[TW fat-shaming, body policing, diet]
Now is as good a time as any to finally correct myself. One of the first things I wrote about on this blog was a pretty ignorant post or two about fatness and health. It was sparked by someone’s criticism of Michelle Obama’s Anti-Childhood Obesity campaign, although now I cannot for the life of me recall why that criticism sparked enough annoyance in me to write about it. I suppose it was because I was still, at the time, heavily invested in our toxic “food and fatness as quantifiable moral values” system. I still hated my body for not being thin, for wanting cake instead of water. I had never heard of Health At Every Size, and I’d certainly (like 99.99% of people who will ever make comments about fatness and health risks) never bothered to actually research correlation/causation relationships between diseases and fat (pro-tip: everything you’ve heard from the media is full of shit).
I fully admit that one reason I’ve put off writing this post was because it would mean going back and reading something that I wrote that is at once ignorant, stigmatizing, and hurtful. Facing one’s own lack of knowledge (and lack of willingness to seek out knowledge before opening one’s big judgmental mouth) and capacity to wound others is one of the hardest parts of unpacking privilege and ignorance.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t written that post. I asked a dear friend to read the post for me, hoping for validation. Instead, I got an email full of links to Fat Acceptance bloggers. She (and they) changed my life, and so much for the better. That’s not something I say lightly.
Stuff I learned:
1. Calories in, calories out is BULLSHIT. This should have been logically obvious, even if we’re not talking about metabolic differences. It should have been obvious from my own experiences of exercising and changing my eating habits (I think my general inability to be strict with myself over long periods of time is the only thing that saved me from a pretty nasty eating disorder). I thought, somehow, that I was maybe just broken. Or maybe I had eaten really well that week but sabotaged myself with one indulgence. Or maybe I was doing the wrong kind of exercise. Or maybe I was just too weak-willed to ever get anywhere with this, but “stronger” people could operate their bodies according to this principle. What bullshit.
2. Heath At Every Size is AWESOME. The strange thing to me about finding HAES is that it actually fits perfectly into my beliefs about medicine and how it should treat bodies that I am sometimes still shocked that I didn’t make the connection between those beliefs, food and exercise before. Talk about missing the ball. The individuality of bodies, the involvement of the mind and spirit in the health of those bodies, and the natural variation in shapes and colors and textures – these are all basic things I have always advocated that doctors must remember. I was so invested in fat(self)-hatred that I missed how these beliefs would naturally apply to non-medical settings. Being healthy is about doing what makes your body, mind, and spirit feel good and healthy. It has nothing to do with how others measure up your appearance. I would go so far as to say that health has nothing to with your appearance, period.
3. Your body is none of my business. I swallowed society’s bullshit line about anyone else’s health-weight-exercise-food choices being any of my business. They aren’t. Even if I knew anything about the fat people I used to judge on sight (and of course I never knew), it would still be none of my business if they chose unhealthy things, never exercised, were indeed at risk of developing a physical condition because of their weight. It is such an assholish move to presume the authority to police other people’s appearances and choices. It’s positively 1984-esque, the way society expects us to spy upon and judge one another, and it’s hugely harmful, particularly around food – a friend with a binge-eating disorder will not eat in front of others, period, because she is so ashamed of her disorder and fears people judging her as a self-indulgent fatty. The idea that others are always watching us and judging our food habits is not paranoia – just in the last week, people of my acquaintance teased two men about going back for seconds, remarked on the portion sizes of several girls, discussed in bizarrely specific detail the food preferences of the people around them, and advocated their own personal “eat this to feel good” relations. I told a friend I was really hungry, and then put a normal portion size (for me) on my plate. My friend boggled at me and said “I thought you said you were hungry!” as if hunger would magically make my stomach larger, or something. As if my portion size should be related to my height and weight index, and not how much food my body wants and can physically eat in one sitting. I still slip up sometimes like this. I find myself mid-comment on someone’s portion sizes or food choices, and snap my mouth shut, because it’s not my business. People will eat what they need and/or want to eat. Why should that be comment worthy?
