More Confessions of a Body Positivity Failure

CW: Weight Loss, Diet Talk, Exercise Talk

Since last June. I’ve been swimming two or three times a week, having been fortunate enough to have found a community pool and then a rec center that are welcoming of people of all sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities. I’ve also made an effort to bring some more awareness to what I eat and how I eat it: whether I’m eating out of boredom or some other emotional reason and whether I’m eating what my body wants me to eat or just putting anything in that will serve for the next meal. I’ve done both these things because I didn’t feel good in my body, being largely sedentary and eating whatever, and I haven’t followed either an exercise program or a diet with any militancy. Still,  find that I’ve lost about twenty pounds and I’m in a smaller pair of jeans.

I’m deeply conflicted about these things, especially the food part, and I was before I started doing it.

I feel better. Days when I swim, I notice some elevation of my mood, although not a lot, and it may be due to the simple fact that I’ve gotten out of the house and done something rather than sitting on my ass bored and alone all day instead of any release of endorphins. I’m glad I’m back in my smaller pair of jeans, because I missed wearing them and they fit better than any other jeans I’ve had, and the manufacturer doesn’t make that style any more.

Still, I’m deeply conflicted about what I’m doing and why.

At our last session when I brought this up, my therapist asked me, “If you feel better in your body, what’s the problem?” I told her I felt like I’d betrayed my principles, and worse, betrayed my friends, some of whom are fat activists.

Maybe I’ve done what I needed to do for myself. But the truth is, I don’t believe in weight loss. I don’t believe there are right and wrong ways to eat or good and bad foods, or any of that. And I see myself falling onto the trap of feeling virtuous when I motivate myself to make a vegetable stir fry instead of sticking a frozen pot pie in the oven because it would be easier. Sure, my body often enjoys eating the stir fry and responds with a cry of “Yay, vegetables!” But maybe it would enjoy the pot pie just as much for other reasons. I like being able to wear the smaller jeans again, but isn’t the discontinuation of that style another sign of fat oppression? I don’t like to ignore that, but at the same time, I want clothes that fit and wearing ill-fitting jeans makes me upset and depressed. And I supposed to endure that for the sake of fighting oppression?

I also feel virtuous when I go to the rec center and swim. As I said, I don’t get a lot out of the activity for its own sake, and often the feeling that I really should go is all that gets me out the door and on the road. (It was easier during the summer, when the pool was outside and there was lot of sun, and it was hot out.)

I ask myself a lot, “Why am I doing these things if they go against what I really feel and believe in?” And those feelings of virtue have a lot to do with it, which I hate. They’re the antithesis of being fat positive, which I strive to be–and fail at miserably, it seems.

Maybe these questions wouldn’t trouble me so much if I weren’t so depressed just in general. I know they didn’t bother me much in the summer, when my mood was better. But with the seasonal shift, I’ve become more and more listless and uncaring. I have no internal motivation to do anything. Nothing feels good for its own sake; nothing interests me. When I do go to the pool, it’s not because I look forward to swimming. It’s because I feel I should go, or at best because I recognize that I’ll feel marginally better going than I would if I don’t, because sitting at home with no interests and nothing to draw my attention is bad for me. And with every “should,” there’s a corresponding “Why?” Going to the pool presents its own obstacles: It’s far away, and it’s cold, and I don’t actively enjoy it–in fact, I find swimming rather pointless and boring. So why do it? Eating better is hard when I don’t feel like cooking. Even making the weekly grocery list and doing the shopping can be torturous. I’d rather do things that are easy, most days. So why pursue a healthier diet? especially when I recognize that “Health” is relative and there’s no obligation to be “healthy” anyway, or to attempt to manipulate my body either for health or size reasons? Why do anything at all, except to be “good?” Which I’ve already said is something I don’t believe in as far as food control or exercise.

