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Posts Tagged ‘body image’

In the first part of this essay, I said that I’m pretty comfortable with myself, and that’s mostly true. That comfort didn’t happen magically, and it certainly didn’t happen because I’m regularly met with loud and enthusiastic praise for being fat. As if.

And yet, I am pretty comfortable with myself, and I know that that’s both generally unexpected and, in many folks’ opinions, extremely unacceptable. After reading that first essay, a friend said she isn’t used to seeing fat narratives that aren’t about getting thin, that don’t have body transformation at the root. Body transformation is most definitely not my goal, and I know how alien that is for many people who might read these essays. But there it is. Good to establish that right up front.

***

My comfort with myself is relatively new. I certainly wasn’t comfortable being fat when I was younger. The terrible romper I had to wear in high school gym class could have created that discomfort all by itself.¹ So would the mandatory gymnastics routines we had to perform each year to pass gym: choreographed, in teams, in skimpy costumes … and in which I was always the largest, least-gainly, and least able to fit the costume member.

My ease with myself began to develop when I stopped dieting, when I decided that I would never again subject myself to the cruel, predictable roller coaster of dieting.

From fifteen to thirty-eight, I was a dieter. Even when I wasn’t actively dieting, I was a dieter. I lost so much weight on diets. Once, I lost enough weight that a man who had never been interested in me romantically or sexually was inspired to make a violent pass at me. Score! Once, I lost enough weight that a man was kind enough to let me know I’d reached the outer rim of “acceptable,” of fat women who weren’t so fat that he wouldn’t fuck them once. Just once, mind you. Talk about a bonus!

Seriously, though, I did lose a lot of weight on diets. Over and over and over. In that way, I was an excellent dieter, always able to lose, and lose, and lose.

But there’s this thing that happens when I diet. I get smaller. Every time. It’s a problem.

When I lose weight, I get more — and more aggressive — street harassment. When I lose weight, people — friends and strangers — comment on my body. When I lose weight, the fear of weakness resurfaces. Thinness equals vulnerability. Still.

And all of this is why I said it feels safer in the cage than out of it.

Years ago, after I gave up dieting, when I was working on developing a healthier relationship to food, a relationship that didn’t (always) involve eating my feelings, I did a visualization exercise. The idea was to imagine myself in my regular day to day, but to imagine myself thin. This is a pretty easy exercise on its face. I won’t speak for other fat people, but I used to spend a lot of time imagining myself thin.

For the second part of the exercise, I was to pay attention to any feelings that came up as thin me was doing my job and running my errands.

Oh. Well, that was different. I immediately noticed how uncomfortable I felt, nervous, on display, hunted. Hunted? Yes, like I had morphed into prey.

I stopped the exercise. That was the first time I’d articulated equating thinness with being unsafe, being unable to protect myself, the first time I drew the connecting line between being molested and getting fat.

I didn’t know what to do with that, with the fact that the thing I was supposed to want above all things — thinness — was also the thing I perceived as putting me at risk. And it wasn’t just my perception. Men had shown me each time I lost weight — and I never had to lose very much weight for them to make this clear — that they couldn’t be trusted, that I couldn’t feel safe with them.

I’ve done that exercise a number of times since that first, revealing, time. The idea of thinness still calls up weakness and vulnerability, though not as strongly as happened that first time. Which is probably progress.

I know, without repeating that exercise, that I still have work to do here. When I lose weight now, I’m fine with the loss … until someone calls it out, until I’m forced to buy clothes at a smaller size. When that happens, all I want is to start eating, to go back into binge mode to cover myself again, hide myself back behind a newly-fortified wall. And that’s always what I do. I can lose weight fairly easily. Overcoming my fear of being smaller is another thing all together.

***

I don’t think of my body as a cage. My size does make some things true for me that aren’t true for thin people. And my size makes me behave in ways thin people have likely never had to imagine behaving. But this is my body. It’s not a cage. It’s me.