I do want to be healthy. I’d like to help others who also want to be healthy access the things they need to achieve that. Fat shaming is never a way to health. It’s a way to extremely fuck up not only one’s health, but also one’s self-esteem. My focus is now on helping fight for nutritious, safe food options being available to people in all income brackets, safe places for people to engage in any of the same exercise/movement options I have access to by virtue of my bank account (everything from playing in a sandbox to yoga classes to marathon training). Above all, I want people to have access to education about the real facts about having bodies and caring for them. Your choices are your own. Self-care has many components, including physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, and there is no “wrong” way to prioritize one’s needs, no “immoral” personal choices. Good, accurate nutritional information should be absolutely decoupled from moral rhetoric. Education about natural body diversity and how health cannot be predicted from shape and size should be ubiquitous.
I live in Korea, and going to the baths here has been a transformative experience. In the locker room and the baths, women sit around naked, chatting, washing each other’s backs, gossiping, clipping their toenails, sitting on chairs with holes in them over burning herbs to cleanse their lady bits (this one is still a little odd to me, but what do I know?), just with no clothes on. But they do also stare and check out other women.
Despite Korea’s intensely fat-shaming norms that so permeate the rest of my daily life in this country, I’ve never heard any comments about my body at the baths, though most Koreans assume I can’t understand them and don’t bother to lower their voices when talking about me in other places.
At the baths, I got to see for the first time a great diversity of naked female bodies in a neutral setting. No posing, no selection for desirability – just normal, everyday female bodies sitting around doing nothing special. Saggy breasts and perky ones, natural ones and altered ones, dark nipples and light ones, innie bellybuttons and outies, smooth skin and scarred puckered places, wrinkles, cellulite, firm muscles, extra folds of skin, stretch marks, knobby knees and smooth knees, long toes and short toes and hairy toes, painted nails and natural, shaved and waxed and natural body hair, tattoos and freckles. No makeup, no shapewear, no bras, just women’s bodies in all their sizes and shapes and colors, at all ages.
It’s not something I ever saw growing up, and I’m angry that, in the 23 years before I came to Korea, the only bodies I ever saw in detail were on film and TV, in ads, and in the occasional pornographic work (the occasional in-person naked person too, but they were usually people who were considered attractive by society’s crap standards). I never saw anyone who looked like my body. I’m angry that I was told to believe that parts of me were hideous, monstrous, abnormal and to be abolished. That my body was wrong for growing hair there, or being that color, or having dry skin and thin hair. And while I don’t need to know that my body is normal to feel good about it anymore, it is tremendously empowering to know from the evidence of my own eyes (not just intellectually) that the features of my body so hated by society and “beauty” product manufacturers – fat, stretchmarks, hairy toes, scars, moles, an ever-altering collection of bruises, giant winglike labia minora – are not, in fact, scary and unusual. It’s the satisfaction of proving that the shaming in ads is full of lies that has helped me free myself further from our culture’s beauty narratives to get to the point of knowing – not believing – that even if there is something about my body that would be considered by our (fucked up) norms to be “freakish” it does not at all remove my rights to love, dignity, and all the good things.
As much as I weep for others who, like I was, are convinced that their bodies’ deviations from our unrealistic standards make them less, unlovable, or ugly, I positively burn with fury at the damage the mere idea of “normal” and “abnormal” bodies – of the linkages of “unusual” to “frightening” and “to be fixed/corrected/erased” does to those who, from birth or from accident or other happenstance, have bodies even less socially acceptable. Bodies that some people would much rather literally disappear. Bodies that were and still are shoved out of sight, discriminated against, shut away, medicalized beyond reason, attacked mentally and physically, and even legislated against.
The idea that there is no normal, that there is no good and bad, the idea that health and good feeling are individual, the idea that attraction is also individual (thereby shutting up all the “if you grow armpit hair you will never find looooooove” ads) – these would change the body of society as we know it, quite literally. And I strongly believe that we would be not just healthier and happier for it, but also more compassionate. Maybe even more creative. Downside? We would have to look one another in the face and admit that we’ve been abusing ourselves and each other for no good reason. We would have to do some work. I’m game. Are you?
TL;DR – I was stupid and hateful. I am working on not being stupid and judgmental anymore. Please let me know when I am.