My therapist suggested I write this blog post. I was initially loath to do it, because I know the subject matter can be triggering to those around me.  But I decided to go ahead and do it, because the topic preys on my mind and because–again–it’s better than sitting around doing nothing. I don’t feel I’ve expressed myself very well, and I have no answers to the questions that keep bothering me. Maybe other people do.

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Confessions of a Body Positivity Failure

TW: Weight loss, body dysphoria

I have a confession to make: I hate my body.

This is nothing new, but it’s become more and more unbearable in recent months. I hate my size. In the last seven years, I’ve gained a hundred pounds, going from a size 14 to a 2X. I feel terrible. It’s hard to climb stairs. I can’t work in the garden more than about an hour without wanting to lie down. I can’t find clothes that fit. The clothes I used to wear, clothes I loved, no longer go over my boobs, over my hips. I would give anything to be back to the size 14 I once was.

I have another confession: I am not willing to “do what it takes” to lose weight.

There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, I’m just lazy. I hate exercise for its own sake, and because I’m so out of shape, I can’t participate in a lot of exercise anyway. Partly it’s depression. I can’t get motivated to get up off the couch and do anything, much less something I don’t enjoy. The only things I DO enjoy to some degree are cooking and eating and sleeping, none of which are conducive to weight loss. As a survivor of a severe eating disorder, limiting food intake is literally bad for me. The only way I can make myself do any of these things is to beat myself up, making my days an unending round of punishment, which is something I don’t want to do. Even if I did convince myself to do it, I have no faith it would do any good.

Mostly, though, it’s that I do not want to participate in weight loss mindset. I don’t want to give my money to weight loss programs. I know they’re based on bad science. I know that all but 5% of people lose weight only to gain it back–often much more than they lost in the first place, and I’m proof enough of that. I’ve been through the cycle enough times to know.

I remember the last time I found myself in this place of despising myself and hating my body. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this time; I was much smaller and in much better physical shape to begin with. Still, I hated myself. I decided to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, so I went on Weight Watchers. The results, at first, were remarkable. I felt happy and in control. I lost about 40 lbs, enough to get me down to that size 14, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I never did reach my “goal weight,” and even when I was still on the weight loss program (rather than maintenance), I started gaining weight back. Eventually I got tired, tired of the food measuring and the limited portions and the altered recipes that were never as good as the real thing. Tired of exercising to exhaustion, doing things I didn’t really enjoy. So I stopped, stopped it all. And here I am, seven years later, bigger than I ever have been in my life and hating myself again. In worse shape than I’ve ever been in my life, because I can’t bear to do any exercise at all.

I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and I don’t know how to get free. I don’t know how to come to terms with the body I have, this body that doesn’t work the way I want it to and doesn’t look the way I want it to. The way I see myself in my mind’s eye. I don’t want to participate in a diet culture that shames people of size for being the way they are. I would never, ever even think the thoughts about other large people that I think about myself. I know that fat people have a right to exist, that no one deserves shame, that many factors go into determining body size, that size isn’t a determiner of health or worth, that no one even has an obligation to be healthy at all. But I can’t stop hating myself.

A little while ago, during the course of another conversation, one of my sisters told me she basically lives her life on Weight Watchers and has for years. I don’t want that for myself.

What do I do? I am in such pain right now, crying as I try to write this post. The voice in my head says, “If you would just…” Just what? Try harder? Try at all? Push myself? Why? for what? What do I get? It would help if I wanted anything beyond being thinner, but I don’t. I try to say, “You don’t like that you’re weak and out of shape, so engaging in exercise could help with that.” I try to set goals that aren’t weight-related, like “walk around the block without getting out of breath.” But they always cycle back to weight. “And then I can walk more blocks, and then maybe I’ll finally lose some weight.” Nothing else is valuable for its own sake. And I know this is a fucked up attitude; I know it comes from fat phobia and the way our culture is so focused on thin bodies as a measure of worth, especially women’s bodies. I know that thin equals morally good and fat equals morally bad, and I don’t believe it, I don’t. Still, deep in myself I can’t get rid of it. Not regarding myself. I don’t want health enough to detach it from the pressure to be thin and pursue health for its own sake. I just don’t care.

