Link roundup: Picturing bodies

1. Lesley at Fatshionista has written an absolutely spectacular post on photographs and their role in how you relate to your body. No blurb I could write would do it justice, so you’ll just have to go read it yourself, if you haven’t already (I am a bit late posting this).

My Jenny Craig portrait was such a sad picture, such a painfully, pitifully sad moment captured and clipped to my file as a constant weekly reminder of why I was there. The picture said, “I don’t know what else to do.”

Now I look at these literal hundreds of new “before” portraits, and realize that somewhere along the way I proved that I could see myself in photographs and like the way I look, and feel happy with my body, and possibly most important, recognize myself in pictures without judgment, with only pleasure and love.

2. A friend directed me to this livejournal post about reproductions of famous artworks and how they reflect our changing (and ever-diminishing) idea of beauty. It made my jaw drop and yours will too.

It’s not just the supermodels on the cover of Cosmo, it’s not just Oprah, it’s not just Kira Knightly or whatever her name is, being stretched and elongated on her movie posters. Oh, no! Even Botticelli’s Venus and the Thorvaldsen Aphrodite are “too fat” and not bobble-headed enough to sell in today’s market.

3. If you haven’t seen this Shakesville guest post on the thinning of Hollywood, please head over there right now. There are a couple of examples you could quibble with, but overall it illustrates beautifully how the ideal has gotten so much thinner that even those with previously “ideal” bodies had to shrink to fit.

The point I want to make is that these women have ALWAYS been beautiful. They were considered beautiful enough to be stars with their curves, so what made them think they needed to lose them?

What I want to know is: What changed? What happened between the ’90s (when several of those pics were taken) and today?

From the Archives: Fat Acceptance and the Acceptance of Fat

As we’re facing a bit of a blogging slow-down here at Shapely Prose, we thought we’d occasionally repost some pieces that you might have missed the first time around or that might warrant a second look. If you’ve got suggestions for posts you’d like to see again, email me!

This post was originally written by Sweet Machine and published on September 5, 2007

In light of a truly hilarious misreading of my recent post about weight loss, I thought I’d write a bit about what fat activism means to me. Because the truth is, what with the recent weight loss and everything, I’m not fat. Not really, not right now. For the last few years I’ve been more of what the fine folks at fatshionista call an “inbetweenie” — someone who is not thin but not fat, who sometimes shops at plus size stores and sometimes at straight size stores, who sometimes gets disparaged for her size but sometimes gets a free pass for it. I found fat activism through a few friends and through fatshionista, and I can truly say that it has changed my life for the better. Sometimes, though, the participation of those of us on the smaller end of the non-skinny spectrum is viewed with understandable suspicion by other people in the movement. So in case any of our lovely readers at Shapely Prose are curious about what someone like me is doing blogging with the inimitable Kate Harding, here are some of my reflections. (Fatshionista members, you might find some of this dimly familiar!)

My experience as an inbetweenie puts me in a complicated relationship to fatness. I usually wear a size 12 or 14, and an L or XL on that scale; I’m well-endowed (if you know what I mean and I think you do) and that often affects what size I wear. Sometimes I can shop in straight sized stores; sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I’m the smallest person in a room; sometimes, I’m the biggest. I’ve been thinner than I am now, and I’ve been fatter. The fatosphere has, for me, been a godsend, because it has finally convinced me, for real, that I do not have to try to get thinner. I seem to have settled into a size my body likes with exercise and good food (give or take those illness-related 20 pounds!), and at age 28, I’ve finally learned to love my body, whether or not I can fit my hips into pants at some store or not.

So what would someone on the low end of the inbetweenie scale get out of fat activism? Are people like me double agents from the thinner world, getting our jollies out of pretending to be fat?

I can’t answer that for other inbetweenies. But here are some ways that reading fatshionista, participating in the fatosphere, and changing my thinking about fat have improved my life:

There’s the fashion. I love seeing how women of many different sizes and shapes dress. The mass media rarely shows more than two kinds of women: skinny women with big racks and skinny women with small racks. There are so many different shapes and sizes of people in the world, and anyone that looks remotely like me is excluded from mainstream representation. (Remember, even ScarJo is “fat” now!) I’d rather have Crystal Renn or Kate Dillon as a fashion icon than Nicole Richie, because they’re more exciting to me.

