Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

On being the wrong size

Body image and fat prejudice is a topic I've been trying to talk about almost ever since I started this journal, and I keep reading things that bring me back to it, and every time I start a post I give up because I'm pretty sure I'm going to offend people. Quite often I upset myself too. I've finally come to the conclusion that the best way to start discussing the question is to be very personal. I'm going to talk about my own experience of being fat, and not draw any implications yet.

I've been fat ever since I hit puberty. To be precise, I've been on the borderline between the "overweight" and "obese" BMI categories pretty much that whole time. On the whole, that hasn't really affected my life very negatively, but it has coloured my experience of the world.

My parents were absolutely scrupulous never to criticize my weight; that's a pretty important thing, and I'm very grateful for it. In fact, my mother didn't even complain about her own weight in front of me until I was past the most vulnerable age. I had a little bit of grief from Granny, such as occasionally complaining that I shouldn't wear certain things because they draw attention to my huge bottom. She held back from the worst of what she subjected my mother to when she was growing up, and I knew quite clearly that she has issues about body image and her relationship with food, so I was never strongly bothered by the fact that she's a tiny little woman and I'm (like Mum) positively huge compared to her. Oh, and my little sister went through a phase of constantly mocking me for being so fat; she's five years younger than me and was a late developer, so she was a scrawny kid throughout my adolescence. But I was older than her and bigger, and knew more about almost everything, and also knew exactly how to push her buttons and frequently did, so the only advantage she could hold over me was being thinner, so I wasn't exactly impressed by her teasing.

My other grandmother, who was a paediatrician, was the one who measured my weight and height at regular intervals, and compared me to her BMI charts and warned me to keep an eye on my weight and diet when I slipped into the "obese" category. With her medical background she knew that the only way to maintain weight is to eat a sensible, balanced diet and do plenty of exercise, so she never gave me stupid advice, and was much more focused on encouraging me to be healthy than thin. She also had a very good understanding of what it's like to be short and stocky and show our shared eastern European ancestry. (Apart from my fairer colouring I take after her quite a lot physically.) I clearly remember a conversation about how my tall, thin, glamourous cousin getting her first little black dress, and my grandmother commented that cousin E looked "slinky" in the dress, whereas she and I would never be slinky.

On the whole, I didn't get much trouble from my peers either. I attended an academically competitive girls' private school, where dieting was not socially encouraged. For a start, it showed that you valued appearance more than brains and personality, and were therefore probably a bimbo, and besides that we were always acutely aware of the plague of anorexia; There were always a couple of those nightmare skeletal faces reminiscent of the Belsen photos in most of my classes. A few of the teachers used to make snide remarks about my figure sometimes, but that was so obviously inappropriate that I ignored them. I quickly became aware that it was social death for any boy to be even polite to me in case he was suspected of fancying the fat girl, but being in a girls' school meant I didn't have to have much to do with boys, and I was not particularly interested in their approval. I assumed I would never have that coveted status symbol, a boyfriend, but since this meant never having to kiss disgusting teenaged boys, I was secretly quite relieved. Once I figured out that any boy who was nice to me was actually setting me up for humiliation, I became impossible to humiliate in that way. I doubt I would have had much success with boys even if I'd been thin, unless I had been fashionable and pretty as well.

So the first time I started to be concerned about my figure was when I was 14 and spending time with Spanish M. M was (and still is) drop-dead gorgeous in the stereotypically Spanish way, tiny and slender and high-breasted, and she was very active as a teenager, dancing quite seriously and doing a lot of other sports. She took it into her head that I was going to drop dead of a heart attack because of being so fat. I could hardly resist my best friend in tears, so I started trying to lose weight. Thanks to my grandmother's good advice I went about it pretty sensibly, and did slim down a little, but not enough to make a very visible difference.

Then I found Naomi Wolf's The beauty myth. I don't even know why I picked it up, cos I wasn't very interested in feminism. Wolf impressed me a lot; I didn't absolutely swallow everything that she wrote, but I really liked the way she presented evidence for her views and gave reasonable consideration to opposing ones. So instead of dieting I presented Spanish M with a comprehensive bibliography showing that heart disease is barely correlated with weight in women. And I learnt to be skeptical of the whole dieting industry (I didn't need so much innocculation against the beauty industry more generally, because I had no interest in being beautiful).

I hated "games" at school. Largely because I was incompetent at most of it, but also because the school so prioritized academic subjects that sport was badly squeezed. There was "gym" in a tiny, outdated little hall with almost no equipment, and swimming in a horrible grotty little pool we borrowed from a local boys' school, so much too small for the class that you were lucky to get five minutes in the water in a double period. Netball, which I have always hated. In summer, a little bit of "athletics" and tennis both taking place on a hankie sized bit of uneven grass, totally uninspiring; the girls who were competent and interested usually had access to athletics clubs if not their families' own private tennis courts and pools and so on. The only thing that slightly appealed to me was hockey, a game I found sufficiently intellectually stimulating to justify the pointless running about.

