This past Fourth of July weekend, I bought a couple of cute, lace-trimmed mini skirts from a vendor in the park.
“I’m working at loving the body I have,” I told my friend. “Because I think at this point, barring a miracle, this body is the one I’m going to have for the foreseeable future.”
No more than two minutes later, I saw some photos my husband had taken earlier in the day. “Oh, gods, my flabby arms! My sagging boobs! My fat knees! I look terrible! You can’t show these to ANYONE!”
Not a great job of body love, there. In all honesty, I’m not sure loving this body is a goal I can achieve. I have too much dissonance about it. Years ago, I told an old friend, “I can look at a person of any shape, size, or gender and see beauty, but I can’t see it in myself. My body doesn’t match my internal reality.” I’ve said the same thing to others, before and since.
A few weeks ago, I read this article about body dysphoria in trans* individuals. Though I’m not trans* or even queer, a lot of it resonated with me, especially the part about wanting and/or needing body modifications to feel more at home in the body you were born into. It seems like most of my life, throughout the ups and downs of weight and shape, through the eating disorders and exercise programs, I’ve been trying in vain to make my body present me to the world as the person I am inside. The person I know I am, have always known I am. Somehow, I’m not able to do this. There are complications I can’t wrap my head around, complications that go beyond “fat” or “thin” or long or short hair, or the presence or absence of secondary sex characteristics.
A lot of the time, I get along all right with my body. I even like it. It does specific things I value. It’s flexible and it has a lot of endurance. It moves well. My skin is good, and even though I’m over fifty I don’t have any wrinkles or suffer any of the physical distress other women my age do. No arthritis, no random aches and pains. Other times, my body and I don’t get along as well. I get migraines and I struggle with insomnia. Sometimes I don’t process food the right way, and I experience starvation-level hunger half an hour after eating a full meal. And yes, I’m well aware that in this paragraph I have disassociated from the positive things I’ve mentioned about my body (statements like “It’s flexible”) and owned the negative things (“I get migraines”). Both the negative and the positive are things that are familiar and comfortable to me, but none of them actually touch my internal sense of identity. This presents me with a quandary: A consistent factor of every migraine is the idea that “This isn’t me,” but that I am enduring some weird penance imposed on me from an outside source. At the same time, a good yoga session or the sight of my unwrinkled face doesn’t reinforce my experience of selfhood, either. In a real sense, nothing touches that inner “me” at all. At least, nothing I can control.
Sometimes the inviolability of my inner self seems like a good thing. I can bop along, minding my own business, and the judgments of the outside world pass me by without leaving a mark. But then, for some reason I can’t determine, some random remark or encounter gets through and stabs me in the heart. Maybe I see a cute dress that doesn’t come in my size, or the size I think is mine barely wraps around my thigh. Or the cut of a piece of clothing doesn’t suit my shape when I really want it to, because I think that particular piece of clothing expresses something about my inner reality. Or someone makes a nasty remark. Or I see a picture of my knees, and they don’t look like the knees I should have, not at all.
Any of those things might lead me to the mantra: “I’m worthless because I’m fat; I will never find love because I’m fat; etcetera.” But over the years I’ve learned that this mantra, the words of it, don’t express the actuality of what I feel. The reality is, I feel powerless to present my true being to the world and have it seen and acknowledged. The shape and size of my body limit my options of physical expression, and societal attitudes towards bodies–any bodies, but especially fat bodies, especially fat women’s bodies–limit my value in the eyes of those around me. Those eyes are my mirror, and, seeing myself reflected with contempt, I believe my internal self is contemptible.
Or something like that. Whatever, I experience a constant dissonance between the inner knowledge of myself as a valuable person and the outer reality of myself as negligible. How do I continue to believe the former without positive feedback? How do I disentangle myself of the latter when the message is everywhere?
