I’ve got a problem. And since I suspect I’m not the only one, I want to start a dialogue about this psychological artifact of Fat Hate and try to figure out what the hell we can do about it.
You see, I’m doing pretty well at accepting my body. Which is, to be sure, a fat body. I buy nice clothes that fit. Most days, I feel good about myself and the way I look. Many days, I feel downright sexy. I don’t diet, although I can’t really attribute this to fat acceptance because I’ve basically never dieted in my life. I’ve interacted with food in fucked-up ways, and tried to deprive myself of food, but always pretty much gave in by dinnertime. I have started thinking of myself as a “fat chick” in a non-pejorative way and have rid my friends/boyfriend/family of the “you’re not fat!” monkey response. I told my doctor to bug off when she prodded me about losing weight (Her: are you exercising/eating a balanced diet? Me: Yes and Yes. Look, my diet’s great. I feel great. I think I’m just fat. Her: (look of horror) I hope not! Me: (mentally) God, what a horrible thing, to just be naturally fat.)
But I still feel the instinct to diet and/or to exercise for the express purpose of losing weight. All. The. Time. Is it because I want to change the way my body looks now? Nope. It’s because although I have made peace with my fat self, I can not endure the thought of being any fatter than I am. And I think, you know, someday I’m going to get pregnant, and I’m going to age, and I’ll be even less fit than I am now, or I’ll have health problems, or I’ll have kids or a bad back or bad knees and I won’t be able to exercise. And then I’ll be fatter. Horror of horrors. I think to myself, yeah sure I look good now, when I’m young, with good skin, no wrinkles, good muscle tone, in great health. But what about in ten years?What about twenty?! The horror.
It’s an ever-changing boundary. I’m sure that if I were given a picture of my current self five years ago (when I weighed about 30 lbs less), I would have been shocked and horrified. Now, I’m cool with it. Because you know what, self-hate is a lot of work. And I don’t doubt that however I look in ten or twenty years, I’ll probably manage to be okay with it.
But still, I can’t manage to get away from the bigger-is-worse, smaller-is-better paradigm. It’s kind of hilarious, but I feel like I should lose weight now so that if I gain weight in 5 years, I’ll be back to where I am which I have decided is an “okay” place to be. The upper limit of okay. But okay.
I call it “This Fat and No Fatter.” I didn’t really put a name to the mentality until I started browsing the “women for women” section on Craigslist a few months ago and noticed a disturbing phenomenon. Unlike the m4w section, in which a lot of the posters mention a particular size of person they find acceptable (or say that they don’t care), but a huge portion of them don’t, discussions of acceptable body size are absolutely ubiquitous in the w4w section. It’s either 1) thin or “average” women looking for the same, or 2) fat chicks looking for women “my size or smaller.” These discussions are often disturbingly specific, like “no larger than size 16” or “up to size 22” or “under 210 lbs.” And I realized, because self-hatred is hard, women are forced to accept the bodies of other women who look like them to avoid cognitive dissonance. But any fatter? No way.
This mindset has been plaguing me since I was a kid. My dad used to advocate that I diet when I was a teenager because it would be “harder to lose it” when I was older. I don’t know whether this has any basis in fact whatsoever, but I believed it. Actually, I think I can affirmatively say that it’s total bullshit, because dieting doesn’t work, period. The only difference is that if you start dieting when you’re a teenager, you’re more likely to engage in disordered eating and have a fucked-up relationship to food for the rest of your life. But it ain’t actually gonna make you thin. I also think the approach was part of a “she’s okay now, but what if she keeps getting fatter?” mindset. Which I’m sure he’s hysterical about now but, since I told him I didn’t want to hear another word about my weight oh, about, ten years ago, I don’t have to listen to it. (To be fair, my dad lives in an environment with an even more fucked-up attitude towards fat than we have; would you believe that he, at 5’5″ and about 190 lbs, was told that he needed to lose some weight before the manager of the place would let him join the gym? That he needed to diet before he could safely exercise? Jesus.)
I can’t shake it. Even though I know, intellectually, that I’ll probably feel just fine about my body in five years or ten years, because self-hate is way more work than learning to love my body as it is, I feel, emotionally, that my future body will not be objectively okay even though my current body is objectively okay.
The power of social narratives about body image, shame, and humiliation, are incredibly strong. Because those social narratives govern how I feel about the future, while my own experience governs how I feel about the present and the past, feelings of shame dominate, and they infect the present. I feel like getting married while being fat, or being pregnant while being fat, or being a mother while being fat, or being sick while being fat, are all going to be impossibly awful and shame-filled experiences. Even though I’ve already had boyfriends while being fat, graduated from law school while being fat, tried a case before a jury while being fat, had to use crutches because I sprained my ankle while fat, performed in front of hundreds of people while being fat, interviewed for jobs while being fat, lived while being fat.
Fat acceptance isn’t just about accepting your body as it is now. It’s about accepting your future self, the one who might weigh a little more and look a little older. And she’ll be okay, too. Not just good, but great.
M. LeBlanc, if you don’t already know her, blogs at Bitch Ph.D., lawyers in Chicago, and frequently raises the level of discourse in comments here.