Content warning: Discussion of body size, fatphobia, diet culture, body image issues. Disclaimer: I 100% have thin privilege; I am not speaking to you from the POV of a person who has ever actually been treated badly because of their body size, but from the POV of a person whose mental health and self-image have been harmed by our cultural obsession with thinness and youth.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American woman in possession of a body must be trying to change it.
It doesn’t have to be true, and lots of us out here on the body neutrality front are trying to make it not true. And yet.
Other people have written in great depth on the trauma done to the female mind by a world obsessed with thinness (or more accurately, obsessed with fatphobia), so I don’t intend to go as deep here. But I did come of age when a style called “heroin chic” was in fashion, followed by the impossible low-rise jeans that passively shamed a woman for having internal organs; a time when we were told Kate Winslet in Titanic was fat; when media outlets stalked the lumps and curves of every female celebrity body and used phrases like “out of control” and “let herself go” as liberally as a Buffalonian uses Frank’s Hot Sauce (this is not an ad for Frank’s Hot Sauce). (Side note: the concept of letting one’s self go implies the preferred alternative is to constantly keep hold of yourself, which sounds exhausting.) Not to mention the countless examples of fatphobia in the media that turned fatness into a joke, a personal failing, or a punishment. Not only were we blatantly instructed to be perishably thin, we were shown what would happen to us if we were not: we would become angry, lonely women whose sole purposes were at best to play comic-relief sidekicks to thin protagonists, and at worst to remind other people of their worst fears.
All this is to say: I have body image issues.
Obviously I’m not alone in this, but I can’t speak for anyone but myself on how this has impacted my life. Closely tied in with the internalized fatphobia I’ve carried around my whole life is ye olde Puritan morality and Protestant work-ethic, so when I was trying to lose weight at various points in my life (it feels like always, since age 10) and inevitably failed, it felt like a gutting personal failure. It’s calories in, calories out––what’s so hard about that? If I was just more in control of myself, I’d be thin by now. If I was just not so weak, I’d finally deserve the prize that is the [uncomfortable] spotlight of the male gaze.
There is a ton of research out there which proves that it’s not as simple as calories in, calories out, nor is it even in the body’s natural programing to desire to lose weight. There are so many different factors that go into successful weight loss, and even more that go into why a person’s body is the weight that it is. Not to mention, the idea that weight is by itself an indicator of health status has been roundly debunked. Learning about these things, and realizing all the women in my biological family have basically the same size and shape body, has helped me better accept the body I am in instead of constantly criticizing, punishing, and trying to change it. But all of that aside, I have been trying to do the deeper work of deprogramming myself of the need for explanations for my body. I am trying to deprogram the part of myself that fears fatness, that sees it (on me, anyway) as a problem to be solved instead of a simple fact, like the color of my hair.
This is hard work. The conditioning is so deep, a program running so far in the background of my mind, you have to be vigilant and deliberate in policing your thoughts about your own body. And even then, when you change the thoughts and the words you use to discuss your body, the feelings often remain––feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing, mainly (because I gained 30 lbs in the last three years, despite all the explanations I could give, despite knowing my weight has nothing to do with my worth as a person, and despite loving and valuing many beautiful large bodied people who are not me).
So, yes. I have gained some weight over the past few years [explanation redacted because I shouldn’t feel the need to justify my weight to anyone]. Admittedly, I do not love this. Until now, all my weight gain has been very slow and gradual as I age and my metabolism slows, and my hormones and activity levels change, etc. This sudden change in my size and appearance has made my body feel alien to me, and as a person with sensory issues this has been even more distressing. It makes the goal of body positivity, or even neutrality, much harder to attain when you feel physically uncomfortable in your meat suit, constantly aware of new lumps and creases and skin touching skin where it never touched before. I’ve also been living in a state of limbo with my body, unwilling to invest in a new wardrobe that suits my new shape because part of me is still hoping whatever caused the weight gain will resolve and I’ll go back to my “normal” size. I have been avoiding mirrors because when I see myself, I don’t recognize the face looking back. I have been avoiding being in pictures, too, because I’m afraid of securing this new [shameful] body’s place in history.
Which was especially difficult when I got my author headshots back the other week.
Don’t get me wrong, the photographer did an amazing job, and I had a lot of fun on the shoot (my dogs were there, so how could I not?). But getting those proofs back was challenging. Image after image of a person who was me, but did not look like the me I still see in my head: not only fuller in the face, but also older, in all those tiny little ways that time wears on your face (especially since I didn’t start wearing moisturizer until after I was 30, and I love the sun). I had my partner help me pick out the best ones, and I do think they capture the overall vibe I wanted, but still. My face–my double chin, specifically…I did not love what I was seeing.
