Archive for the ‘body shaming’ Category

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (Eating in public)

Ugh, I hate how much subtext being fat (or is that “living in a fat-phobic world”?) has attached to eating in public. I feel like I’m caught in a dichotomy where no version of eating in public leaves me free to just enjoy the food and/or company I’m in (let alone not eating at all).
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Diet Talk

[TW: Dieting]

I recently became employed full time again, and that means I sit in a cubicle surrounded by other cubicles for a large portion of my work day. Overheard conversations often waft my way, particularly from the two rows of women who sit behind me. I’ve noticed some trends in the discussions so far: job duties, complaints, family/friends/pets, jokes, politics, health care (they are nurses), and dieting/weight loss. Because they are nurses, many of them have a pretty good idea of health in that they want people to care for their bodies, but it seems even nurses try fad diets; one nurse talked about South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, and something about eating nothing but cabbage.

In all the quiet corners of office talk, I hear women talking about diets and weight loss, if only for a minute or so, but only when the men have gone. Women only seem to be comfortable talking about their bodies to each other–understandably so. Men habitually and often agressively comment on women’s bodies even when those comments are unwanted (see: street harassment), so it’s no surprise that diet talk is often a conversation women will only have with each other. In the break room during lunch, women chat about eating habits, exercise regimens, weight loss, weight gain, and diets. It seems many women bond over diet talk:

Coworker #1: “You look like you’ve lost some more weight.”

Coworker #2: “Yea, another two pounds.” [smiles]

Coworker #1: [Puts down fork in shock] “Good for you!”

Coworker #2: “Yea, look: this dress is loose on me.” [Sits up straight and pulls the fabric around her waist]

Coworker: #1 “Sweet! You can give me all your old clothes.” [laughs]

Coworker #2: “I will! Some of the stuff is brand new, tags on still and everything.”

These two women exemplify the bond between women over weight loss and gain because Coworker #2 is beyond willing to donate the clothes that no longer fit her to Coworker #1 all because Coworker #1 showed support. This a bond over bodies, and in a way, it’s excellent that women can form such bonds with each other over their bodies; I especially like how encouraging they were to one another. However, the context of the discussions women have about their bodies hinges on gains and losses (or victories and defeats) rather than the way we show our bodies kindness and respect, how we care for our bodies by responding to their needs, and how to show our bodies love and appreciation. We are always discussing our bodies as something that needs to be fixed, tweaked, lessened, or manipulated.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad to discuss the triumphs and challenges women share about their bodies, but wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to be part of discussion about women’s bodies that doesn’t dissect and measure them? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to instead share techniques for self love and acceptance? I think that the conversation could go in this direction if just one woman in each diet discussion could bring up modes of self love and acceptance.

Of course, we don’t hear those types of conversations coming from the body-hating media and advertisers; we see conversations about how to get the flattest stomach, reduce thigh size, and lose “winter weight.” Again, it’s all about “fixing” broken bodies. Because body hate is all we really see and hear from the media, family, and friends, it’s difficult to be the one voice of body love and acceptance in a world full of people having a different conversation. But starting that conversation is an act of rebellion; it is active dissent against beauty standards, fat shame, pro-anna, self hate, and girl hate. Instead of sharing trends for fixing bodies with diets, let’s share the trend of body acceptance.

If you are reading this, I hope you will consider asking your friends–especially those who engage in diet talk–how they show their bodies love, kindness, and respect. Mostly likely no one has asked them before, and it could open up an entirely new line of thinking about bodies. This kind of conversation could deepen our bonds to each other by letting others become intimate with the love and acceptance we give ourselves. They could deepen our bonds to our own bodies as we stop hating, dieting, and obsessing and start loving, valuing, and accepting. Let’s start a new conversation, right here, right now: one in which we discuss love and respect instead of loss and gain.


Speaking Up

I did something that I don’t usually do the other day: got drawn into commenting actual real opinions contrary to the mob opinion on something that came up in my Facebook feed.

There are a few reasons why I don’t usually do this: obviously to start with I’ve self-selected my friends to a large extent and so I don’t tend to have a lot of things come up on my feed that aren’t somewhat related to my personal politics/jokes. Of course fat activism is a big (ha! No one’s made that pun before!) step beyond most people’s garden variety “real women have curves!” sort of malarkey that tends to pass for body acceptance in a lot of circles, so that’s not something I generally see, but I don’t get a lot of “straight marriage is the only real marriage!” sort of updates, for example.

Anyway, the actual thing to made me so eye-twitchy was a picture of a woman that a friend of mine had snapped on his phone and posted referring to her as a “bogan” (Australian version of a hick/hillbilly). The photo was taken from behind so you can’t see her face, but she was an average size blond white woman who was wearing a tracksuit and ugg boots (with one leg badly half tucked into the boot). Quite a few people had liked and commented shaming remarks.

