A guest post by Spilt Milk
Once, when I was in my late teens, I had a fleeting reunion with my mother, with whom I’d had very little contact since childhood. It had been about five years since we’d seen each other in person; I was apprehensive about our meeting but mostly I was excited. Fantasies about happy mother–daughter bonding even after such a long estrangement are really that seductive. She did me a favour though and squashed them right away with her greeting: where I had imagined tearful embraces and a tumble of words was simply “My gosh, you’ve gotten fat! I was never that fat in my life, you know.” Evidently I’d smooshed her happy families fantasy too — I wasn’t the daughter she’d ordered. I was kind of shameful.
I’m aware that my little anecdote is not typical (my mother is ill and we’ve never had a ‘normal’ relationship). But I also know that some version of body-shaming goes on in most families. Mothers sitting around prodding their own cellulite and reprimanding themselves for eating a slice of cake condition their children to think it’s normal to hate their bodies. We know this so well it’s practically a cliché. It’s also a familiar kind of mother-blaming: someone develops an eating disorder, and everyone starts asking questions of the mother. Publications wanting to promote a fuzzy ideal of healthy body image may typically devote column inches to admonishing mothers for engaging in diet culture in front of their daughters. These sit nicely alongside narratives about neglectful mothers lazily ordering take-away and overbearing mothers plumping up their children with too much sugary love and fatty indulgence. Hence, I’m wary of the misogyny lurking behind critiques of mothers’ behaviour towards their bodies and food. Whilst it’s a goal of feminism to allow for the dissection and transgression of narrow beauty ideals, it’s clearly not feminist to lay the blame for the perpetuation of young people’s low self esteem upon women in the way that popular narratives about mothers and daughters often seem to do.
Still, there’s a kernel of truth in there. I do wonder how my own relationship with my body may have been different had my mother been kinder to me. Body shame is a great tool of kyriarchy and we often get it from our mothers first, as we learn how bodies can be reduced to a collection of parts and how those parts can be ranked in order of acceptability. Thighs and bums, boobs and upper arms, back-fat and belly-rolls can all be prodded and critiqued, despaired over, disparaged, loathed. This is often a social activity, too. Who doesn’t love normalising misogyny over a cup of tea and a (low calorie) biscuit while the kids play in the next room?
Me, actually. I don’t love it.
I’m fat (a lot fatter now than the 200lbs or so that so offended my mother way back then). My body is relatively healthy (I’m not going to delve into the ‘but fat is so unhealthy!’ quagmire here: that swamp’s been negotiated by others far more intrepid than me). It’s also the body that conceived and carried and birthed and fed my daughter. It’s the body that takes me through my days. It’s the body that is me. I accept it and love it because accepting and loving myself in this world that wants to tell me that I ought to be ashamed is an act of rebellion. Every time I choose to be kind to myself I’m advocating for fat acceptance.
Each moment that we choose to be kind to others by approaching them with unconditional positive regard, whatever their size or shape, we are activists. Doing this kicks back at a culture of fear and shame surrounding our bodies.
Not only are we bombarded each day with impossibly airbrushed photographs of ‘perfect’ models and other celebrities, but we see plenty of the alternative. We see the headless fatties in the news reports, the women who loathe themselves in the breast cancer campaigns, and women who make an art out of self-deprecation in sit-coms and diet ads. The unhappy, waist-minding, calorie-counting, love-handle pinching woman is such a common trope that we barely notice her anymore. Characters like Bridget Jones make it endearing to be cruel to oneself and apparently, audiences have lapped that shit right up.
The diet industry can’t survive if we don’t loathe ourselves. Jumping off the weight loss merry-go-round isn’t about giving up hope or about giving in to weakness. To the contrary, choosing to inhabit space outside of the dominant discourses about weight, as fat activists do, is not only brave and radical but it’s joyous and positive, too. And it should be possible for everyone.
Some people don’t like the term fat acceptance. Acceptance can sound too close to tolerance (oh well if you must be fat all over the place, I suppose that’s your prerogative). To others, acceptance can seem too much like resignation. Referring to what size acceptance advocates do as ‘fat activism’ instead may give more weight (har har) to it as a social justice movement, may lend a more positive and active spin. Perhaps that is true.
To me, though, acceptance is perfect. Acceptance is not giving up — it’s changing the rules.
Diet culture, even when it doesn’t involve surgeries or starvation or physical harm (although it very often does involve these things) is violence. Even the language of diet culture is about hurt: burn those calories, zap that fat, I’ve been so bad, no pain no gain, beat the hunger, crush the cravings, fight the fat, battle the bulge, waging war on obesity. See? All about the hurt. It’s no wonder then that some people seem to perceive fat acceptance as a new kind of danger. Some assume it’s a movement that promotes harm to one’s own body or to the health of others, or even to taxpayers. It doesn’t. It simply illuminates this fact: if there is a war on obesity, there’s a war on ‘obese people’ and those people have a right to resist. So we do, often by opting out of the war altogether and making peace with bodies. I don’t want to fight my body anymore and I sure as hell don’t want to fight yours, whatever size it is. In fact, I don’t even want all that rhetoric about fighting. Why are softer words (embrace, accept, listen) less utilized? Traits commonly seen as ‘feminine’ and therefore weak — like kindness – are actually some of the most effective mechanisms we have to use against fat-hate. It’s hard to sell diet pills to someone who’d like to be gentle on themselves, accept themselves for who they are, listen to what their body needs and embrace size diversity. And it’s hard to see how creating a world without diet pills wouldn’t be a win for feminism.
Not fighting isn’t necessarily surrender. It could mean being the mother who doesn’t dissect and grade her body parts in front of her children. Or, as the brilliant Charlotte Cooper reportedly said at the recent Fat Studies conference in Sydney, ‘fat activism can be as simple as walking down the street eating an icecream.’ Maybe it’s walking with someone you care about, while they eat that icecream. Gazing in the mirror and knowing that your cellulite is not a moral failing is activism (and feminism). Asking your friends to shift their focus off of your weight and onto your well-being is activism. Insisting that the bodily autonomy of everyone, no matter what size, should be honoured, is activism. And telling your doctor that you want to follow a Health At Every Size approach to health, and why? Activism.
Sometimes fat acceptance is just choosing to cut the snark and show some respect to the human body in its diverse awesomeness. A little kindness – just kindness – is one of the most powerful forms of feminist activism available to us. We should use it.
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