Yes, there is the idea of my body as a protective wall between me and anyone who might harm me. But I also understand the false security of believing in that wall. Both the attempted rape and the rape happened to fat me, not slender me. Rapists and abusers don’t care what your body looks like. Their violence has nothing to do with societal beauty norms.

But if I know that, if I know my body isn’t safety, why maintain this size? If I don’t think of my body as a cage, why did I describe myself as trapped?

Yeah.

What I know for sure is that I won’t diet again. Ever. The mind required for dieting is damaging to me, feeds doubt and self-hate. I am currently in a fight with my cardiologist who wants to enroll me in a managed, monitored weight loss program. Guess again. The wonky heartbeat that mysteriously developed last summer has been fixed, and while going on a diet might fulfill his fantasy that I will begin to look like my mother — something he calls out as a goal for me every time we meet — dieting will do nothing for me but mess up my head, slam truck-sized holes into all the progress I’ve made toward liking and trusting myself. I am not interested.

Giving up dieting sounds like abandon, sounds wanton, almost criminal. As a fat person, I am supposed to crave thinness, supposed to want and need to lose weight. Really, even if you’ve never had this thought about me or said some of these words to me, trust me: plenty of other folks have. Plenty.

But I’ve turned away from the path our fatphobic society thinks I should guide myself down. I have become a Bad Fatty.

***

Which means that I remain fat, yes. And it also means I am somewhat belligerently so. I don’t have patience for people’s fat-shaming and fat phobia — good God, don’t I wish that had been true from the beginning of my fatness! Once, before I became a vegetarian, I was ordering a sandwich at a deli. The person taking my order disapproved when I added bacon. She paused before noting what I’d asked for, sighed, looked at me, and asked, “Are you sure you want that?” Because heaven forbid I should have bacon on my turkey sandwich. Imagine the eventual destruction-of-the-world should I have bacon on my turkey sandwich. I looked at her, surprised. “You’re so right,” I said, smiling. “I meant to say double bacon! Thanks for catching that!”

I don’t have time for people’s mess. This is my body. Mine. All mine. And if folks don’t like looking at it, they can look elsewhere. And if folks want to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, I am happy to tell them that, since they aren’t paying for my food, since I didn’t take my food off their plate, they are welcome to shut the fuck up. I will feed myself what I want when I want it. I will dress myself how I like when I choose. I will have the audacity to take up all the space I take up.

When I lose weight now, it’s a sign that I’m feeling myself – feeling stronger, feeling safer. It means I’m trusting myself, committing to my creative self. It means I’m living more mindfully. And I’m glad for all of those things. And sad when I feel the fear creep in, when I start to gain back whatever I’ve lost.

***

I am comfortable with myself.

I am comfortable with myself, and there is still work to do. I still don’t believe the world is safe for me to be smaller. I still don’t want to invite the added attention that comes when I’m smaller.

So yes, work to do. Not so that I can lose weight and keep it off, but because living in fear isn’t a way I want to live, because overcoming those fears will move me — finally — past the object those men and that boy wanted to make of me, the object otter men have tried to make of me.  Overcoming those fears will leave me stronger, more whole, more myself.

__________

¹ Have you read Eleanor and Park? That’s exactly the romper I wore throughout high school. I mean, Oh. My. God. For real.  (Also? Just read that book because it’s good.)



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Read Full Post »

One of the first things that struck me in Hunger was Gay’s statement that her body is a cage of her own making. The truth of that resonated for me, even though I have never thought of my body as a cage. Like Gay, I made myself fat as a form of protection and a way to become invisible. I wasn’t as aware as she was of what I was doing, not in the beginning, but even after I became aware, I kept right on building the wall of my body. And now that I have come to a place where I no longer think I need the wall, the wall remains. There is more, of course, to tearing down a protective shield than just deciding I might be fine without it.

Why does it still feel safer in the cage than out of it?

