Last week on The Outlier Collective, women got together, and shared their stories about fat shaming and body image.
It was a powerful series for me; I am a woman, and this struggle is an intimate one for me. I read every post, commented on many of them, and even went as far as to leave a confrontational response to a blogger that I don’t really know who I felt was disrespectful in his comment. If you know me, you know that’s out of character, but his words bothered me. I went back to the post, said what I needed to say, and I stand by my remarks a week later.
With clarity I recalled the following:
- Getting my period at 11 years old. I went from a skinny, knobby-kneed child to a woman child with what felt like unnatural and obscene curves to me–no boobs, just hips, thighs, and ass. My skin stretched and overnight it seemed, angry purple slashes appeared on the outside of my thighs. I looked in the mirror and cried. I sat on my mom’s bed one Saturday morning, and pulled my shorts to the side so she could see the damage. With a shaky voice and a trembling lower lip, I asked her what had happened to me. Was it a bobcat? I asked her if it would go away, and she sighed as she told me stretch marks were permanent, but would fade over time to a silvery white. She told me I was beautiful, and this was part of growing and becoming a woman. I didn’t hear her say I was beautiful, I heard permanently ugly. Loud and clear.
- My dad was a soft-spoken man, but he was never shy about sharing his opinions on fat. He would mutter under his breath every time he saw a person who was overweight, “Look at that disgusting, fat thing.” I was aware from an early age that the three biggest things I could do to disappoint him were: grow up and vote a straight Democratic ticket, get fat, and/or become an outspoken feminist with a raging case of penis envy. Becoming all three would be the trifecta of disappointment. Sorry Dad. I promise I only envy the penis once a month, tops.
- I remembered being 15 and going to a water park, Wet N Wild, with my group of friends. I was already self-conscious being in a swimsuit in public, and then as we stood in line, one of my male friends pointed at me and laughed, “Ewww, Rachelle has cottage cheese ass.” I left the line quickly, but not before he could see the beginning of my ugly cry. I wore shorts over my swimsuits pretty much from then on, taking them off only at the last second before I dove for cover into the water. I still do this. I probably always will. At the time, I was probably a size six, but I wore a ten so no one could see my shape. But, there’s no hiding at a water park.
- Although I had cellulite on my ass and thighs, I never had a weight problem growing up, and I ate whatever I wanted to. It never occurred to me to go on a diet. In seventh grade, I did my first research paper ever on bulimia and anorexia, and although I found the subject fascinating and heartbreaking, it still never occurred to me to go on a diet. Between our school’s athletic program which I was heavily involved in, and the blessing of a genetically fast metabolism, my weight was normal. I don’t ever remember loving the way I looked in a swimsuit, but I also wasn’t obsessed with it. I had the body I had, and while I had my own reasons for wanting to stay covered up in baggy clothes, I remember feeling mostly okay about it. I was lucky.
- The summer before I left for college, I stopped working out and started drinking and smoking. I lost all of my muscle tone, and was complimented for how much better I looked. This surprised me–I didn’t know anyone thought I was too thick or muscular. I didn’t think anyone thought much about how I looked at all.
- When I went to college, I continued drinking too much and stuffing my face with same unhealthy foods I’d always eaten. I put on weight fast. The first time I went home, my friends laughed at me so I stopped going home. Fuck that.
- That’s when my dieting life started. I’ve gained and lost the same fifteen pounds over and over again for roughly twenty years. I started another diet today in fact.
- When I started dating my husband, I was fresh off the most effective diet of my life–the divorce diet. Depression, stress, alcohol and cigarettes in lieu of food. I was wearing a size six for the first time since high school, but I was not healthy. The first time he saw my body, he sighed, and said, “You are so fucking hot.” His words washed over me, and I smiled. Validated. Secure. Confident. At the time, I could accept his compliment with a shrug and a grin instead of pointing out in painful detail why he was wrong, and which parts of me were disgusting. And I’ll be honest, that ease and the absence of self-deprecating commentary feels so much better. For both of us.
