**POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING IF YOU STRUGGLE WITH NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE AND BODY SHAME**
We’ve ushered in a new year. I’m sure you’ve seen some articles, commercials, and news segments emphasizing good practices for abiding by new year’s resolutions, especially around the issue of fighting fat. Apparently about 45% of people in the United States make new year’s resolutions, and, statistically, the top resolution is losing weight.
As you know, I’m writing this particular post for Women in Theology, which is a well-known feminist theological blog. I have also written in the past on how ridiculous our obsession is with (women) losing weight and striving for some (ever-receding) “ideal” of thinness. You can therefore infer how I feel about the weight loss mania that descends upon us come the turn of every new year, especially how it seems, inevitably, to plague women at rates noticeably higher than it does men.
However, I’m not simply going to tell you to opt out and forget the whole thing altogether. It’s not really my jam to say “screw resolutions!” The turn of the new year provides us an opportunity to reflect constructively on our lives, and that’s a good thing.
So I have a counter-resolution to offer. It’s phrased as a prohibition (and may therefore seem “anti-resolution” altogether) but it is an actual challenge that is probably damned hard and is going to take some effort. It’s a real thing unto itself.
Stop looking at people through the lens of their size, shape, and/or weight. Stop looking at yourself that way. Stop assuming that women who are more petite are morally superior and inherently more desirable. Stop equating health and thinness. Stop cursing your cellulite and your love handles. Stop reassuring insecure female friends, whatever size they may be, that they are “totally not fat.” Stop asking other women to feed you such toxically framed reassurances.
Stop coveting thy neighbor’s small waist. Stop looking at thy neighbor that way.
If you’re reading this, I hope you’ve already opted out of this nonsense. I mean, I’m not saying anything particularly new (though I do think it would be revolutionary if it were more thoroughly executed.) Many feminists and scholars of color are doing some excellent consciousness-raising about this problem (and fat feminism has been around for decades and is still going strong. See the hyperlink for a bibliography.). So I’m repeating something that keeps being important, and my hope is that you all are already on board and even ahead of the level at which I am pitching this post.
At the same time, I imagine that there is another group of people reading who think that voicing negative value judgments about fat and fat people (/women) is at the very least Part of The Way The World Works and at most something that’s important to safeguarding the social value of “health” so thick people don’t get all out of control and ruin the country with their obesity. Seriously, I was recently out in a group with a guy I just met who was spewing that exact vitriol (“I just hate fat people. Meh.”). It’s worth mentioning, too, that there is actually a lively feminist debate about fat acceptance and weight loss going on semi-recently. (However, in general, many of the people who think this way do not consider themselves feminists and have not given a lot of thought to how the condemnation of fat functions as a noxious weapon of patriarchy. So.)
To that first group of (more explicitly allied) readers that I named, I still really want to emphasize that I think many of us are in really deep with this issue. It’s an obvious point to say we shouldn’t fat-shame, but I’d venture that many of us still trend in that direction without the conscious and ongoing intervention of a feminist awareness that helps us unlearn that crap. And even then…
And then, to the second group I named, I’d rather hold off on making the tiresome clarifications needed to carve out some meager ground of legitimacy for my counter-resolution.
So here’s a story that will perhaps resonate with women who have been subject to similar body-scrutiny and that will also perhaps illustrate my point more clearly than a series of clarifications in the abstract ever could.
I spent Thanksgiving with my family (and, in what follows, names and relations have been altered in order to respect my family’s privacy). We are fortunate enough that many extended family members can congregate in one place. This Thanksgiving, some cousins had a party that included such vast familial expanses. I would venture to say that, in general, I’m good with my family. They’re a loving and welcoming bunch. That is why it is all the more unfortunate and yet necessary that I tell.
Before I explain what went down at this party, here’s a bit of backstory. This past year, partly out of boredom and partly out of concern for how sedentary the scholarly life can be, I started running a whole helluva lot at night. In an obvious way, I hated doing it but I immediately noticed the benefits: a clearer head, better sleep, and being immersed in something entirely different from reading/writing. I had never been particularly athletic, but I thought, “Well, why can’t I develop some athleticism in this way?” So I did. I started that about seven months ago. I don’t know if I will always do it but it’s working for me right now.
Along the way, I also lost a small, basically negligible, amount of weight. I am in no way saying that people’s decision to live in a healthier way will necessarily result in the loss of weight. That’s just what happened to me. I would be lying if I said that this outcome had not crossed my mind at the outset as something alluring, but I want to add immediately that I think I did get over it and teach myself to focus on how my body felt rather than how it looked. (I at least made progress in that direction, and I think that’s the right way to go.)
Logically, then, I did not discuss the weight loss really with anybody because something inside me rebelled against such a conversation. In fact, I feel a bit uneasy even putting it in this blog post. I have a history of struggling with my body image and trying not to hate my body. I have only started to shed some of this in the past few years, and I didn’t want to give any power to looking at myself this way (or having others look at me this way). Luckily, none of my friends who saw me during this time said anything either. I was relieved.
Back to the party. When I entered the room to greet my extended family members, my mother’s cousin Joshua (a self-confident–and generally supportive but not effusive–man of “the older generation”) exclaimed, “WOW. You look AMAZING.” He meant it. I could tell.
I felt the hairs on my neck bristle. I intuitively understood that this meant: “You look less fat.” When you have grown up with body image issues that center around your size, you learn to discern the code behind certain remarks about your appearance. I muttered a staid thanks and moved on.