***

I wasn’t fat when I was fourteen. I was fat when I was fifteen. A couple of years ago, a friend from high school sent me scanned snapshots of 9th-grader me performing in our school musical. The shock of seeing those photos was of seeing how completely not at all fat I was. I have no memory of looking the way I look in those pictures. I thought I was fat then. I thought I’d always been fat.

That’s a thing I say, that I’ve always been fat. Even though I know it’s not true. I see myself in childhood photos, and I’m not fat. A picture of myself as a 12-year-old at summer camp shows me as a leggy, curvy adolescent, not as a fat person. The pictures of me belting out my big number in that musical show me as a not-in-any-way fat teenager.

And then I’m fifteen, and I’m fat. Not as fat as I’d eventually get, but definitely fat. So clearly, fourteen years old is ground zero. The reason for building the wall of flesh I live in.

It’s easy to point to some clear catalysts for building the wall. No, I was never brutalized the way Roxane Gay was. I can’t imagine finding a way to survive, to hold on to any part of myself after such an ordeal. I was raped in my 20s, but I still can’t imagine Gay’s experience and the strength she had to marshal to survive.

But when I was fourteen, I became visible to boys and men. Or, more exactly, I became more visible and more easily available to boys and men.

I’d been visible to men for years. I was eight the first time a man exposed himself to me, nine the first time a boy tried to touch me in a sexual way, the first time I was shown porn in an attempt to arouse me. I was twelve the first time I kissed a boy, the first time there were boys who wanted to kiss me who I also wanted to kiss, thirteen the first time an adult man propositioned me.

That was likely the beginning of seeing my body as a problem, of associating my body with the dangers presented by men. That man was a counselor at the summer camp I’d attended from seven to twelve years old. He’d known me since I was nine, and yet he had no qualms asking if I was a prostitute, if I was interested in money for favors.

I didn’t understand what he was asking me, but I understood how uncomfortable he made me, how uncomfortable I felt under the look he gave me. I understood that it wasn’t okay, that he shouldn’t have been asking, that no one was supposed to look at me the way he did, certainly not someone I thought of as a teacher, someone who was a grown-up, like my father. In truth, the man was probably in his early 20s, but I was thirteen. Whatever his age, he shouldn’t have been asking me about selling sex.

So, even before I was fourteen, men had become a problem, my body had become a problem.

I was thirteen the first time my mother put me on a diet. She signed me up for Weight Watchers. It was my first summer home, not at camp. All of the other people in the group were women, were my mother’s age and older. And there I was: thirteen, confused … and not at all fat.

I wasn’t aware of not being fat. There was clearly something wrong with my body or I wouldn’t have been having so many problems, wouldn’t have met with my mother’s displeasure. So I accepted that I was fat.

I’ve come to realize that, rather than fat, what I was was terrifying: I was grown-looking. I suddenly had a woman’s body — breasts and hips — and I think the reality of that scared the crap out of my mother. I think she hoped that, if I lost weight, I wouldn’t look so womanly. My friends were all small, skinny girls. Maybe she thought she could whittle me down to look more like them.

She had worked hard to keep my body under wraps, dressing me like a toddler until I was eleven or twelve, then transitioning me from a child’s clothes to a matron’s. Looking through family photos at the change in my appearance is interesting. There I am at ten in a sundress so short it reveals the matching bloomers I’m wearing underneath. There I am at eleven in a short babydoll dress and patent leather Mary Janes, an outfit that would be more appropriate on a five or six year old. There I am at twelve in short-shorts and a tie-dyed midriff top — surely the outfit that solidified my mother’s fear. There I am at thirteen on summer vacation in a coat-length, baggy cardigan and a turtleneck next to my older brother and younger sister who are in shorts and tees and who look like my children. There I am at fourteen in a 70s suburban mom uniform of 1000% polyester, sewn-in-crease slacks while everyone else in the family is wearing jeans and shorts.