My comment shaded into a bit of a rant along the paraphrased lines of: How do you know she hasn’t been with her sick baby in the nearby hospital and this is the first time she’s been out for three days? How do you know she’s not sick herself and had to choose between using her energy to shower and dress well or to go to the shops for food? How do you know she doesn’t work three jobs and hasn’t had time to do laundry? Or is it just that she’s committed the ultimate crime of daring to be female and in public without making herself suitably fuckable?” (Did I say a bit of a rant?) Anyway my friend tried to make a few jokes but I simply stated that I wasn’t trying to have a go at him personally but given how much public ridicule and shame are heaped on marginalised groups like women and poor people and people of colour that perhaps as a gay man he might understand how that would feel and he could be a better ally.

I believe in everything that I said but I have to admit I was a little bit scared. The last time I got into a FB argument all of my friend’s friends piled on and tried to shut me down (that one turned into an argument over whether you could diagnose health by looking at people and the cognitive bias was pretty painful). Also defending personal politics is always more vulnerable and emotion-inducing than trying to be an ally towards other groups. I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to call out racism or homophobia when I hear it but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know what some of my acquaintances really think when it comes to feminism or fat acceptance.

Anyway I was angsting over this little incident when I logged onto Facebook today, and found that my friend had taken down the picture. So: win! I had a feeling that I might be able to get my point across with this friend and obviously I did. I feel so much better.

I know that when people have called me out on saying stupid shit (unfortunately I did not spring from the womb a fully formed social justice advocate) I have felt embarrassed and sometimes defensive, but those conversations have often helped me pivot my world view. One of my goals for this year is to be more politically vocal and so I feel like I’m making a good start.

How about you guys? Do you call people out or walk away? When was the last time something like this has happened to you?


5 Fat Acceptance Myths Debunked

As of late, I’ve noticed that some folks in and outside of the fat accpetance movement have some misconceptions about what the movement encourages. Here are some of the myths I’ve come across debunked.

5. Fat acceptance says don’t exercise.

Fat acceptance doesn’t want to control your behavior. It doesn’t want to tell you what to eat, how to eat, what to wear, how to wear it, or what your body should/shouldn’t be doing. Whatever you choose to do with your body is what you choose to do with your body. If you like to exercise, great; do it. If you don’t, great; don’t do it! Your body is yours, and no one should be able to tell you what to do or what not to do. Personally, I exercise. I do for mental health reasons; it gives me a boost of the good chemicals I feel are essential for my mental stability. When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I worked with my behavioral therapist to look at options other than medication. She suggested exercise because I had mentioned that doing yoga helped me relax and gave me a positive boost. Since then, I have been exercising because I like it. However, any reason is a good reason to do what you want with your body. If you just like it, then you just like. If you don’t like, then you just don’t like it. Fat acceptance wants you to have complete ownership of your body, and whatever that means to you is whatever it means to you.

4. Fat acceptance is a “women only” movement.

It may seem like the conversation is dominated by women, but fat acceptance isn’t trying to keep men out of a women’s only conversation. Men face an increasingly rigid standard of beauty that is being marketed through the media. We have only begun to see the repercussions of a male beauty standard, as it’s something that folks are just starting to research. Women are usually the ones writing about fat acceptance because there has been a lot of in depth research into the harm female beauty standards cause to women and girls. However, men are encouraged to participate in the discussion. If you are interested in reading fat acceptance writings from men, here are a few to blogs with male/gender neutral FA bloggers:

http://red3.blogspot.com
http://fattiesunited.wordpress.com/
http://unapologeticallyfat.blogspot.com/ (Edit: gender neutral blog)
http://fiercefatties.com/

Fat acceptance also seems to be cis centered, meaning it tends to focus on cisgendered bodies. It’s imperative that trans* individuals are part of the discussion about body image. My one big criticism of the fat acceptance movement is its lack of trans* visibility. I suggest that the fat acceptance community involve trans* bodies in their campaigns because, if we don’t, we are guilty of maintaining a power structure that would like to erase trans* individuals.

3. Fat acceptance wants to reverse the power dynamic between thin and fat.

If you belong to the blogging community–hell, if you’ve logged into Facebook lately–you might I have seen images like this:

These message, in effect, undermines the struggle for fat acceptance. Fat acceptance is not about when thin became hotter than curvy women, what straight cis men find attractive, or the policing of bodies. This type of argument only seeks to reverse the power structure of thin/fat so that fat (or curvy) is favored, and therefore privileged, over thin. Regardless of what the beauty standard is, it’s still oppressive in that one must adhere to it, be shamed if one doesn’t adhere to it, and bodies that don’t fit said standard are seen as not real, good, or worthy. True fat acceptance wants to smash the power structure that says one body is “better” than another. Fat acceptance is about people loving their bodies without having to fit into a standard of beauty: it says that all bodies are real bodies; all bodies are good bodies. Pitting bodies against each other should never be the focus fat acceptance activism.