And maybe all of this is depression speaking. I don’t know. This turmoil has been with me forever, when I’ve been badly depressed and when I’ve been less depressed (for there is never “not depressed;” that isn’t part of my reality, ever). I want strength and beauty and maybe health too, and all those things have a price tag too steep for me to pay. They all come attached to the idea of thin, and thin is too hard to achieve, and ephemeral besides.

I go around and around in circles, and end up sitting and doing nothing. I don’t know how to get off the merry-go-round or where this post ends. I’m a failure at body positivity, and I’m a failure at weight loss conformity. I reject societal standards of beauty and I have nothing to put in their place. I’m an empty person.

Empty, empty, empty.

Fractured Mirror

My husband is the front man for a popular local Blues band. The other day as he was preparing for the latest gig, singing under his breath to make sure the songs on the set list lined up, I said, “I have this fantasy, one day I’ll come to one of your gigs all done up, in spiky high heels, a new hair-do and makeup, and a shiny dress, and strut.”

I don’t get to many of my husband’s gigs, you see.  The place his band plays most often is ninety miles away, and he has to be there for set up and sound check at four o’clock for an eight-thirty show. With the show going to eleven-thirty, tear down, and the drive coming and going, he’s gone nearly twelve hours for every three-hour gig. Since we only have one car, I couldn’t arrive later or leave earlier. Twelve hours is a bit much for me to be hanging around with no place to decompress.

He said, “I’d like to see you strut up to the stage, pull me down, and start dancing with me.”

“The problem is,” I said, “that whenever I try stuff like that it never works. It doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel. I don’t get the reaction I expect, or I get no reaction at all.” I paused. “Of course, people say you should do things for yourself and not in hopes of some reaction.”

I was thinking about this conversation this morning as I did my physical therapy. About how things never turn out quite the way I want or expect them to. And it occurred to me: other people’s reactions, or lack thereof, aren’t exactly what puts me off from dressing up and showing off. It’s the fact that those reactions don’t line up with what I feel inside. That is, I don’t get the confirmation I’d like of my interior reality. The times in the past when I have tried to strut my stuff, I generally feel pretty good about it. If I don’t feel beautiful, or hot, or confident, I can’t make the effort in the first place. But inevitably, because I’m fat (i.e., I don’t match socially accepted beauty standards), or I don’t have the “right” clothes, or some reason I don’t know, people with whom I come into contact don’t react the way they would to a beautiful, hot, confident person. At best, they don’t react as if anything is different or special about me at all. At worst, they treat me as an object of derision, “Look at that pitiful fat woman who thinks she’s all that!”

It’s like looking in a funhouse mirror that, instead of showing me the beautiful, powerful woman I feel myself to be–the one I know myself to be, when I’m thinking properly–shows me a monster, or a Cubist painting with fifteen eyes and ears where the mouth should be. Or nothing at all.

broken-mirror

I’ve also experienced the opposite kind of distortion: times when I’ve gone out dancing just for me, not meaning to impress anyone or leave a mark, are invariably the times when some random, skanky dude starts hitting on me. It’s always the skanky dudes, never the ones you might feel reciprocal interest in. Or maybe all guys are skanky when you’re just trying to have a good time for yourself.

Both circumstances make it extremely hard to trust my perception of reality, and both have led me to armor myself when appearing in public. Worse, they’ve led me to pull farther and farther inside my shell because I can’t anticipate with any confidence what’s going to happen when I step outside. Sometimes weeks pass without my leaving the house. When I do leave, I’m always on the alert, always evaluating: what’s happening here? Is this person going to make some comment I’ll have to respond to? If they do, will it be one I’m prepared for, or something out of the blue? Can I go about my business in peace? Or do I have to be ready for something weird that hasn’t entered into my plans?