When I chose the picture I would put on my bio page for this site, I first messed around with it in various photo editors to see if I could make myself feel any better about the image, but ultimately I couldn’t bring myself to do that. The image posted is unedited, despite all the million little “flaws” I am keenly aware of. I made this choice because, in a lot of ways, it was photo-editing that did this to me–to every woman; making us scrutinize our pictures for the slightest blemish, seeing nothing but our own flaws, judging ourselves against the impossible standards of airbrushing and digital sculpting. I don’t want to contribute to that, even if it means posting pictures of myself that I am self-conscious about.
Cameras lie. Angles lie. Instagram lies. I’m not always going to be okay with posting pictures where I think I don’t “look good,” but I am working towards a life where I no longer consider how attractive I am in photographs before posting them. I would rather live a life where I am in photographs at all.
But still. The programming runs deep. And not only that, but the shame of having a body is woven into the very fabric of American culture: the shame of fatness, the shame of excretion, the shame of illness, the shame of disability. Likewise, the shame of desire, the shame of weakness, and the shame of powerful emotions. The phrase “she let herself go” speaks to a fear we all have, and indicates a misapprehension as well: that we have complete control over our bodies, minds, desires, emotions…that we have control over much of anything at all.
You, too, could be fat some day, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. You, too, could be chronically ill or disabled some day, no matter how much preventative healthcare you invest in. You, too, might have a panic attack some day that prevents you from working or otherwise producing, and find yourself stunned in the aftermath that you could “lose control” like that. You, too, could get cancer, or any number of serious, life-threatening illnesses some day. You, too, will die. Some day.
And sure, the body policing of the last few centuries–especially of women–probably has less to do with fear of our own mortality than it does to do with 10,000+ years of men subjugating women in the name of their own ego and desires, while famously lacking control of their own tempers and appetites (a Presbyterian minister from the 1840s is credited with first making mainstream the idea that a woman’s diet was evidence of her degree of morality, sewing the seeds that would soon connect fatness with morality, as well as poor health–the precise opposite of what most cultures have always believed). But doesn’t the subjugation of women begin in fear? Men’s fear of losing their own power, of not being the ones in control? Fear of humiliation, emasculation, the loss of approval from and belonging to other men? Men who seek to control women are men who fear their own femininity, their own softness, their own yearning for anything beyond sex, power, and admiration. They are afraid of wanting and not receiving. They are afraid of being alone. They are afraid of not being enough.
Living in a body in the world is difficult enough as it is, with its constant needs and vagaries and vulnerabilities. Why make it harder on ourselves by creating arbitrary rules about how that body is supposed to look, or how much space it is allowed to take up?
And why play along with rules that have made having a body feel more like a curse than a blessing?
I have hope for the younger generations as media moves farther away from the rail-thin standard of femininity it clung to when my generation was growing up. For every conservative right-wing misogynist I see pushing for “traditional femininity” (read: frailty and subservience), I see a hundred more folks pushing back. It has given me the strength and wisdom to break free from disordered eating habits, to talk to myself in kinder, healthier ways, and to learn to feel grateful for the imperfect body I have: chronic illness, arm flab, cellulite, and all. I often still find myself disappointed when I step on the scale, even though I know weight is just a number. And I still thrill a little when pants that were tight a few months ago are “suddenly” comfortable or loose, even though I know my waist size means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
But my secret weapon, now, when sneaky body-shaming skull-natter starts making its way back into my psyche, is to remind myself that the desire to be thin is just another tool of the patriarchy to keep women too weak, distracted, insecure, and hungry to fight back. Every time I see an ad for weight loss programs, or complex anti-aging skincare regimens, or even makeup (to each their own, but I can’t stand the stuff for the most part), trying to sell me the fantasy of a slender, lithe body with blemish-free, dewy, hairless skin, I remind myself that capitalism thrives on our insecurity and shame, and I am not about to give my money to anyone hawking the idea that the natural and normal signs of aging are something that should be avoided, prevented, or corrected.
It’s not a cure, to be spiteful and angry at the people who benefit from our shame. But it helps.
Anyway. Here’s to white hairs that look like tinsel. Here’s to the crows feet developing at the corners of your eyes from a lifetime of laughter and smiles. Here’s to all the gradually changing contours, textures, and colors of your meat suit.
Not everyone gets the privilege of experiencing that transformation, so enjoy it.
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