Friday, August 17th, 2012
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.
Monday, July 30th, 2012
[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.