2. Fat acceptance glorifies obesity.

To me, this myth is nearly laughable. The idea that loving your body regardless of who says you are beautiful glorifies obesity really just translates to “but isn’t being fat bad for you??” The short answer is No, being fat is not bad for you. In fact, fat acceptance is linked to better health outcomes. The fact of the matter is that no one should be shamed about their body. No standard of beauty can tell you whether someone is healthy. Most importantly, shaming someone into being who you want to see is not going to help them feel good about themselves. If one doesn’t feel good about one’s self, one is less likely to care for one’s body and mind. It’s important to understand that the only things being glorified by fat acceptance are self care and self love

1. Fat acceptance demands complete confidence and self-love at all times.

Some mornings I wake up and I can’t look at my body in the mirror. Some mornings I wake up and feel fabulously fat and fierce. Some mornings I wake I and don’t feel anything about my body at all. How we feel and what we think about our bodies fluctuates as often as our moods. No one is asking for complete and total self love, no exceptions, no excuses. Self acceptance is a process; there are challenges we face in that process. Most of the challenges come in the form of self-doubt, insecurity, self-hate, and feelings or inferiority/invisibility. The reason why fat acceptance activists are constantly shouting from roof tops, “Love Your Body!” is because we struggle with loving our bodies on a daily basis. When I say Love your body it’s more like a reminder to myself: Hey, you, don’t be so hard on yourself; see your body for what it is; care for it and love it and treat it with kindness and respect. 

In addition, self love and acceptance is more difficult for some than others. No one is giving you a time frame to work in; no one expects you to wake up tomorrow from the slumber of self-hate, bursting with a passionate love for your body. Loving any aspect of yourself is a day to day challenge that requires a plethora of strategies to overcome said challenges. Fat acceptance simply asks you to work on undoing years of shame and self hate through compassion, care, and love. Some folks my not be ready to establish that relationship to their bodies yet. Perhaps there are other things a person needs/wants to accept about themselves before they can begin work on fat acceptance. That is great. Work on whatever aspects of self that will challenge how you see yourself and what you can do. Again, there is no timeline, and there is no one cracking a self-love whip. However you experience your journey of fat acceptance is right.


A Final Response to Orbach’s “Fat is a Feminist Issue”

As many of you know, I have been documenting my journey through Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach on Axis of Fat. Some of my previous posts have been in direct response to Orbach’s book, and this will be my final post about book one of FIAFI. (Although, I will probably refer to from time to time.)

Fat is a Feminist Issue has a mostly clear main idea: women become fat due to compulsive eating, which is a response to systemic sexism. This position has many determinants, the first of which begins with the relationship between mother and daughter, or as Orbach puts it, feeder and fed:

“I suggest that one of the reasons we find so many women suffering from eating disorders is because the social relationship between feeder and fed, between mother and daughter, fraught as it is with ambivalence and hostility, becomes a sustainable mechanism for distortion or rebellion.” (Orbach, 34)

This is not to say that all mothers are responsible for their daughters’ eating disorders, but that the relationship between mother and daughter is where the daughter learns what eating and feeding means for a woman. This relationship could be the beginnings of distortion or rebellion as the mother introduces the girl child to “what is means to be female;” that is, mother is the one who introduces the girl child to her gender role.

Gender roles prescribe many different “requirements” for womanhood, as many of us know. These include but are not limited to: thinness, passivity, purity, and self-sacrifice. As girls become women, a distortion or rebellion begins because these requirements do not validate the many experiences of being a person. Sexism requires that women fulfill these social obligations, lest a woman risks being ostracized. As a response, some women begin to compulsively eat as a means to rebel against or skirt these requirements.

The reasons why a woman turns to compulsive eating could range from desexualizing herself  to societal invalidation of women’s anger. Each meaning given to compulsive eating is documented via Orbach’s group work with compulsive eaters. You may remember my last post, “Fat as Rebellion: My Fat Says ‘Fuck You,’” in which I determine that one of the meanings I give my fat is one of rebellion against the norms of femininity, specifically the denial of female rage. Reading Orbach’s book will give you a list of possible meanings in which you may or may not see your fat.

