on language, and body, and fear

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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41 comments for “on language, and body, and fear

  1. June 21, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Love this.

  2. amy
    June 21, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Wait till you start to visibly age then all the habits you’ve developed over the course of your life in regards to your body will really kick into negative high gear and so will the culture around you. It only gets worse.

    Thank you for being so honest. There are no answers really except moment-by-moment pattern changing in your mind.

  3. insomniac
    June 21, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I am speechless, you said it all! Thank you for this post!

  4. June 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for sharing this. We do spend so much time on the media message and not enough time on the messages we give each other. The tiny bits of unintentional pain we inflict.

  5. Crystal
    June 21, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Thank you so much for this. It is so well-written and accurate and I knew exactly what you were talking about.

  6. June 21, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for this post. I look thinner than I am and possess thin privilege. However, I avoid the scale because of some of these comments you listed. I don’t want to have people estimate my weight and then go “Oh really?” when they see it (I’m blind and don’t have a talking scale, so I have to have someone read what it says). It hurts, and I get to use BMI calculators to say that, hey, I may be heavier than people thought, but I’m still not fat. Thereby only reinfocring the myth that it is bad to be fat.

  7. R
    June 21, 2010 at 10:55 am

    The honesty and pain ni this piece are really moving. I can’t personally identify though. I wonder if I don’t feel like this because I’m fat and have plain features. Being told from a young age that I wasn’t pretty made me learn to appreciate my body in other ways (strength, sexuality, health etc).

    My occasional feelings of dissatisfaction with my appearance never even approach the severity described above. Is this because slim women are perceived to have more responsibility to look attractive and remain so? While we fatter people are let off the hook as ‘lost causes’?

  8. June 21, 2010 at 11:07 am

    @R – I mean, it could seriously just be because I’m fucked-up in a variety of ways; while I’m not sure I’ve met a woman who has NO issues relating to her body at all, the emotional intensity varies a lot and in my experience isn’t correlated with actual weight – I’ve met more at-ease people and more stressed-out people at both ends of the weight/body type spectrum.

    I actually think this sort of situation is a good illustration of the confusing-for-some-people truth that privilege and hardship are hardly synonymous; the fact that my own personal emotional difficulties with body image are, in fact, more intense than those of some fat women doesn’t negate my thin privilege (which to be honest is something I feel like a lot of thin women I see online don’t seem to be aware of, and certainly a lot of people broadly seem to struggle with the idea that because their life has been hard, possibly yes even harder than many people dealing with more kinds of oppressions than they are, that doesn’t mean they do not, in fact, have whatever kinds of privilege they have, because privilege isn’t about you).

    (lol that was like a mini-post on its own, whoops.)

  9. June 21, 2010 at 11:47 am

    I had a friend who used to – every so often, this didn’t happen every time I saw her, but often enough that it made me very uncomfortable – tell me how much she hated her body, how difficult it was to buy nice clothes for herself because she was so tall and so fat and therefore so unfeminine.

    She was about 4 inches shorter than me and AT LEAST fifty pounds lighter than me at that time. She wasn’t fashion-model skinny and she wasn’t fashion-model short. I have no doubt she had her body image problems because I’ve yet to meet a woman, no matter how attractive, who DIDN’T have body image problems. But her reiteration of how unattractive she was because she was “SO tall” and “SO fat” just made me feel grotesque.

    I still don’t know what she wanted from me when she told me this. Mostly I just used to look down and mutter “Yes…” because it was always framed in terms of her difficulty buying “nice” clothes, and at the time, I greatly preferred jeans, t-shirts, and other butch clothing to anything “nice”. (I still do, and part of that is, I’ve come to recognize, because I was taught by my mom from years of childhood shaming, that I would never look good in anything conventionally feminine.)

    I don’t know what she was trying to communicate with me. Maybe she just felt comfortable enough to talk about her body image issues with me. I relate to a lot of what you are saying in this post. But I can’t think of these occasional one-sided conversations with my shorter/thinner friend without remembering what it felt like to sit there like a tall fat grotesque lump while she complained about her difficulties.

    I’m not grotesque. It wasn’t her fault that other people have made it clear they see me that way. (My mom and my older brother, chiefly.) But. I work hard to love me the way I am: I really hated being faced with her unlove for herself which she felt confident enough to make no secret of… at the time, I couldn’t have written a comment like this one. I was too ashamed of being fat.