Outside my home, I’m never entirely sure what’s real or what’s going on. And I’m sure at least a portion of this is due to my having CPTSD, which got exponentially worse after my three years trying to front a band where one of the members had untreated Narcissistic Personality Disorder (in my opinion, which I think is valid. I had a lot of experience with this person upon which to base my armchair diagnosis). Going farther back, my entire childhood was spent among people who never let me have a feeling or experience of my own, but twisted my every expression to be about themselves.

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if there is anything I can do. Pushing forward in spite of what others might think hasn’t worked. I’ve only succeeded in becoming more uncomfortable and insecure, and the effort is more trouble than it’s worth. When you can’t see your reflection properly, why look in a mirror at all? Letting go of expectation from others and only doing things for myself is…well, I never held much with that advice. Once, when I was struggling with writer’s block because I despaired of ever being published, a therapist told me, “Don’t write to be published! Just write for yourself!” I told her, “Plants don’t live to be watered, but if they aren’t watered, they die just the same.” I think the whole idea of doing things only for oneself can only be valid if you already have a secure starting point. It completely dismisses the fact that human beings are social animals what want and need input from others to thrive. And without expectation of some response, why bother doing anything at all? Some people might have an undamaged core propulsion system, but I don’t.

Basically, right now this fractured mirror epiphany is an idea I need to meditate on and talk to my therapist about. But I wanted to write a little about it, so I didn’t forget I had the epiphany in the first place.

What I Can’t Forgive

CW: Infertility, discussion of weight loss and eating disorders

If you’ve been around the fat activist or body positivity communities, you may have heard the axiom “What gets diagnosed in thin people gets prescribed for fat people.” What this means is the medical establishment often encourages fat people to engage in behaviors that would be seen as warning signs in thin people, or overlooks symptoms in fat people that would have them sending thin people to specialists, because ANYTHING is better than being fat, amirite?

For a person born female or assigned female at birth–by this I mean a person in possession of a uterus and ovaries and all those childbearing parts–a BIG warning sign is the cessation of menstrual periods before the age of normal menopause, which, in the United States, is 48-54 years. It often occurs in women with eating disorders, both because of weight loss and the tendency to engage in excessive exercise. Generally speaking, it takes a loss of 10% of body weight to cause amenorrhea.

Let’s look at those numbers. Say a woman who weighs 125 lbs loses 10% of her body weight, or 12.5 lbs. This leaves her weighing 112.5 lbs. If she’s 5’6″, which is an average height in the US, her BMI would be 18. (Personally I despise the BMI as a rating of anything, but it’s what the medical establishment uses, so.) Hey, that’s underweight! Better address that.

Now let’s apply the same reasoning to another 5’6″ tall woman who weighs 200 lbs. She loses 10% of her body weight, or 20 lbs, bringing her weight to 180. Her BMI is now 29. Guess what? She’s still overweight. It doesn’t matter how she lost the weight, or whether she engages in ritualistic eating patterns, or if her periods have stopped. No one will even ask about that. She has to lose over 60 more lbs (achieve a weight of 115 or less) before she hits underweight. I personally know people who started out average, who’ve been hospitalized for an eating disorder at that weight. But if you start out fat, you’ll be congratulated. If you live.

I started menstruating at twelve, and I stopped at fourteen. For five and a half years. My eating disorder hadn’t yet kicked into full force when it happened; I think I’d dropped from 145 lbs to 130. Perfectly within the normal range for a 5’7″ adolescent, despite the way my pediatrician “tsked” over my being “tubby.” No one commented on it. I was just as glad, frankly. Issues of sex and reproduction and sticky fluids disgusted my mother, who left it to the sixth grade film strip to explain matters. When I needed sanitary supplies, I took them from her box of Kotex in the hall closet without mentioning it to anyone. She didn’t hit menopause until after my cycles stopped, so that was convenient. I doubt my dad ever thought about it, despite being the one who did all the shopping for our family. Maybe he believed I got my own supplies somehow. How he thought I achieved this, having no money of my own, I have no idea. My pediatrician complimented me on “slimming down;” later, when I got a bit too thin for his liking, he sent me home with cases of liquid nutritional supplements. They piled up in the pantry, untouched.