There was no denying the body under the clothes, however. And dieting only served to accentuate my voluptuous hourglass, setting me up for even more male attention, the entirely opposite thing from what my mother had hoped.

***

I was fourteen, me and my newly-slender woman’s body, me with my no idea how to deal with boys or men, and no way to learn much of anything. We lived in a very white place, a place where there would be no white boys looking to date unacceptably not-white me.

But there was still the opportunity to come into contact with men and boys. No one wanted to date me, but that didn’t mean no one noticed me. I was molested twice when I was fourteen, repeatedly by a boy close to my age and once by a man at my church.

(I think about that man at my church and about that counselor at camp. I’m sickened when I think about them. What is wrong with men that they think it’s okay to decide an adolescent girl is fair game for their sexual advances? What is wrong with our society that we have allowed them to feel entirely within their rights to prey on children? Yes, in our current apocalypse-world with a president who brags about being a sexual predator, I can’t truly be surprised. THOTUS wasn’t spawned whole from the ether. He was cultivated, steeped in a culture that had no problem with his behavior, that has no problem with most men’s behavior when it comes to women and girls.)

I told one of my friends, a boy, about the man at my church. He became very protective of me, sticking close to me when that man was around. And that was a good thing. It meant the man never had another opportunity to be alone with me.

I never told anyone about the boy who molested me. That situation was much more dangerous, fraught with terrible consequences that I couldn’t make myself cause.

He was a little older than me, and not at all interested in or attracted to me. I know this because he made sure to tell me, to tell me that he couldn’t find me attractive because of how I looked, that if I looked more like [insert name of whichever (white) cheerleader he currently lusted after], maybe I would be desirable. He told me all of that while doing a lot of unpleasant and often painful things to my body — the body he didn’t find desirable.

There was no penetration, and for that I’m grateful.

***

Here I am in the school musical, playing the Acid Queen in our production of Tommy (seriously.)


Today I look at those pictures, and I can see that I was cute as fuck, that there was not one thing wrong with my body. And I wonder how differently my life would have played out if I’d known that then. Would I also have known that I deserved better treatment? Would I have allowed that boy’s abuse to go on for as long as it did?

***

I was fourteen and I knew some things clearly: I wasn’t attractive, my body was unacceptable, my body drew unwanted attention from men and boys even if they didn’t find me desirable.

And deep in my psyche, on a level I wasn’t aware of, I made the decision to change my body, to erase it, to remove it from the focus of that problematic attention.

This was when I started to think of my body as separate from me, as “other,” a burden I had to deal with but not who I was.

Maybe I could have gone the other way, tried to disappear myself with anorexia. But I knew that wasn’t the answer — skinny girls got attention. Thinness made my body a target, so it seemed reasonable to assume that skinniness would make me more of a target. Skinniness equaled weakness and vulnerability, so I wouldn’t be skinny.

***

I got fat quickly. those Acid Queen pictures are from the fall of 9th grade, right after I turned fourteen. By spring of sophomore year — halfway through being fifteen — I was fat.

Since I have no memory of getting fat, since I have only recently been forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t always fat, I can’t say much about that period, that quick-march toward obesity. How were people responding to the changes in my body? What did my mother think was happening? How did we afford to buy me an entire new wardrobe when money was always tight but I couldn’t fit my old clothes? No idea. I wasn’t fat. And then I was.

***

Being fat had the desired effect: I stopped having to deal with unwanted male attention because there was no attention. So, in some ways, the body I built created freedom and safety. I had managed to remove myself from the equation of men’s lust.

But I made myself invisible right at the moment when I was starting to be interested in boys and would have welcomed some non-violent attention. But my body closed the door on everyone, not just the predators. (This isn’t the story of my whole life here. There were, eventually, men I was interested in who were interested in me. But high school and the world are decidedly different places.)

***

Not all stories of fat have their origins in sexual abuse … or at least I imagine that to be true. I wonder how many do, however. My own story has more to it than sexual violence. There was the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, which triggered a low-grade depression that resulted in fortifications being added to the wall. But there was also an attempted rape while I was at college, an actual rape in my early 20s.

