of overweight people having low self-esteem and so lower expectations?

Accepting your lot doesn't necessarily mean you're happy with it. There's a difference between being a bit overweight and having a serious weight problem. Many people who are overweight are just that: a bit larger than than they'd like. But their weight doesn't cause them embarrassment or anguish or stop them living their lives to the full.

For others, having a weight problem doesn't just affect what size clothes they wear. Being seriously overweight can make you lack confidence, feel unattractive, embarrassed and so ashamed that you can't face the world. And for someone who is clinically obese, weight can pose not only a hindrance to happiness, but also to health.

People who want to lose weight are often lambasted for their efforts. "Be fat and proud", the big-is-beautiful lobby say. But it is difficult to make a stand for something if you don't believe in it. If your weight problem has held you back in life, has stripped you of any self-esteem and confidence and makes you feel miserable, unattractive and worthless, then why should you pretend to be happy about it?

People who aren't happy being overweight aren't saying there's anything socially unacceptable about being fat - they are just saying it's unacceptable for them personally. Losing weight for these people is about more than image; it's about taking back control of their lives and gaining some self respect.

Unfortunately there is pressure from society and the media for women to conform to an unrealistic ideal of what we should look like. But pursuing the perfect "10" because fashion dictates it is not healthy, or likely to lead to long-term weight-loss success. The only real reason that women should lose weight is because they want to, because they're not happy about that area in their life and have realised they can change it.

There are many women who say they are fat and happy, and until I can read their minds then I will take them at their word. But for the many others whose weight problem is making them unhappy and who want to do something about it - and not because fashion, society or the media tells them they should - they should be allowed to use their power to make themselves happier without being made to feel part of a bigger agenda.

Being overweight isn't automatically going to make you miserable, just as losing weight isn't a guaranteed path to happiness, although judging by the comments of hundreds of Slimming readers who have successfully lost weight, it's certainly a step in the right direction. So the real question shouldn't be, 'can you be fat and happy?' but 'are you?'

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