Category Archives: body & size
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
If you’ve spent any time on Pinterest (which I do. oh, I do.) you’ll have noticed the tendency to pin a lot of stuff about healthy eating, exercise, and weight. The content of these pins varies a lot: some are blatant body-shaming and weight-loss focused, some are “fitspiration” that quietly shames non-normative bodies, and some really do seem targeted at health, but still kind of make me suspicious because of the stigmatizing shaming world in which I live. Quite a few of these pins live on boards with deceptive titles like “Body Positive” and “Self Care.”
Unsurprisingly, fat-positive, body-positive, HAES, and other anti-shame folks are fighting back through their own pins. I’ve been happy to find that if I actively curate my follow list and am ruthless in cutting boards, I can create a fairly body-loving environment, where obesity shame infographics are non-existent and photos of glorious fierce fat femmes abound. But does this environment really solve the problem?
For me, unfortunately the answer is no. Why? Well, because in an active attempt to turn the tables on thinspiration, a lot of the folks who are pinning HAES and body-positive stuff still adhere to an overarching meme that includes thinspirers and fatspirers alike. This meme is steeped in individual responsibility, goal orientation, and (gasp!) capitalism. I don’t think it’s intentional, for the most part, but taken as a whole, I’ve been experiencing these pinboards I follow as a kind of fat-loving version of the capitalist “improve thyself!” meme the thinspo folks and the exercise hounds put out there.
So how can we avoid this meme? I think a lot of it comes from the imperative mood. The imperative is a command, for example, “eat better,” or “exercise more.” Even when it’s seemingly positive—”love yourself,” “take 20 minutes a day to meditate,” “take time to make your body beautiful whatever its size”—in a society that is hyper-focused on individual responsibility, this advice can come off as just another obligation. I don’t want to make my just-fine-the-way-it-is body beautiful! I want to take a nap in my sweatpants!
As feminists share tips, stories, and body love today, I am pleased to see that some are also highlighting the negatives of the body-love imperative. While fighting body-negative messages is crucial, it is important to recognize that the goal should be acceptance of others’ bodies, not unqualified love of one’s own. For many people, including transgender, genderqueer, and intersect people, people with disabilities, people with a history of eating disorders, and those with a history of sexual assault, body love may not be a comfortable or appropriate goal. It’s important to realize that for some of us, a body is an inconvenience or a hindrance, and that experience is just as valid as body-love.
So what tips would I share on Love Your Body Day?
1. Speak to others in a thoughtful, compassionate way about bodies. Recognize that people’s relationships with their bodies vary widely and respect that. Don’t speak in absolute terms or offer advice when it’s not wanted or needed. For example, don’t sing the praises of exercise–many feel that while it’s wrong to criticize someone’s weight, exercise is right for everyone, and that simply isn’t true.
2. Be gentle with yourself if you have difficulty with body-love. Sometimes our bodies are disappointing. They might not function how we’d like them to. It might be hard to gain or lose weight. We might have health problems we can’t control, or a body that doesn’t feel right for our gender. If nurturing your body isn’t appropriate for you, try nurturing your mind or your spirit. A lot of body issues are mental health issues, and it can help to have a safe space to talk those out, even if they aren’t “fixable.”
3) Look for and give support where you can. It might be helpful to share experiences with others who have similar body issues. This doesn’t have to be a formal support group–I’ve seen plenty of this on Twitter and Tumblr.
4) Think of ways to visualize yourself or express your creative spirit–this doesn’t necessarily have to involve your body. For example, you might design an avatar or a work of art to represent you, make a spirit wall, practice creative visualization to envision yourself in some way other than the embodied, or use fashion to cover your body or make it less noticeable than what you’re displaying on it.
5) Assert your right (and others’) to take up space in a way that works for you. It’s okay to say that your body fucking sucks. You have a right to be sad, hurt, or angry. Anyone who insists that you love your body, get over your issues, or make more of an effort to love yourself is practicing emotional abuse. You have a right to inhabit physical space as well. You have a right to accommodations that you need. You have a right to say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. You have a right to tell others not to say things about your body that they think are positive, and not to touch your body. These are all parts of bodily autonomy.
