When I started this blog, one of the first things I did was tell my parents about it. I knew I’d be writing about parts of my childhood that reflected on them, and I wanted them to know the information was out there and not hear about it from others; and to be honest, I wanted the sense of accountability that would come from knowing my parents knew about my blog, so that I was never tempted to say anything here that would reflect badly on them.
(Not that I’d have anything like that to say! Hi, parents!)
I also post the link to this blog on my personal facebook page, which means that all kinds of people, from my church friends to my sixth-grade crush to my former coworkers to my extended family, have access to what I write here.
(Hi, friends and acquaintances!)
Still, even though I know they know about this website, it’s thoroughly surreal to me when I’m talking to a family member and they refer to something specific I’ve written here — there’s still a disconnect for me between my blog life and my family life, even though I know that Venn diagram overlaps quite a bit.
Why, they’re out there, reading this, right now. (Hi, family!)
But what do I write about when what I have to contribute to the fatosphere is about my family? What do I say about the baggage I’m carrying after ten days visiting my extended family, baggage I wasn’t carrying before I left home? How do I write about the disorder and disconnect I feel when my body, my fat body, marks me as different from them in a way we’ve been trained from childhood to recognize as bad - that for all I know, they still think of as bad? Knowing that they’re listening, how can I authentically deconstruct the sick feeling of wondering if they think something’s wrong with me, that they’re reading these words right now and nodding their heads yes?
When I’m with my family, there are biscuits and sausage gravy and a half-dozen kinds of homemade jam; there are eggs and grits and coffee and so much laughter. When they’re thinking Uncle Jaime’s big breakfast, hurrah! I am thinking about getting to the table before all the armless chairs are gone so I don’t have to spend the meal wedged into a too-narrow seat. When they are laughing and making conversation I am trying to do the same thing while watching to see how many biscuits my thin cousins are eating and not taking more than them, and going easier than I’d like to on the gravy, because I don’t want them to see me eating and think, glutton. When I’m with my family I am conscious, so conscious of being the only fat person there, and I am trying desperately not to stand out.
Not to be the elephant in the room.
Later, we go camping, and I am careful to sit in one of the Premium Camp Chairs that’s designed to hold up to 325 pounds, not the regular ones that hold up to 200; if one’s not available, I make an excuse to stand. I am famished from hiking and pitching tents and chasing kids on the playground, but I eat only as many hot dogs as I think I should be seen eating, not as many as I’m hungry for. When we rent paddle boats for an hour, the boat tilts dramatically when I sit down in it, and I try to cover my mortification with false cheerfulness when I say I’d rather stay on shore and read my book with my toes in the lake.
I spend the week trying not to draw attention to the difference between my body and theirs, and trying not to reinforce the stereotypes I’m still afraid they believe: glutton, lazy, no self-control. When my size does become a limitation, I am filled with shame, certain I am fulfilling their expectations.
All the ways I feel healthy and confident at home disappear when I’m with my family. When I’m with them, all my hard-won sanity evaporates.
My therapist defined a new word for me today: countertransference, when a psychoanalyst takes on the client’s issues and experiences an emotional reaction to them, rather than remaining in an objective, diagnostic role. It’s revealed by the therapist’s personal, emotional response — when a therapist feels self-conscious about her own lack of makeup in the presence of a client who is obsessed with physical beauty, for a very simple example. In a nonclinical setting, countertransference is essentially: letting someone else’s disordered worldview infect your own healthy one. Personally taking on the other person’s emotional baggage instead of setting a boundary that says, no, I won’t carry that.
And in this case, I’ve taken one family member’s obsession with absolute control of one’s physical body - an idolization of the state of being in Perfect Physical Health and a desperation to control one’s biology – and put it onto myself, like a smelly, rotten coat over my clean clothes. I’ve held myself up to one person’s disordered, impossible standard, and then in my insecurity assumed that everyone else was measuring me by the same ridiculous norm. I made another person’s sickness my own instead of rejecting it for what it is: sickness, idolatry.
In my mind, I let another person’s disorder make me into the elephant in the room, instead of being what I am: cousin, niece, sister, daughter, granddaughter, mother. Healthy. Sane. Cheerfully imperfect.