There’s the politics. Fat activists are trying to create a world in which thinness is not assumed to be the default goal for every woman and man. That’s a world I want to live in. I believe size negativity hurts everyone, fat and thin, in the way that patriarchy hurts both women and men. Even people who benefit from privilege are forced to live in a system that demands that they justify their privilege by conforming to the oppressive system. Fighting the regulation and circumscription of women’s bodies is crucial to my identity as a feminist. That said, I am fully aware and guiltily thankful that I don’t experience some of the discrimination or the everyday logistical difficulties that many people bigger than me do (though as I said, I haven’t always been the size I am now).

And finally, there’s the everyday angle, the way fat acceptance intersects my life experiences. Even at the size I am, I’m not thin. I can’t shop at all “normal” stores. I can’t buy bras at anywhere but specialty stores. I searched high and low for a pair of knee-high boots that would zip up over my calves, and I never found any. My thighs would catch on fire from rubbing together if I didn’t take drastic chub-rub-prevention measures. Women normally only talk about these kinds of things in a disparaging light; in a fat acceptance community, these are normal experiences. (I’m willing to bet they’re normal experiences for lots of women smaller than I am, too — but I’ve never heard any of them talk about it.) I’ve been fatter than I am now, and my experiences at different weights/sizes forms a huge part of my understanding of feminism. Finally, I can talk about my body without trying to avoid the word “fat.”

In the end, I hope that one of the goals of fat acceptance is not only for fat people to gain respect, dignity, and self-esteem, but also to make people of all sizes feel good about fat — in whatever degrees it is present or absent. The more we all get to be visible without apologizing for our bodies, the more just our culture is.

What’s your fat experience?

Founder Stacy Bias emailed us yesterday to alert us to the launch of her new website, The Fat Experience Project, which The Rotund has already rhapsodically reviewed. From Stacy’s email:

The goal of the Fat Experience Project is to map the global experience of fat in a way that is human, has a face, a heart, a mind, a body and a voice. The Fat Experience Project is an oral, visual and written history project which seeks to be a humanizing force in body image activism. By collecting and sharing the many and varied stories of individuals of size, the Fat Experience Project seeks to engage with, educate, empower and enrich the lives of people of size, our allies and the world at large.

As the project grows, it will be filled with first-person, non-fiction narratives (in text, video or mp3 format) that speak to the many and varied aspects of the life lived large. Some of the content will come from interviews already gathered on an extensive 2-month road trip (with the lovely Val Garrison) in both audio and video format. Some content will come from trips on the horizon. Most content will be submitted via the website by readers such as yourself.

It is my hope that the project will be a community tool to combat prejudice/stereotype/discrimination as well as to help externalize shame so it can discussed and dissipated. The things we keep silent about are the things that do us the most harm. Shared burden is lighter. I am hoping, as well, that the project may eventually be used as a humanizing resource for fat studies and social anthropology courses.

Take a look at the site — it’s gorgeous, and I think really exciting things are going to happen here. There’s not a ton of content yet, but the existing pieces are thought-provoking. What I like best is that there’s no simplification, no attempt to smooth over complexities. Around here, for instance, we acknowledge the supreme difficulty of being fat-positive, eating intuitively, and so forth, and we admit that we don’t always manage it, but we do try to keep a positive face on things. We don’t want to give shame equal space; we acknowledge it in order to talk about moving beyond it. At the Fat Experience Project, if someone’s feelings are negative, that’s just their fat experience, a valid part of the larger Fat Experience. People are going to talk openly about their shame and fear, and people will also talk about approaching and gaining love and acceptance. It’s all part of the same goal: breaking the dehumanized, othered Fat Monolith into thousands of individual voices. I think both approaches have a lot of genuine value, and I’m excited to see this one handled so beautifully.