I had a very painful experience yesterday that I’d like to share. I thought about doing this privately, but I decided that it was worth talking about in public because my readers mostly come for a mix of queer issues, feminist, and human rights law, and you may not be aware of the insidious harms of body shaming and talk about the “obesity epidemic.” There is a slim chance that the person I’m telling this story about could read this article. I hope that if she does, she’ll understand that it’s not about her, and I’m not saying that I hate her as a person or that she’s a bad person. I don’t want to shame an individual here. I want to point out the context of her words, that we live in a society where vitriol like this is acceptable. For that reason I’m not saying who she is or how we met, just that she’s someone I know in a professional capacity.
So here’s what happened:
We got into a discussion about the “obesity epidemic,” where I was arguing that a lot of the public health messages about obesity harm more than they help, and that children shouldn’t be shamed into diet and exercise. Her position was very different, so I decided to disclose my personal history of eating disorders (probably EDNOS, I don’t really know how to categorize it yet) in hopes that my perspective might be one she hadn’t considered. It didn’t really do much good in the abstract, but eventually we got around to talking about the calorie signs that many big cities now require to be displayed in restaurants.
Read the rest of this entry
This post has sort of been a long time coming, but it’s a challenge to gather my thoughts on what I’d like to discuss here. For a long time, my identity has been heavily organized around sexuality and gender. That’s where most of my activism goes, as well as most of my writing and academic work. I’m sensitive to gender- and sexuality-based discrimination in my own life and in the lives of others. But lately, I’ve been thinking about another kind of discrimination, and another kind of identity–one that it’s much scarier to claim.
I spend some of my blog-reading time each day on disability, a topic that’s of interest to me because it falls in with so many other oppression- and kyriarchy-related topics, because I don’t know enough about it, and because it affects so many of those near and dear to me. I am a TAB (temporarily able-bodied) person, and so I have never really identified with disability, but that has been changing.
None of these things are diagnosed, partially because of the challenges in seeking professional assistance and the potential of community rejection, but I show pretty strong signs of depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and binge eating disorder. I had to fight my urge, just now, to put the adjective “mild” in front of those words, because the stigma against them is so heavy, and I can practically see the judgment coming.
I’ve judged other people for their mental health problems. I’ve used words like “crazy” to describe people, and as a brightline rule to apply to myself–“I may have some issues, but I’m not crazy.” I’m ashamed to admit that. By some definitions, I probably am crazy.
The fact is, normal is relative.
We live in a world that encourages mental unhealth. Just sorting through the challenge of trying to find a good eating disorder recovery blog that is body-positive, supports HAES, and doesn’t use the language of control and oppression and restriction, is really tough. That’s because we’re taught that it’s healthy to hate our bodies, healthy to restrict our eating, and if food controls our lives, it has to do with weakness and willpower and personal responsibility. Similarly, anxiety is normal in a stressed-out world, as is depression. Those things are “just what everyone has,” but if someone asserts that it actually is a problem, it actually is greater than normal, zie becomes stigmatized, unhealthy, crazy.
I’m tired of guilt. I’m tired of all the fucked-up issues I have surrounding food and money. I’m tired of feeling the burden of the constant pressure to maintain a reputation, an online presence. I would love to write and be an activist for a living, but it’s not a profession that cuts people very much slack. There’s pressure to constantly produce, not to have an “off” day. There’s pressure to be able to be social and travel and do things whether or not you feel like it. There’s pressure to present as healthy, calm, with it, in control. Of course, there’s very little money in it, so it’s not a very welcoming place for folks whose mental health issues are exacerbated by not having enough.
I’m not going anywhere. But I am starting to learn and accept that I may not be cut out for this career, for activist “fame,” for material success. I’m going to keep writing and keep reading and keep talking to people, but I’m going to accept that my periods of disappearance due to social anxiety may mean that I lose a lot of people and am never seen as a member of the community. The time it takes to tackle my “issues” may take away from the time I have to tackle the world’s issues. I may be seen as “less than,” “not good enough,” or “unprofessional” by some people and organizations. I’m going to learn to be okay with that, because the guilt and the shame and the pain of a world that I visualize in constant judgment is too much for me.