I’m sitting in room 141 of a hospice facility in Nashville, watching my grandmother nap. Under the blankets she seems like a baby bird — tiny and curled up, frail. She’s always been a thin woman; now she’s shrunk so much that I am literally the size of four of her. She’s not actively dying, not really, but she’s in hospice care because they expect her to live less than six months.
She is too weak to move her arms; when the Visiting Pets lady comes with her Pomeranian, we place her hand on the dog’s soft back. We spoon small bites of her lunch into her mouth, like feeding a tidy, cooperative baby. She’s not really present in her body; she says she’s hungry when she’s just finished breakfast, she knows her back is uncomfortable but can’t tell if it’s soreness or itching. Inside her body, she’s still herself, but her speech is slow and quiet and her memory is untrustworthy.
I’m thinking about this state of being present in one’s body, of really inhabiting oneself, the space one takes up — of letting oneself be fully physical, unabashedly experiencing corporeal life. My grandmother has lost this option now, as her body slows toward death, but I’m not sure she ever took it when she could. She has spent her life fearfully, seeing potential for danger in everything — waiting to befall herself or her children. She parented this way, tethered to safety, afraid of camping trips, cars, always within arm’s reach; fearful for her grandchildren, too. – One summer during a family vacation my grandmother took my brothers and me to a swimming area at a lake, and forbade us from going any further out than “titty-deep” — as strong swimmers from summers of lessons, we were resentful, but she wasn’t willing to risk our going deeper. After I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, she warned me about how many accidents could be caused by oncoming traffic drifting into my lane; she closed every phone call and every letter with, “Be sure to stay away from that center line.”
So I’m thinking about this reluctance to completely invest oneself physically, this wading titty-deep into life and no farther; examining myself. Do I do this? Not from fear of injury, but from fear of fully committing a body I’m not entirely comfortable in? I know I do; I’m still afraid of this body, of how much space it inhabits, exhibits. At home in my bathroom mirror I’m confident, self-possessed; but put me on a sofa with my thin parents, aunt and uncle, cousins, and I feel like an obscene thing. I avoid certain chairs so no one sees how tight the arms are against my sides; I’m suddenly aware of my body’s curves, of how certain positions make the waistband of my jeans push visibly into my flesh. I realize how much my purple hair, my vivid nail polish and eyeliner, how much they make me visible; and I struggle to reclaim the boldness I felt when I chose to showcase my personality on my body — now I want to shrink into myself, curl up as small as possible.
But I see my grandmother propped in her hospital bed, a baby bird. And I remember how much joy there is in this flesh, this body-ness. I push myself back into the far edges of this body I’m wearing, all the soft wobbles and curves of it. I will plunge headfirst into physical me-ness; I will not stop at titty-deep.
Last weekend during Lady Gaga’s appearance on SNL, someone posted on my twitter timeline, something to the effect of, “It’s too bad Gaga dresses like an alien — she’s pretty hot when she dresses normal.” And even though I don’t have much interest in Lady Gaga, and I’m unfamiliar with most of her music — and even though I’ve made similar criticisms about her and any number of other women in the past — this time something different clicked into place with me, and I thought:
Lady Gaga can wear whatever she wants. She doesn’t owe it to you to look hot.
Seriously, I realize this is basic Feminist Theory 101. But to me, it’s just now starting to make sense, and it feels revolutionary: No woman is required to look a certain way that society deems acceptable. No person, for that matter. Lady Gaga isn’t. I’m not.
“Despite the fact that I’ve got cellulite and a poochy belly and fairly big hips for my frame, I don’t diet. Despite the fact that I spent my entire adolescence and young adult life actively hating my body and attempting to hide inside my clothing, I don’t diet. Because for one thing, few diets work permanently, with lost weight often regained within a year. And for another, I don’t believe that there is one acceptably beautiful body shape or figure. And finally, I’ve found a far better way to help myself look and feel good than attempting to diet my body into submission: I dress to my figure.”
