Internalized fatphobia and the stories our bodies tell.
In my social work class last semester, I remember reading about the concept of internalized racism. An over simplified explanation is that because we live in a place with inherently racist systems, structures, and messages, sometimes (often?) marginalized racial populations begin to internalize negative messages, societal beliefs, and stereotypes that are present in mainstream society. Because of the never-ending nature of these assaults, as individuals begin to take on those racist ideals, it begins to push against their sense of self, even when they want to be proud of who they are. It’s very unfortunate, and lately, for me in a weird way, relatable.
Now before I ruffle any feathers, I will freely admit that I do not know what it is like to live as a racially marginalized person. But I do have experience with the ways that the dominant messages of society push against someone’s sense of self.
Today, again, (surprise, surprise), I am going to talk about weight and body. I have made it clear over the past several years in my writing about body that our society hates fat people. I do think we are *starting* to make some progress in terms of representation but we’ve not even begun to really unpack the many vicious and violent ways that fatphobia poisons our society.
I had a realization last month that I still have a ton of internalized fatphobia. And this was a bit of a surprise to me because I have been working on this concept for YEARS. I have embraced the body positivity movement. I have read all the books and articles. I watched all the videos. I have done hundreds (literally) of sessions with nutritionists/therapists. While the word “woke” is beyond played out, I feel like I am woke to so many of the issues of body, disordered eating, intuitive eating, body shame… all of it.
What you may not know is there are factions within the body positivity movement and some of them wouldn’t like me because I had weight loss surgery. I get it. It seems to be a giant contradiction of what I say I believe-- weight is morally neutral, it’s okay to exist in ANY body, you can embrace yourself where you are and that’s good, but still make a decision to surgically alter my body. At the same time, I am okay with those criticisms because I know I really, truly believe all those things (and only Judy can judge me).
For me, my decision was based mostly on pain. I feel as if I truly had conquered many of my food demons in therapy and nutritionist appointments long before I decided to have surgery. But after being in back pain for over a year, I started to consider how I might alleviate it. Losing weight seemed to be a really promising option. However, as a result of all the therapy/nutrition education, I was (am) fully convinced that diets don’t work. At least not long term. Remember, diets have a 95% chance of failure. And that cycle of restriction/binging is why so many of us ended up severely overweight without success in reducing our weight. (Remember set point theory? I was a walking example).
But let me be clear on this-- even though my decision for surgery was based largely on the pain I was in, who cares? We all have the autonomy to make decisions for our bodies. And so even if it was that I wanted to be a more socially acceptable version of attractive, that is also my prerogative. I AM A GROWN ASS LADY AND I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. So I have no shade for people who have different motivations for surgery than I did. You do (or don’t do) what is best for you. I stand with you in that decision, I support you, I applaud you. You own your body and you get to make choices for her (or him).
All of this is to say, that even as someone who was (is) very invested in the idea of body positivity, I didn’t realize until recently how terribly internalized my fatphobia was/is. It was Christmas day a couple of weeks ago, and I was looking at my timehop of photos of the previous Christmas (2019). I saw pictures of myself weighing about 125+lbs more than I did in that current moment, and I felt a deep sense of embarrassment and disgust. That feeling surprised me. Because friends, if my motivation for surgery was not about appearance, where the hell did that feeling come from? Why did I feel disgusted with the images I was seeing? I will tell you exactly where it came from-- internalized fatphobia. I spent 40+ years hearing from our society how being fat is wrong. It is in the media we consume, the jokes/memes we share, and it is deeply ingrained in the medical industry. Fat people are not taken seriously or treated compassionately or with dignity by the majority of doctors. (Again, another topic on which I could write extensively, but I will move on).
But there I was looking at these photos and feeling ashamed. But it doesn’t stop there. Because now, even though a lot of the weight is gone, I still feel ashamed of my body and all my loose skin bearing witness to how my body used to present. I don’t want to be ashamed. I want to be a feminist about it. I remind myself that appearance is a morally neutral thing. I tell myself that attraction/attractiveness is based on specific points in time in specific cultural settings. But I still feel shame.
Despite 20+ years being married to a completely evolved man who has never once body shamed me and has always given me positive body feedback, I can’t get the shame messages out of my head. This man worships my body and ravishes me as often as I will allow. But I can’t get the shame to go away. In fact the other day I was at work and looking at the Valentine’s section and I again remembered Valentine’s day of freshman year in high school when this kid Matt gave everyone conversation hearts in one of my classes. Except for mine he rubbed off whatever phrase was stamped on it and wrote “prize pig.” And yes, let’s just all acknowledge that was super douchey. But it’s also pretty par for the course. Kids get teased in school. That’s what happens. But why, almost 30 years later, can I still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I looked at the heart and then immediately made the choice to laugh along with “the joke” so I didn’t reveal my shame? Why does this happen? Why do these negative memories have such a hold on us? I think it happens because deep down we believe, or at least worry, that they are true. And so we cover them up. But that’s not served me well.
And so this is what I want from life now-- to stop covering up my shame. To reveal it. To live in it and just exist. To stop letting it control me. To try to embody the things I know to be true. To be a feminist. To be as evolved about my body as my husband is about my body. To appreciate the marks that tell the story of where I have been. I mean, that’s why people get tattoos, right? To tell their stories? But my body also tells other stories. And these are good stories, even though some of them have been a challenge.
And so, even though I said I would never share “before and after” photos because I didn’t want appearance to be the focus, I am about to do it. But not the braggy kind. Because the truth is I have plenty of both before and after photos of myself I love and ones I don’t love. And so usually the goal is to find the worst before pic and the best after pic and put them side by side to show how truly remarkable you are. I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to show the real pics-- the ones where you can see my body clearly and it’s not hidden by slimming black, draping fabrics or cinched in with smart foundation garments.
This, my friends, is the change my body underwent in 2020. Dec 2019- December 2020.
This, my friends, is the change my body underwent in 2020. Dec 2019- December 2020.
If these photos make you feel any sort of way-- disgusted or embarrassed for me-- well I guess that's not any of my business, is it? That's your issue. My body is not an apology (to quote Sonya Renee Taylor).
I get that in both photos there are things that are not considered conventionally attractive within our specific time and cultural context.
But this is my body.
This is a woman who has birthed children.
This is a woman who has experienced adventure.
This is a woman who is thoughtful and tries to be a good friend.
This is a woman who is so well loved by her partner.
This is a woman who has existed in a body that has presented many different iterations of herself.
She’s had long hair, short hair, and Kim Jong Un hair.
Sometimes she’s wearing a full face of makeup befitting a drag queen, sometimes she wears none. -----
She’s always been short and curvy with a full, round face.
She is someone who likes to have fun and be ridiculous.
This body previously carried 311 lbs. around with her everywhere she went. Sometimes she felt confident in that, but mostly not. Now she carries 181 and still feels mostly not confident, but she’s working on it.
God only knows how many pounds she will carry going forward and intellectually she knows it doesn’t matter at all because her body will tell these stories too. And she suspects she still has a lot of stories left in her. So here’s to 2021 and radical acceptance of all of the stories our bodies tell.