Over the past 8 months, I’ve been on a slow but steady weight loss plan and, in the New Year, wrote those goals down for the sake of reflecting on them externally. While I don’t exactly want to share what weight range I’m shooting for and what losses I’ve had, I do think losing weight has made me think about bodies, the pain one experiences as a body, and the effects of the changing shape of one’s body.
My weight loss goals were primarily assented to because of a sense of loss. All growing up and in college I was extremely active and played sports. I loved playing football especially, and continued that play in college and graduate school on intramural flag football teams. In the last year of my masters program, I learned I had arthritis in my hip (and had it for a while, apparently) because of a no longer ignorable level of pain when I would walk.
Beginning to see myself as a person with disability has had several levels. The reasons I took so long to see a doctor are manifold. One is that I have a (what I consider healthy) level of fear around doctors and the kinds of power differences that exist between doctors and patients (especially women and patients of color). My experiences of the medical field were colored by childhood and adult experiences of doctors (dentists too!) shaming me (or my parents) for failure to meet the norms of health in various fields. The judgement that doctors would frequently make explicit as though we were simply too stupid to be healthy (rather than perhaps too poor to afford regular dental checkups or doctors visits which would prevent more serious issues) made me extremely skeptical of most advice doctors had to offer as it was premised on ignoring the conditions that lead one (whether a poor/lower middle class child or a poor graduate student) to illness or pain in a capitalistic and oppressive economy.
Another reason I waited so long (I had the pain in my hip since my teenage years–albeit much much less pain than I now experience) was that I really valued being the tough girl and so was very invested in sucking up the pain and playing through it. I aspired to be seen as the tough girl so much so that, when my arthritis would flare up in my youth, I just adjusted my body in all kinds of ways to walk without pain. This bodily contortion to walk without pain mirrors in some way the psychic contortions that characterized my girlhood, attempting to perform the toughness equated with masculinity both as a way of aspiring to be included as one of the boys and because as a baby dyke, I simply liked physicality and experiencing certain levels of pain that occurred in the pleasure of play. That is, there were some personal desires woven into patriarchally imposed desires for toughness. It is intriguing to think about the ways my bodily failure to move in certain ways without pain always reminds me of my own girlhood failures of hiding pain. I was a very sensitive girl even as I tried to be tough, and I would often burst into tears during heated arguments because I felt so passionately (this is something I sometimes still do). In some way, then, experiencing both bodily and psychic pain points to the kinds of adaptation to failure that we perform. Both in aspiration to dominant norms (whether ability or patriarchy) and in ways that troubles those norms.
Following the loss of a certain level of ability was a loss of access to healthcare. Because I’d waited so long to see a doctor about my hip pain, my healthcare expired and we moved without real resolution of next steps in treating my arthritis. This lack of healthcare was compounded by the lack of any real social or economic support system in the place my partner and I moved to. It was a small rural town in Pennsylvania. I was the only black person in the town and we were the only out queer folk. We were both extremely depressed during those two years. I was unemployed for 8 months and my partner worked multiple part time jobs. Being in a much better social and economic situation now, it’s so clear to me how much my ability to commit to a weight loss plan is the product of both my partner and I having healthcare, having financial security, and having social support systems in place.
Is it possible that I could have lost weight while in an isolated and depressing place? Perhaps. I know people respond differently to isolation and depression. Some people might become more invested in intentionally shaping their bodies. For me, this is the complete opposite of how I cope. Working an exploitative entry-level job I hated, living in a social environment I hated where my primary valuable social interactions occurred online (thank god for WIT and Twitter) was such a mental and emotional drain that I was not capable of thinking about why I was eating 6 slices of pizza even though I was full. Indeed, the pleasure of eating and tasting food was one of the ways I made it through that isolating and depressing place. To me, then, it didn’t make sense in that context to lose weight and restrict how or what I was eating because it was one of the few pleasures I had in a very trying time for me.