I was reading along and thinking, Yes yes yes! People are finally starting to get it: dieting is futile, and it’s okay to not be thin! Until I got to the last sentence, and it hit me again: I don’t have to “look good” if I don’t want to. I don’t have to “dress to my figure,” especially since “dressing to your figure” is usually fashion-magazine code for “deemphasizing your fat parts and focusing attention on your non-fat parts.” As the article went on to say, “I sought out garments and accessories that drew the eye to my lovely waist, my shapely shoulders, my delicate ankles. I slowly began accumulating flattering, interesting pieces while simultaneously ditching the dull, curve-disguising ones. … I learned that I felt beautiful when I looked beautiful, and that I could look beautiful by wearing clothing that focused the observing eye on my glorious natural assets.”
“Dressing to my figure” still means conforming myself to an external standard for what is “flattering” and what is “unflattering,” for making my clothing choices based on the opinion of the observer* instead of on what I want to wear. It means replacing one set of rules (Be thin!) with for another set (If you can’t be thin, at least draw attention away from your fat parts!). And I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to conform to someone else’s notion of what makes my body look good. I can wear what I like, as an extension of my own personality.
(*We can say “the male gaze” here if you’d rather, but that’s a whole other topic I’m not capable of doing justice to.)
Choosing to style my body as an extension of myself is a celebration of my own uniqueness, my own created-ness. I’m celebrating the body and the personality God made me with. Wearing what I want to wear regardless of whether it’s in accordance with how fashion magazines think I should look or whether it makes me look “attractive,” and encouraging others to do the same, is a celebration of the beautiful diversity of human beings that God has created.
It may be that the choices I make end up being in line with what’s socially acceptable, but now I’m choosing to wear those items because they’re what I like, and society’s rules happen to line up with the things I like – not because I’m trying to conform.
My son dressed himself for preschool a few days ago in a yellow and tan striped shirt and red shorts. It wasn’t a color combination I would’ve chosen, and I gently offered to help him find an outfit that matched, but he said: “No thanks, I like wearing this.” And I realized: It really is that simple.
If “dressing to your figure” and following “fashion rules” is important to you, great. It’s your choice how you decorate your body. But don’t think it’s the only option for how to decorate your body, and don’t fool yourself into believing that the rules are anything more than reflections of our culture’s arbitrary standard for beauty. There are no “fashion police,” and how I present my body isn’t up to anyone else.
You don’t have to like my outfit. You might think that wearing horizontal stripes draws attention to my fat curves, and you might have a problem with that. You can think I shouldn’t wear a sleeveless top because my upper arms are wobbly, but I’m going to wear it anyway. You might think that what I’m wearing is too young for me or too old for me, you might think it clashes, you might think I wear too much eyeliner or that my purple hair is absurd. But I’m ignoring your opinion of how I look, society, because how I look isn’t about you at all.
Dear Lane Bryant:
Leave my tummy alone.
This weekend, when Aaron was out of town and the kids were with my in-laws, I had the all-too-rare opportunity to do some clothes shopping all by myself. There aren’t a lot of stores around here where I can actually walk inside and try things on in my size, and for all your other faults, Lane Bryant, I love that I can go into your fitting rooms and play dress-up, so that’s where I went.
I was wandering past an aisle of pants, in search of a black pencil skirt, when your first sales associate pounced. “Have you seen our new Tummy Tightening pants? They’re fabulous – they really help minimize that problem area.” She continued: “Our store is one of the test stores that gets to preview them and give them feedback so they know whether to introduce them in all of the stores, so I hope you’ll try some on and let us know what you think!”
Well, she did ask for feedback. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m pretty okay with my tummy the way it is.”
She looked startled. “Ah—oh,” she said, and left me alone.
I gathered an armload of clothes to try on – including this cute sundress, which wasn’t in on the rack in my usual size 24 but I decided to try in a 22, just for kicks — and headed back to the fitting room (although I never did find a black pencil skirt that didn’t have Tummy Tightening Technology).
The sundress didn’t fit, of course. I asked the sales associate (a different one) if they had it in the next size up; the 22 was almost perfect, but just a bit too tight in the waist and hips. “Oh, that’s easy!” said Sales Associate #2. “Just throw on some Spanx under there and it’ll fit perfect!”
“I’m not big on Spanx,” I replied. “They’re so uncomfortable.”