Common wisdom is that your cycles are supposed to start again once you gain weight. Mine didn’t. It took a therapist’s intervention and several courses of Provera before that happened.

The reason I rehearse all this old, old information is this: the exact same thing happened the last time I turned my will toward losing a bunch of weight. I was bigger than I’d ever been (though not as big as I am now), and I hated it. More, I hated myself for it. I tried to talk to my then-psychiatrist; I wanted him to understand why it was so difficult and loaded a topic. Despite knowing I’d almost died of anorexia, he just said, “Well, you know how to lose weight. Eat less and be more active. If you really care about your weight, you need to do what’s necessary, not whine about it.”

Deep breath. Can I just take a moment to say how despicable it is for anyone in mental health to use the words “If you really care…?”

Anyway. It took a while, but I decided he probably knew best–he was the doctor, after all. Maybe I was just whining because I was lazy. So, I joined Weight Watchers and boosted my activity. A lot. It worked for a long while. I lost so much weight in the first few weeks that clothes I had just bought fell off of me. And my periods stopped. Again.

That was almost exactly ten years ago; I was forty-four. And while that’s not an unreasonable age to hit menopause, it isn’t quite normal, nor is it normal for women in my genetic line. My mom had cycles well into her fifties, and one of my sisters had her last child at forty-one. I asked my psychiatrist if one of my medications could have caused it; he said no. I asked my primary; she said it was probably perimenopause and my periods would probably be irregular for a number of years, blah, blah, blah, the usual stuff. Which didn’t make any sense to me; they didn’t get irregular, they simply stopped. But no one related it to my weight loss, which, incidentally, they praised. I didn’t bring it up because I was proud of it, and I didn’t want to hear that for some inexplicable reason my body reacts to the slightest weight loss by becoming infertile, which I suspected, and had since I was a teenager. There was still the matter of believing I’d have children some day, despite my age and my mental health issues.

Much later, an acupuncturist told me it probably was the weight loss rather than my age that caused my cycles to stop just then. She may have been saying that to make me feel better, I don’t know. I do know the main reason I stopped “watching my weight” and “let myself” get fat again was that I hoped desperately that, by some magic, it would restore my fertility. It didn’t. The lack of ANY other menopausal symptoms let me hope for a long time, but I’m coming to the place where I think I have to accept that I blew it; I missed my chance for children of my own. It’s hard. I’ve swallowed a lot of bad stuff in my life, but this one…I just can’t seem to get it down. And people suggest adoption (too expensive) or fostering (no space for a person older than three, and I have doubts that we’d pass muster as a foster family), or working with Partners or some other volunteer group, and none of that is what I want. Humility aside, my husband and I are intelligent and educated and self-aware, and I wanted to keep that genetic code in the pool. Too many stupid people breed. I really think that, so sue me.

I can’t forgive my doctors of ten years past for blowing me off. For giving me the easy answers, whether or not they were true (I found out later that Depakote, the mood stabilizer I took at the time and that I’m taking now, has been known to cause PCOS and infertility. I stopped taking it for a long time because of that). For not saying, “Hey, you have a history of anorexia and you’ve lost over 10% of your body weight. Maybe there’s something in that.” I can’t forgive the medical establishment for privileging a specific body size and type over actual health, to the point where the health concerns of those outside that type are routinely ignored. Even at my lowest weight recently, I was still “overweight” by a few points. So obviously there could have been no connection between my early amenorrhea and my weight loss.

But most of all, I can’t forgive myself. As much as I repeat to myself I was in a bad state and in no condition to challenge those with perceived power over me, I can’t forgive myself for not doing it. I can’t forgive myself for not pointing out the correlation between my weight loss and the cessation of my cycles, for not bringing up the similarity to my previous experience. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. At least I would have tried. The thought haunts me, the same way it haunts me how readily I crumpled after two miscarriages when I know women who’ve had three, five, ten, and gone on to have healthy children. Even women in their late forties. As I would have been, had I spoken up.

