Hi Aunt Fattie —
So I’m a late-twenty-something lady who is dating another twenty-something lady. I am a curvy sort of lady who spent years upon years hating myself and censoring myself and focusing on other people’s (perceived) dislike of my body, etc., went through much disordered eating, and am just finally starting to come out the other side. Due to getting involved in a very feminist-positive team sport, which has helped me look at my body in terms of what it can DO, not just as a potential object of desire/disgust/whatever for other people, AND due to finally applying my feminist outlook to the subject of fat oppression, I’m really feeling a turn around. I feel better about my body than I have in years, and I think that intuitive eating and HAES have a lot to do with that. I’m so proud to be in a better place.
The really-super-awesome lady I’m dating is much heavier than me, but also seems very comfortable with her body, and is somewhat physically active, enjoys doing the activities she’s involved with, and is very comfortable with talking about eating, etc., so it seems like we’re in a similar place in terms of body positivity. I’m very attracted to her (physically! mentally! everything!), but for some reason, I sometimes find myself having weird non-body-positive thoughts about her, when we’re together. Little things, like thinking “is she going to eat the whole thing?” or “I wonder what people think about me dating someone who is heavier.” Thoughts, in other words, that I used to reserve for being shitty to myself when I was being negative about my body. They’re not exactly conscious-level, but they sort of creep into my consciousness, and I have to actively ask myself why I’m thinking these things.
In addition, my new lady-friend is not as physically active as she once was, and seems to miss it; I do worry a bit about her because she ends up being inside so much (working too much and then doing indoor activities) after describing years of enjoying being outdoors. I obviously don’t want to be overinvolved with her enjoyment of whatever she wants to do, but I do wish she’d get back into some of her old interests. But then I wonder if that’s because I secretly feel uncomfortable with her weight.
What does this mean? Am I not doing as well as I thought? How can I be more positive about her body, and generally keep my eyes on my own paper? Should I share with her that I have had those problems about my own body, and explain that I’m a bit neurotic about these things but I’m working on it? Does this all go back to not really being as comfortable with my own body as I thought?
Thank you much, for all you do —
Crushing-Out Worrier, are you familiar with the poem “This Be The Verse,” by Philip Larkin? It begins:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
It goes on to say that said moms and dads were also damaged, and that the cycle continues: “Man hands on misery to man.” Aunt Fattie thinks of this poem when she thinks of your situation, because it doesn’t just apply to literal moms and dads, but to the whole of our cultural history, on whose broad back our current society is built. We learn, when we’re much too young to resist or analyze, how to judge and disapprove and shun and think ill. We learn bigotry and prejudice of all kinds at the knees of previous generations — not necessarily from our actual parents, or even from any particular individuals, but from the atmosphere of bigotry and prejudice that surrounds us from an early age.
Moving from poetry to science: in 1970, the research team of Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper found that if kittens were raised in an environment consisting only of vertical lines, they would lose the brain cells that responded to other orientations, effectively losing the ability to see horizontal stimuli. What we see in our earliest years can have a profound and genuine effect on how we perceive. And no matter how enlightened your particular household, many of the vertical lines you see in childhood are the most loathsome pillars of popular culture: whites as superior, women as inferior, fat as gross and funny and unhealthy. And of course, all the subsets thereof.
So instead of scolding yourself for being unable to completely rise above these influences, take a moment to congratulate yourself for resisting them to the degree that you do. If the key to being a tolerant and humane person were to be raised with a pure and compassionate mind from day one, we would all be failures. Luckily, the key is not to remain untouched by prejudice, but to consciously and deliberately rise above it at every opportunity. You are not failing in your fat activism when you look at your girlfriend and the voices of a thousand magazines and TV shows and judgmental relatives trill out “is she going to eat that?” Rather, you are succeeding when your response is to shake your head and say “how ridiculous you are, tiny voices in my mind.” (Aunt Fattie begs your forgiveness, by the way, for using the word “girlfriend” if the two of you are not at that point.)
You are still doing well; you are merely dealing with a new challenge, a new subject for the tiny voices of history to latch on to. Loving a fat woman — which includes caring for her well-being, in an environment that constantly tells us that fat and well-being cannot coexist — presents a challenge because it allows you to externalize the feelings that you thought you’d vanquished. Suddenly it’s not about self-love anymore; it’s the same old fat, and the same old tired society, but the context is different. It may take you a while to retool your strategies for rising above prejudice and shaking off harmful messages.
While Aunt Fattie would not recommend telling your girlfriend specifically about your doubts — you know where they’re coming from, and you know they have nothing to do with her — she does hope that you both become able to discuss body issues with one another. Having someone who truly understands the trials of being a woman dealing with body image, and who simultaneously truly appreciates and celebrates your particular body, can be a great gift. Aunt Fattie also hopes that you can separate your desire that your girlfriend return to hobbies she found enjoyable and fulfilling from the tiny voices’ desire that she become more active to lose weight. If you also enjoy outdoors activities, why not suggest that the two of you go hiking, camping, or kayaking? If you don’t enjoy outdoors activities, perhaps this is the time to try something new.
If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatshion, fatiquette, self-esteem, or body image, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.