Trying to avoid the negative messages, I limit myself further. I want to be seen, but I have an intense fear of it as well. Out of fear, I cut myself off from activities I once enjoyed–or maybe didn’t exactly enjoy, but participated in without a second thought. I used to walk downtown every day to check the mail, maybe visit the library. It was part of my routine. These days, the idea of leaving the house on my own is frightening. Someone might see me. Someone might judge. If I go for a walk because I want to stretch my legs or get some air, someone might impose on my space with a thumbs up for the “good fatty” who is dragging her offensive body up the road in the hopes it will become less offensive. I know I shouldn’t pay attention to the opinions of strangers, or even those of acquaintances. I shouldn’t “let them get to me.” They say more about those other people than they do about me. But the fact is, I FEEL those opinions deeply. Knowing they don’t make a difference to the person I am inside doesn’t keep them from hurting. As I once told my therapist, “When people throw tomatoes at you, it doesn’t matter whether those tomatoes grew in your garden or not. You get pulp on you all the same.” When people throw their baggage or express their social conditioning to me in negative ways, my own efforts at overcoming messages about my body and my worth make little difference. That stuff sticks, and it takes a long while to wash it off. Especially when I have to field a new batch of those messages every day, simply by interacting with people who have not spent the last 30-odd years looking at the culture of fat and body phobia.
I’m not a femme woman. I don’t know if this really goes here, but it’s something I’ve thought about on and off for years, and I wanted to put it somewhere. Presenting as femme makes it easier to be fat, to be a fat woman; it’s like, at least you’ve made some effort to conform to the standards of feminine appearance, so you get marginally less grief for being fat. I used to be so envious of my effortlessly femme friend, Heather, in her bustiers and heels; my personal style privileges comfort over line and freedom of movement over chic. When I don a femme outfit, it never looks right and it doesn’t last long. I’m the one who smears her badly-applied eyeliner all over her face within minutes of leaving the house. As much as I love beautiful clothes, whenever I wear them I feel as if I’ve engaged in a bizarre role play or game of dress up. They don’t feel natural to me. And this means that most of the time when I go out in public, I do not go out as myself. I don outfits like armor, and wear the clothes of somebody more acceptable, easier on the eye.
The time in my life when my inner self and my outer matched up best was my last two years in college, as a dance major. We all ran around in sweatpants and tights and ripped up T-shirts all the time, because those were the uniforms of our trade. When we got dressed up, it was inevitably for a performance. Even going to a party was a performance. I was the largest person in my class at 50 lbs less than my current size, and it did weigh on me (pun halfway intended). I considered myself less attractive, and thus less valuable, than the others in my class. But I was so different from most of them in so many ways that it wasn’t as much of an issue as it has been at other times. And anyway, I was comfortable. I didn’t have to wear a suit that didn’t fit, day in and day out.
It’s somewhat better since I got a couple pair of jeans that fit. After I put on 40+ lbs a few years ago–due to a number of factors, including changes in medication and health problems and just being tired of driving my body to conform to a shape it couldn’t naturally sustain–I didn’t own jeans for a long time. Being able to put on a pair of jeans and a decent shirt often makes the difference for me between going out and hiding at home. A woman of my size in sweatpants or leggings, who puts her comfort before her looks, runs the risk of ending up on the pages of “People of Walmart” or some other fat-shaming or classist web site. This is something I’m aware of every time I leave the house.
Speaking in general terms, comfort and beauty only go hand in hand for the thin. The more you have a body that conforms to societal standards of attractiveness, the fewer contortions you’re required to do. A person, a woman, with an acceptably svelte form, or the acceptable level of curviness, can wear her workout gear to the store or forgo makeup and dresses in favor of T-shirts, jeans, and clean skin, and still be considered attractive. For fat people, this is not the case. The bigger you are, the more effort you have to put into your appearance in order to prevent people from pointing and laughing. The more formal you have to be. The more you have to other yourself in order to be seen as you are. This is a conundrum.
I’m trying to let all that go. A few weeks ago, I suggested to my husband that we go to the beach; we hadn’t since moving to our current home. Swimming in the lake, I realized how many things I haven’t done out of body shame. How much I missed playing in the sand, smelling the water. That’s when I made the decision–again, for I’ve made the same decision over and over during the course of my life–to work on loving the body I have. Not to avoid the beach because of the way my thighs bulge, or to decline buying the cute mini skirts because of the shape of my knees. In a way it’s easier in my current location than it would be elsewhere, because there’s far less body shaming in rural areas than in urban. I see people of all sizes doing all kinds of things every day, in public no less! But in another way, it’s just as hard as it’s ever been. There’s always the chance of seeing a picture, a reflection, that reminds me of the difference between how I see myself and the way the world sees me, with all its agenda and baggage.
Right now, the best I can do is ignore the dissonance. Some day, I hope to dance.