One of my oldest friends just sent me an e-mail in which she said those words, meaning them in the kindest possible way (and bookending them with lots of lovely compliments), but she hit a button. I’ve been wanting to write something on my hatred of those words for a long time, but I keep not getting around to it, so I’m just going to post my response to her e-mail.
Note that in the first paragraph, I’m explaining this:
which I had on the blog for a couple of weeks.
First of all, just to clear up a misunderstanding, the “candy heart” was not that, but a game piece from a vintage board game I read about on Feministing. It’s the “exciting game of career girls,” in which you move around the board until you become a teacher, actress, nurse, model, ballerina, or stewardess. That’s ALL. And obstacles in your path are things like getting a card that tells you you’re overweight.
I found the whole thing hilarious–in a “Thank GOD I was born as late as I was” sort of way–and because of the context in my head, I thought everyone would get that it was ironic. Oops.
The longer, more serious answer, though… I appreciate what you’re saying, but I do identify as fat, if you will, and it’s important for me to be able to use the word without thinking of it in terms of calling myself names. I’m at the point where I really think of “fat” as a word that’s equivalent in value to “short” or “blonde.” It just describes me. Of course there are a lot of potential interpretations of it, even as a value-neutral adjective–but the same is true of “short” and “blonde.” Next to a basketball player, you’re short; next to Peter Dinklage, I’m tall. We’re different kinds of blondes. I look chubby next to you and small next to my siblings. All those words are just, you know, a ballpark.
I can totally see how that wouldn’t be clear because A) very few people in this country think of “fat” as anything but a dirty word, and B) you knew me at my most self-loathing, self-deprecating and borderline body dysmorphic–which was, um, a LOT of the time you’ve known me–so you have good reason to assume I have a skewed view of myself and think of fat as a terrible thing. But the thing is… I really don’t anymore. I can’t say I have an absolutely perfect body image, but my god, it is WORLDS away from where it was even a few years ago. You can pretty much stop worrying about me there. For reals.
Yoga has helped with this a LOT. Amazing Yoga Teacher was commenting last week on how I have so much body awareness, which “has always made [me] really easy to teach.” And I laughed my ass off, because dude, that has ALL come in the last year of yoga; she’s revising our history pretty hard. When I started with AYT, she would tell me to engage my abs, and I’d engage everything from my upper thighs through my shoulders, because I just didn’t know where to find them. And, because of my non-verbal LD, I still have trouble with figuring out how to mimic a pose for the first time. Wait, my left arm is where, and my right foot is where? Give me a goddamn Twister map!
But I really have made incredible strides with all that stuff. I know where the vast majority of my muscles are now, so if she says, “Engage your abs,” I can do it automatically. Hell, if she says, “Engage the tiny muscles above your knees,” I can do it automatically. I have a much better sense of where everything is in space (even if I still struggle with new poses), and the muscle memory comes a lot quicker now. That blows my mind, and I’m really proud of it. But the best part of all that is, it means I’ve learned to really inhabit my body, to think of it from the inside out–literally, for the first time in my life.
For the first 31 years–or at least the last 20–I just thought of myself as a floating head, and I tried to think about my body as little as possible. When I did think about it, all the thoughts were negative, because I seriously just had no experience of my own damned body, apart from how it stacked up externally to other people’s, and how people reacted to it (or how I perceived their reactions), and how I was told by SO MANY SOURCES to feel about bodies that weren’t perfectly thin.
Now, since I’ve spent so much of the last year wearing spandex around other human beings, while focusing on how my body feels, and what it’s doing, I just have a whole different frame of reference for my body. When I’m actually present inside it, I know my body is fine–it’s strong and getting stronger, it can move into all sorts of poses, it can even do some things that look really cool. And that totally carries over when I’m off the mat.
It’s not that I’m not concerned with how I look–I’m probably more obsessed with hair and make-up and fashion than ever (you think??)–but that I am IN my body all the time. So once I’ve looked in the mirror and pronounced myself properly dressed and made-up, I walk out the door and just stop thinking about how I look–I can’t see myself anymore, so it doesn’t occur to me to wonder what other people are seeing. I’m just out in the world, being myself, being… whole. It’s a nice change. I mean, if I think about it, I still know intellectually that there are people who don’t like how I look, or what I’m wearing, but I just don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. I think I look good, and I feel good, so instead of obsessing about other people’s perceptions (and assuming the worst), I just assume people see me as I see myself… and if I’m wrong, what I don’t know can’t hurt me.
