Recently, I did something that I hadn’t thought possible a couple years ago; something I once worked hard for but failed to accomplish; something the medical establishment, the media, and even the US government had been coercing me to do: I lost 20 pounds. And I didn’t even have to go to the gym!
Don’t worry, faithful readers; I haven’t hijacked Shapely Prose to turn it into Diet Central. You see, this year, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to lose weight. Thanks to Kate and The Rotund and the fabulous fatshionistas, I felt happy with my body and finally felt like my chub was not “extra” but part of who I actually am. I saw my body as one point in a range of possible human shapes and sizes instead of a deviation from a tiny norm. I stopped my negative self-talk, stopped trying to squeeze into the clothing size I used to wear, and stopped the mental calculus I used to apply to every woman I passed on the street: Is she thinner than me? Am I as fat as her? I even engaged in modest proselytizing with female friends, encouraging them to read up on fat acceptance and to recognize how fatphobia is connected to sexism.
So after all that, how did I do it? Why did I lose 20 pounds? Simple: I got sick and I didn’t get better. I don’t recommend this approach. I’m in a very fortunate place in my life as far as illnesses go; I have health insurance, and I’m in grad school and it’s summer, so I’ve had a lot of time to rest, nag doctors, and attempt to get my body back under control. As far as getting ill in the US goes, I’m extraordinarily lucky, and I’m grateful for it. [Edited to note: I’m also lucky because it seems to be the onset of a chronic but manageable condition, not an acute or life-threatening one. Don’t worry!]
Some people, though, think I’m lucky for another reason, which I bet you’ve already guessed. We’ve talked a lot at Shapely Prose about fat and health and the faulty logic behind the thin = healthy and fat = unhealthy equations. Kate recently pointed us to an article in the Chicago Tribune by someone who found herself in the “coveted” 0 size range due to serious illness; the article discussed the anger she felt at people’s ignoring her poor health in order to praise her emaciated frame. It cannot be said enough: thin is not necessarily healthy, and fat is not necessarily unhealthy. We can carry this oh-so-controversial logic a bit further to arrive at a corollary: weight loss is not always voluntary, and it’s not always welcomed by the shrinking person. If you notice that an acquaintance has lost a good deal of weight and you feel compelled to comment on it* (whether to praise her smaller waist or to rebuke her for selling out), ask her how she’s feeling instead. You’ll be a better friend, and you’ll be combatting kneejerk fatphobia to boot.**
The last time I lost a significant amount of weight (over 50 pounds, about 7 years ago), though it was (mostly) intentional, the experience was so disconcerting that it taught me a lot about the public scrutiny of female bodies and thus about feminism. I was in college at the time, living on campus, and though I had often felt quasi-invisible as a fat person, I became super-visible as a person who was losing weight. People came up to me all the time to ask me for my “secret” — without giving any context, as if I would just automatically know that they meant the secret about my weight. What’s more, any action I was taking must be secret, because we were all supposed to pretend we hadn’t noticed that I was fat in the first place! The way I saw it at the time, these people were confirming all my worst fears about my body: they saw me only in terms of my fat, and they assumed that in any conversation with me, fat was a primary subtext. (Now I have a more generous interpretation: they were not thinking about me but about themselves; they weren’t thinking about how fat I was but about how I could help them escape their fears of being or becoming fat.)
I got used to it soon enough, but it pissed me off. So I’d play dumb:
Random library staffer: Wow! Look at you! How’d you do it?
Sweet Machine: Uh, well, I went up to the computer lab and printed out the call numbers, and then I went into the stacks…
RLS: No, I mean how did you lose all that weight? You’re so skinny!
SM: Oh. I don’t know. I guess I started eating more salads.
This conversation happened so many times: with college staff who knew me only by sight, with classmates I saw every day, with good friends, with not so good friends, with friends’ families, with my own family. I must admit, I took pleasure in disappointing people who wanted a clear answer; I wasn’t on a commercial diet, I hadn’t started Pilates or some trendy exercise scheme, and my actual “lifestyle changes” had more to do with finding exercise buddies and rediscovering the salad bar and, crucially, getting over depression brought on by some very stressful events in my life. “How’d you do it,” it turns out, is an extremely personal question.
And that’s the point I’m trying to come to, really: our bodies are extremely personal. Yet they are simultaneously the most public thing about us: they are us and they represent us. When you comment on someone’s body, you may think you’re commenting on the representation only, but, as most of us know, that’s not how it seems to the person receiving the comment. Fatphobia is so insidious and hurtful because it plays on the double relation of selves to bodies: fat people are lazy and smelly and dumb, we’re told, but it’s okay — they’re just one South Beach diet away from being assiduous, fragrant, smart, thin people. This is why fat acceptance is so threatening to so many: our culture tells us, “Your fat is you, but it’s not the real you,” and fat people respond, “It is the real me. And if the real me is happy and sexy and proud and accomplished, then fat is an inextricable part of that.”
Right now, I’m a lot thinner than I’m used to being. Temporarily, I’m feeling a disconnect between the “real me” and the “representation of me.” But maybe I’ll stay at this weight, and I’ll realign my self-conception; maybe instead of a chubby healthy person, I’ll be a thinnish person with a medical condition. I’ll adjust. I’ll be good to myself. Maybe my health will improve again, and I’ll gain back those 20 pounds and more. I’ll adjust. I’ll be good to myself. I’ll remember that this body I live in is me and not a container or disguise or symbol for me. How will I do it? I’ll start right here.
*If you do feel compelled to comment on your friend’s body in the first place, ask yourself what you’re really trying to communicate before you say anything.
**If it turns out she has been ill, please don’t joke about the weight loss being a “fringe benefit” or a “lucky side effect.” Dropping a couple clothing sizes and thereby becoming marginally more socially acceptable does not somehow balance out the negatives of contracting a serious illness. And (you’ll have to trust me here), if you do make an asinine comment like this, your acquaintance may smile and nod, but she’s really thinking about whether she’ll have to take off her heels to kick you in the teeth.