Originally posted here like eight thousand years ago in internet time; reposted because I’ll try but I’m not sure whether I’ll get a chance to write something for Feministe today, and because it’s in a pretty different vein than the stuff I normally do and variety is the spice of a guest-blogging stint, or something. Warning for people who are (as I am) sensitive to discussion of body image related issues; this is the only post I’ve ever cried while writing.
I remember once I was talking to a friend about how I knew I should be happy with my body (implied: because I was thin; this was the way she thought, this was the way I didn’t want to think but couldn’t stop thinking, neither of us would have filled in the blank with: because it is my body and I deserve love—not even love, not even satisfaction, comfort, just that much, just peace) but I couldn’t let go of wanting to lose weight. I blamed my belly. I knew it wasn’t large, but I wanted it gone.
My friend said, “Oh, but you don’t need to diet for that, that’s just toning, just do sit-ups.”
I felt hollow.
I wanted to be dumbfounded, but I couldn’t be, because I knew this friend’s own relationship with her body too well, and I had heard this sentiment too many times, had thought this sentiment too many times, to be surprised.
I wanted to be angry, but I couldn’t be, because I knew she meant well and while the intentions of strangers don’t matter to me when I consider the effect of their actions, the intentions of my friends have always made me slow to anger and quick to forgive, too quick according to some.
We are both self-described feminists, we are deep friends, we share stories and secrets, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how to explain to her why her words were a punch in the gut. Such a stupid, simple phrase. Well-intentioned—she was trying to convince me I didn’t need to diet or hate myself (implied: because I was thin, if I were heavier it wouldn’t be kinder to discourage me after all). I had said I wanted a flatter stomach, she had told me how to get one. Doesn’t everyone want a flat stomach?
I wanted to say: No, stop, you misunderstood, I want you to tell me how to stop wanting a flat stomach, I want you to tell me it’s okay if I don’t have a flat stomach, I want you to challenge me to stop fighting with myself, I want you to tell me this is crazy, I want you to tell me all the ways I can devise to hate myself are unacceptable and would always be unacceptable no matter what I look like. I want you to tell me, I understand why you feel that way, but I as your friend can’t condone it.
I don’t remember what I said. I probably mumbled, “Yeah.”
People talk a lot about the media and body image. Feminists especially, but the issue has moved into the consciousness of people who don’t consider themselves feminists. When only the thinnest people are held up as standards of beauty, then people will want to be thin. Magazine covers tell you to diet your way to looking like celebrities. Heroin-addicted catwalk models and airbrushed actresses push the realm of attractive ever thinner, ever less attainable.
You’ve heard this before. It rings true. It sounds good. It lets us off the hook.
I don’t want to talk about the media. I want to talk about us.
I could talk about people who make fat jokes, I guess, about the arrogance and cruelty of using someone’s weight as a punchline, about the way they shame and dehumanize, but honestly, that’s too easy. Fat jokes are awful and serve to make people feel like shit. They are also very obvious and easy to get mad at.
Let’s talk about: letting herself go. Watching your weight. Language of being on guard, of control, of threat, of shame. Constant vigilance. If you are not reigning yourself in, you should be ashamed. If you are fat, you will be subject to ridicule and shame, you will be unworthy of love and affection, you will not be deserving of basic respect unless, maybe, you are trying with all your energy to change it. Never mind spending energy having fun, being a good friend, discovering your passion. You can do those things when you’re thin. If you are thin, well, you better not fuck it up. You’re okay, but you better not change. You’ve seen what will happen to you if you gain weight. If you let yourself go. If you pack on the pounds.
Let’s talk about: packing on the pounds. Ballooning. Expanding. Language of disgust, hate, and beneath that, fear. Contempt. People saying, pale jiggling arms, an automatic punchline. Thunder thighs. When boobs are that big, it’s kind of gross. People describing bodies in detail for the joy of watching their listeners’ faces contort in disgust at the idea of a body. A body not doing anything, just being a body. Cover it up. Some people have the right to wear certain clothes. She can’t pull that off. I can’t pull that off. You’re lucky you can pull that off. It’s a conditional right, based on your ability to please strangers. You owe it to strangers not to offend them by wearing what you want to wear. We have the right to condemn someone for not hiding their body to the best of their ability.
I don’t want to talk about the media. I want to talk about every day people saying these things. I want to talk about the vague acquaintance who when he ran into me two years after he saw me last, said, you look good, you got in shape. Who didn’t know I’d been stressed, I’d been mentally berating myself over every meal (and berating myself over berating myself), I’d also been physically ill. You look good, you got in shape. Who if he saw “getting in shape” then would probably see “letting herself go” now. Let’s face it: I do too, even though I’m in better physical health.
I was so grateful when the doctor told me, You need to gain weight. A pound a week. Scared, yes, because I’d been scared of gaining weight for so long. But grateful, because now I had an excuse not to want to be smaller. I still wanted to be smaller, even though my friends were getting worried about me. But now I had an excuse to shut that part of me up.
I am so grateful that my friends were worried about me, because so much of the world just saw: You look good, you got in shape.
Let’s talk about: years ago, younger times. Making fun of a fat girl. Wincing at the idea of walking behind her up stairs while she’s wearing shorts. I want to say, Guys, shut the fuck up and stop being assholes. I simper a plea for niceness. They tell me it’s only because she isn’t nice, either. I want to say, When you talk like that about someone, it makes me want to lose weight, it makes me wonder how much I would have to gain before you started talking about me like that, it doesn’t make me hate my body but it reminds me that I do. I look at the ground and mutter, “Still….”
Let’s talk about: summer. Some people just should not wear bikinis. I want to tell them about how much I wish I could enjoy the beach like when I was younger and I didn’t worry about how many people were thinking that about me. I want to tell them about how when I look at little girls on the beach I wonder how long it will take for the beach to get complicated. I want to tell them about digging my nails into my stomach until it hurts. I look away, not even letting them see my discomfort. Someone saw a woman on the beach with stretch marks, it was disgusting. Sympathetic faces of repulsion all around. I want to say, I have stretch marks, am I disgusting? I want to tell them about how hard I cried when I first saw my stretch marks. I was ten years old. Cellulite came two years later. I want to tell them about how ruined I felt, how tainted. I want to say, Fuck you. I look away.
Let’s talk about: But you’re thin. There is a part of me that knows that. There is a part of me that doesn’t. There is a part of me that doesn’t care, that wants to ask you why that’s even relevant, that wants to ask you if feeling so awful would be okay if I weren’t thin. Would I deserve it then? I want to say, No one deserves to cry over what they look like. I want to talk about loving yourself, being comfortable in your skin. Looking in the mirror without fear. About unconditional acceptance, unconditional respect. Not using bodies as punchlines. About the daily reminders that the things I have could be taken away over something as trivial as the number on the scale. About wondering how I could possibly trust something that might be so conditional.
There is a part of me that is exhausted, and wants to say, Fuck you.
I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of the constant automatic self-critique, the guilt over food, the expectation that this is a common bond, and I’m equally tired of the fact that I never point it out, I never ask people to stop, I never rock the boat. I never say, fuck you or this hurts me or this is wrong. Probably they wouldn’t listen, I tell myself to make up for the fact that I’m afraid of confrontation. Sometimes, I make an uncomfortable face and a disapproving noise. Sometimes, I ask people to stop being mean. Always, if it’s self-directed, I tell people that they’re beautiful. That they don’t need to change.
I don’t know what else to do.
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