This brings me to my response: although I found the book to be very enlightening and helpful to my particular body and mind, my biggest contention is that Orbach’s thesis demands that every fat woman has some “meaning” behind her fat. That is to say, every woman gives attributes to her fat that she unconsciously believes aid her in navigating a sexist world, and I don’t agree with that. While this is true for me, it is not true for every woman.

Another contention I have with the book is that, overall, Orbach does advocate for weight loss. Although it is advocating for weight loss without diets and is more a reframing of food, eating, and fat than a slimming of the body, the book still says that most, if not all, of the women who went through Orbach’s compulsive eating group did stabilize at a “normal” weight. Keep in mind that this book was written in the 70s, but this is still the main attitude about fatness and fat people: if they change some key aspect of their lives–whether food intake, exercise, or reshaping the way they think about fat and food–they can “stabilize” at a “normal weight.”

To be fair, I am simplifying Orbach’s arguments to only a few paragraphs; therefore, I am not really doing it complete justice. The ways in which Orbach suggests women get comfortable with their bodies as is (instead of imagining that one’s life will better or more fulfilling once one is thin) are some of the basic practices of body acceptance. The first suggestion offered is Mirror Work. Women, alone or in groups, use a full length mirror to look at their bodies without judging what they see. First, they look at themselves standing, then sitting, and finally from a side view. This practice can be done clothed or naked. “Start with what feels most comfortable and stay with that until [you] can have the experience of looking in the mirror [without] flashing to feelings of disgust” (Orbach, 75). The second portion of Mirror Work is about breathing through your body and feeling yourself in your fat thus excepting fat as your body. “Many women experience their fat as something that surrounds them with their true selves inside or, alternatively, that their fat trails them, taking up more room than it really does” (Orbach, 75). When one becomes aware of each part of the body, how its connected, and what it does for a person, it “provides a holistic view of [the] body,” which aids in the process of acceptance (Orbach, 75).

Practices like those mentioned above actually can undo years of self-hate and shame, and this is where Orbach’s book succeeds; however, it still seems as though the practices are used as a means to an end. There are, however, a few desired outcomes: acceptance of the body “as is,” discontinuing compulsive eating behaviors, and weight loss. I recall a few posts back that one reader commented that it would be interesting to see what I thought about whether Orbach’s book advocates for weight loss once I’d finished the book, and after reading it, I think it does advocate for weight loss. I don’t think, however, that is a reason to stay away from Fat is a Feminist Issue as a resource for overcoming fat shame and fat stigma. Most of Orbach’s work is insightful, meaningful, and well delivered; it provided me with vast insights into my own views on fat, fatness, eating, and food. The best conclusion one can draw from FIAFI is that dieting is not the answer to fat shame. Orbach throroughly examines the diet industry and the effects of dieting on the compulsive eater, finding conclusive evidence that dieting does not work, and 100% of diet industry clients return to diets.

Through Fat is a Feminist Issue, I discovered that I am a compulsive eater. Many, if not all, of the descriptions and practices of the compulsive eater that Orbach writes about have resonance in my life, and because of it I have suffered physically and mentally. The emotional struggle of living with fat shame day after day made me reclusive, depressed, anxious, and inhibited. In addition, I cause my body physical pain through compulsive eating because I suffer from IBS. After reading Orbach’s book, I realized the source of my IBS is compulsive eating. I want to alleviate my mental and physical aliments, so I am going to read Orbach’s subsequent book, Fat is a Feminist Issue II: A Program to Conquer Compulsive Eating. My hope is not that I will lose weight, but that I will stop compulsively eating, as it seems to be the source of physical and emotional pain I’ve been trying to stop for years via dieting and food restriction.

I recommend Fat is a Feminist Issue to any woman who feels that what I’ve written over the past few entries rings true. It’s ripe with insights for the compulsive eater; however, if you do not feel like you fit the descriptions offered of the compulsive eater in this post or my previous posts, FIAFI might not be right for you. There are plenty of blogs and books that can help a woman accept her body as it is without discussion of weight loss. If I could alter this book in any way, I would prefer that the weight loss outcomes of Orbach’s group session patients were left out or were an afterthought rather than a selling point of body acceptance. As it is with most feminist texts, Fat is a Feminist Issue isn’t a sacrilege or a holy text for the fat feminist.