Whatever the catalysts, here I am, many years later, much larger than I was at fifteen, the wall miles thick at this point and nearly as high. And me nestled inside with my books and pens, my knitting. Still protected, but also held back, trapped.



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Read Full Post »

I started reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger a few weeks ago. I both wanted and didn’t want to read this book. Wanted to read it because I like Roxane Gay’s writing and the way she thinks, and I was curious to see how she would talk about her body, her weight. But I knew reading the book would be hard, that it would call up all kinds of things about my own body, my weight, my life. And,, as comfortable as I am with myself, I wasn’t sure how ready I was to have all those things surfaced, how ready I was to have unexpected things surfaced.

As expected, reading the book has been challenging. I’ve had to put it down more than once and walk away. That’s why I’m a few weeks in and still nowhere near done. Any other book of this length and readability level, I’d have blown through in a couple of days. With this one, I have no idea how much longer I’ll take to push myself to the end.

As I get started with writing here about the book, my body, my weight, this is a good moment to put some cards on the table. Not all, not yet, but some key introductory ones. Talking about being fat is charged and difficult, so I’m posting some ground rules.

Card #1: I am fat. Very fat. I’ve been fat for decades. I’ve been both fatter and less fat than I am today, but never in my adult life have I not been fat.

Card #2: My decision to talk here about m body, my fat, is not an invitation for any attempt at education, intervention, or counseling. I’m not interested in anyone’s nutritional or medical advice, in predictions about what my future will hold or what dire outcomes I’m waddling toward if I don’t change my lazy, evil ways posthaste.

Card #2a: I’m also not here for all the “You’re not that fat!” reassurances folks like to give. I’m not actually sure what that’s supposed to mean. There’s no set of gradations I’m measuring myself against. I am fat. Punto. It’s not a negative or positive thing, it’s simply a descriptor of my size, differentiating me from thin people, or stocky people or waif-like people, or whoever. I. am. fat. It is in no way flattering for anyone to deny the reality of my body. That’s in the same category as people who tell me they don’t think of me as Black — and, in case there’s any question, I am decidedly, unquestionably, and unashamedly Black.

Card #3: This is the first of what will be a number — perhaps a significant number — of  “Fat Talk” essays. Essays about my body, about being fat. Now that I’ve opened this flood gate, it’s open. I’m sure there will be folks for whom all this fatgirl talk will get wearing or boring or troubling. If that’s you, I won’t be offended if you step away, choose to stop reading. But I will be pissed if you violate Card #2.

Card #4: Spoilers! If you’re planning to read Hunger ad haven’t yet, you should know that I will give away things from the book. Hunger isn’t a mystery and there are unlikely to be any surprise twists, but if you’re like me, you still won’t enjoy hearing what happens before you’ve read it. I’ll try to remember to give spoiler warnings as I go, but I know I’ll forget — in fact, I’m likely to blow it straight out of the gate — so just be aware of what’s in store.

I think that’s enough cards for now.

I’ve gone back to reading Hunger. I picked it up yesterday after an almost two-week break. I’m not sure I’m actually ready to dive back in, but not reading it is starting to make me feel cowardly. I’ve walked away from other books. And I’ve finished books I wish I’d avoided (the night- and daymare horror of reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder comes readily to mind!). But I want to finish this book, so I will. And it’s high time I wrote more directly and sustainédly¹ about being a fat Black woman in this world, so I’ll read … and then I’ll write as many of the things the book surfaces for me as I can. And I’ll share them here. Perhaps not all. Most probably not all. But some.

Depending on how people respond to all this direct and sustained fat talk, I may have to add some more ground-rules cards as we go.

__________
¹ No, it’s not a word, but I like thinking it is.



I’m not sure this really, truly counts as an essay … but I’m counting it anyway!

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Read Full Post »