Wendyl Nissen – Unstoppable at 60

When it comes to reclaiming her health, Wendyl Nissen is wearing the pants.

It’s the red velvet corduroy pants that did it. I found them in an op shop for $4 and they were a size 14.

I haven’t been a size 14 for a decade, but on this particular sunny day in the country I knew they would fit me.

When I got home, I discovered that not only did they fit me but there was considerable room to move, and I’ve barely taken them off since.

They’re quite the departure from the decade I spent wearing either black leggings or black skinny jeans. Black was my friend, it suited me and my mood at the time.

But now I’m wearing red pants with the fervour of someone who has discovered a new freedom, a new way of being.

I’ve worn those pants gardening, out to dinner, on walks in the wind and rain; they are my comfort pants because they remind me of how well I’ve done to get to that size again.

Many of you will stop reading here because stories of weight loss are quite rightly triggering. We’ve grown up with them all our lives as women have held out their enormous previous pants to show how small they are now. Or given us before and after shots, or just been a really annoying reminder that we should all be slimmer than we are.

Which is absolute nonsense. We should all be whatever size we bloody want to be and look however we want to look. If there’s one positive I get out of living in these crazy times of AI, conspiracy theories, misogyny at an all-time high and a year of climate reminders from Mother Earth, it is the fact that we are now more accepting of who we are and how diverse we can be. One size does not fit all. We can be large, small, LGBTQIA+, anxious, OCD, binary, neurodivergent, sad, happy – it’s all good. Just be who you were meant to be. Which is why I lost weight. I can’t tell you how much I’ve lost in kilograms but I can tell you how many centimetres around my waist has gone.

I don’t weigh myself because my mother, who was always on a diet, would weigh herself every day, and most days burst into tears. Those scales were a demon force which lived in our bathroom and could make my day as a child doomed from the start as my mother raged and tantrumed her way through the self-hatred which was delivered to her by that simple dial with a needle which went up instead of down.

So, I measure occasionally just to see what is going on and last time I looked the tape measure came in 30cm less than when I started.

And while it is nice to have such a cosy comfortable relationship with my red velvet corduroy pants, I didn’t do it for looks. I did it because I was scared that I would turn out to be like my mother.

She died four years ago with dementia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and at the time of her death had been disabled by a massive stroke which left her paralysed except for her right hand. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t feed herself or toilet herself and her life was spent lying in a bed groaning.

When I had worked my way through the acceptance of her ending, I took a long hard look at myself and knew that if I continued to be the way I was, as happy as I was with that, I was putting myself at a high risk of the terrible three – diabetes, dementia and heart disease.

I had spent my 50s just accepting my body and the fact that I was on blood pressure medication because quite frankly there was a lot going on – mainly menopause. It left me constantly tired, irritable, bleeding so profusely that I could have filled a blood bank on one single day, moody and depressed. I napped often, I moved to the country to soak up some serenity and remove myself from harming others, I reduced my workload, I continued to parent and grandparent and be as good a partner as I could as well as looking after my dad. The last thing I wanted to think about was what I looked like or what size I was. For that decade, just managing to get out of bed and behave took all of my energy.

But now I’m 60 and I’m through to the other side and that decade is thankfully a dim memory. Like the time I bled all through my stepson’s wedding and seriously considered going to the A&E to get something to stop it so that I was able to be a very happy stepmother enjoying a wedding instead of traipsing off to the loo every half an hour.

And the endless visits to gynaecologists in the hospital for exploratory surgery to explain the blood bank bleeding. Once I found myself in stirrups with a doctor attempting to access my uterus with no anaesthetic and a nurse holding my hand saying, “this will hurt”.

It didn’t hurt, it was excruciating, and I yelled “get your hands out of me you arsehole” before releasing the stirrups, jumping off the table and running for my life.

Later, as I sat in the aptly named “recovery room” in floods of tears, the doctor came to see me and suggested that maybe I had some former trauma “in that area”.

I hadn’t, I just didn’t like being treated like a woman in the Victorian era by a man with a medical degree jabbing away at my cervix.

He said he was disappointed and would schedule me for day surgery with an anaesthetic. I replied that I too was disappointed that he hadn’t offered me that option before jabbing away at me like a mad man. I considered laying a complaint, but I was in the decade of menopause when you can barely get out of bed.

That’s all gone now, I tell myself as I sit on the beach and gaze gently at the horizon, breathing deeply.

My mother’s death enabled me to break through my decade of just coping and do some planning to devote the next decade to not being like my mother and make it the best decade of my life.

I took it quite seriously and did the following: I stopped drinking alcohol, I did 16:8 fasting, I went low carb, I went low calorie, I exercised more – all at once. I called the whole thing my five-legged stool of health.

It was extreme and I would be lying if I didn’t find it a huge challenge, but when I hit the wall I would imagine how I would feel having to inject myself with insulin three times a day, or feel my brain slowly die from dementia or be left unable to move from a stroke.