 


Fat as Rebellion: My Fat Says “Fuck You”

In her book Fat is a Feminist Issue Susie Orbach proposes that some women have a subconscious desire to get fat as a response to sexism, gender roles, and misogyny. One of the reasons for response, Orbach suggests, is that women do not feel able to express anger, and feel invalidated when they express anger:

Women are actively discouraged from expressing anger, rage, resentment, and hostility. We are raised to be demure and accept what we are given with no complaints. We all learn how little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. So we try hard not to show our anger or even feel it ourselves. When we rebel and show dissatisfaction we learn we are nasty and greedy. Whether we realize it or not we are being taught to accept silently a second-class citizenship. Secondary status is further compounded by having our anger denied us. Anger provides a way for people to challenge injustices at whatever level. […] Little girls are encouraged to cry if they do not get what they are wanting instead of angrily protesting. Anger, as a legitimate emotion for many women, has no cultural validation. (Orbach, 49)

If I think back to my childhood, I can remember numerous attempts at anger, to which my mother responded with scolding. I learned very early that a much better way to communicate my upsets without bring scolded—but rather being coddled—was crying. I still cry when I’m angry because I am trying to reroute that anger, or because I feel I am not allowed my anger, and so tears come instead. As I got older, and my anger compounded, I had to find other ways to reroute my anger since there was no validation for it. Eating became a way to stifle my anger, to occupy the mouth that wished to tell everyone to fuck off, instead of actually saying it and risk being scolded or ostracized. As Orbach states, the fat that came from angry eating has a symbolic meaning: fuck you.

Getting fat was a great way of saying ‘fuck you’ to everyone in the world: my mother and father, my brother, my teachers, the kids at school, the media, society, even my friends; most people wanted me to be thin. To me, being thin also meant being all the other things that girls are meant to be: quiet, nice, simple, sweet, agreeable, ignorant. (Orbach also discusses this later on in her book.) My fat became a physical manifestation of my desire to say ‘fuck you’ to sexism and misogyny, to second class citizenry, to rape culture, to heterosexism. Of course, as a teen, I had no idea. I just kept my anger in and punished myself for feeling so angry with food (denying or binging), cutting, seeking out bad relationships, and holding back from doing the things I really loved.

As an adult, I have been trying to reach into my childhood and dig out the pieces that make me a poorly functioning grown-up. This makes me beg the question: does my fat still serve its function? Part of me says yes, it does. It still is a protest against the diet and beauty industries that tell me I am not right if I’m not thin. When I go to the beach in my bikini, belly protruding, thighs full of cellulite, arms lined with stretch marks, it’s a proclamation: I will not hide. I will not cover up. I will live in my body, and fuck anyone who tells me I shouldn’t. I enjoy the looks on people’s faces when I wear a tight dress, or a bikini, or a crop top. I will admit that I am not always comfortable in tight or revealing clothes because sometimes the judgment is just too much. But on the days when I feel good in my skin and want to show it, my fat body is my rebellion against anyone who would tell me that I don’t deserve to feel sexy, confident, and proud.

Another part of me, though, says no. As Orbach puts it, I’ve given traits to my fat that I possess because I am too fearful to express them vocally. Does the fat itself satisfy the expression of my rebellion against body policing? Or is the real rebellion something that happens in my mind? Orbach suggests that once I understand that I became fat as a “response to mother, to society, to various situations,” I can remove the judgment that it is “good” or “bad,” and accept that it just is. This takes me back to my post about the compliment “you look so small:” these judgments of “good” or “bad” are tied why I view “small” as a compliment, and “big” as an insult. If I learn to see my fat as a response—instead of something that I am—I can change the way I respond to the situations that start me on a spiral of binging, depriving, exercising, dieting, and depression.

Even if I change my response to the situations that create a subconscious desire to be fat, I will never be the ideal. That I understand the ideal is just that and not something I should strive to be comes from reestablishing how I see my fat. My fat is not me. I am not my body. My body is a physical manifestation of myself. I know that regardless of my fat, I will always want to say ‘fuck you’ to the patriarchy and all its functions. I don’t know that I’ll be any more willing/able to vocalize my dissent if I change my perspective, but writing here and on loveyourrebellion.com has opened up new avenues of expression. I honestly think that my body will always be a ‘fuck you’ because I will always have so much ‘fuck you’ in me. It’s not something that’s dictated by my body, but rather myself. As long as I’m in it, my body is my rebellion.


Workout Wear- “Why would you wear that?!”

Cross Post- I also posted this to fiercefatties.com. I just really felt the need to rant about it to more people! I’m tired of being told to go workout, but only in what we, the bigots, pre approve and even then you’re probably not safe. If I walk down the road and get cans thrown at me in a T shirt and long pants, then why the hell not give ‘em something to really look at and sport a hot pink sports bra while I’m at it?

As Ragen Chastain writes in her new book, Fat The Owner’s Manual,

If you don’t work out, we will complain that you are sedentary. If you do work out, we will make fun of you for how you look working out. Now, go out there and exercise because it’s good for your health!