And sure, there would have been obstacles. Maybe a lot of them. There still would have been my mental health and the financial burden to address, the need to talk my husband around; I might not have been capable of those things. Some people think it’s “selfish” for older parents to have children; there would have been that judgment to face, along with all the judgments parents face. That’s if I even managed to carry a pregnancy to term, no telling what more failures would have done to me. I thought at the time I couldn’t face another miscarriage. Now I see that as cowardice.

Aslan, the godlike Lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, always tells the human characters, “You can never know what might have been.” My imagination amply provides me with “might have beens” every day, and none of them seem worse than where I am right now. I’d give everything I have for one more chance.

I think this grief and blame and regret will follow me the rest of my days.

 

 

Dysphoria

I didn’t plan to write this post on National Coming Out Day. I didn’t plan to write it at all. But I have thoughts, and you know where that leads me.

After I published the post “Ugly,” a dear friend–one I’ve known a long time, who may know me better than anyone–mentioned that the feelings I expressed are similar to those experienced by many LGBTQ+ and trans folk before coming out and/or transitioning, and that coming out and/or transitioning sometimes helps (although not always). Thinking about that, it seemed to me I’ve been attempting to come out for a while; I just don’t know what as. I’m not gay. I’m not trans. I don’t know what I am. My friend suggested Otherkin, but I have my qualms about that term for various reasons. My husband sometimes says, “You’re not human; you’re Fae.” I don’t know how serious he is, or how I feel about that, either.

Once, many years ago, when discussing social problems with a friend, I pointed out that as a white male he can expect certain things from the world. He replied, “I’m not white.” I pointed to his very pale skin and mentioned his European ancestry. He said, “I’m not white. I grew up poor in a ghetto in Detroit. All my friends were Black. I listened to Black music. That’s my culture.” We argued back and forth for a time, and eventually I conceded: he doesn’t consider himself white. I don’t think that means that he never got any of the privileges that come with white skin in our world, but I understand the internal experience. I know it’s taboo and people of color really, really object to the idea for an overwhelming number of valid reasons, but most of the time I don’t feel white, either. It doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from my whiteness in myriad ways, but it’s another thing that makes it hard to find a place to be.

The idea of my experiencing a similar dysphoria to LGBTQ+ folk interests me, though. It shines a light on many of my body issues. One thing I’ve returned to over and over again in the last years as I’ve put on so much weight is this: I don’t dislike my body because it’s fat. I dislike it because it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I started out hating myself for being fat, and that continued until very recently. But it’s no longer the case, except tangentially. The more of my body there is, the more I feel it’s not the one I’m supposed to have. I think this is one of the things that makes it so hard for me to find any love for my body or practice any form of body positivity.

Trouble is, I haven’t a clue what body I am supposed to have. My therapist asked me about this several sessions ago. I stammered, at a loss for words–a highly unusual state for me. Finally I pulled out my phone and showed her a meme I’d saved. “This is what I look like inside my head.”

wp-1474134746766.jpg

She asked why, what struck me about this picture. Again, I couldn’t answer, except to say, “She looks strong.” I don’t know what this means, either.

I am not physically strong. Once I could claim a great deal of physical endurance, if not muscle strength. Now, I can’t even claim that. And of course, there are many deceptively simple answers to building endurance and muscle strength. But in our culture, they all play into modes of thought I don’t want in my life. I don’t like many physical activities for their own sake. Forcing myself to do them is more harmful than helpful. Going to the gym and trying to engage in circuit lifting for two weeks triggered a month of PTSD flashbacks. How do I make myself do something I hate without hating myself? How do I make a change in my body without saying the body I have is wrong? How can a person be present in the moment and still believe in a future where things are different? It doesn’t help that I have no models. As in the meme above, every time I see a picture that “looks like me,” it doesn’t really look like me, because I’m fat and my body isn’t built along the lines currently considered photo-worthy.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t know what to do with these thoughts. I just had to write them down, because for a moment something seemed clear.