“Oh, who cares if you’re uncomfortable,” said SA#2, “when you look fabulous!”
Here’s the thing, Lane Bryant, that you and your sales associates don’t seem to be understanding: I already look fabulous. I’m not interested in magically squeezing myself into a dress that’s a size smaller if it means I’m itchy and sweaty and I can’t breathe. I don’t know what your fixation is with my midsection these days, but it’s just fine. I don’t need you to sell me fake self-esteem packaged as Tummy Tightening – I have plenty of real self-esteem of my own. All I want is to find clothes in my size that fit my body the way it is.
And since it seems that’s too much to ask, I’m afraid I’m leaving you for a retailer who respects me the way I am, instead of one whose corporate culture is to tell me my body is flawed. My areas don’t have any problems, Lane Bryant, is what I’m saying; so we’re through. It’s not me, it’s you.
A formerly loyal customer
Alane wrote a comment on my last post, and the reply I was writing grew into a full post of its own. I don’t mean to single her out by posting my response here; it’s just that the concerns she raises are, I think, pretty common among people who are unfamiliar with the Health at Every Size approach to weight. The comment is here; this is my response:
It’s wonderful that all those patients have been able to come off of their meds after losing weight. However, the problem is that without controlled testing, it’s impossible to determine whether their improved health is attributable to having smaller bodies or to adopting healthier behaviors, like increasing movement and eating more nutritious foods. Time and again, research has shown that it isn’t weighing less that improves health, but healthier behaviors, particularly increased movement — which are behaviors that can also result in weight loss. But, adopting healthy behaviors leads to better health even when it doesn’t coincide with weight loss.
The problem with conflating weight loss with improved health is that it leads people to believe that they are healthy only so long as their weight is down. When people regain the weight they’ve lost — as they almost inevitably do; research* shows that the vast majority of dieters regain whatever weight they lose — it often leads to their dieting again using increasingly unhealthy means, or to abandoning their prior healthy behaviors because they’re fat again so what’s the point. In other words, when people believe that exercise and healthy eating are only beneficial so long as they lead to weight loss, then there’s no motivation to continue doing these behaviors if they aren’t resulting in weight loss. This sense of failure can cause other unhealthy results, too, like stress, depression, and binge eating.
(*Sources: This is a link to a journal article that talks about all this and more, and which has links to a lot of other journal articles.)
It sounds like this information about depression isn’t news to you, though, and I’m so sorry for that. I really, truly understand the limitations you feel and for the guilt you’re carrying because of your weight, and I have so much compassion for you because I was so recently there.
I too believe God gave me this body and that I’m responsible for caring for it. And I know that for most of my life I have done a really rotten job of that. So I came into this process (of reexamining health and weight) with a LOT of guilt for how I had abused myself, both physically and emotionally. I really honestly didn’t see how I could make a shift toward better self-care and away from self-loathing, because all the poor choices I’d made were insurmountable.
But with a lot of prayer and seeking, I was reminded that the foundation of my relationship with God is forgiveness and grace, and that He wipes away my sins. Even if my sins include eating crap and not exercising. So I had a time of prayer and confession, and I sought His forgiveness for all the ways I’ve failed to take care of myself — and since then, I’ve let go of my guilt for my past treatment of my body, because I know He has wiped my past clean — He’s over it, and if He’s over it, there’s no point in my holding onto it on my own. I’m not saying I’m free of the consequences of my poor behavior – I still have to deal with a body that lacks stamina and strength and flexibility, that gets tired and out of breath too easily, that doesn’t like to take the stairs. But I can’t change my past actions; all I can do is choose better future ones.
And honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to make the lifestyle changes that I’m making now if I didn’t have that absolution to depend on. Every day I can choose to exercise, to eat intuitively, to play with my kids even when it leads to being out of breath. I can choose to take my fat body out in public and not be ashamed of it, to treat it with care and respect, to give that same respect to others. I can choose to listen to my body’s cues as a way of honoring God who made this body. And when I mess up, as I inevitably do, I can be forgiven for that, too, and I can move on. It’s so freeing.
I pray you can get there, too.
Other HAES readers: Am I missing anything? What information would you add to this? And non-HAES readers: are there other concerns you have about this approach?
