i have adventures (sometimes)

Thursday, 7 March 2013

On Body Shame

Hey, let's talk about body shame! FUN!

(Warnings: This post contains maybe-triggery references to food and weight, non-wizard swears, and a picture of a cartoon naked lady.)

Caveat: I am a thin-bodied person. I once had a friend say "When I hear skinny girls obsessing about their weight, all I hear is 'I don't want to turn into you'." It's had a big impact on how I talk about weight and body image, but I don't necessarily always get it right. What I'm trying to do here is not say that fat is bad and scary, but rather talk about my own issues and the collective issues of our bullshit fat-shaming society. I'm sorry if I get it wrong, and I'm open to being corrected.
Fat Pony noms on body shame. (Source)
As predicted, I didn't do all that well in the fitness test. Whatever. But it stirred up a number of issues that have been gradually making themselves known again the more I pay attention to my food and exercise. Although I did surprisingly well in the general fitness and strength tests (even the push ups!), I came away focusing on the failures, like you do. But what's most telling is which failures. Arguably, I should be much more concerned that my flexibility was below "Poor", because if there's ever a hamstring emergency I'm just not going to be able to pull through and zombies will eat me.

And instead I came away obsessing over my body fat percentage being too high.

Oh come on.

It makes me sad and angry that I even care. I know I'm healthy, and even reasonably fit - I've just done a whole lot of tests proving exactly that - but let's not pretend for a second that that's why it upsets me. It upsets me because, no matter how hard I try, every now and then our cultural obsession with weight sneaks up and bites me in the ass. Or the thighs, or something.

Like (I assume) most people, I have trouble separating health from weight. Ostensibly, I go to gym because it's good for me. I don't go to gym because I want to be delicate and waif-like. I go to gym because I want to be fit and strong and capable, and not have a heart attack or get eaten by zombies. But even as someone who's been hyper-aware of body image and all the bullshit that surrounds the way we think about weight for years, it's hard to escape the pervasive obsession with weight loss.

With my gym's tracking system, suddenly I'm weighing myself every month, which I never ever do otherwise. And even though I know it doesn't matter, and so what if I've gained x-many kilograms over the last few years, it means that that number is always at the back of my mind. I know the number is meaningless. But it still hovers over me every time I decide what to eat or whether to stay on the treadmill for another 10 minutes.

Discovering (the now sadly quiet) Eat a Cheeseburger a few years ago was lifechanging for me, because I don't think I'd ever encountered the idea of unconditional body positivity before. How depressing is that? I made it all the way through the obstacle course of being a teenage girl without ever coming really across the radical idea that it's ok to eat what you want and like yourself. Obviously women's magazines and things love to pretend they want you to love your body, but it's always conditional. "Love your bikini body!!" doesn't really cut it.

Fat Pony is too busy being awesome to put up with this bullshit. (Source)
It was the first time I ever made a real effort to give up on body shame, because it was the first time I realised it was ok. I spent so many of my high school years restricting my food on and off, and it made me obsessive and headachey and hungry and (briefly) quite skinny, but it didn't make me happy. More recently I went through a calorie counting phase, following the logic that I would do it for a while to learn what a "normal" amount to eat was. And it made me obsessive and hungry and panicky about every single bite I ate, but it didn't make me happy. It took me months to reach a stage where I could once again eat what did make me happy without a flurry of panicked mental maths.

And all of this is patently ridiculous. But let me clarify: it's not ridiculous because I'm thin and so I "don't need to worry" - it's ridiculous because it's fucking stupid.

And I know all this. Most people will know that I'm vehemently against body shame. I get upset when people talk about dieting and tell people off when they use "I shouldn't" to refer to food ("No, you shouldn't kill people. You can have another biscuit if you want to."). The fridge in the new house came complete with god-awful dieting stickers, so I fixed them with a marker.

So the fact that I still have my moments when being told I'm 27% instead of 22% fat makes me want to cry a bit and never bake again* is just absurd. I've spent a very long time trying to learn to love my body, and the inherent fat-shaming that's been a part of this whole health and fitness assessment process (because obvs thin = healthy) really isn't helping. So I'll keep on trying to eat healthily, but I'll do it because I really don't need to eat cookies twice a day and my dentist keeps being rude about my teeth, not because I want to look like I did when I was 18, had a teenage metabolism, and hadn't discovered baking.

But I am going to keep away from the scale. I can get zombie-fighting fit without panicking over a meaningless number.

When we try to love our bodies, we're battling against a culture where body shame is the norm. We're taught to constantly police our own and others' bodies, often cloaked under concern-trolling about "health". We live in a culture where it's totally normal for everyone to be on a diet/detox/juice fast at any given time. I once met a wonderful family where the parents used phrases like "Let's not be piggies" about eating seconds - in front of their (naturally very thin) pre-teen daughters. I found it chilling, but these people were good people and good parents - it's just so normal in our culture to be thin-obsessed that even the most well-meaning of us normalise it again and again in every context, not realising the harm it can do.

I know I've been a part of precipitate problem for much longer than I've tried to be a part of the solution. I've moaned about my weight and talked about calorie counting and expressed my "concerns" about other people's health based on their body size. And none of that is helpful to me or anyone else.

I like food. I like food a lot. I've known for a long time that eating what I like and as much as I like makes me much happier than being thinner does. It makes me angry and sad that the demons still get to me, but like any internalised prejudice, I'm doing my best to recognise it and distance myself from it. Body shame is not obligatory, and it's certainly not beneficial.

And as for "loving your bikini body", you know what I've realised? The way to look good in a bikini is to decide that you look good in a bikini and wear a fucking bikini.

If other people are really going to be that horrified by the sight of my love handles, then they have a bigger problem than I do.

Please read the original post. Kate Beaton is my hero.
*As if.


  1. Great writing as always Ali, http://www.trueactivist.com/forums/life/mermaid-or-whale/

  2. This is why I gave up weighing myself for Lent. I knew I was losing weight (and actually doing so in a healthy fashion this time!), but I was getting hung up on the numbers and not the important things, like "am I getting enough fruit and veggies" and "is my immune system high enough to keep me from getting teh cancerz".

  3. Good for you! I find it so hard to shift my focus from weight - even if I really do start eating well and exercising for my health, it always brings back that obsession with numbers. I have to make an effort to remind myself that that's not why I do it. Go Team Body Positivity!

  4. One of the biggest problems comes from the fashion industry. They have taken 1 of the 3 main body types and have made it the universal standard for clothing. Added to this, most fashion models are only selected from this body type, and the ones they choose tend to be (let's be honest) undernourished. This they then claim as normal, leaving women from all other body types (and healthy ones from the same body type) feeling inadequate.

    The other main problem is how women are taught to see their bodies (the video below explains this, and a number of other things, much better than I can). Women are taught to see their body as a project to work on, rather than as a tool with which to experience the world.


  5. YES TO THE REBELLYON! #amandapalmerforlife

  6. I love the Rebellyon! :D