And I didn’t do it all the time. I did bursts of three months, noticed I had lost a few centimetres, then eased off for a while.

This is when I say that working on your health is a very personal and unique thing. My five-legged stool approach could make a lot of people very ill. We are just beginning to learn that everyone’s bodies and minds work differently, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how we look after ourselves.

I was very aware that it would be very easy to set up disordered eating where my life became about every single thing I put in my mouth and I was also aware that reducing my weight was not a very popular thing to do.

I figured it wasn’t very popular because no one commented that I was smaller. It’s called being politically correct and not validating someone because of their size. I also don’t comment on someone’s size for that reason. We are now getting so much better at saying “wow, you look amazing” rather than “wow, you look so tiny, well done you!”

It’s the red velvet corduroy pants that did it. I found them in an op shop for $4 and they were a size 14.

To be fair I did have quite a few people say “wow, you look amazing”, so I could interpret from that, that I had lost weight and was visibly smaller. But you know what, I really, really wanted someone to say that I was slim.

At one stage I actually doubted that I had lost weight. I wondered if I had developed some sort of body dysmorphia that had me thinking I was smaller than I was. But out came the tape measure, and the tape measure, unlike the scales, never lies.

Why did it matter to me if I was doing this simply to be healthier? Why did I now need validation from other people that I looked smaller?

For that I blame my upbringing with a weight-obsessed mother whose job it was to comment on every single ounce I gained or lost, as were many of our mothers.

I grew up in high school in the 70s with friends who went on crazy diets and we would all gather around at lunch time to discuss which one was best.

I worked in magazines in the 90s when heroin chic became fashionable and colleagues would think nothing of commenting whether you had put on or lost weight.

My husband, who had been very encouraging of the five-legged stool approach for the same health reasons as mine, would tell me I looked great but then he would immediately be quizzed by me if that meant he didn’t like the way I looked before? It was a no-win situation. So, I told him I would never say that again in return for him being my non-PC, non-body positivity person and provide an ongoing commentary of my weight loss using the offending word “slim” often.

He agreed readily. He had never been very comfortable with my mum lifting her blouse at the dinner table and injecting her bare stomach with insulin while we were trying to eat. He was very keen that I didn’t go that way.

Gradually over two years I became smaller and could confidently buy those size 14 red velvet corduroys without having to try them on and have some room to move.

But something else happened too. I became an energetic person, something I have never been and certainly wasn’t during my decade of blood bank supplier, hot flushes and menopause.

I stopped needing to have an afternoon nap. I would head out to the garden and find myself digging drains for fun. There has been so much rain where we live that I resented having to sludge through the mud to get to my veggie patch, so I dug drains everywhere to divert the water.

I would finish digging a few drains and then start hauling wood chips onto my rose garden. Then I would clear weeds which were choking my flax bushes. Then I would realise I had been on-the-go for five hours. Five, whole, hours.

“Are you okay?” my husband would ask at the three-hour mark.

“Fighting fit!” I would shout enthusiastically.

When I eventually came inside, I wasn’t sore. The next day I woke up and wasn’t sore. Almost as if my body was working well, like nature intended it to. Almost like I was in balance.

Then I started sleeping, like a baby. I would go to bed at 9pm and wake at 8am. That’s 11 hours’ sleep, every night.

I end my daily fast at midday with a bircher muesli which should really be called a tonic.

Then my gut health issues disappeared. I have had IBS since my early 20s and have never really managed to be symptom free as you can be eating all the right foods then have a stressful time and the stress will trigger it.

As I write these magic words – gut healthy – I have been two years with only a few minor IBS flare ups.

Which was when I realised that my low calorie, low carb diet had taught me how to eat well. My diet consists mainly of organic beans, lentils and chickpeas – which do have carbs but not the processed sort you need to avoid. There’s loads of different vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and oats as well as fermented foods like kefir, live yoghurt and sauerkraut. If I eat meat or chicken, it is organic and free-range. I monitor additives and ultra-processed food rigidly.

So basically, it’s a wholegrain, wholefood diet with no processed food – the food the hippies told us to eat way back in the 70s before supermarkets and mass-produced food.

During my last stint of the five-legged stool approach to healthiness I began to find meals which made me feel amazing. I end my daily fast at midday with a bircher muesli which should really be called a tonic. Bircher was created by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner as a way of getting raw foods into the diet of his patients.

My version has organic steel cut oats, which are more nutritious than oats which have been flattened and processed. There is raw grated apple with the skin on which is where you’ll find fibre and many beneficial flavonoids. These have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve blood pressure and lower cholesterol as well as reduce the risk of diabetes. According to a study in Western Australia, Pink Lady apples are best. Added to that is lemon juice, nuts, seeds, live yoghurt and kefir. As well as being incredibly nutritious, unprocessed and delicious, it is full of fibre.

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