This is a point which she reiterates often, in fact, and for good reason. Fatties just can’t win. If you don’t work out, you get treated like shit for it, but if you do, someone help you, you’re an eyesore to the world. Fatties experience stigma and abuse both verbal and physical and that’s not even mentioning the non verbal stigma such as sideways glances, looks of disgust, or man handling. I’ve been circulating some photos of me at my gym, working out. I’ve posted them and had requests to post them in several places, especially the body positive spaces on reddit.com. Here’s a sample:

You know what the number one comment I get on these photos is? Something along the lines of “My God, why would you wear that?! No one wants to see that!”. Pardon me, but I’ve never actually had a complaint. This may be because I work out at a women’s only gym or that most people are too busy with their own workouts to notice what I’m wearing. People don’t avert their eyes or avoid looking at me, but even if they did, guess who’s problem that is? That’s right- not mine! I’m entitled to wear anything I damn well feel like wearing including a sports bra which, I’ll remind people, I see thin people working out in all of the time.

I’ve even gotten these comments from supposedly body positive people. That I should dress to flatter my body- I’m sorry, I thought I was dressing to workout, not compete in a fashion show. Now, I dressed specifically in this top because it would be going on my body and fat positive blog. It’s only one thing that I wear- my collection also includes several T shirts and stretchy black shirts that I enjoy wearing. This bright pink top makes me feel confident and energetic- just what you need for a work out! There are lots of reasons for me to wear something.. but none of them are to please anyone but myself. If you don’t like what I’m wearing, look somewhere else. If you have to look where I happen to be standing, get the hell over it, I don’t exist to beautify your world, I exist to enhance my own.

If you want to see the full set of photos visit my blog.


How It Feels To Be Told You Look Small

[TW: Body Shaming]

Friday night my boyfriend and I went out to BBQ with two couples we love to go out with. One of the women complimented me on my dress when I sat down, and then told me I “look small.” My immediate reaction was a smile, but I didn’t really know what to say back, so I just said, “Thanks, I guess.”

I didn’t really know what to say because there was so much analysis happening in my brain all at once. First and foremost, I took her words as a compliment. There is no doubt in my mind that’s what they were intended to be, and she meant well. She meant I look good. And then I thought about how, in that context, small was synonymous with good; you look small meant you look good. The last thought I had before blurting out a half thank you was why is ‘you look small’ a compliment?

I want to look at the detonated definition of small. Google tells me the adjective form of small means “of a size that is less than normal or usual; little.” One of the synonyms for the adjective form listed is thin. So in that exchange, my friend was not only telling me that I look thin (good/small), but also that I look less than usual. What does this compliment mean to women? To be told you look small is, for one second, to feel thin.

Do you remember that old, awful saying propagated by Kate Moss in the 90s, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels?”  What does “feeling thin” really mean? In the context of my story, it means receiving a positive compliment on my body for the first time in a long time. It means, for one second, feeling unashamed about what I was going to eat. Whether or not you are thin by society’s standards, it is how you perceive your body, and how you think others perceive your body, that fills you with shame or confidence. If you see yourself as big—big taking on the negative societal connotations here—it doesn’t matter what you weigh or what size you wear. And because big is seen as bad/unhealthy/wrong, women hurt themselves just to hear those words You look thin; you look small.

I’ve always hated that small is a compliment for women. This is a great example of a gendered compliment. A gendered compliment is when someone gives you what is meant to be a compliment about your body, appearance, or behavior due to gender. In my case, being told I look small was a compliment precisely because I present as female. By society’s beauty standards, being told you look small puts you closer to the ideal.

Truly, I have a problem with any ideal. Having an ideal, whether it is gaunt frames or pear shapes, is dangerous because it asks people to be something other than themselves. It says bodies should be one way, and if they aren’t that way, they are worthless. Many people internalize these ideals and become ashamed of their bodies. For a lot of women, being told they look small is something they long to hear simply because of body ideals.

I don’t want small to be a compliment. I don’t want big to be an insult. These words in the context of our bodies are responsible for so much shame and bigotry. When we are not talking about bodies, these words have interchangeable positive and negative connotations. In that exchange with my friend, I felt the flicker of internalized body shame: I smiled. She told me I looked small and I smiled. And I smiled because, in relation to my body, I’ve been taught that small is good; small is feminine; small is desired; small is sexy; small is a compliment. But as Google showed us earlier, small is none of those things; it’s none of those things unless I define it that way.


Living Fat: Fat Bodies and Performance

[TW: Body Shaming, Mention of Dieting]

I remember the first time my fat actress fears were realized in the form of a high school musical audition: I went out for the part of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. After the initial vocal audition, most of the girls auditioning approached me to tell me they were sure I would get the part, and then the cold reading audition seemed to solidify that possibility. When the cast list was posted, I speculated the only reason I wasn’t cast as Miss Adelaide was because I was fat. I approached the drama teacher and asked her if that was indeed why, and she said—and I’ll never forget this—“Angela, you know that girl is nowhere near as talented as you, but people in this town just won’t believe a girl your size would be a burlesque dancer.” I left her classroom in tears. I was 17.

