Tag Archives: Susie Orbach

When the Scales Fell from My Eyes

Lynne Murray says:

Humans learn best by stories and attractive examples. We inhabit these stories as if they were real. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves and live by give us strength and sometimes they can be elegant little capsules that contain poison. Example, “He shoots, he scores” and “Love conquers all” could be the inner narratives on two sides of a doomed relationship.

In the past few weeks, I could not escape exposure to the television promos for this season’s edition of The Biggest Loser. They tell a vicious story: sneering “personal trainers” gleefully rubbing their hands together at the chance to kick some fat butt and luring viewers with the prospect of feeling self-righteous while watching prejudice in action.

I think the show should have the guts to reveal its real agenda and call itself Shaming Fat People—A School for Bullies. But the title dispenses its poison with deft skill. “Loser” is an extremely potent insult in our success-worshipping society.

Even more excruciating than watching the bullies in the bullpen warming up are the internalized fat-hating monologues by hopeful contestants yearning to go from “big losers” also known as total failures, to “winners” also known as those who have lost enough weight to redeem themselves from the abject misery and humiliation of life in a fat body.

The continued popularity of The Biggest Loser means that it must reflect the current mainstream beliefs about fat and how the only possible redemption must come through extreme dieting and painful physical exercise ordeals.

I used to buy into a similar mindset, and when I say “buy” I mean exactly that: to invest a horrifying percentage of my cash, energy, and actions in the effort to bring my body down to an “acceptable” size. Watching even a few seconds of that vile television program set me to thinking about how I managed to get out of that mindset.

There was no one exact moment when the scales fell from my eyes, as the Free Dictionary describes so aptly:

If the scales fall from someone’s eyes, they are suddenly able to understand the truth: When I saw his photograph in the paper, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized I’d been conned.”

Strangely enough the solution to my delusion had its roots in the way I pursued it, as taught by my family.

Before my parents even met, my father, a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps, was shot down over Germany and spent several months in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. This experience helped shape his life in three ways. First he learned in his early twenties the fragility of any life situation—one minute flying high, two hours later, wounded on the ground, getting interrogated by the Gestapo. He always told me growing up that he wanted me “to learn to use yourself as a resource” and that has been invaluable.

The second way it influenced him–and our family–was the continuing connection with the military self-control-based culture that persisted even when my father worked as a civilian scientist for the military. When I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, I instantly recognized the mindset that I grew up with. As Wolfe puts it on page 49: “[The pilot’s] main psychological bulwark under stress was his knowledge that he controlled the ship and could always do something.”

The third way all our lives were affected, which I’ve only recently understood, was the physiological reality that starving in a prison camp for several months left my father unusually thin for a few years afterward, compared to his naturally stocky build. I can now see how extreme food deprivation at a young age contributed to his lifelong tendency to easily gain weight, and a lifelong quest for diets that would resolve a problem that gave him one more disadvantage to overcome when dealing with hyper-macho military personnel. When I was nine a doctor handed me my first diet sheet (along with a prescription for amphetamines, which my parents let me stop taking when the pills made me nervous). Our family began to try various diets together.

What I’ll call my father’s “Right Stuff” approach to dieting, like his approach to so much else in life, become my own. Wolfe describes the test pilot culture at Edwards Air Force Base in The Right Stuff:

…you had to be “afraid to panic” and that phrase was no joke. In the skids, the tumbles, the spins, there was, truly, as Saint-Exupery had said, only one thing you could let yourself think about: What do I do next? Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe with all aerodynamics long gone and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone not for Mother or for God or for the Nameless Spirit of Ahor, but for one last crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? … And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. p. 49

Our family tried several diets over the years and I tried more diets and various support groups after I moved out on my own. Every one of these efforts resulted in zero to few dozen pounds lost and more eventually regained. But I didn’t start to question the process until 1979 when I began to shuffle some fat positive literature into my reading starting with Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and, in the 1980s, BBW Magazine and Radiance Magazine .

The scales didn’t fall away from my eyes all at once, but the scale in my bathroom went into the trash when I realized that the very process of obsessing over a number on a scale and restricting the food I ate made me crazy. For awhile I thought I had a compulsive eating disorder because my diets were interrupted by binge episodes when I would eat the “forbidden” things I had been trying to avoid while dieting.

Reading Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart, helped me realized that once I stopped denying my body what it wanted to eat, my body in turn stopped demanding the very “bad” foods that I had informed it would never be available again. For me the change was almost immediate. As soon as I stopped dieting, I stopped bingeing.

But that didn’t make it okay to gain weight. And I began to gained weight after I stopped that 20-year dieting career.

To my mind both Orbach and Roth’s work have a dangerous flaw: they essentially suggest that once someone stops dieting the body will “find its own natural weight.” They strongly hint that the body’s “natural weight” will be lower. The idea that one might gain weight after giving up dieting was too horrific to contemplate, so they ignore the possibility. I had to give up dieting because I just couldn’t live that way anymore. But I didn’t feel good about gaining weight.

I began to go back and forth, reading BBW Magazine and wondering “could it be okay to be fat? No. Not possible.” Then, finally in 1985, I read a book by Nancy Roberts, whom I just learned passed away last March. Breaking All the Rules, now sadly out of print but available used, is a big, gorgeous book about the experience of a big, gorgeous woman who stopped dieting, accepted herself as she was–fat–and fantastic.