I’m sure that’s what you saw in me when you were here. I am a gazillion times more confident than the last time you saw me, because I don’t constantly have the “Everyone thinks I’m fat and ugly” tape going in my head anymore. I’d give anything to get back all the years I lost to that tape–but on the upside, at least I got rid of it by my early thirties. Plenty of people never do.
Now, about the fat thing, specifically… I’ve been meaning to sit down and write a post about the phrase “You’re not fat.” I hate it, even though I know the way you just said it was meant with nothing but love. The problem is, I’ve been hearing it all my life–at times it was a statement of fact, but more often than not, the question of my fatness was open to interpretation, and the meaning behind it was, “You’re not ten other things I associate with fat.” Coming from skinny people, it usually means, “You’re not unattractive, lazy, stupid, smelly, unhealthy, disgusting, etc.” Coming from fatter people (some of whom I’m related to), it means, “Quit whining. You don’t even KNOW what it’s like to be fat.” (And coming from anyone, for many years, I just registered it as a great, big lie, as if the person saying it thought I was too naive or idiotic to know what I looked like and what everyone thought of me.)
Either way, saying I’m not fat ignores a massive part of my life experience. When well-meaning friends say it, I want to say, “Yes, I am!” because it IS important to me to stop regarding fat as a bad word. The reality is, I’m a size 16. I shop at Lane Bryant. I’m significantly larger than most of my friends, and a bit larger than the statistical average American woman. I think BMI is utter horseshit precisely because of fun facts like this, but as of recently, my BMI officially qualifies me as obese. You’re absolutely right that I’m healthy (except for smoking), and I look good, and I have no reason to feel ashamed of my body. It’s just that those things are true, AND it’s true that I’m fat.
And when fatter people say it, it’s equally frustrating, because I have had my own experiences of discrimination, even though I know they’re nowhere near what bigger people endure.
I think maybe the best way to describe myself is “culturally fat,” the way I’m culturally Catholic. It’s seriously impossible to underestimate the role fat has played in my life from day one–because of my family; because my body exploded from scrawny to VERY curvy, practically overnight; because every friend I had in grade school ditched me in 7th grade on grounds that I was “so fat and ugly”; because I spent half of my twenties dieting, and the other half gaining it back… and a whole bunch of other reasons. When I was a size 4, I didn’t feel like a thin person. I knew I WAS thin–and yeah, people actually did treat me a hell of a lot differently–but I had a fat girl’s memories, and a fucked-up body image even then, and a fat family, and a constant awareness that statistically speaking, I would almost certainly be fat again. (My heaviest ever phase was indeed immediately after that phase.) I’ve spent about $5,000 on commercial weight loss programs and lost about 110 lbs. on them, total. And I’ve gained 100 back, total. (The amusing thing is, having kept 10 of those lbs. off over several years actually makes me a more successful dieter than, oh, 90 percent.) At this point, it really doesn’t even matter what my body looks like; I am fat and always will be, because it has colored my world so deeply–stained my world, in fact–that I’ll never be able to see myself as anything else.
So all I can do is own it. And I mean that on a lot of levels, one of which is owning that I get to decide what it means. I’ve decided it’s not bad to be fat, and it’s definitely not bad to live in my body. I’ve decided I’m pretty. I’ve decided I can try all sorts of physical things I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying, for fear of humiliation, when I was younger. I’ve decided this is who I am and the body I’ve got, so I might as well be nice to both, because it makes everything a ton easier. I’ve decided to become quietly political about fat. And I’ve decided to openly call myself fat, because it’s actually a pretty decent adjective for what I am. (I don’t like “overweight,” because… by whose standards? And “curvy” is accurate but has become a vague euphemism claimed by everyone from Salma Hayek to 300-lb. women on online dating sites. “Voluptuous” adds a sexual connotation, even if we’re talking about my body in yoga pants and one of Al’s sweatshirts, or asleep, whatever… “Fat” is actually the best of a poor lot in terms of simplicity and accuracy.)
So thank you for what you were trying to say here, and for noticing the change in me, but I’d honestly rather have you say “You’re fat AND hot and vibrant and blah blah” than say, “You’re not fat.”
And really, the important point is that my body image is fine these days… AMAZING, relative to my past, and solidly good most days. I still get bathing suit panic, but I am so much more comfortable in my skin than I have ever been, and it feels awesome, and I do believe–as you’ve confirmed–that that shows, on top of, you know, objective facts like how I have FANTASTIC FUCKING HAIR.
The point is not that I can’t get beyond thinking of myself as a fatty. The point is, yes, I am fat, actually, and IT’S OKAY. I’m awesome and attractive and I deserve love, all while being fat.