My next brush with the limitations placed on a fat performer came from a theatre professor at my community college. I looked up to her so much because she was the most inspiring director I’d worked under and, more importantly, she believed in my ability. I could tell she was pleased when she saw my weight start to drop from 200lbs to 190, to 180, to 175. When she noticed I hadn’t budged from 175lbs for a few weeks, she casually asked “Are you going to continue with your weight loss plan?” I didn’t really know what to say besides yes. When I left her office I realized she was trying to encourage weight loss so she could cast me as her leading lady or ingénue; then I’d be believable. I felt judged by my body. People would tell me that’s just the way the acting world is. I’d say that’s just the way the world is, and came to believe that I’d never be who I wanted to be as a performer (read: person) until I was thin.

I recently started reading Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, and in the first chapter she offers some meanings of fatness. One of such is: “To be fat means having to wait until you are thin to live.” Living can be defined here in a number of ways: finding true love, getting to the height of your career, letting go on the dance floor, feeling confident, wanted, recognized. For me living means performing. My early experiences with the body constraints of musical theatre made me sweep any performance wants—specifically singing—under the rug. I focused on writing instead.

Writing has always been a part of my life, but after I quit acting, it became my central art form. I put all of myself into writing; I even went to grad school for it. Writing felt like a safe place for my voice—something I wanted to share with the world, but disembodied. It would be much easier to get people to listen to me, I thought, if they couldn’t see what I looked like. My writing is not submitted to journals with a full body shot. The only things measured are the words on the page.

The musicality of poetry resembled so closely what I wanted to do with my voice (sing) that it was enough—for a while. Still, I would have daydreams of being on stage. Acting had passed, but singing is in my blood. Both of my parents are trained singers so I was always encouraged to find music in my body, but the real world presented me with images of paper thin and/or taut muscled female singers, whether rock n’ roll or musical theatre.

Try to name five fat female rock n’ roll singers. I can name a few: Mama Cass, Ann Wilson, and more recently, Beth Ditto. They are not the norm, however, and they get a lot of nasty remarks about their bodies. The majority of what I saw growing up—my idols, the starlets of rock n’ roll—were thin, lean, and able bodied women (not to mention white, cis, and straight). Forget singing lessons, forget years of singing with a band, forget passion and the pure love of it; just look like Debbie Harry crossed with Courtney Love crossed with Tina Turner crossed with Joan Jett. Right. Got it.

This brings me back to one of Orbach’s meanings of fatness: I spent most of my life thinking I had to achieve a thin body to be the kind of performer people want to see, and moreover, can relate to. This belief prevented me from truly living, from being who I want to be. At the end of 2010, I decided that I needed to just do it. Just start a fucking band, and get my body on that stage. But when I thought about how vulnerable my body could be while playing guitar and singing—the way I could lose control, let my body sway, jump, stomp, pounce, fall, bend, and shake—it scared me to death. I was taught fat bodies aren’t flattered by the movement of rock n’ roll. I still felt that I needed to reform my body before I would really attain success. I’ve spent the last two years on bicycles, ellipticals, ab machines, and diets.

I believe in being strong. I believe in feeling capable. The last two years of exercise and dieting have shown me that is what is important, and that being strong and capable are not everyone’s goals/they mean different things to different people. I have just recently stopped dieting, and I vow to never diet again (with some help from Fat is a Feminist Issue). Now, I am a year on with my band, The Young Dead. The 3 men that play lead guitar, bass, and drums in the Young Dead don’t give shit what I look like. They care about the music I make, my passion, and the quality of the performance. It still takes courage for me to get on that stage let it all go—especially since I’m the only fat girl in my city’s music scene—but as Helene Cixous reminds me, “Woman must put herself into the text–as into the world and into history–by her own movement.” Getting on stage and facing my fear of being publicly fat is how I place myself into the world, the text, and history. My own movement means being fat and being a performer; my own movement means living.


…And That’s When Ashley Judd Fucked it Up.

After speculation that her ‘puffy’ face was a sign that she’d undergone plastic surgery, Ashley Judd responded at the Daily Beast with what has been harkened as a kickass feminist essay, a comment on how patriarchy functions and a response to the Mentality of Patriarchy. And it’s received such a positive response from feminist* sites for a good reason: it’s a good, strong argument against the negative effects of patriarchy in general and the objectification of women in particular.

