When Shelley Bovey, a leading activist on behalf of the overweight, decided to shed some pounds herself, she faced allegations of treachery from her fellow campaigners. Here, she explains why she did it

In 1988 when I wrote my first article about the prejudice experienced by the overweight, I had no idea it would have such an impact. At the time I was working for a mainstream glossy women's magazine, and the constant obsession with thinness that permeated society made me very angry. Not because I had anything against thinness itself, but because the universal worship of one particular body shape meant that those of us who exceeded the culturally imposed size limits were getting a very raw deal indeed.

In 1988 when I wrote my first article about the prejudice experienced by the overweight, I had no idea it would have such an impact. At the time I was working for a mainstream glossy women's magazine, and the constant obsession with thinness that permeated society made me very angry. Not because I had anything against thinness itself, but because the universal worship of one particular body shape meant that those of us who exceeded the culturally imposed size limits were getting a very raw deal indeed.

I knew that employment, medical treatment and even college admission were often denied to the overweight for no other reason than that some people don't like fat people, and there is no law to say they should exercise any restraint in their prejudice. I knew many who felt like second-class citizens, because all around them they heard the message that to be fat was to be worth less, if not worthless.

I'd experienced it myself. I'd been told that I wouldn't get promotion until I lost weight. I'd been informed by medical professionals that I would suffer untold health problems (I haven't), have difficulty conceiving and complicated pregnancies (I didn't), and die an early death (which of any of us can predict the hour and day of our demise?). I was also told, when young, that no one would fancy me. I've been married to the same man for 33 years.

So yes, it was difficult and painful being fat, and so I wrote the article, and then a book. I never intended this to lead to my being seen as a figurehead for the size-acceptance movement; I didn't even know there was such a movement. But suddenly I was being interviewed; journalists were writing about me, and I wrote more articles and books myself.

As the movement grew, I became more passionate about the issue. Discrimination against the fat is particularly pernicious, because the overweight have few advocates. I had a platform and felt I should use it to speak out.

It was assumed that if I championed the fat person's right to equal treatment, then I was happy being fat. I felt constrained by such an assumption. "If you could take a magic pill to make you thin overnight, would you do it?" I was asked in interviews. "No," I said firmly, and gave my right-on, considered response. I said I had achieved everything I wanted to in my life without having to be thin (true). I asserted that I had no reason to want to lose weight (false). I was afraid that if I told the truth about my own feelings, my argument would have less credibility.

Some fat people are genuinely confident in their bodies. Their sense of self-worth does not depend on their weight. I admired such people and tried to emulate their confidence. But no amount of theorising could make me feel good about myself. I wanted to be thinner. Not thin – that, for me, is an alien concept – but thinner.

But if a size-rights campaigner lost weight, would she not be seen as poacher-turned-gamekeeper? I had already been castigated in print by one activist for admitting that I would like to be less fat. Besides, I'd done research that showed that diets didn't work; proper, validated scientific research that demonstrated that 95 per cent of all weight lost was regained, most within a year. I hardly needed to read the studies; I'd dieted on and off from the age of 15, and in doing so had lost and regained hundreds of stones. In 1989, with the publication of my first polemical size-rights book, I resolved never to diet again.

As the size-acceptance movement grew, so did the "fat and proud" ethic that informed some factions of it. I felt uneasy about this. What about those who could not be happy in their fat bodies? Who for psychological or physical reasons needed to be thinner? There are weight-related health issues and there is no denying it, though they are exaggerated by the bigots.

I came to realise that there are many shades of grey between the black and white certainties of fat hatred and fat pride. But once I had identified my true feelings about my size, I did not dare to share them. Thinking through all this took me two years, and after that I knew what I had to do. I wanted to lose weight. But how? I knew that physically and psychologically, I could not cope with yet another loss/regain cycle.

I went back to all that scientific research. It made depressing reading. Dieting does not work. Dieting is dangerous. It can even kill you. I read reports of people dropping dead from heart attacks after they had lost the weight they had been told would cause the heart attack. It occurred to me that what I was reading was very similar in tone to the "evidence" that being overweight will kill you. And that research, conducted by drug-funded scientists and prejudiced doctors, is flawed and exaggerated. So, I reasoned, the same could be said of the anti-diet studies.

Besides, the dangers of dieting – while very real – apply to fast weight loss, anything above a pound a week. The body resists cannibalising itself. It is a most unnatural thing to do, even if you are at a high weight. It upsets the biochemistry and is never successful long-term. The same can be said for any diet with a name. Once you embark on "The X Diet", you undertake a low-calorie, idiosyncratic way of eating that cannot be maintained for life.

So what about that recidivism statistic? Well, one recent study following a large group of dieters found that most of them did manage to maintain their weight loss for more than five years – the point at which weight loss is considered to be permanent. You can find research to prove or disprove just about anything about weight.

I made up my mind. I would lose weight, keeping in mind certain guiding principles. If 95 per cent of all weight lost is regained, why should I not at least lose the 5 per cent? That was my motivating factor. Next was an awareness that to lose a lot of weight and keep it off would require a singlemindedness bordering on the obsessive. It is often said that dieters become completely fixated on food; all I can say is that I was far more obsessed with it when I was fat. The third thing was that I knew I must lose weight very slowly. Ideally, I wanted to lose about half a pound a week.

I also felt that support would be important, so I joined Slimming World, an organisation that does not have the authoritarian approach of most others. The weekly weigh-in and the encouragement of the very nice consultant was all I needed, though many also benefit from the group discussions. As a campaigner I am supposed to oppose the diet industry, but I cannot see what is wrong with slimming clubs. Nobody suggests that gyms are part of a corrupt industry, but thousands of people use them to try to lose weight.

I lost six and a half stones in three years: less than a pound a week. It was a constant struggle as my body fought to regain its lost tissue. I am now at the weight I want to be, but maintaining that weight is almost as difficult as losing it. I can never again eat normally. Losing weight is a lifetime commitment and for your perserverance, your body awards you a booby prize: the more weight you lose, the fewer calories you need, so you must constantly reduce your intake. I will always have to adjust and compensate. I will never be able to take my eye off this particular ball. Many would say life is too short to live like that. For me, life is too short not to. I'm in it for the long haul.

But I feel great. The deprivation and denial was, and is, worth it. I can run for a bus; I can bend and twist and put my head on my knees, should I want to. Best of all, I am confident. Though I am four stone overweight according to those ridiculous charts and tables, I am at the weight that is right for me. I am happy in my own skin.

Have I betrayed the size-acceptance movement? I don't think so, though some activists are disappointed in me. But the desire to be thinner and the demand for equal rights for the overweight are not a contradiction in terms. And surely a movement that fights for the right to be the size you are, or want to be, must encompass the right to choose to lose weight? If it does not, it risks imposing the same sort of fascist dictates as the society that created the need for such a movement in the first place.

Shelley Bovey's book, 'What Have You Got To Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully', is published by The Women's Press, £9.99

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