- Later in the relationship, we had a conversation about his dating life before me. It went like this, “Before you, all of my friends tried to set me up with fat chicks. Just because I’m big, doesn’t mean I want to be with someone who is.” He said it jokingly, but those words…they never left my mind, and they still feed my insecurities. Insecurity that plays this garbage on repeat: If I get fat again, will he stop wanting me? Loving me? Will he look somewhere else? Don’t get fat, don’t get fat. You’ll lose everything if you do. I asked him if he would mind if I told this story, and he said he didn’t care. I reiterated that it would be in the context of how it adds to my insecurity, and he laughed and said, “I never meant you. We’re married, you can get as fat as you want to. I’m going to.” We laughed and my fears receded. For now.
When I got pregnant, I gained over 50 lbs. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. When I hit 200 lbs, I refused to look at the scale anymore at my weekly appointments. I cried a lot before and after my daughter was born. My self-esteem was in the crapper. My hormones were all over the place. I couldn’t lose a single pound until she was weaned (I was starving ALL the time). But after we switched her to formula I joined Weight Watchers, and I walked every single day pushing her in the stroller. I pursued my pre-pregnancy weight with a vengeance and dedication I’ve never found again. It took seven months of this, and I lost all the baby weight and then some, but I felt no better in my heart. Until I started writing.
A thousand plus words into this post, and these are just the first memories that come to my mind. And these pale in comparison to some of the stories I’ve read, and heard from people who have struggled with their weight their entire lives.
My point is that until I had to face a significant amount of weight gain in my life, I never really understood this battle. To a point, I could empathize. I could commiserate, and share stories, but I didn’t really get it.
I could change my diet, begin exercising, and hit my goal within three weeks of making these changes.
But that all changed with pregnancy and a busted thyroid. For the first time in my life, I understood how hopeless you can feel when you make these changes, work hard, and don’t see immediate results. I understood how much more daunting it can be to try to lose 50 lbs than it is to try to lose 15.
For the first time in my life, my body failed me. I experienced set back after set back from injury. I saw clearly how easy it is to give up when that happens. My opinions on personal responsibility softened. Yes, that is part of it. It is by no means the only contributing factor on this journey.
For the first time in my life, I understood how deep these comments and wounds can go into a person’s psyche and self-esteem. I wrote crap like this, making fun of myself, trying to say all the shitty things before someone else did.
So yes, this is a topic I feel passionately about.
I have no idea how to repair my self-esteem, or how to not think about these moments every time I have to put on a swimsuit.
I don’t know the best way to support people still struggling with it other than to build them up, encourage them, and stand with them giving a hearty “fuck you” to anyone who tries to tear them down.
I don’t think the answer is to refuse people the right to talk about it. Or dismiss their fears and insecurity as shallow, vain, and unfounded when they do speak out. I’ve seen that a lot too. The opposite of fat shaming–belittling people for caring about their appearance at all.
I don’t think the answer is to be a hard ass and lecture about diet and exercise.
I don’t think the answer is to pretend when raising my daughter that we are not a society obsessed with outward appearance, and that her inner beauty and intelligence will be the only thing anyone cares about. That’s not true.
But I will do my best to make sure that the messages she gets at home are positive. I will encourage a less sedentary lifestyle with my example not with my words. I will do my best to feed her healthy foods, while also allowing indulgence because food is delicious and moderation is something we all need to learn and apply in our lives.
I will try not to let her hear me speak negatively about my body or weight.
I will put on a bathing suit, and take her swimming no matter what negative messages are going through my mind.
I will do my best to make sure she knows she is beautiful. I will try to protect her heart, and let her know that beauty is so much more than a number on a scale.
Most of all, I will treat people with respect, dignity, and compassion, no matter what they are struggling with. It’s so easy to let insensitive remarks fly when you are judging an issue that is not your issue.
But, the weight of carelessly spoken words and judgment is so much uglier than the weight on my ass could ever be.