When I saw a big woman who refused to be confined by anyone else’s idea of what she should be, what she should do, or even what she should wear, I stopped longing for the impossible, stopped wondering what I could be if I were not what I am.

The scales finally did fall away from my eyes and I was free to see exploring who I would be if I owned myself as I am.

Loving Your Body: A Range of Views

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve been thinking about three different perspectives on loving your body:

1) Operation Beautiful is a grass-roots movement with a mission “to post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL. You are enough… just the way you are!” People leave notes in books, in magazines, on grocery store shelves. Since people write their own notes, the content varies widely: we’ll get to that.

3) Spilt Milk, posting at Feministe, writes (in the context of fat acceptance) about simple kindness as activism:

My body is relatively healthy (I’m not going to delve into the ‘but fat is so unhealthy!’ quagmire here: that swamp’s been negotiated by others far more intrepid than me). It’s also the body that conceived and carried and birthed and fed my daughter. It’s the body that takes me through my days. It’s the body that is me. I accept it and love it because accepting and loving myself in this world that wants to tell me that I ought to be ashamed is an act of rebellion. Every time I choose to be kind to myself I’m advocating for fat acceptance.

Each moment that we choose to be kind to others by approaching them with unconditional positive regard, whatever their size or shape, we are activists. Doing this kicks back at a culture of fear and shame surrounding our bodies.

2) Last week, in our post about disabled sculptors, we mentioned S.E. Smith’s thoughtful post about the intersection of disability activism and the “love your body” message.

I can’t tell you how many ‘positive affirmations’ I have encountered that say things like ‘love your body, because it is beautiful, healthy, and strong.’ I guess people who don’t have healthy or strong bodies can’t love them, or people who actively reject beauty can’t love their bodies either. And, of course, this reads like a mandate: You must love your body, because the idea of not loving your body is highly alien, as is the idea of feeling neutral about or disassociated from your body.

For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable.

The intersections of these points of view are fascinating. Talking about them got us to thinking about some of the history of “love your body.” When the early fat activists were starting to speak out in the 1970s, “love your body” was an almost incomprehensible phrase. Body hatred and body shame may not have been as widespread as they are now, because “acceptable” or “conventionally beautiful” sizes and shapes were a wider range. But active love for your own body was never discussed, let alone encouraged.

Once fat activism became more mainstream, with books like Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue, several things happened. First, the diet and beauty industries successfully manipulated the accepted social standards of beauty, so more people would “need” their products. Second, they started working on getting men to hate their bodies as much as women already did, so they could double their consumer base. Third, they started co-opting and commoditizing the “love your body” message, moving it from “you are beautiful as you are” to “you love your body, so you care enough to spend your money on changing it.” (The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” is one contemporary example of this.) For over thirty years, they have continued all three of these efforts, with lots and lots of money and business savvy. The net result is that the message “hate your body” is now very frequently wrapped in “love your body” clothing. Because most “love your body” messages are commercialized, most of them are thinly disguised pressures, really saying “so now change it.”

Operation Beautiful is a simple grass-roots attempt to counteract the commoditized message. It’s not especially financially driven–there’s a book, which is probably selling acceptably well–but mostly it’s just people, trying to send uplifting and comforting words to strangers. Like everything else so diffuse, it’s a mixed bag. If one of us opened a book and a note saying, “Smile!” fell out, we’d wish we knew who to growl at in response. But that’s not a universal reaction. The thing to remember about Operation Beautiful and other “random acts of kindness” is that they come from open-hearted motives and a genuine desire for social change. Attempt to counteract the relentless drumbeat of body hatred are worth appreciating.

Spilt Milk’s “kindness as activism” is her own individual take, and it’s more nuanced and thoughtful than Operation Beautiful’s widespread pollination approach, though it does not take S.E. Smith’s points into account.

I don’t want to fight my body anymore and I sure as hell don’t want to fight yours, whatever size it is. In fact, I don’t even want all that rhetoric about fighting. Why are softer words (embrace, accept, listen) less utilized? Traits commonly seen as ‘feminine’ and therefore weak — like kindness – are actually some of the most effective mechanisms we have to use against fat-hate. It’s hard to sell diet pills to someone who’d like to be gentle on themselves, accept themselves for who they are, listen to what their body needs and embrace size diversity. And it’s hard to see how creating a world without diet pills wouldn’t be a win for feminism.

Sometimes fat acceptance is just choosing to cut the snark and show some respect to the human body in its diverse awesomeness. A little kindness – just kindness – is one of the most powerful forms of feminist activism available to us. We should use it.

Two things to appreciate here are that she’s talking about herself, and she’s advocating kindness and gentleness.

Then there’s Smith’s reception of the “love your body” message as an exclusionary mandate.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.

This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.

We’ve both been doing body image work for many years, and while we have always believed that loving your body should not be an imperative or a standard of self-worth, Smith’s post has been invaluable in opening up a new way for us to think about what we do. There are many valid reasons that people dislike or hate or are at odds with their bodies, that “the neutral place” is highly desirable. At the same time, the neutral place can only be achieved, and is much easier to imagine or conceptualize, because of the decades of body-positive work that has preceded these conversations.

Loving your body isn’t for everyone. Knowing that loving one’s body is possible, that there are people who love their bodies, and that bodies are not simply avenues for criticism and self-hatred, or money sinks, is for everyone. The neutral place, where we can make choices, can only be attained if diverse voices outside of the mainstream can be heard.