Of course, not only is it good, but, coming from someone who has been in the business for over twenty years – and who therefore has the ability to take this conversation to the media in a way that most feminists probably only wish they could emulate – it has the potential to bring this ongoing conversation to the forefront of popular culture. Until the next hot topic pops up, at least.

Jumping right into her commentary on the way in which women’s bodies are objectified, Judd opens the essay with the following:

The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.

Judd goes on to argue that patriarchy “is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it,” challenging the idea that patriarchy is simply the product of men’s subjugation of women and insisting, rather, that it’s a system in which we all take part, but which “privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women.”

If you’re like me, you’re reading all of this so far and thinking, ‘Yes, yes, YES!’ This is a feminist argument, there’s no denying that. And it’s great to hear it coming from someone on ‘the inside,’ as it were.

The response to Judd’s essay has been explosive enough that she’s been able to continue her conversation on a number of shows (according to the Jezebel article, within “the past 24-hours, Judd has appeared on the NBC Nightly News, Rock Center, The Today Show and Access Hollywood Live“) and as much as I would like to say that she’s done an absolutely amazing job of following through on her argument, this is, unfortunately, where it starts to fall apart for me.

The following is an excerpt of the conversation that Judd and the hosts had on Access Hollywood Live (the second video in the Jezebel article):

Billy Bush: Let me ask you this. Every time – often times – if a woman comes in – and let’s use, [I couldn't work out her name] was in the other day, I’ll use her as an example, she lost 50 pounds, said to her ‘wow, you’ve lost 50 pounds’ – she’s been open about it – ‘you look fantastic! God, you look great.’ Is that – that’s an objectification, in – to some degree. Is that okay? ‘cause I think most women, when you tell them ‘you’ve lost weight, boy, you look wonderful,’ they feel good about it – they like that.

Ashley Judd: And I believe that is one of the ways that it’s very cunning and insidious. Because it is a compliment, yet it’s a backhanded compliment. And, you know, when I hear…or see someone who’s carrying that kind of weight, what I think is that there’s probably some disordered eating, that there are health problems, that there’s self-esteem issues, that there – that, you know, that there’s a lot more than just the number on the scale.

[emphasis added]

…*sigh*

I understand that I might be expecting a bit much from Judd – after all, this was an off-the-cuff question and she didn’t exactly have time to think about her response before giving it – but I find that her pathologisation of fat within the framework of a discussion about the damaging effects of the media’s focus on women’s bodies is, at best, highly problematic.

There’s also more than a hint of this same concern about fat within Judd’s essay:

Four: When I have gained weight, going from my usual size two/four to a six/eight after a lazy six months of not exercising, and that weight gain shows in my face and arms, I am a “cow” and a “pig” and I “better watch out” because my husband “is looking for his second wife.” (Did you catch how this one engenders competition and fear between women? How it also suggests that my husband values me based only on my physical appearance? Classic sexism. We won’t even address how extraordinary it is that a size eight would be heckled as “fat.”)

Within this paragraph, Judd is making a salient point about how weight gain is used as a weapon against women, with the media trying to tell them that they should feel insecure about themselves and, as she says herself, creating a sense of competition between women as a result.

But she also goes to great length to justify, or explain away, her weight gain, by saying that she just didn’t exercise for six months (which is “lazy”). And, while she makes the point that heckling a woman for being “fat” at a size eight is “extraordinary,” there’s something that I find troubling about her specificity in this instance. I wonder if, in light of her comment about weight on Access Hollywood Live, she would feel the same about a woman who was a size ten, or eighteen, or thirty-two? I admit, this is conjecture on my part – and perhaps it’s even unhelpful conjecture, insofar as it is attempting to go beyond what is said and therefore risks being completely off the mark – but there is an almost nervous repudiation of fat here that, again, I find troublingly problematic.

There is a similar distancing from fat in Judd’s closing paragraph, where she asks the question, “who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery?” Again, the justification – It happened over winter! That happens to everyone! – makes for an odd bump in an otherwise smooth argument.

I don’t think that any of this makes Judd’s overall argument less worthy of the positive recognition that it has received. This is a conversation that needs to continue – and if Judd can use her celebrity to push this in the mainstream media, then all the power to her! She is clearly more then capable of making the points that need to be made; and she’s doing it within an overtly feminist framework, using words like “patriarchy” on talk shows and filling me with happiness along the way.

I can even understand that, as someone who has lived in the lime light for so long, she would have internalised issues about her weight. It makes sense!

I just wish that, when making the point that objectification “affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human being,” that she wasn’t simultaneously making comments about weight that reinforce the very same system that she’s set out to fight. Because this is not a conversation that should have any “buts” or “unlesses” attached to it.

* I’m only including this because, well, Jezebel


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