Tag Archives: body positivity

Body Shaming Is Abuse

drawing of women with different bodies; banner says Health is SelfLove

Laurie and Debbie say:

Sarah Miller writes about her struggles with her body in a New York Times article called “The Diet Industrial Complex Got Me and It Will Never Let Me Go.” She doesn’t say how old she was when she dieted seriously for the first time, but she tells a very familiar story:

Every person I talked to was now two people, the one who was nice to me because I was thin, and the person who had been mean to me when I was fat. I was also two people: the fat person who felt like everyone was better than me, and who was so scared to walk across a room, or even stand up, and now, the thin person, who did not know how to manage the exhilaration of suddenly not feeling that way, and of sometimes even feeling superior to people.

All “successful” dieters know this feeling. Before even getting there, Miller recites a litany of ways people were cruel to her, and ways the cruelty continued even after she “felt thin.” The word she never uses, even when she is describing a long continuum of completely normalized viciousness is “abuse.” Yet, clearly, she not only was abused, she did what so many abused people do: she internalized the abuser.

Then the movement she calls “body positivity” came along:

Suddenly, about a decade ago, when I started to notice that fat women were a) calling themselves fat, with pride, and b) walking down the streets of our nation’s great cities nonchalantly wearing tight or revealing clothing with a general air of, “yeah I will wear this and I will wear whatever I want, and I am hot, too, I will be hot forever, long after you have all died,” I thought to myself, Oh my God WHAT? The solution is not … the diet?

I started seeing fat, beautiful models and actresses in catalogs, and on television shows. I would like to have seen more, but I was pleased to see them at all. I was and remain in awe of their confident beauty. I feel tenderness for them as well, for what they endured, and still endure, to achieve it. I sometimes choke up with love for them, and for the idea of how I could have lived if I had allowed myself to just weigh what I weighed.

So what kept her from doing just that, allowing herself to just weigh what she weighs? She certainly sounds like she is — extremely understandably — far less worried about how much she weighs than she is about being the target of mean people’s nasty comments. To weigh what she weighs, to stop going to Weight Watchers, to inhabit her own body, would be to say “I am fine as I am and if you are mean to me about how I am, the person who should be ashamed of themselves is you.”

But she has no support to go there, because “body positivity,” however admirable the original idea may have been, has been taken over by the advertising industry, the “beauty” industry and, to use her own words, the diet-industrial complex. Those groups, of course, cannot in any way encourage you to be fine as you are: you always need to be buying something, striving toward something, needing something. And since what she needs is reassurance, peace of mind, and real self-acceptance, she’s on a path that constantly moves her away from her real needs.

Worse, she has let the drumbeat of constant reiterative criticism convince her that she must stay on that path:

Even if by some miracle I were to accept being not thin, as I have many times — for five or 10 minutes or three whole days like when I finished Lindy West’s excellent memoir, “Shrill,” and naïvely thought I had finally been cured of my sickness — I would remain the sort of person destined for re-infection.

That person is always prepared for contempt from men who don’t find her physically attractive, and has been on high alert to general woman hatred since she was 4. (Honestly, I pity the women who are not.) At any rate, I’m 50 and I am way too scared of the world to stop dieting.

What is there to “pity” about women who are not on high alert to general woman hatred? Does she mean that it’s a bad thing to walk through the world without knowing who hates you? (If so, we agree.) Or does she mean that you have to spend your life trying to get them not to hate you, so you can feel okay about yourself? (If so, that’s really awful.)

She isn’t asking for advice, and she doesn’t seem to have any hope. She’s comfortable saying that her entire generation (she is 50) cannot be any happier in their bodies, or less attuned to outside virulence than they currently are. Even after having read Lindy West (and presumably others), she does not seem to realize that there are paths outside the mainstream narrative: there are therapists who will actually help you learn how to reduce the impact of haters in your life; there are support groups who will offer a corrective to the voices you avoid by repeating the things you need to hear; there are friends who not only can love you as you are, but can model blocking your ears to hatred.

Sarah Miller, you are not beyond hope. And don’t write off your age group.

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

 

We Are Insatiable … For Our Own Stories

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Debbie says:

Your Fat Friend’s open letter to the writers of Insatiable is an especially clear-voiced clarion call for people’s right to tell our own stories. The trailer for the show is embedded below; if fat-person stereotypes and/or simplistic conceptions of attractiveness disturb you, you might not want to hit play.

For those of you who chose to skip, Patty is a miserable fat high-school girl who is mocked at school. She also eats too much, can’t really exercise, and gets no dates. Over one summer, she has her jaw  wired shut and comes back thin. Thin Patty vamps and poses like the slow-motion scenes in an erotic movie, radiating “I’m a sex object” from every pore. According to the official site linked above, she goes on to enter beauty pageants.