  10. June 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    It really is unfortunate how we love to criticize each other for every little flaw. If we were truly okay with ourselves, we wouldn’t feel the need to project or to cut other people down to make ourselves feel better. That’s the sort of state of mind I seek to find.

    We’re all worthy of love and acceptance regardless of how we look or how we feel about ourselves. We try all of these ways to jump through hoops to seem as though we are something we think we ought to be, but our own inward self-esteem is what truly matters.

  11. June 21, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Well, the things with friends in particular is that sometimes, no matter how good they are to you and how good you are to them, ya’ll are still not going to be able to read each other’s minds. Sometimes all we want is the assurance that hey, we’re OK, we ought to be comfortable with ourselves, no need to stress. But sometimes, we want specific instructions regarding a specific fitness regime. I think that nobody is at fault with signals get crossed (except for maybe the culture that we live under to begin with) – but that doesn’t minimize the pain of the experience somehow. In fact, it sort of makes it worse.

    I’ve got major body issues myself, so I believe I relate to the hurt that you are talking about here. But I want to tell you – it can get better. Hell, it got better for me at one point even as I was working on a fashion magazine, where I was actively involved in decision such as – “which very thin model do we put on the cover?”. For me, the trick wasn’t so much positive thinking as it was a huge shift in priorities. There came a point when I no longer had the time or inclination to care. So while I don’t necessarily recommend major life upheavals as a great way to “cure” the body image stuff… well, I can just say that it can be a positive side-effect to all the life upheaval crap.

    Remembering that some people are simply worthless pieces of shit with worthless opinions to begin with helps too, imho. Next time someone makes a ridiculous fat joke next to you? You can try hitting the special “worthless piece of shit” button inside your mind. Works for me. People who so actively police one another’s looks tend to be so unhappy underneath it all anyway. Feeling sorry for them it yet another option. I feel that this goes for both men and women – but I do tend to give women more of a break, because the pressure on us in this regard is greater than it is on men.

  12. P
    June 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm


    I was never the skinny one. I used to berate myself for not having the willpower to be the skinny one. It’s pretty bad when you feel guilty in high school for not having the control to have an eating disorder, and not realizing that the emotional eating you did to compensate for this feeling of out-of-control was quite possibly disordered.

    I was raised by a super-taster, who associates all memories with food. I don’t know if I’m one, but I cook by taste and smell, and I remember tastes far more clearly than sound. Food is an emotional connector for me. Food is more important than what I look like, but that doesn’t mean the taunts didn’t hurt.

    I went through a bout of major depression in college, major enough that I avoided the dining hall, where all my friends were. I didn’t eat much, it all tasted like ashes. I spent time in the gym, instead, because I could run and be alone. I dropped thirty pounds. People started talking to me who had never given me the time of day before. It was the only time in my life I ever neared the “Ideal weight” prescribed in high school Nutrition class. I had to run for two hours a day. Every day.

    I’ve gained those thirty pounds back. I don’t really want to go back to that depression, as much as I liked actually being looked at once in a while. I joined a gym recently, to get some muscle tone back. The fitness assessment involved a body-fat reading. I felt like I was back in high school all over again.

  13. June 21, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Thank you for this post.

    I cycle. I cycle because I love to, because I like the way it feels. I cycle to work because it helps me de-stress, because I care about the environment.

    It’s hard to talk about how much it screws with me that my co-workers see the fact that I’m cycling as a huge source of respect. Because I’m fat. But it’s okay because I’m “doing something about it”. It’s hard to talk about how much it screws up my head that every time I turn a corner in the office somebody asks me, “Did you ride in to work today?” And on the days when I decided to take the bus because I wanted to read some more of my book, and I spent the whole morning telling myself that that’s okay, that choosing to do something else that I love, that choosing to enjoy my book, is okay and doesn’t make me a bad person, how I feel completely awash with shame every time that happens (and it always does) and I have to say, “No, not today.”

    It’s hard to talk about how when I started cycling to work regularly was one of the only times of my adult life my parents took an interest in something I was doing and might have actually felt proud of me. (And how they’ve lapsed into disappointment after hearing me say, “No, not today,” to them as well.)