Please check out the project and send in your stories — I want to see Shapelings represented here. I think you guys are the perfect subjects for this project; you are strong-minded and rational, but you deeply understand the shame and fear that comes with having a non-standard body. And I hope you and Stacy will all work to make this project representative — that means getting the voices of fat people of color, fat people with disabilities, fat men, etc. I’m excited to see where this goes.

My friends are smart. Please read their bloggings.

Two of my more exceptionally brilliant Internets Friends have recently published must-read posts on Fatshionista.com, and even though they’ve showed up in the feed, I simply couldn’t risk the possibility that anyone hadn’t read them yet.

First, Stitchtowhere (who you’ll remember from this post) offers an excellent exploration of internalized shame and also tiny ponies:

I stepped on a scale recently (with the idea of writing this post in mind) and I am about 245 pounds these days. My measurements – 48-42-55 at 5′3 – put me (in theory) in all sorts of size ranges depending on the clothing company & size chart. In practice, however, I’m wearing a 20/22 on bottom & a 18 on top. I’ve learned through different posts on a variety of blogs in the fatosphere that this (rather arbitrarily) is considered too fat to do things like tan in a tanning bed, go skydiving, & ride one of those teeny tiny miniature ponies. (None of which really feels all that regrettable to me, except for maybe that last part because small ponies – especially the ones that wear sneaker shoes – are very adorable, and I think I’d look most marvelous wearing some sort of cape & crown & riding one throughout my town). I’ve learned, from fat-hating society & industry, that I’m not supposed to feel angry or frustrated about arbitrary manufacture weight limits (or weak-ass ponies… kidding) but rather, that I’m supposed to shame myself & body into submission & slowly disappear until I’m considered a reigned-in & obedient & thin enough person to merit things like a fake bake & a safe jump from an airplane & a bedazzled saddle on a tiny horse. In the aforementioned situations, I know & feel pretty strongly that it isn’t the fault of MY body. While I might feel the pang of increased want brought about in situations of (perceived) deprivation, I realize that (being as we are, entrenched in capitalism and its attending ideologies of privation/saturation) it’s that & mostly only that.

Then, Eve writes an amazing takedown of a hateful piece of tripe that I didn’t have the gumption to take on. The article itself is nothing new, just another caricaturish screed by some attention-monger, but Eve takes it apart with a precision and vigor that should not be missed:

Let me see if I understand this correctly: Ms. Fowler thinks it is ridiculous that people make broad pronouncements about a much-maligned group (of which she is a member) and back those statements up with some seriously sketchy pseudo-research. She feels objectified and humiliated when yet another article appears, written by someone who has never lived through the experience she has had, yet presumes to understand what she and everyone like her is all about.

Then she goes and writes an article about how fat people are “just wrong.” She explains that the kind of fat achieved by people who weigh 16 stone (a number she claims to be shockingly gargantuan) can only be achieved through “the consumption, python-like, of about six whole rotisserie chickens a day washed down with 16 pints of double cream, half a cow and probably the entire produce of Ireland’s potato farms, deep-fried and with a coating of beer batter.”

Read them both!

And while I’ve got you looking at Fatshionista, Amy Mendoza is (to the best of my knowledge) not someone with whom I’m Internet Friends, but I’ve been meaning to link to her reworking of the privilege list from “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Amy has expertly delineated the signs of thin privilege, in a way that should make people stop and think. The comments, of course, almost instantly show evidence of the defensiveness people feel when they’re made aware of privilege. In particular, several thin commenters take issue with item 10, “I can shop in most stores and find clothes in my size.” They argue that it’s hard for most women to find clothes that fit properly — ignoring the fact that they have the supreme privilege of easily finding something they can even try on. This is frustrating (the commentary, not the clothes shopping), but it means the piece is working; lists like this are not supposed to make people comfortable. And I recommend you read the comments anyway, because there are also some incisive suggestions for additional list items. I love this list and I hope Amy keeps editing it and publishes a finalized version somewhere that we can link to it frequently and prominently.