Body Positivity Has an Outreach Problem

Yesterday morning I was hanging around Twitter, as one does, and I ran into a conversation among some friends about how hard it is to be a woman: How much extra work you have to do, how many expectations you have to live up to, and like that. Most of the participants were women. The few men involved offered rote reassurance: “You’re beautiful as you are.” Often the women replied with denial: “Oh, it’s the filter on my avatar.” The women talked about the need to have flawless skin and makeup and hair, to be a size two in order to have any value. Some mentioned feeling like shit when they admired attractive men, because they knew they “weren’t worthy.”

It broke my heart.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but of course, being me, I didn’t. I acknowledged that the world is rough on women. I said there’s some things that aren’t in our control, but other things that are. Some of the things society says you “have to” do aren’t necessary at all. I said worth isn’t in size or shape or the color of your hair. I said you have the ability to choose not to buy into those messages. To me, all these things are basic, Body Positivity 101. I honestly didn’t expect them to be triggering and hurtful to the women involved. I didn’t expect to get pushback. But I did. I heard that telling women to “just get over it” is like telling a disabled person to get up and walk. I heard that maybe all that is true in theory, but in practice the media portrayal of beauty wins every time. I heard that hearing it’s hard for everyone isn’t helpful.

I heard a lot of stuff that made me think. My contributions, though well intended, were as wrongheaded and ineffectual as the men’s rote reassurances, for much the same reasons. They didn’t validate the pain, and they didn’t address the issue.

In hindsight, as I said, I should have kept out of it. Twitter isn’t the best place, or even a very good place, for deep conversations. What one says can too easily be misconstrued. It’s hard to recognize when someone is venting and when someone is seeking solutions; harder still to offer solutions when they’re sought. The truth is, this is a hard world for women. We are expected to maintain a particular appearance. Photo-heavy social media like Instagram make it all the more difficult to ignore. All social media drives the message home, when non-conforming and non-compliant women are subject to the vilest forms of harassment and physical beauty translates to literal currency. It’s dangerous out there. It’s dangerous for women who do conform; why take the added risk of choosing not to?

And yet. It hurts my heart that for so many of these women the very notion of conformity being a choice is so difficult and painful to grasp, as alien an idea as if it arrived on a space ship from a planet light years away. That they’ve internalized damaging ideas of beauty and worth, and the connection between the two, to the point where challenging them doesn’t enter their reality. It’s just life.

I thought we’d come farther than this. Isn’t that what body positivity is supposed to be about?

I write this from a position of privilege as a married, white women, fat but not “too” fat, and curved in the “right” places, of reasonable attractiveness, who lives in a small town and isn’t subject to the stuff women are subject to in larger cities, especially when they’re single. I don’t worry about attracting or keeping love. I don’t worry about being harassed as I walk down to the post office (actually, I do, but that’s more from my anxiety issues than any sense it will really happen). I’ve never cared about conforming and my personal style can best be described as casual and eccentric. I also have the privilege of not being required to interact with the parts of the world I don’t want to interact with. I don’t watch regular TV. I don’t work in an office. So I can talk a good line about choosing or not choosing what matters. The truth is, I don’t often have to face the consequences of my choices in the matter, and, though when we visit larger places I do worry about it, I’m largely secure and clueless. A lot of my security comes from being the obvious “possession” of a large, intimidating man. I recognize this, and I take every advantage of it. My cluelessness I can’t excuse.

I remember when I was younger and less clueless, though. I didn’t conform then, either, but I heard about it more. I remember being told at one job how much more feminine I’d look if I wore makeup. I remember struggling to fit into even alternative models of beauty, where being a cis het woman definitely put me at a disadvantage as far as finding partnerships was involved. There was always someone thinner, cooler, more punk, more earthy, more whatever was the standard. I remember being afraid of never finding love because I didn’t fit the mold, and, when I did find myself in a relationship, being afraid of being cast aside for someone “better.” I remember being turned down for job after job in California, where it seemed the only qualification I lacked was the right “look.” I remember the hurt of being turned down for roles in plays and dance pieces for not being the right “type.” I should have shown more sympathy and preached less.