    And when I did first start cycling and my weight went down a little bit for a while and someone I’d never met before told me in line at the deli that I looked good, that I’d been losing weight, one of the only times a stranger has ever complimented me in my life, and it made me wonder about this person who I didn’t even think I’d ever seen before and what they’d been thinking about me *before* then. And what they think of me now (I’m heavier now than I was when I started).

    And the day that the cute guy I’d had been crushing on for years started a conversation with me, but instead of, “Hi, I’m [whoever],” it was, “Hey, what’s your secret to losing weight?” And what he thought of me before and would think of me now if he still worked here.

    I have a friend online who is so pretty, but her blog lately has become a nonstop freight train of self-hate about her appearance, comparing herself continually to figure skater Johnny Weir. I tried to tell her for ages that she’s beautiful as she is, and doesn’t need the different tailored outfits every day, the carefully and professionally coifed hairstyles, the “perfect” makeup, the entourage, to be so. Now, I can barely stand to read her blog, and I’m not sure what to do about it, if anything.

    Another friend posted a Facebook status update: “I spent all evening in class drawing a naked old guy.” The comments were all laughter and disgust. I spoke up and said that that naked old guy is probably beautiful to someone, probably to a lot of people. That being old isn’t disgusting, it’s a normal part of life. That we’d all be there someday. My friend left a post on my well, “Right on!” But why didn’t he say that in his own comment thread? Why couldn’t he agree in front of his other friends?

  14. June 21, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    I think, having had similar conversation to the one you describe with friends, and felt a similar way–

    It is sometimes, but not always their fault. Like me, they’ve been conditioned to buy wholesale into the beauty myth. They also cannot read my mind. The delicately calibrated game of when to offer advice on “oh, why don’t you do some X” and “oh, but you aren’t X!/should not feel that way” is not always clear to the person on the other end. I usually try to solve it by refusing to engage with diet-talk or body shaming talk of any kind, not always successfully. We have to remember to cut ourselves a lot of slack.

    It is sometimes hard to recognize when their is a pattern and when that pattern is bad enough to merit detaching from that person/friend.

    Full disclosure: I am a thin person. I have thin privilege like whoa, especially at this point in my life.

    Good post.

  15. June 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you

  16. June 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for this post! I love how you shifted the focus from the media to the little things we all say to each other every day. As a woman who’s always felt fat (but not fat enough that others would call me fat) I really related to everything you said.

    I’m fucking tired of it all too. But I never know how to stand up to people and be the one who speaks out. I don’t want to rock the boat (especially at the office where a lot of this kind of talk goes down over lunch).

  17. June 21, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    For years, I did the same thing you did with your sit-up story. I complained about not having cute clothes, about feeling unpretty, in hopes that someone would tell me, “You’re adorable! You don’t need to be thin! It’s not worth it!” All I got was diet advice from people who had never been told they needed to lose 100 lbs, like I had. It sucks.

    Right now I live with roommates, but as soon as my husband and I get our own place, I want to institute a “no diet talk” rule. We had a BBQ over Memorial day, and two of the women there were on Weight Watchers, and I just couldn’t deal with the guilty talk. They’re welcome to decide what goes into their bodies, but I don’t want to hear about what new points system WW is doing. That company has stolen enough of my life.

  18. June 21, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Beautiful. Sad, and hard to read, and makes me want to embrace you and tell you that you are beautiful, and no you don’t need to do sit ups, you are a woman and have *organs* in that belly, and it’s beautiful. And I don’t even know you. ;)

    I am lucky enough to not have friends who constantly run down their own bodies (other than the “man! I’m feeling old today” gripes). I am unlucky enough to work with beautiful professional dancers who occasionally have to tell me that they need to lose weight. I tell them to come stand by me — they’ll feel much better. I want to lose some weight. I tell myself it’s because my knees now ache, and I can’t perform some of the dance movements that I used to be able to, and my (very expensive) costumes don’t fit any more. But the truth is that I hate what has happened to my body in the last 18 years. I hate going into a store and wondering if they carry both my size AND petites. I hate disbelieving my husband when he says it doesn’t matter to him. And still, because I work from home and don’t socialize with people who obsess, I am luckier than a lot of women. My body image is pretty accurate, really, and most days I don’t *hate* it. But still…it’s there.

    Beautiful post.