Unsurprisingly, the trailer has received a lot of pushback, including a petition with over 100,000 signatures, and the show may be cancelled based on the intensity of the reaction. The petition reads, in part:

“For so long, the narrative has told women and young impressionable girls that in order to be popular, have friends, to be desirable for the male gaze, and to some extent be a worthy human … that we must be thin,” the petition reads. “This series needs to be cancelled. The damage control of releasing this series will be far worse, insidious, and sinister for teenage girls, than it will be damaging for Netflix in their loss of profit.”

Your Fat Friend finds a moment to feel for the writers of the show:

I know the sting of pouring my whole self into a creative project, only to find that — too late — it has hurt someone else. I have no desire to compound that sting for you, or stand in prejudgment of your work.

This moment of what I read as absolutely authentic kindness comes after she tracks the history of the fat suit in her life:

Tyra Banks was one of many to wear a fat suit around the turn of the millennium. I was in my late teens and early twenties, struggling mightily against the body that had always been hopelessly mine, stubbornly resistant to the many changes I tried to force upon it. From The Nutty Professor to Friends, fat suits were everywhere. Often, the only fat people in movies or on TV were those caricatured by thin actors in meticulously crafted fat suits.

… Some were hopeless, pitiful befores who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect to anyone. … Only becoming thin made their stories worth telling.

Others were the gluttonous punchlines of Norbit and Austin Powers, blissfully unaware of how disgusting they were in their two piece swimsuits, repulsive in their voracious appetites for food and sex. Shallow Hal, which seemed to fancy itself the most high-minded of fat suit portrayals, asserted that only a man under hypnosis could find a fat woman attractive, provided he couldn’t see her actual body. His attraction to her was played for laughs, a stick-thin woman throwing plus sized panties to an eager man in her bed to peals of audience laughter. Who could want that?

Whoever these fat suit characters were, the message to me as a young fat woman was clear. If I stayed fat, I was destined to be the butt of every joke, categorically undesirable and unlovable, a social pariah who was lucky to have any friends at all. I learned that I was repulsive, no matter how I dressed, what I accomplished, or who I was. I learned that my personhood would always be overshadowed by my body. I learned that my only redemption could come from getting thin. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get thin.

By the turn of the millennium, I had stopped watching anything that made fun of fat people, so none of these shows are really in my orbit (I think I saw one Austin Powers movie, and hated it). I didn’t realize the widespread use of fat suits, which I associate with the genre of stories where the “disabled” person has to be played by an able-bodied actor so she can “be redeemed” and walk (!) at the end of the story.

Where Your Fat Friend goes from personal narrative to trenchant political insight is right here:

These weren’t stories of the failures of fat people. They were stories about the supremacy of thinness.

These thin fantasies held up ghoulish faux-realities of life as a fat person, grounded in little more than their own imaginations. And there was no counterbalance, no alternative narrative, nowhere to turn from the desperation, isolation, and bleakness of fat lives as invented by thin people.

Your Fat Friend has nailed the key point, not just about thin people telling fat people’s stories, but about anyone telling another group’s stories, especially a marginalized group’s stories: unless we put an immense amount of effort and intentionality into listening, and into creating a full and rich portrayal, the stories we tell about someone else will always be our projections on what it is like to be that person, and live that life.

Even the most miserable fat person knows that being fat is not the only thing they are. Even the most self-comfortable fat person knows that being fat is one of the things they are. But the imaginary fat person in a thin writer’s head is no more and no less than a fat person. And if the writer is, as there are inescapable reasons to be, afraid of being fat, that fear will color and oversimplify the character. A writer who chooses to write outside their own experience has an enormous obligation to do it well*, to live into the reality of the people they are writing. Here’s more from Your Fat Friend’s letter:

At every turn, thin people control the stories about fatness that are told on the biggest stages, amplified with the biggest speakers, broadcast with the strongest antennae. And often, they tell the stories that make them feel best: stories that lift thinness up not as one of many natural body types, but as a badge of honor, earned only by those strong and smart enough to tame the wilds of their bodies.

I do not expect painstaking detail, documentary-style slice-of-life stories of real fat people told with clinical precision. I just long for a story — any story — other than the one narrative offered up by the limited thin imaginations of fat lives.

What seems clear from the Insatiable trailer is that the writers, whoever they are and whatever they have lived through, did not spend anything like enough time and effort to provide Your Fat Friend, and me, and the 118,000 people who have signed the petition, with a true story. They were not, in fact, insatiable when it came to learning the truth.

So I hope the show is cancelled, or at the very least taken back to the drawing board. And if I were Netflix, I would hire Your Fat Friend as one of the people to write the replacement.

* If you happen to be a writer who wants to do this work better, I recommend Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. The book, and many superb workshops and other spin-offs can be found at the link.