Giving a shit

There’s been a lot of response to Tara’s extraordinary post about race in fat activism on Fatshionista.com. Lord knows I am in no mood to court drama right now, but it comes looking for me anyway, so let me take this opportunity to state my position on an important post and an important issue.

One very familiar response I’m seeing is “but what are we supposed to do?” I empathize with this, because I know it can feel really dire and hopeless when you’re a white person and you’re asked to simultaneously acknowledge that you’ll never fully understand racism and establish a more racially welcoming environment. (Or when you’re any privileged person asked to encourage community diversity from the outside.) It’s easy to get defensive if you feel like you’re being asked to fix a problem you didn’t think you were creating and would rather think didn’t exist, and so I think it’s easy to read a post like this as “I feel marginalized, and I would like you to bend over backwards to fix this right now, while I find new things to complain about.” If that’s how you’re reading Tara’s post, I truly understand, because it’s uncomfortable and difficult to try to use your privilege to ameliorate the results of your privilege, but without being privileged about it. I’ve had the same defensive reaction. But I encourage you to look again. I think you’ll find that the message is this: “I am being marginalized, and I would like you to bend over backwards to give a shit about the fact that I am being marginalized.” And I would be ashamed to refuse that request. Nor do I want to refuse it, nor do I have to.

See, here’s the thing. My capacity for giving a shit about stuff is basically infinite. Oh, it’s not limitless on any given day — there are fluctuations due to stress levels, and then every so often something will completely eclipse my shit-giving abilities. For instance this week I’ve been busy caring about a personal tragedy and haven’t had any interest in giving a hoot about anything else. But it’s infinite in the sense that, on a daily basis, caring about one thing does not diminish my ability to care about something else. The resources I put into one cause may limit the resources I have available for another one, but my compassion for that cause remains undimmed — I am no less of a fat activist for being a feminist, or being pro-gay, or opposing racism. I have the ability to give a shit about many things simultaneously. And so do you.

And I’ll go further: as people who are interested in social justice, we have a responsibility to give a shit about causes other than our own major concerns. Any oppression diminishes us. I am lucky enough to have a skin color that people can ignore, a relationship that I can get officially recognized, and enough financial stability that I don’t have to worry about where the rent is coming from. That means that racism, homophobia, and classism don’t affect me as much as fatphobia and misogyny; it means I could ignore them if I wanted to. But I invite them into my consciousness, not because I’m a glutton for emotional stress, but because I want to live in a just society. And I believe a just society is one in which the concerns and the marginalization of others matter to us.

Nobody is asking us to give up being fat activists and be anti-racism activists instead. But these things are not mutually exclusive; even if we don’t have the resources to do active work for both (or some other additional activist issue), we can give a shit about both simultaneously. If you do have the resources, by god, keep it up, but I know I just don’t have the energy to try to address all inequities and injustices. It’s hard enough to keep talking about large-scale attempts to disenfranchise and vilify fatties. But even if this isn’t a place where every oppression is equally addressed (which I don’t think anyone expects or even really needs), it’s really crucial that it be a place where every oppression is considered and important. That means that we do not minimize or dismiss people’s concerns. Right now, it means we listen to Tara when she talks about the things that hurt or alienate her; that we believe that these things are alienating; that we take this into account in the future; and that we understand that this awareness is not an unfair onus, but part of the greater work of social activism.

This is by no means a utopian fantasy: many feminist communities have managed to do a great job of acknowledging the intersection of feminism with race, class, sexuality, ability, and even fat, and I see no reason why we can’t do the same. We are compassionate people, and we have struggles of our own outside of fatphobia. We know that other people’s oppressions matter, and that it’s egotistical — even if it’s easy and natural — to believe that our challenges are the most important, or that caring about others diminishes our ability to care about ourselves. I trust you all to be able and willing to rise to this.

I haven’t been perfect about this and I will continue to be imperfect, because it’s easy to forget about struggles other than your own. It’s not hypocrisy, but an unfortunately definitional aspect of privilege: the privileges you have are all but invisible to you, even as the ones you lack are glaring. But it matters to me and I plan to do my best. I do hope people call me on it — just as I’ll keep dinging my progressive friends for talking nonsense about fatties, or making sexist jokes. And I hope you’re all with me in my desire to make SP a conscious, welcoming place.