  19. Emburii
    June 21, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    This post means a lot to me.

    I have thin privilege; I can fit in size 2 jeans, and have a chest-size to waist and hip ratio that satisfies the lower bounds of societal acceptance. But…I have a stomach. A slight paunch, supposedly, nothing grotesque. But just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I can’t sleep with my arms touching my stomach, with my legs tucked up, anything that reminds me that I’m FAT and LAZY and people would scream and run away if they saw my bare stomach. And then of course I feel ashamed for being ‘hysterical’ over that ‘minor issue’…

    I don’t know how to conclude this, other than to say thank you.

  20. Emburii
    June 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Erf. ‘Grotesque’ was supposed to be in quotes, and the comment looks very different without them. Sorry about that.

  21. June 21, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks to those who pointed out, earlier in the comments, that privilege and suffering are two different issues, and more privilege doesn’t necessarily mean less suffering. I think it’s a crucial distinction that’s easily overlooked in a lot of privilege/oppression conversations. Thank you for reposting this, and to everyone for the thoughtful rejoinders.

  22. June 21, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Yes yes YES to privilege != lack of suffering. I’ve had so many *facepalm* moments when talking about fat acceptance where people have started assuming that, by my use of fat acceptance rather than body acceptance and focusing on fat oppression, I’m negating the very real feelings of inadequacy that many thin people have about their bodies. But that’s just not the way it works. As a fat woman, I actually experience fairly little suffering on a day-to-day basis. I tend to be aware of fat-unfriendly spaces and am learning to be unapologetic about my size. I’ve gotten fairly good at learning to tune out fat-negative messages. However, those fat-negative messages influence the culture and people around me, leading to different kinds of problems, like being afraid of flying, or not finding seating in a classroom, or being turned down for a job because of my appearance.

  23. Eleanor
    June 21, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks for a great post.

    If you haven’t already, read Bodies by Susie Orbach. Very much on this subject. Incredible book. Highly highly recommended!

  24. Jadey
    June 22, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Thank you for this post. It was difficult to read.

    I am fat woman. After being “overweight” (over whose weight?) for many years, I am now hovering closer to the obese end of the scale. I have long felt (or wanted to feel) that I am “passing thin” – that if I dress and carry myself correctly, I can be mistaken for a skinnier person than I am (as “average” weight as opposed to “overweight”, specifically). My feelings on this are a mix of A) shame for being fat, B) shame for feeling thin sometimes, C) shame for wanting to feel thin, D) shame for feeling thin when actually I am fat, E) shame for not being fatter but still claiming the fat identity, F) shame for not wanting to be fatter, and G) shame for not being honest about whether I am fat or thin.

    Really, I don’t think I have ever confused or conned anyone about my weight – I have been fat since adolescence and nothing short of a serious illness is going to make me thin. But even as I fight to feel okay with that, I react with a series of ruses and phantasms and an ever-shifting target of how I am “supposed” to feel. Health (or, “health”, I suppose, though I’m nearing my quota of quotations now) for me is the worst offender in terms of misdirected motivations – my mental health has suffered considerably over thoughts of my physical invalidity as a person. Worse, behaviours that simply happen to have, as unfortunate side effects, outcomes of respectable and responsible healthiness now feel like an admission of my prior worthlessness – grapefruit and long walks have lost their appeal. I’m certainly not stepping on a scale at the doctor’s any time soon.

    I could cope with stupid media messages – media crit is fun for the whole family. I mean, it might sting and subtly influence my consciousness, but that’s nothing on the helplessness I feel when faced by the body hatred or criticism of the people I look to in order to help me make sense of the world.

  25. Allison
    June 22, 2010 at 10:04 am

    As someone who spent most of college fighting with my body (vis a vie Anorexia, cycled with binge eating) this article spoke leaps and bounds to me. While I have been “recovered” for a year and a half, only within the last two months have I been proactively trying to embrace my body, to love my body, and to accept my body. Only recently have I begun exercising for “fun” and not for “thinness.” At first, recovery for me meant being able to eat “normal” meals and weigh a “normal” or acceptable (what a loaded word, huh?) amount. I am now realizing that recovery is not about meals or weight, but about accepting one’s self for one’s self. And it is a conscious, everyday, moment-by-moment effort. And I’m afraid, that in such a society, it will continue to have to be a conscious, every day effort. It is too easy to forget and lose track of what really matters.