I wanted to put this out there because I know I am not the only blogger, writer, or activist in this position. I want to let you know that you’re not alone and your struggle is valid and the stigma against you is shit and it’s not your fault. I’m not sure I can offer a very reliable ear, because the pressure of correspondence is often difficult for me, but I can try.
Just for fun, I decided to Google and see if I could find some sexy lingerie that isn’t “cute” or girly–maybe boyshorts and a flattering sports bra? I wasn’t too surprised to find this to be a challenge, but I was particularly disappointed by one hit from Woman’s Day magazine.
We’ve all seen this kind of thing, but I think it’s ubiquitous enough to escape our notice when a magazine or advertiser pulls it on us. In this example, an article on lingerie gives a number of options for women with different “body types.” The common thread, though, is that all the body types are described in the language of problems, not assets.
Woman’s Day suggests lingerie for “too much tummy,” “no curves,” and “small chest” to either add or take away from whatever curves a woman has. Even the seemingly positive or neutral categories “big bust” and “full hips” focus on minimizing the chest or drawing the eye to the chest and away from the hips. The idea is that whatever you have, there’s something wrong with it. The grass is always greener on the other end of the lingerie aisle.
Where are the underwear advertisements that celebrate a woman’s figure? How about playing up a round tummy, hips that are curvy or square, breasts of any size, curvy or straight? It’s not difficult to design lingerie to flatter body parts as they are–in fact, probably easier than trying to hide whatever you have. No wonder we’re all running around trying to heal from our insecurities, when we can’t even buy underwear without being told how deficient we are.
I’ve been in a bit of a mood about the latest “research” regarding obesity and being overweight. Cara does a good summary of the issues regarding the first study in question, which focuses on overweight women who think they’re normal. Because, of course, we all know overweight isn’t normal. And how dare you think you’re something you’re not. How dare you be bold enough to have a healthy, positive, loving view of your body in this woman-hating society. There’s something wrong with you.
The other study (which I can’t find the article on anymore, would someone link in the comments?) is an analysis of I think 19 different studies that finds an increased risk of death for people who are only slightly overweight. The study was done on white people only, and the indicator used was BMI, which we all know is pretty problematic. But what bothers me the most is the way it’s reported. Yet another “oh my God, you’re going to DIE if you’re fat!” article designed to evoke fear in the populous. Because plenty of people, of course, are “just a little overweight.” But you know what? Stepping out onto the street increases your risk of death. You might be hit by a bus. And while I’m skeptical of the study design, even putting that aside, the framing of the message is harmful to those who will read it and think “oh shit, I’m a little overweight, I might die sooner.” I’m guessing your reaction to that is less likely to be “hey, I should change my diet or exercise more!” and more likely to be, well, depression. Which can kill you.
So let’s stop striking the fear into the hearts of fat people and instead think about holistic health, which includes love and respect for your body, respect for how other people view their bodies, and not scaring the shit out of those who dare not to apply the tried and true formula of diet and exercise (or those who can’t).
For day five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read the essay “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?” by writer and fat acceptance blogger Kate Harding. This is a fantastic essay that I can’t recommend enough about Harding’s own experiences and how narrow beauty standards lead to the appalling suggestion that “rape is a compliment” for fat women, as well as reducing fat women’s own self-worth. I have just a few thoughts to add, particular concerning beauty standards, self-worth, and confidence in a very heteronormative world.
I attended an interesting talk today at the CRT at 20 conference on the topic of medical education and cultural competency, focusing especially on women of color’s experiences with gynecology. I started thinking about a tangential topic that I think is sometimes overlooked in LGBT studies: lesbians’ experience with sexual and reproductive health care services.
Later I will probably post some comments on how lesbians experience sexual and reproductive health care generally and differently from heterosexual women. Just now, though, I had a thought about the construction of the female body and how badly this jives with feminism and with lesbianism.
There has been a lot of talk among feminists about how the female sexual organs are reduced to their reproductive function, and how women’s sexual pleasure can be effectively erased from a discussion about women’s anatomy. My thought is that the woman’s body is sexualized, but it is sexualized only with reference to the man/the male body.