Body Positivity has gone mainstream in the last few years, especially through the work of activists like Jes Baker, Virgie Tovar, and others you can read about here (the list skews heavily towards white women, unfortunately). It’s always been a huge part of my personal work and my feminism, mainly because of my history with eating disorders. Mid-treatment or so, my psychiatrist gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. I don’t remember much about it except I connected with some of it and not with most, and didn’t find it very useful. Later, as a college student in my 20s just beginning to explore the Women’s Movement, I attended the Sex, Power, and the Media lecture and presentation by former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Ann Simonton. The experience blew my mind open by pointing a finger at how media objectification of women not only ropes us into a cycle of buying clothes, beauty products, and diet schemes but also does us direct damage by propelling us into a mindset where hatred for our own bodies is seen as normal. It made me think things I’d never thought and ask questions I’d never voiced. And I swore then not to buy it any longer.

That was over thirty years ago. For me, as far as body image and self love go, they’ve been years of struggle. As much as I’d like to be able to say I rejected the media message once I saw the truth behind it, I haven’t. I have good days and bad days. And the good body days don’t look like thinking I’m cute. They look more like being able not to pay attention to my body every second. Being able not to notice that I’ve put on 70 lbs in the last few years. Being able to accept the way my belly gets compressed when I get up from the sofa, rather than despise myself for it. The bad days, well. The bad days, I sweat, I smell bad, I’m ugly, and I don’t fit in any reasonably attractive clothes. I’m lazy and gluttonous and every single stereotype of the bad fatty you can think of.  And I deserve every sorrow ever visited on me, because I choose not to conform.

So, no. When I say you can choose, I’m not saying “just get over it” and I’m not claiming it’s easy. In some ways, it’s harder. From my standpoint, though, I would rather be able to look those feelings of worthlessness in the eye and tell them “You’re a lie.” I may still feel like crap, but it’s no longer about me. It’s something that was done to me, and still is done to me every time I watch a movie or pick up a magazine.

Trying to bring this post around to some kind of point, the interactions of yesterday made me think that a certain set of people, women in particular, are falling through the cracks when it comes to body positive activism. I came to it through necessity, and it seems to me quite a few of the prominent voices did so as well (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong; I’m no authority). Spaces didn’t exist, so they created them. Clothing didn’t exist, so they invented them. Dance companies didn’t exist, so they founded them. My friend, the late Heather MacAllister, combined her love of dance with queer politics and created Big Burlesque, which led to her becoming a speaker for size activism before her death. The people in the movement I’ve known personally have been, like Heather, already of an activist mindset, and the people they reach are already receptive to the message. On some level, they’ve come to the place of “We’re fat and society’s fucked. Now what?”

This leaves behind a lot of people who haven’t quite accepted either of those premises. Women who feel bad about being fat (whether or not they objectively are), and maybe know on a cognitive level it’s programming, but don’t have the internal or external resources to combat it. Women so beaten down by media representation that they truly believe no conventionally attractive man can ever find them sexy. People, I guess I mean, of all genders who aren’t going to search the Internet for fat positivity because looking at their own bodies is too painful and hard, and standing up to the system of oppression is plain impossible.

How can the body positivity movement reach these people? I don’t think it’s good enough for any movement to wait for those of like minds to find it. It needs to actively make itself available to those in need, and this is where I see body positivity falling down.

I don’t have any good answers, or any answers at all. But maybe if enough of us start asking the question, we’ll discover one.

 

A Twisted Relationship Part III: Discipline

My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.

Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.

Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.

I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.

Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.

As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.

Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.

A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)

Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.

The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.

So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.

In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.

I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.

When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.

On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.

I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.

Part One Here

Part Two Here