Thursday, July 16, 2009

From Erica: my body's Politik

This is a post I've been intending to write for a long time, that's very difficult to pen for a number of reasons. The first is that it requires my admission that I don't know all the answers, and that's an admission that doesn't make me comfortable. The biggest reason is that it paints my mother in a very negative light, and while I want to be honest about the things she's said, I don't want to give the impression that she's completely ignorant or oppressive. That being said...

For a number of reasons, this January I joined the millions of other Americans who made a New Year's resolution to lose weight. My primary reason was health-based; I hold the genetic key to a delicious smorgasbord of weight-related diseases and complications, and it was my personal choice to change habits now and reduce my future risks. My secondary reason, admittedly, was self-esteem-based. As a former ballerina, a former borderline anorexic, and a card-carrying member of the United States "majority" culture, I wanted to be thinner again. Seven months and over twenty pounds later, I can say that I'm successful in my venture.

But I'm not entirely happy with it.

Here's the thing. When I was at my heaviest, I never qualified for any label other than "slightly chubby." I wore a size 12, but on a 5'6" frame, that's still slender enough that any claims to fatness are little more than claims to marginalize and render invisible all the people out there who can claim that label for themselves. It's unlikely that any of the fat-positive communities, either internet-based or face-to-face, would have included me as anything other than an ally. However, being part of a society that values a certain type of skinny woman more than any other body means that I spent a lot more time engaged in size politics than in smug attitudes and designer clothes. And I learned how to be an ally to the fat positivity movement and how to call people out on their size-ism.

The problem is, there's a line of personal-meets-political that causes every ally or activist trouble. For some, it's the line that segregates their queer positivity from their ability to come out to their family. For me, it's the line of fat politics and my mother.

I grew up in a household where, for health reasons, our access to refined sugars was limited. As I grew into my teen years, my rebellions often took the form of sugar binges- eating chocolate chips at midnight, sneaking Lindt balls out of the cabinet, or going for hot chocolate before dinner (see the chocolate theme?). After a bout of crash dieting and severe weight loss when I was beginning high school, I started to gain weight. To an extent, this was necessary, as I was undeniably too thin. After a point, however, it stopped being about health and started being about my right to eat what I wanted, when I wanted to. And my mother noticed.

"You look so pale and pasty," she commented more than once. "I'm so sorry you didn't get my figure," one of my favourites, came out a couple of times. Other remarks included exhortations to lose ten pounds, to stop being "so chunky," to "slim down," or, when that didn't work, to tell me outright I shouldn't have this dessert or that snack because I was really letting myself go. These were the remarks and the attitudes that I endured for- get this- six or seven years. It got to the point that I didn't want to go clothes shopping with her, because I didn't want her to know what sizes I wore, and where I dreaded any moment she would see a recent photo of me, because she would be sure to point out how un-photogenic I'd become. And no matter how much I told her that this hurt me, or reminded her of how dangerously skinny I'd once been, she was relentless.

When I lost all this weight, that changed almost instantly. I'm refusing to go so far as skinny- I wear a size 10, which I think puts me at slender- but for my mother, it's like the world has gone from black-and-white to technicolour. "You look so good!" she said when I was home briefly in June. For three days, all the body comments I heard were positive. I looked "fantastic," "so healthy," "great," and so on. We went shopping, and even the sight of me in an LL Bean bathing suit was thrilling to her.

Here's the tricky part of my Body Politik, the thing that shames me and gives shape to my relationship with the fat positivity movement: I ate it right up. After all the years of fighting and negativity, after the crying and the self-loathing and the anger at her for her sizeist attitude, I just couldn't do it anymore. It was such a relief to know that every bite going into my mouth wasn't being monitored and judged, and to know that she was looking at my body with benevolence, that I just relaxed and fed into the attention like nothing else. It was really sickening, to be honest. My conscience, sitting on my shoulder with her porn videos (let's face it, my conscience is some sort of Slut), was so shocked she hit the "pause" button. What are you doing, she was screaming. HOW COULD YOU COLLUDE LIKE THIS???

The answer is: I don't know.

The thoughts I've come up with since then have been confusing at best. My mother's obsession with weight- hers as well as mine- points to some of the broader issues facing weight and body image expectations of White women-identified people in this culture. Even women like us who not only meet gendered expectations, but push beyond them- she with a family, an amazing career, and a PhD, and me with a partner, two master's degrees in progress, and a successful series of professional experiences under my belt- are still subject to the body pressure to the extent that it had a severe impact on our relationship for years. And it's not as though we have ever qualified as fat, either; neither of us has ever been publicly marginalized on account of our bodies. My mother, in fact, was rail-thin until she had her children, and even then has barely put on enough weight to be called thick, fluffy, or chubby. She's still thin! But for some reason she's unable to remove the culture goggles long enough to get a realistic picture of herself and our family, and continues to insist that the family (myself being the only exception at this point) needs to collectively shed its excess weight "for our health."