What would you tell your 14-year-old self?

Mo at Big Fat Deal got a poignant question from a 14-year-old reader, one that stirred up emotions for a lot of people who recognized either themselves or someone close to them. The letter-writer asked:

Is this just a “fourteen year old phase”?
What’ll it take for me to love my reflection?
‘Cause everytime I say to myself “You’re beautiful” it feels like a lie…

How do you do it? How can you just totally accept yourself exactly the way you are! What your secret? Will you share it with me?

The question has elicited such beautiful sentiments that I hope you go over there and read all of them (and contribute your own). Here’s a sampling:

occhiblu:

Your body is how your mind accomplishes its work in the world; it’s what lets you do and be and act. We tell women that their bodies need to look a certain way, but if we all looked the same, we’d all be do-ing and be-ing and act-ing the same, and that’s not what this world needs. It needs all our individual bodies, and all our individual talents, and all our individual limitations in order to create the diversity of experiences that exist. If everyone were the same, even if everyone were perfect, the world would, frankly, suck.

Look at your body and love your body not for what it looks like to others, but for what it does for you. Find the parts of it you like, the parts of it that are strong or flexible or hard or soft in just the right ways, and concentrate on those for a while. Maybe you can’t hear “You are beautiful” yet (though you are), but try “I am strong” or “I am fearless” or “I am flexible” or “I am solid” or “I am energetic.”

Say good things about yourself long enough, and even you will come to believe them. (Remember that it works the other way, too, and stop yourself from saying negative things about your body, even in your head.)

Wendy:

I think in order to believe you’re beautiful there are certain things you have to believe first.

You have to believe that so much of the world is in the business of telling women that they’re not beautiful, and that being beautiful is the only way women can ever be worth something. This is the big idea. They make money off this idea. They love that this idea gives them something to hold over women. And as for who “they” are: they are companies and magazines; they can be men who have discovered the power of this idea; they can be women who have given their lives over to slavishly following this idea and think you should, too; they can be the guys in your homeroom and the jerk who shouted something at you on the street; they can be perfectly nice people, too, your friends and your mother and people you love.

I know, it’s intense. It’s much easier to believe you’re not beautiful than believe the above. But that’s kind of how it works.

caseyatthebat:

To the young woman that wrote in: I don’t know you and may never have the chance to meet you, but the fact that you are asking for help with self-acceptance is simply amazing and so wonderful to see. Even if you don’t realize it, you have asked these questions because your very soul understands your worth and is gently calling your mind and heart (and eyes) to agreement. Continue searching, continue reading, continue questioning, and keep looking in the mirror – one day you will see your beauty. You are loved and supported by more than just your mother and friends – you are loved and supported by all who have come before you and know your struggle. We are here for you, we are rooting for you, and without even knowing you, we know that you are so very beautiful.

GoingLoopy:

The best thing you can do is take care of yourself. That doesn’t mean starving and compulsive exercise. It means trying to get a balanced diet and incorporating some physical activity. It also means looking at the people and influences in your life and making sure that those things make you feel GOOD about yourself and not bad. Develop your talents, and be glad that your mom tells you you’re beautiful….not all moms do.

Nomie:

I don’t think it’s “just a phase,” but I think everybody struggles with their image of themselves in adolescence. Your body is doing all kinds of weird shit, even if you’ve gone through puberty early; your hormones are raging; you’re trying to do way too much in a day when your body needs care and nurturing and plenty of rest. Not only that, but high school is a total emotional minefield. It’s hard to love anybody, let alone yourself. I think it makes sense to be freaked out sometimes, and that it’s easier to start accepting yourself as your body settles down. That’s without bringing dieting into it, but anyway.

Another thing that’s really important to know: those of us who appear super confident and accepting still have bad days. We still have days where we think we’re fat and that means we’re ugly, where everything from our hair to the shape of our toes is wrong wrong wrong. So don’t beat yourself up further for not being able to love yourself every time you look in the mirror. Nobody does, except total narcissists.