    I urge everyone to participate in Operation Beautiful–a movement founded by the Caitlin of Healthy Tipping Point (a food blog) While you can find more information on her blog, the project urges women (and men) to leave inspiring, positive messages about beauty (inner and outer) and the body on post-it notes in dressing rooms, bathrooms, wherever. I try to do this as much as I can, and I hope that others begin to as well. We could all use a reminder once in a while.

    Solidarity is a powerful thing.

  26. ACG
    June 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Isabel – I had something similar to your experience with “looking good” because you “got in shape.” Right after college, I worked for a fashion magazine (horrible idea, by the way. No one should ever do it). At the time, I had been spending a lot of time backpacking, walking around campus, working out, and I was prouder of my body than I’d ever been simply because of how physically capable it was and the things I could do with it.

    Then I started working at the magazine, and suddenly the body I loved was wrong. Suddenly, I was interacting with “fashion people” and attending events that required me to borrow sample-size gowns. My very muscular body, of course, didn’t fit into them, and so I was falling back on bad high school habits and starving and purging. The thinner I got, the more successful I became at my job, because suddenly I looked right. I was more accepted, I got more access, I got positive attention, and I was sicker than I’d ever been. It was always you look fantastic, not you look unhappy. I still haven’t quite recovered, and I still haven’t regained that healthy body that made me so proud.

  27. ACG
    June 22, 2010 at 10:08 am

    (And, yes, full disclosure, I do recognize my privilege as a reasonably thin person and as an able-bodied one.)

  28. Jadey
    June 22, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Re-reading my comment just a couple of hours later, I feel intensely dissociated from everything I wrote. Highly personal as writing that comment was (and I took a good half hour or more to write and re-write it until I was sufficiently satisfied), here I am taking a break at work, and finding what I wrote unrecognizable. Especially “I am a fat woman.” I cannot make my brain accept that statement as true, as much as I *want* to and as much as I believe it is true (and not a bad thing for being true).


  29. Partial Human
    June 22, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Jesurgislac – I feel your pain. I had a ‘friend’ who did exactly that for years. At one point in our friendship I lost a lot of weight because I was seriously ill, and she responded by a) accusing me of having an ED, and b) trying to fatten me back up so that I would still be the fattest one.

    I’ve hated my body (it seems) since I was born. Being brought up by an eating-disordered, slimming club leading, calorie-counting freak has damaged me immeasurably. Food was restricted, locked up, doled out only by her. I remember being five and getting half a grapefruit for breakfast instead of lovely Weetabix because I was ‘too fat’. I remember being 9 and locking myself in the bathroom for four hours, in hysterical tears, because I ‘looked enormous’ in my new swimming costume. I remember being told “You do realise that you’ll never be pretty or popular like your friends, don’t you?” by the calorie-obsessed witch.

    I’m physically and neurologically disabled now (since I was 21), with visual impairment. Exercise is difficult, I don’t get out much, and I can honestly say that until two years ago I honestly thought that the fatness associated with my lifestyle was worse than the constant pain, the vomiting, the dizziness, the sight-loss and the social isolation. That’s how hard the “FAT IS THE WORST THING EVER!” had been drummed into me. At 32, for the first time in my life, I can eat in restaurants, I can have cake if I want to without purging, I can attend social events without sobbing for three days beforehand, and nobody is counting my calorie intake. I can use my wheelchair to spare pain and exhaustion without worrying that I’m ‘lazy’.

    My mother was diagnosed with cancer last year. All she cared about was the size of her stomach, all she’s bragged about since her surgery is her waistband size. Thank God I escaped.

  30. Mijan
    June 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Brilliant essay.

    I used to be really fat, and years ago I decided I wanted to be thin. I never became “thin” but I became quite fit and healthy. But I had to work at it CONSTANTLY. I couldn’t eat the fried food or the cake or the cookies. I had to go to the gym several days a week. And I still do.

    And yet my BMI still says I’m overweight, almost obese.

    And yet people tell me, “Oh, you’re just so LUCKY that you’re thin,” as if I pulled a magic straw from the hat and got mystically graced with non-obesity.

    And yet other overweight people look at me with scorn because I’m “thin”.

    And actual “thin” people try to tell me, “Oh, if you just tired THIS diet or THAT exercise, you’d lose those last twenty pounds,” as if I haven’t been an exercise nut and health-food fanatic for almost two decades.