Sometimes it’s hard to stay positive about my choice to abandon dieting. The past couple of weeks, I’ve had midterms to study for and a major project to complete, things that turn me into a bundle of stress and trigger the perfectionist in me to go into hyperdrive. I struggle a lot with the need to be perfect – a major recurring theme of my past four years of therapy has been the struggle to accept myself as good enough, to embrace and reveal my authentic self instead of hiding behind a faux-perfect false self.
So when it comes to mainstream diet culture and the societally-embraced notions of diet and exercise, of what a woman’s body is supposed to look like, of the requirement to self-flagellate when we “fail” at dieting, of the equation of thinness with health — it’s awfully hard to choose to reject these; because even though I believe I’m making the best decisions for my body and my (physical, mental, and emotional) health, I worry that to everyone else, it looks like I’m failing. I worry that people will see me and think, She REALLY shouldn’t wear those pants. Or I can’t believe she just ordered french fries, when she looks like that. Or I hope I never get that way.
Success at dieting — even though it’s statistically elusive, temporary, and unhealthy — is at least visible. Success at rejecting diet culture — I’m not sure it looks like anything. Sometimes — like now, when my need for perfection is going full-speed-ahead — I want success others can see.
In our culture, people give compliments for losing weight. People do not give compliments for having a great self-image.
Right now, I’m feeling surrounded by reminders that I’m “doing it wrong.” This morning, a well-meaning friend added me to a Facebook group for “healthy moms”; I clicked through to find a lot of women criticizing themselves for not sticking to their eating plans, or not making time to do their daily 100 crunches, or caving in and having a snack after the kids were in bed. I immediately went abort abort abort! and closed the page, but I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I’m feeling pretty vulnerable to these sorts of messages right now.
A lot of this vulnerability right now is because I haven’t been making time for good self-care this week. I spent eight hours sitting in a booth at Panera yesterday, drinking too much coffee and pounding away at a research paper, while my husband and kids were out at the park, enjoying the first glimmers of spring. I’ve been staying up too late studying and worrying about making an A+, I’ve stopped making time for exercising, I’m letting myself eat food I’m not hungry for to medicate my crabbiness instead of dealing with the things that are making me crabby and stressed.
So I’m taking time, right now, to do some things just for me. I’m going to re-watch the body-positive Emma Thompson video that Fat Heffalump posted this morning. I’m going to turn on Adele and dance around the living room. I’m going to set my homework aside and snuggle with my boys. I’m going to eat a grapefruit, which is sounding amazing to me right now.
And if all of that doesn’t work, I’m going to re-post this tweet from @sween on the “healthy moms” facebook page:
This is a new blog for me. I write a personal blog about a little bit of everything, Closet Narcissist, but lately wrote several posts in a row about my new perspectives about size and weight loss and health and food, and I decided to give myself a separate outlet for this topic. I think I’ll have a lot more to say about it, and this is a better place, away from the posts about my preschoolers and my husband and the rest of my life. Partly, I wanted to give myself some distance from some earlier body-shaming posts I’d written (and since removed). Having a whole new blog on which to do so is symbolic of the new start I’m giving myself with food and my body.
Here’s more about me, from my shiny new About page:
I’m Abi. I’m nearly 30 years old, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think something was wrong with my body.
I’ve been dieting in one form or another — monitoring my weight, measuring and limiting my portion size, counting calories and Points, eliminating entire food groups, or just straight up eliminating food altogether — since preadolescence. I’ve hated myself, my body, my shape, my size. I’ve felt guilt and anger and regret over my lack of willpower.
I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about food, trying not to eat food, exercising off food, obsessing about food. I’ve believed that nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. I’ve bought clothes that were too small because I knew I was going to lose weight, and then they’d fit perfectly. I’ve donated the same unworn clothes to Goodwill.
I’ve spent excessive amounts of energy trying not to be fat. And I’m still fat.
So I’m beginning to recognize that the problem isn’t with my willpower — it’s with the goal. Through the amazing community of Fat Acceptance writers online, I’m learning about how my body is designed, and I’m discovering that what it isn’t designed for is shrinking.