Shortly after that, I ran into Joshua’s wife Marie in the kitchen. She hugged me and proclaimed joyously, “YOU HAVE LOST SO MUCH WEIGHT.” No cryptic code to discern there, at least…And yet, we have to keep in mind that losing weight is often encoded with the promise of success and happiness. So at a deeper level I suppose Marie was telling me how happy I was.
“Um, no I haven’t.”
‘Well, whatever you doing, parts are getting rearranged and put back in the right places.”
Soon after, we sat down for dinner. My MO by this point was about Getting Away, so I was glad to move on.
Joshua and I ended up being seated at the same table in the dining room. After dinner, when people were starting to get up, shift around, and help clean up, we were still seated. He picked up where he had left off.
“So what is your exercise routine?”
I minded this kind of conversation less, so I explained that I had been running most nights. I went on to talk about how this suited my nocturnal tendencies better. Joshua then talked about his morning walks. I felt okay enough while this happened.
Things took a sour turn when Joshua’s daughter, my second cousin Andrea, happened to walk by while we were conversing. Andrea is in her mid-40s with children, and we are of the same familial generation.
Joshua stops her and gets her attention. He speaks slowly and meaningfully to her but loud enough so that I can hear.
“Andrea, this one right here [nodding to me] runs at night. Just all the time. Runs.”
I feel slightly awkward but don’t yet understand what’s happening. I volunteer, “Ha, yeah…I am just really not a morning person. Can’t exercise then at all.”
Andrea nods slowly and purses her lips. I then realize what’s wrong as she walks away. I remember what I had once known but forgotten: Joshua’s perpetual vigilance about her weight, his constant beckoning of her to “slim down” and get “trim” so as to not “set a bad example” for her daughter. I remember that he has been commenting on what she eats and monitoring her size for years and years. I remember how hard she has always taken it and how she has struggled with low self-esteem for much of her life. And, at that party, I had been conscripted unknowingly into her fat-shaming.
I will not describe to you Andrea’s size, because there is no size that justifies Joshua’s behavior. It does not matter.
I felt sick about this and about my unwitting participation in reinforcing a woman’s patriarchy-induced hatred of her own body.
A couple days later, after some deliberation, I contacted Andrea and told her that I thought her father was acting weird and that she seemed/looked great to me. She seemed to appreciate that I did this, and she told me how hard it had been for her to have him constantly monitoring her weight even though his heart was supposedly in the right place. I suggested that he was projecting his own weird issues about women’s weight onto her. I left it at that. Who even knows if my contacting her had any lasting point. But I had to try.
As for myself, after this party I felt a bit depressed for a couple days. Something that I had started doing for the sake of loving myself (namely, running) had been celebrated, but for the wrong reasons: ostensibly, it somehow made my body more appealing because it was slightly smaller. Though the comments from my family were supposedly positive, they reinforced a pervasive body-optic that I was trying to escape: namely, the patriarchal one, the optic that says, “Your thighs are gross. Your hips are too big. Oh, and is your face getting fuller? That’s probably because you ate that brownie yesterday. You have to tame your flesh and bring it under control, under discipline, under punishment, in order to gain approval. It can happen, and you’ll be loved if it does, but you better work and not think for a second that your body is fine the way it is.“
My family’s compliments to me made me feel like this stupid lens that I had battled in my own head for so long was in fact actually the optic that everybody used on my body, and that, at this point in time, I was just fortunate enough to enact the appropriate amount of punishment to stave off the grossness that is my particular female figure. But I better watch out. The offer of love, of being celebrated and cherished, can be revoked if I get complacent.
I felt myself being pulled back into this toxicity, into an absolute noise that had made me intermittently miserable in my young life. I felt afraid and trapped within flesh that would eventually disappoint and betray. And I’ve been studying feminism and feminist theology for years. So.
My point in telling this story is not to demonize my family, but neither is it to trivialize the damage that they unwittingly cause. (And should these things happen again when I see them again in person, I will hopefully be ready to respond.) And even if many of us do not fat-shame in as explicit a manner as my extended family members did, we may still be implicated in the more subtle and diffuse modes of belittling each other’s bodies that happen every day.
And, by the way, what do you see when you look in the mirror?
Just try being mindful of the way you talk casually about weight and size and attractiveness and see what becomes apparent about your worldview. Not what you perhaps want to believe, but what you actually believe.
My read on the situation I experienced is that, in general, my family members are regurgitating and perpetuating the patriarchal BS into which they were indoctrinated, and they are doing so via the media of casual conversations and back-handed compliments that are not well thought through.
And it’s all very ordinary. Even the way Joshua monitors Andrea seems like the logical, benevolent (/malevolent) continuation of our cultural fat phobia. They seem like “ordinary people” to me, and that’s precisely to my point. This is therefore all the more pernicious since the way it all goes down makes it seem like it’s part of the normal fabric of everyday existence.
I would not claim that every family is this way, but I feel confident that my family is not unique.
A bit of time has passed since then, so I have some distance from this event now. I can resume the work of viewing my own body as a blessing and a presence, something to care for. Something that is already given its fundamental goodness, whatever my shape.
Lest you think I’ve slipped into blithe serenity, let me add that I try to be in this emotional space. I try. And, in and through this, I try to approach other people with a mindfulness of their ineradicable embodied dignity. I’ve tried to stop measuring human flesh.
Hey, that sounds like a good new year’s resolution. To 2014.