The ways people moralize one’s weight have thus become even more clearly problematic to me. My ability to lose weight has come with my access to food security, housing stability, employment security, and healthcare security. Additionally, my social world has become something that can give me energy rather than draining it from me. All this to say, there are a multiplicity of reasons why one might not be able to lose weight or might not want to lose weight. Part of the thing food and economic security give me is the knowledge that there will be more good food in my future so I don’t need to eat as much of it as I can. This was certainly not my mindset when I was unemployed for 8 months or when I was a grad student barely able to cover my bills. Funnily enough, the only time I lost weight in graduate school was the summer I qualified for SNAP benefits and knew my food was secure and wasn’t burdening my finances so I didn’t need to eat as many of the sandwiches the divinity school was giving away. That is, painting intentional eating as something one simply wills into existence devoid of larger structural options is part of why we portray fat people as lacking self control rather than understanding eating habits as negotiations of the pleasure of eating within a certain set of (economic, social, psychic, etc) constraints.
Finally, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to go from being more fat to less fat. It’s easy to get interpolated into the moralizing games people play with women’s bodies around weight. If you’re fat, you’re a failure. Too skinny, you fail at being shapely. If you don’t care about being fat, you’re lazy and immoral. If you do care, you’re letting men’s desires for women to look a certain way shape your perception of yourself. If you like to eat, you’re disgusting. If you don’t eat, you’re disgusting. If you have rolls and a muffin top, you’re not sexy. Too many muscles, also not sexy and you look like a man. Get plastic surgery, you’re a terrible and sad spectacle. Dare to age, and you look old and disposable. All along my weight loss journey these are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had to navigate. What does it mean that I desire a different body than the one I’ve had in the most recent past? What aesthetics form my weight loss goals and the aspiration to a particular weight and shape? How do I refuse the opposition women get placed in by virtue of their bodily shape? How do I affirm and love my (still fat) body while also being committed to it looking a different way? What structural obstacles come to bear on my body and its shape?
I can’t say I have answers for these questions but what I try to do is pay attention to the compounded structures and forces that bring my body and desires into being as well as the personal desires I’ve discerned for myself. I tried to use a weight loss plan that wasn’t about eating good food vs. bad food or organic/local vs. processed, but helped me be more discerning about how I ate any of these things. I try to eat what I most enjoy eating which ranges from pizza and french fries to falafel and kale. This helps me sidestep the moralizing around food. I can affirm fried chicken and biscuits as equally pleasurable (and thus healthy) as food like quinoa salad. Rather than accepting the (implicitly racist) devaluation that occurs around food, I try to see the food I eat and whether it is healthy or not as tied to the sensory and social pleasure it fosters. My intentional desires for the amount of weight I want to lose is thus primarily out of my health issues (wanting to lose enough weight to ease the stress on my hip), my desire to play certain sports at a certain level, and the pleasure I get from strength training and muscles. I don’t think any of these desires exist in a pure space untainted by the culture or economics or patriarchy or whatever. And different bodies are able to exist at different weights without sacrificing the kinds of personal, social, and psychic pleasures that help them live healthy lives.
The main thing I’ve learned, then, is that bodies are both extremely susceptible and extremely resistant to norms around health. When the discourse around health becomes all about managing and forestalling risk–and the ways risk names a constellation of social anxiety around fat, poor, poc, women–it seems it loses the ability to discern precisely why we want to be “healthy” in the first place. By trying to consider what it means to me to be healthy in relation to structural issues of power, fat shaming, other definitions of health from medicine to society, I think I’ve been able to reach a satisfying weight loss plan and goals for myself. But this blog is a part of trying to remember that these goals aren’t achievable, in my world at least, without the larger kinds of structural changes I’ve experienced in my personal situation. Without the current level of security I enjoy, my definition of health would look much different because it would be characterized by economic and social survival whereas those things are a given in my current condition.