Spins:

I think what I would add/emphasize is that loving yourself isn’t something you are ever done figuring out. Even as an adult, I struggle with finding myself beautiful sometimes. It is so hard, yes, but the question is, do you want a life that you love? Because if you do, then you need to not give energy to other people’s expectations to such a degree that you stop living your life.

JoGeek:

All the tips and tricks and affirmations in the world won’t force a change in an unwilling mind, but you have to find whatever it is inside you that makes it true for you. A lot of that comes through doing whatever it is that you are uniquely good at, because the satisfaction of creating or performing something great drowns out a helluva lot of self-loathing cynicism. It can be anything; art, sports, music, theater, writing, gardening, martial arts, photography, crafts, etc. etc. etc.

Do something physical. I agree about the Yoga since it challenges you, you can work up to it gradually at your own pace, it helps your balance and posture, and it makes you really aware of your body and what it can accomplish.

Then, surround yourself with good people. Friends are not really friends if they tear you down or make you feel ashamed of any part of yourself, physical or personal. A friend is someone you should be able to trust. A couple of true friends is worth more than a houseful of “associates” that stress you out.

Skinny people hate their bodies too. The “beautiful people” often see just as much to hate about their bodies as everyone else. That doesn’t help or comfort much, but it’s a perspective to hold onto so that you’re not placing anyone on a pedestal. Choose your heros by what they do and who they are, not by what they look like.

Simone:

This is a tough one, but here’s an idea that helped me. People tend to judge themselves more harshly than other people. So, try to find beauty in other non-size-0 girls and women around you. When you start to see their beauty, it will help you to see that beauty is not about size, and that everyone has their own way of being beautiful. Then it will be easier to apply these concepts to yourself and see your own beauty.

By doing all of this, hopefully you will change your idea of what is beautiful and attractive. If you measure everyone against Hollywood standards, most people are going to fall short. And the fact is, just because images are presented to you as being “beautiful,” that doesn’t mean that you have to believe that they represent the only definition of beauty.

Damn, you guys, I wish you’d been around when I was 14. There’s some advice on the thread that I find weird or don’t completely agree with, but mostly there’s a vast number of really insightful, uplifting comments. I hope the letter-writer reads them and takes them to heart. The FA movement has the potential to make some young people’s lives a lot happier and healthier, y’all. I sure wish it had been around for me. (Well, it was around, but it wasn’t so easy to access.)

What do you wish someone had told you when you were 14? What do you want to tell the 14-year-olds you know, who might be going through this?

The “fatties keep out” bill

Unless you were living under a rock or had something better to do than read fat blogs yesterday, you already know about the absurd piece of stunt legislation being proposed in Mississippi, which would require (not allow; require) restaurants to deny service to fat people. (Here’s JoGeek, The Rotund, Big Fat Blog, Lindsay, Rachel, Thoughtracer… did I miss anyone?) Of course this is a farcical suggestion, especially as they propose sending restaurants written material on determining whether someone is too fat to eat in public. Presumably this means “advanced eyeballing notes,” since diagnosing “obesity” requires at very least a scale and a ruler, neither of which qualifies as written material. And we all know how effective eyeballing is at determining where someone falls on the BMI scale.

As I said on Rachel’s post about the bill, I bet Alexandra Erin is kicking herself that she didn’t come up with this first. It is truly surreal, and its sponsors (not so thin themselves) appear to be absolutely serious. Of course, being a total miscarriage of both human rights and practicality, the bill will never pass (regrettably probably more for the second reason than the first). But it’s being proposed to make a point, and so to make a point we should respond. JoGeek at Unapologetically Fat has helpfully collected the contact information of the bill’s sponsors, so you can explain to them why this move is not only nonsensical but bigoted and cruel. Feel free to post your letters below, especially if you don’t mind people using them as templates. (I know it can be really daunting to try to compose a Letter To Your Congressman, and I often wait until I’ve seen some more reasonable people write them first, otherwise I spend all my time just taking out the bad words). And there’s great discussion going on in the threads linked above, if you need to marshal your thoughts.