At one point when I was 17 or so, one of the games teachers told me that I might make quite a useful little hockey player if I lost some weight. Really, she should have told me that I'd be a useful player if I could improve my fitness; it was perfectly true that my skills were good but I didn't have the stamina to support them. So that led to my second attempt to diet. Again, I was sensible, I ate smaller portions of the same foods I would have eaten anyway, and ruthlessly cut out any snacks between meals, and ran a mile every morning before school. I saw some results; my fitness did improve, and I lost that classic 20 lb which is easy to lose if you restrict your diet in almost any fashion. I came back to school after a holiday and got lots of positive comments on the weight I'd lost; one teacher even looked at me and commented, woah, what happened to you? and did the hourglass gesture, which offended me deeply. But my asthma and my lack of any guidance in how to get properly fit were both against me, and it was also at about this time that hockey abolished the offside rule, and we started playing on Astroturf instead of grass. Even at my fittest, there was no way I could keep up with a game in those conditions. The teacher who started the whole thing put me in the hockey squad, which meant I was practising twice a week, and occasionally she would pick me for the B team, I think probably out of pity.

At my thinnest, and when I was as fit as I knew how to be, I was still towards the higher end of "overweight" according to BMI. I remember blue_mai taking me aside and explaining to me, with the utmost delicacy and tact, that I should realize that I was never going to be a model even if I lost weight. I was incredibly grateful to her for taking the extreme risk of insulting me to point that out, but I reassured her that I wasn't trying to be beautiful, I was just trying to make the hockey team and improve my general health. Then there came an evening in January, where I was sitting on the substitutes' bench during hockey practice as it was starting to get dark, freezing to death in my sports kit of polo shirt and short skirt, and hungry as I was constantly during that period, and absolutely craving chocolate to the point where I was practically hallucinating. I realized at that moment that I would rather be fat and unhealthy than spend the rest of my life hungry. I quit the hockey team and the diet, and never looked back.

So, by the time I left school I was almost exactly the figure I am now: 5'3'', and about 12 stone. Most of that is genetics, a little bit is how little I was active during my teenage years. During the critical period of puberty, my mother was feeding me, which meant that I ate fairly large quantities, but always extremely good, nutritious and balanced food. My sister, who has always been more active than me and who has eaten a lot better since we left home and she became a chef while I became a scientist who often doesn't have time to cook properly, has a pretty similar figure to mine, slightly thinner but still pretty solidly built. I'm lucky enough that I ended up reasonably curvy with that; I carry a lot of weight on my hips and thighs, but I have round, full breasts and a small waist in proportion to my size. But I don't take credit for a vaguely socially acceptable figure, any more than I feel ashamed because I'm so much bigger than my so-called "ideal" weight.

Now, when I was a teenager, I had no idea how to deal with my appearance. I was convinced I was ugly, I think partly because of the weight but also just that the ideal of pretty available to me was very narrrow and I obviously didn't fit it. I also genuinely didn't care, not in a sour grapes way, but because of the environment I was in, where appearance was so devalued, I wasn't in the least bit upset about being ugly. Clearly, thinking that you're ugly is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I also wore completely unflattering clothes. After I left school, I gradually became more confident in my appearance. Various factors affected that, I think the main one was meeting adults who felt confident enough to express a range of tastes in body shape rather than pretending to like only tall, thin, blonde women because that was socially acceptable. I still don't feel very excited about putting effort into appearance, but I know I can "dress up pretty" if I want to, and I know that a certain proportion of people find me attractive, and at least a fair number of people, though of course by no means everybody, think I'm at least acceptable aesthetically.

I still don't do anything like enough exercise, but I don't think that has much to do with my weight. I occasionally get comments that I "ought" to lose weight, even from medical professionals who should know better, but I tend to ignore them. For example, last time I was in the Family Planning Centre trying to get the Pill prescribed, the nurse said I could "stand to lose a couple of stone;" I didn't argue with her, because I wanted my contraceptives more than I wanted a debate, but she really, really should have told me to do more exercise, not to lose weight. I strongly suspect that if my lifestyle were absolutely perfect I wouldn't be a lot thinner than I am now, maybe a little thinner, but not a lot, and short of actual starvation I don't think I'm capable of reaching the "normal" weight category even if I wanted to. In short, at different times I've been both fat and ugly and fat and pretty, and fat and energetic and fat and lazy. (I have been thin and ugly, but only as a prepubescent child, so that doesn't count.) Note, though, how "fat and ugly" and "fat and lazy" roll off the tongue, whereas the positive pairings aren't idioms at all.

What upsets me is not that the hand I was dealt was one that included being so-called obese. It's the constant irritation of encountering hateful comments about fat people, even from sources that are otherwise quite sensitive and respectful. Sometimes people reassure me that they don't mean me, they mean really fat people. I'm not "fat", because I'm not ugly, or lazy, or stupid, or irresponsible. Well, guess what, most other fat people aren't those things either, or at least they're no more likely to be so than thin people. It's clearly true that many people are much fatter than me, and have often had a much, much more difficult time as a result than I have; I'm not trying to be a drama queen or look for sympathy here. But the thing is, any time somebody is making the assumption that there's some kind of size boundary above which you're a disgusting pig with no self-respect or willpower, the fact that I fall below that boundary in their eyes isn't much of a comfort to me. The boundary of what is defined as "fat" is very much dependent on context, and as I said at the beginning, the official medical definition makes me obese.

Another pattern that sometimes happens is that people justify their prejudiced comments because being fat is "unhealthy". But even if being fat is bad for you, which is debateable, there's no excuse to make prejudiced assumptions about people or even call for restrictions on their rights because they happen to have some unhealthy behaviours.

I'm going to leave this contentious topic at that for the time being. I just want to make it absolutely clear that comments about how disgusting fat people are, or about how fat people shouldn't get healthcare, or hurtful "jokes" about fatness, or anything along those lines, are comments about me. I hear them as comments about me, and in extreme cases, as threats to me. And I'm not prepared to hate my body in order to avoid being emotionally affected by those comments.
Tags: essay

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