So I’m working on this. I’m practicing loving myself as I am, as a creation of God — instead of assuming He created me to be thin, and blaming myself for destroying His creation. I’m practicing listening to my body for what it needs, instead of trying to eat according to a system of external regulations that aren’t designed for my body. I’m learning to trust that God made me in a fearful, wonderful way that’s as capable of regulating food as it is of regulating my breathing and heartbeat.
I’m learning that being thin or fat doesn’t have to feel like anything, any more than being tall or short does. And I’m learning that sometimes, food tastes really good.
I believe that a thin body is not necessarily a healthy body, and a fat body is not necessarily an unhealthy — that a person’s health cannot be determined by just their size. I believe that a person can be healthy in any size body, and that intentionally trying to lose weight is nearly always unsuccessful, and leads to a less healthy body, not a healthier one. And most importantly, I believe that hating one’s body is completely antithetical to improving one’s health. I’m writing this blog as I try to integrate these beliefs — which I believe are validated by scientific research — into my lifestyle.
For more information and the science behind these beliefs, please read:
Thank you for being here, reading this. I hope we can get to know each other a little better.
This was originally posted on my other blog, Closet Narcissist, on March 7, 2011.
I spent the last of my Christmas money buying the book Health at Every Size (and also a Tai Chi dvd; more about that later). The book is by the ironically-named Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and she writes about the myths surrounding our culture’s obsession with dieting and weight loss and our equation of thinness with healthiness. I’ve only barely started the book — midterms are this week and reading for fun is out of the question — but this bit from the introduction especially resonated with me:
Food is simple now. I appreciate the sensuality and pleasure of eating. When I am full, I typically lose interest in food. After a few magical bites of chocolate, I am satisfied and the drive to eat dissipates. When I finish eating, I rarely think about food until I am hungry again. I don’t feel guilty afterward.
And I take pleasure in my body. I move because it feels good. I enjoy being touched. I dress in clothes that I like and don’t consider whether or not they hide my fat.
As wonderful as food is, it is only one of many pleasures in my life. I am no longer waiting to lose weight before I live my life fully. Having freed up all the energy and time that I spent on dieting or obsessing about my weight or food and having let go of my shame about these, I have greater depth and fulfillment in my life, including deeper intimacy with others.
These few paragraphs have become an ideal for me, the goal I’m longing for but almost afraid to hope for. Not obsess about food? Not feel guilt and stress and shame about eating? That’s so completely outside my experience of food as to be in another zip code – no, on another continent. I almost cannot even imagine ever feeling that way.
And yet. The more I tell myself I’m abandoning dieting and efforts at weight-control, the more I practice listening to my body to know when and what and how much to eat, the more I try to focus on my beauty and okay-ness, right-ness as a creation of a perfect God instead of my wrongness according to the narrow social ideals of beauty — the less foreign it gets. The more I choose to love and nurture my body instead of abusing and depriving it, the more natural it feels. The more I practice believing that it is okay to wear clothes I love, to dress up in ’50s pearls and liquid eyeliner and Bettie Page bangs (self-cut at 2am, after drinking — perhaps not the wisest method for hairstyling but I do love the result) instead of doing my best to disappear in boring neutral clothes and makeup, the more I find myself being honestly, truly happy with the me in the mirror. Or is it the other way around?
Maybe so. I don’t think I’m over my obsession with food. But it’s shrinking. And as food lessens its grip on my emotions, as I discover more and more that my body manages my eating choices quite well when left to its own devices, I’m becoming happier with my body — the wonderful biology of it, and its appearance too. It’s easier to love the way my body looks when I can trust the way it works.
Which is why, when I was trying on bathing suits this week (my old suit is hideous and saggy and worn through, so I ordered several different styles and sizes to try on, hoping to find one that I could live with) I ended up having difficulty choosing between two bathing suits, one to keep and one to return, and being frustrated because I love them both — the cut, the fit, the way they enhance my curves; they way they make me look at my body and think sexy, not dumpy.
In fact, given how staggeringly awful it used to feel to put on a bathing suit, and given how fully, couch-jumpingly in love I am with how these two bathing suits make me look, I think it’s not the bathing suit at all that’s making me feel beautiful. So maybe I’m already closer to my faraway goal than I thought.