Sunday, January 4, 2015

Everybody I Love Is Imperfect: Some Words on Fat-Shaming for 2015

NOTE: I don't know how to write this post. So many people are doing it better than I can, but I feel like I need to add my voice to the chorus. We need to be louder. 

It's the start of a new year AKA the onslaught of weight-loss talk. Despite increased body-positive pushback to all the negative fat-talk, the pressure to be thinner prevails--new year, same story. Too many women think the most important contribution they can make in 2015 is to weigh less, to take up less space in the world. 

I used to resolve to lose weight every year too. Starting in high school through most of my 20s, I thought of myself as being too fat. I used all the terminology of the day: "I don't want to lose weight. I just want to lose fat! I just want to be healthy!" I ran, I lifted, I swam, I hung out in Shape Magazine's discussion forums, I tried diet pills, I weighed myself every day, I talked about weight loss with friends, I criticized aloud what I ate and how I looked, I sometimes drank water to make my hunger less intense, and I coveted other women's bodies. As a footnote to my 20s, I earned two degrees, made good money while finishing grad school, met some wonderful friends, and became a college professor. But who cares about all that when there's belly fat to be lost? 

You know that trope where the woman asks her male partner, "Does this dress make me look fat?" The joke is that the poor guy has no way to answer that. The woman in this scene clearly believes she looks fat or is fat, and there's nothing the guy can say to get out of it. We believe that this guy loves his partner and probably doesn't think about her as fat or skinny, but no matter how he answers, she'll believe the worst about herself but blame him for it. That poor guy. Women are crazy. 

All right, just stop right there. Here's what's crazy: That woman is normal. I'm normal. I don't have a disorder. I'm not crazy. I'm just a woman existing in our culture today who succumbed to the intense pressure to believe that the number on a scale was what she was worth. Maybe more accurately, I have the same disorder everyone else has.

In 2006, I turned a corner. I looked back and saw that nothing I'd been doing had gotten me to the body I wanted. So, instead of fighting, I let go. I decided that food and exercise should be enjoyable. Gradually, over the next few years, I stopped my daily weigh-ins and internal monologues of self-critique in front of the mirror. No more magazines or comparing myself to other women. It took effort (it still does). The current is strong and swimming upstream is difficult, but I shed a lot of the hate I had for myself and started living my life on my terms. 

If we are to believe confidence is a woman's greatest characteristic, the trait that men find most attractive, I should have been at my most attractive. And, in fact, a part of me did feel that way. I felt for the first time that I deserved to be loved and appreciated for who I was. 

At the same time, my then-husband/now-ex looked at my transformation with disdain. He used to tell me that he liked my sense of independence, but when I rid myself of that particular baggage, he resented me for it.

Remember that poor guy tragically caught in the does-this-dress-make-me-look-fat trap? The belief that it's women who are projecting innate low self-esteem issues is so deep-seated that I can't even write my own damned story without feeling like I must provide evidence that I wasn't just imagining my partner's disgust. But I'm not going to. I'm already airing a lot of private and painful memories. It wasn't a secret that he wasn't interested in me physically anymore, and it wasn't a secret why: I didn't look the way he wanted me to, and in his words, he couldn't help what he was attracted to.

My body had changed. After all, several years had passed since we first met, and because I'm a living, breathing organism, my physical and emotional experiences affected my body over time. My change in appearance wasn't the real issue, though. I hadn't actually changed that much and I had never looked like his ideal, but what did change is that I had stopped killing myself trying to be someone else. He liked me better when I was spending two hours a day at the gym and ogling other women's bodies the way he did. He liked me better when I hated my body.

I desperately wanted to believe I was projecting onto him because if that were true, once he saw my increased confidence, he'd love me more. Easy! But the more I paid attention to being smarter, kinder, and more successful in my career, the less he loved me and the more he tried to make me feel like I was terrible for not being hot enough for him. 

Yet I still can't simply call him a shit person because, like me, he wasn't suffering from a disorder. He wasn't an anomaly, an isolated case of bad human behavior. He was normal. Plenty of his friends and family members, if they'd known our more intimate details, would have supported him. I know this because one of his friends on Facebook decried some Playtex bra commercial, saying that women wouldn't need a more comfortable bra strap if they'd just lose weight (that was a woman, by the way). I also know this because his father went to see the movie Precious thinking it was a story about a fat girl losing weight and walked out of the theater. Because a fat girl can't have a story worth watching that doesn't involve weight loss.

I feel like I got out of a cult, a world so upside down that sanity looks like madness.

Today, I'm not the least bit sad that the marriage ended, but I am sad that I wasted so much time and energy. I'm sad that I let someone try to keep me down. 

Don't get me wrong; when I say it saddens me, I don't mean that the women making these resolutions for the year are sad. I totally get why that happens. I'm sad that as a culture, we've accepted a lot of harmful ideas like women intrinsically hate their bodies and body size reflects value as a human being. Words like "healthy" have been turned in a big, fat lie. 

I was made to feel ugly and unworthy, and although I'm sure people will think, "You don't know what it really means to be fat in our society," that's the point. Fat-shaming doesn't have anything to do with an objective definition of fat. That's because fat-shaming isn't about fat being an actual problem. It's about control. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself won't rush to the store to buy the latest clothing style, makeup, or pill to make her prettier. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself won't surround herself with people who try to minimize her. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself will work to change the world. Scary, right? 

To hell with this cult.

I haven't mastered this whole body image thing, but I am far gentler with myself. I've realized that everyone I aspire to be more like is imperfect, so I'm in good company. It's an ongoing process, though, and the pressure to be thinner or at least to hate myself for not being thinner is still present. I'm not there yet, but I refuse to buy into these lies, and I refuse to be silent and ashamed about this part of my personal history. I promise to be more body positive in the years to come. I promise to push back. I promise to call out fat-shaming when I see it. I promise to expose the lies. I promise I will continue to be loud for all of our sakes.