When you think about this part of the body, it’s likely that one of your first thoughts concerns the vagina. My guess is that gynecologists and other health care professionals see the vagina in two ways: as a receptacle for the penis (focusing on sexual health, contraception, disease, etc.) or as a passageway for a child (focusing on pregnancy, fertility, etc.) I think this is also true of the culture in general.
One problem is that the vagina is, for many women, not the site of sexual pleasure (or not the sole site), and so there is a separation between health and pleasure. I would posit that it is difficult to celebrate and enjoy the experience of health and health care when it is separated in this way from sexual pleasure. I think most of us experience our body in vastly different ways in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office. Another problem is that it makes the healthcare experience irrelevant for lesbian women, especially lesbian women not interested in giving birth. Our concerns may be difficult to express because society and our health care experiences have not given us a language to express them. I know that I find the gynecologist fairly irrelevant to me – I get an annual pap smear and I get birth control for migraines, but that’s it. My doctor is not necessarily someone I trust, nor do I associate him with my overall health.
I think that this disconnect may also have something to do with why lesbian women often do not go in for services such as pap smears, mammograms, and STI tests. STIs are often conceived of as a penis-in-vagina consequence. Even if we know that STIs can be transferred through any fluid contact, the lesbian community tends to see barrier methods as weird. If not weird, they’re just a pain. I’d guess that many of us haven’t asked our health care provider for advice concerning sexual health. I’ve had experiences with a female gynecologist who told me I only needed pap smears if I were having sex with a man, and a female resident whom I asked about sexual health and she said she didn’t know anything about STI risks. I’ve also had a lot of frustrating experiences when I’m talking with a health care professional about PCOS and he or she tells me repeatedly about my fertility options and forces literature on me, even though I say that I am not interested in having children, ever. I was even once told “oh, you’ll change your mind.” I find this condescending, and the lack of agency makes me fearful of healthcare.
I’m not sure exactly how this could be fixed, but I do think that in anatomy courses and wherever else medical students learn about the female body, the woman should be construed as a whole person, and her experiences of her body considered fully. I want health care professionals to think of women’s sexuality in terms of her own body, and all of it – not in terms of a penis and a vagina, plus possible “alternatives.” I also think that healthcare professionals need to learn how to have effective dialogues that do not make assumptions about sexual practices or reproductive choices. I don’t know how we get there, but I hope it’s where we’re going.
Forgive the radio silence over the past few days (and thank you all the new commenters for dropping by and saying hello!)
I’ve been thinking for a while of doing a post about butch and femme, but it turns out I have more to say than I thought on the subject, so I’d like to ruminate on that for a while.
Somewhat related, though, is a little sidebar about self-worth and appearance. Of course we all hear a lot about how the media portrays women as stick thin and gorgeous, how detrimental the narrowing of “acceptable” fashion is to young girls, etc. All completely true. But I think it’s interesting as someone who’s an adult and not a fashion follower by any stretch of the imagination to notice how societal norms affect my own body image.
I no longer have a problem with my weight, which is a minor miracle. Though I’ve always known intellectually that I was healthy and not overweight, I had a lot of trouble with it for a very long time. These days I find myself relatively happy with my figure, especially when I’m clothed, and at least not freaking out and crying or going on a diet immediately when I’m not. But then the old self-confidence zapper popped up where I least expected it.
I got a haircut yesterday. I actually am coming to terms with it, as I normally do after a day or so, and though I don’t love the style I’ll live with it until it grows out. But yesterday, it got worse and worse. Everytime I looked at the mirror, little doubts crept into my head, until I was imagining just how unattractive and undesireable I looked and had to push back tears. This is so strange to me, because I don’t value myself on how I look at all. It’s not that it’s androgynous – I like androgyny! I think it’s just that I left the realm of conventional beauty and some little inner me was saying “good job, loser. You’ll never get a date.”
Of course, that’s how society trains women to view themselves. Your self worth is measured by your ability to attract others. I’ve always felt good and better about myself when I felt like others were attracted to me. The silly thing, though, is that I’m not particularly wound up in love and sex right now. I’m not on the market for a relationship. If someone asked me out tomorrow, I might say yes, but if someone said “hey, let’s get serious right away!” I’d run in the other direction. So why on earth should my self-worth be tied to how likely my current appearance is to get me a date? Popular culture, really. I am not amused.