Another thought that's been floating around in my brain, perhaps the most bothersome to me, is how to handle the health question as pertains to weight loss. On one hand, Mom has a point, especially in light of the fact that my long-term health was the impetus for me to lose weight in the first place. No one in my immediate family is severely overweight, or even close to it, but there's something to be said for maintaining cardiac health- which is, to an extent, connected to body mass. The same long-term health concerns that I was focusing on are concerns that my father and my sister consider too, and I can sympathize with Mom in her desire to keep us all together and healthy for as long as possible. On the other hand, my dad and my sister are adults and can make those choices for themselves. They exercise and they eat a well-balanced diet, and their bodies are what they are. The health-based argument from Mom's camp basically falls apart here, and it becomes a question of appearances.

Which brings me to the troublesome aspect of this train of thought. As an errant fat politics ally, I believe that it is a person's right to determine their own level of health and their own body size, and that the two aren't necessarily connected as much as mainstream White culture wants us to think they are. I believe that every body has its beauty, and that every person has the right to be recognized, represented, and respected for who they are, as they are, without critiques or marginalization based on body size. So how, when I lose weight for my health, do I answer to the positive feedback I inevitably receive? On one hand, I'm proud of the choices I've made and the effort I've put in to my body. It feels good to have that recognized by others. On the other hand, I know that the people complimenting my weight loss don't necessarily know about the reasons I used to justify my diet, and they're just complimenting my ability to live closer to the skinny ideal. Worse, that malicious bitch inside me, the one who eats my self-esteem for breakfast, doesn't care why they're saying I look good as long as they keep saying it. And let's be fair: these compliments don't always occur in settings that make a fat politics dialogue a reasonable option.

So how do I, and how do we as a collective society, change this? For one, when dialogue is a reasonable option, I need to choose it. This goes not only for the friends and others with whom I'm comfortable opening this conversation, but also for that trickier person: with my mother. In order to make a real dent in sizeism, I need to confront not only her prejudices, but mine as well- the ones that allow me to keep silent (or to respond enthusiastically) to hers. For another, when that dialogue is opened, we need to engage not only the questions of size, but the questions of what it means to be "healthy." Let's face it: for a lot of people, "healthy" and "fat" are mutually exclusive categories, and that's incorrect. The biggest thing, though, is we need to change the value judgements that come as part of this dialogue, and that I'm sure have been sprinkled throughout this post. We need to break down the negative attitudes towards fat, but also the negative attitudes towards a person's choice about their health. The dialogue needs to be changed so that a person's decision not to jog every day ceases to be a reflection of their individual worth. And the dialogue needs to happen a lot more often, period.

Writing this has been more cathartic than I expected. Whether or not it makes sense to anyone else, it's easier for me to understand the steps I need to take to be more comfortable with who I am and what, size-wise, I am. I might be happy with my body and health now, but I haven't been entirely happy with the social results. I'm still not. But it's easier for me to see the possibilities for changing that.


  1. You've raised some really important points. A lot of people demonize the visual media for their portrayal of thinness as attractive, but maybe a greater problem is seeing thinness as health. "Chubby" or "fat" characters on films are almost always shown eating lots of unhealthy food, and in most make-over movies the character loses weight as part of his/her transformation, as if you can't have control over your life without shedding some pounds. I've always been thin just because I have a fast metabolism, but sometimes I feel the pressure to be a little thinner or at least stay where I am simply because people will notice if my weight goes up. But the truth is, when I eat healthier food and exercise more, that's when I'm more likely to gain weight. Heaviness isn't synonymous with poor health, and thinness definitely isn't synonymous with good health.

  2. As a nutrition major and someone who has been classified as overweight for as long as I can remember, this topic is of special interest to me. It seems like this is what it means to be an intelligent, forward-thinking woman: to feel bad about not being super-skinny, and also to feel bad about feeling bad about it.
    Incidentally, the research about weight loss being so beneficial is not as conclusive as it's made out to be. For example, by its very nature weight loss puts more fatty acids and lipids into the bloodstream--thus increasing the chances for arterial plaques to form.
    In addition, some research indicates that the weight women put on as they age is in fact *protective* against some diseases.
    One major problem in this area is that most people don't have a clue what some of these studies really mean. The media reduces these complex research articles into a single paragraph that greatly oversimplifies and incorrectly extrapolates the results.

  3. Emily showed me this post. THANK YOU!!!