    It all makes me wonder… what the hell are we doing to ourselves, people? The constant hassles, nit-picking, judgments, and mostly, the ASSUMPTIONS. And it makes me wonder… will we ever change?

  31. Madras
    June 23, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I can relate to not saying anything to rock the boat, and for criticizing yourself for wanting to be thin. If I’m criticizing myself for not being thin, or wanting to be thin, etc.etc.etc., then maybe its not based on being thin/fat whatever, its something about the way we’ve been taught to see things.

  32. convexed
    June 23, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’m overweight, but usually too busy to think about how my body looks. I’m not hard on myself usually, because the pursuit of my interests doesn’t require me to do weigh-ins. Once, over drinks, my (much thinner) friends got into the conversation of ‘if you could change one thing about your body, what would it be’. When I was asked, I said I wished my back and neck would stop hurting (I have fibromyalgia).
    One of my friends told me she admired how ‘healthy’ my response was, how I had my priorities straight, etc. Made me wonder what she expected me to say, or to want, or what she would want to change about my body if she was the one who had to live in it.
    It was just a little thing but it discouraged me for a few weeks that my friends might secretly think I’m unattractive and are glad they don’t look like me.

  33. convexed
    June 23, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Anyway, I also realize how my own words are often careless, and reading these comments, how much better I need to be about how I speak about bodies. I second the recommendation of Bodies by Susie Orbach—but am going to ask my closest friends to go in with me to keep accountable on how we talk about our own bodies and each others’ and the bodies of people we don’t know. Isabel has it right—so much damage is done on the level of our daily interactions and absent-minded comments.

  34. C
    June 24, 2010 at 1:51 am

    Thank you very much for writing this.
    I’m not sure how I feel about body image. I think every person is beautiful and deserves to love their bodies whole heartedly, but at the same time in the back of my mind I think that it doesn’t apply to me. That I don’t deserve to love my body. It’s contradictory because I feel both statements are true simutaneously. I read feminist blogs (obviously) and will tell anyone who’ll listen about our collective freedom to look however we want, and we don’t have to pay attention to anyone who tries to tell us how we should look, or how skinny we should be – but I still hate trying on clothing with a passion because it makes me feel ugly and think my life would be infinitely better if my thighs weren’t quite so large.

  35. Nicole
    June 24, 2010 at 2:27 am

    I just wanted to say thank you for this. Just… really, thank you.

  36. Liz
    June 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    @ Jesurgislac- I know these friends very well. I love them, but for heaven’s sake!

    As the resident fattie I am constantly amazed by the continuous streams of self-hating that my thinner friends unleash on themselves and others. Amazed first of all because they expect my 6 foot 260lb self to affirm their feelings of disgust and derision for what is in reality a perfectly average set of body shapes and apperances. Amazed as well because it’s so inward-directed and oblivious to the very real harm that we can do to each other. As Isabel’s piece shows, you never know where people are at with their bodies- it’s such an intimate and fraught connection for so many people that fat-policing affects everyone, not just the most visibly fat among us.

    Thanks for the piece. It really spoke to me, to the type of group-bonding over fat-hating that used to leave me feeling left on the outside.

  37. KL
    June 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Wonderful post. and to commentor “C”–exactly how i feel. i dont know how many times i get up in arms about people critiquing the way a woman looks or how upset i feel when my friends who are beautiful worry about their weight or how they look. I believe it with conviction that all women are beautiful exactly as they are, but for some reason that doesn’t feel like it applies to me. in my head i know i should love my body just the way it is because i really believe all women should, but i feel like i’m the exception. like ‘yeah, you’re beautiful exactly as you are, but im just not”. I’m pregnant right now which at first exacerbated how self conscious i am, but I made a decision after reading this post and all the comments, that I am going to learn to love myself exactly as I am because i want that for my daughter. And how will i teach her to love herself if i don’t love myself?

  38. Miriam Heddy
    June 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I love this piece of writing.

    But I’m finding myself really disturbed by the comments.

    In some very real ways, this post calls for us to think critically about the ways that public expressions of body hatred (hatred of your own body or body snarking others) hurts women.

    Yet in comment after comment, feminists here are “confessing” to hating their own bodies and each comment is then met by another confession. And yes, they’re doing so alongside admitting they see it as a problem, but still…

    I really wonder whether this is actually an improvement over the unapologetic, uncritical “I hate my body” fest that is part and parcel of female bonding.

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