Thursday, April 18, 2013

Musings on 35 part 2: The personal "body shame" issue

I have been whinging of late that the "muse" has not been taking me, and this blog has been awfully quiet. Sure, on a daily basis there are plenty of things that make me want to rant. The ever-mounting pile of "draft" posts that I have on this thing are testament to this fact. But as usual, as I draw nearer to yet another birthday, I feel gripped by an endless tide of introspection. So what better to write upon, hey?

Today as I was walking back from a short lunch break, I found myself pondering my own personal journey with "body issues" and how I have felt quite liberated from that for a number of years. I was wondering why I felt liberated from it. Was this strength that I had drawn from feminism over the years? Was it the freedom I have felt in so many ways from being in my 30s rather than my teens or 20s? Was it as simple as me being within the recommended BMI and having been for years (PFFT to that idea!)? It struck me that there was a journey that got me to now and having that type of liberation was in fact an achievement, all things considered.

Many people know this, but for those that don't, I'm going to "come out" now: I'm a Jenny Craig Success Story! By the way, I mean that '!' in a rather ironic way. It's cool that I did well on that programme and four years later have maintained it with very little actual effort. I am being open about this though because as I read through that old success story it kind of makes me shudder. I am not ashamed that I lost weight, nor am I ashamed that I turned to a weight loss programme to do so. I am only too aware that weight loss programmes gain a bit of well-deserved flack because they do peddle a whole "you'll be healthier and feel more confident if you lose weight!" message which is consistent with a bunch of other body shame stuff which women do not friggin' need. By participating in the Success Stories (adhering, unfortunately, to the usual structure these companies use in the main) I probably contributed to some body shame in other women which is an awful thing and not something I intended. When I wrote that story I was elated at my "success". Was I healthier as mentioned in that piece? Well partially. My back (note: this was prior to a car accident that put me back to square one on this front) was not so easily aggravated, but as mentioned in the first piece on 35dom, I also landed myself a date in the hospital due to an ectopic, so in truth, "healthier" may have been a stretch. If I am honest, the most positive part of it all for me was as I outlined in the third-from-last paragraph: at a time when I was re-imagining my life as a single person and learning how to focus on myself for the first time in years, this was an outlet for me and gaining some affirmation at that time propelled me forward in other ways. Four years on though I can say without any shadow of a doubt that there are so many other things that can do that. The following things have since made me feel similarly elated:

1. Being published online!
2. Kicking arse at Uni
3. Working towards broader social change
4. Being at a stage in life where people are more accepting of me as I am rather than as I should be, and I am more accepting of that too
5. Having the most amazing group of friends ever

So if all these things have made me feel similar, why did I choose weight loss back then to feel better about myself? Well, unfortunately I was not immune to the numerous comments I had received about my size/shape etc over the years, and these had truly been constant. In a society where so much of a woman's/girl's worth is placed upon her appearance, it takes a damn strong individual to be immune to that sort of stuff. I definitely wasn't in a position of strength at that time; that was something that I was working towards. It gave me a starting point, but losing weight wasn't the end point and nor should it ever be considered to be.

Yes, consciousness about my size was something I had experienced from a young age. When I was a very little kid (we're talking 5 or 6 here) I remember being referred to as "solid", "tubby", "fat" and "stocky" on a regular basis. None of this was actually true. I was awkward kid-shaped. Definitely not a lean build, nor long and slender. Just tall and waiting to gain shape. Kids are pretty blobby-shaped in general, and their builds are usually quite genderless until puberty starts to kick in. Really, apart from a round face, blobby was what I was too. But commentary on appearance starts early with little girls, and I was clearly not ideal in other people's reckoning, even at such a young age. I think the first time I was told I needed to lose weight was when I was about 10, and honestly, when I read this piece about a 7 year old girl who was undertaking an exercise and weight loss regime, I could remember myself thinking that I needed to do similar when I was that age. Add this to how I was also experiencing enforced femininity at the same time and you have one girl who felt like she was rather NQR.

This scrutiny intensified when I was a teenager. I was still tall, and still more "solid" than "lean" but I had also been told I was "broad". I have broad shoulders naturally and through hearing that I was "broad", I assumed that the rest of me must be too. I remember from about the age of 16-30 referring to my "battleship hips". Additionally, I described my build as being a "large hourglass". I apparently also had "quadzillas". I knew I wasn't particularly busty despite early beginnings but I was reasonably comfortable with that. That was actually the only body-image thing I managed to be correct on. I would watch the TV and be convinced that there were no girls on any shows who had builds remotely like mine. The fact that I ever thought any of this (with the exception of the non-bustiness) about myself is completely laughable nowadays. It dawned on me only a couple of years ago when a jeans company FINALLY decided to bring out a range to fit a variety of women's shapes that I was somewhat wrong. My measurements put me in the "slight curve" category. Ergo: small hip-to-waist ratio, comparatively slender thighs and a derrière on the smaller side. Where on earth had I got those other ideas from? Could it have been that years of endless and unwarranted scrutiny had completely warped my mind to the point where I was almost seeing myself as the exact opposite of what I really was? Even more frightening: I had been an active feminist for roughly 17 years before that point so why on earth was I still so completely out-of-sync with my own body image? That was a huge "wake up call" for me. It completely changed the way that I relate to my body in a way that weight loss never did. It made me see that I had for YEARS been relating to myself wrong and I promised that I never would again, but nor would I ever listen to the bullshit that was fed to me about my image by others and use that to define how I relate to myself.

I still scrutinise. I still have my moments. A lifetime of scrutiny not only by others but also by yourself is difficult to shake, and I wonder if any of us truly ever completely shake it considering how reinforced it is in society, in the media, in family etc. Generally speaking though, for the most part I am emancipated from those rubbish body image messages of yesteryear. I will never be regretful that I lost weight through a programme, but nowadays I know that that little thing I was doing back then was part of a much broader programme of strengthening and coming into my own, and it is good to be able to look back on it within context, rather than as an achievement by itself. Because it wasn't. It was, to me, a mere grain of red dust in the Simpson.  


  1. Thanks for posting this. I think it's one of the (not very) dirty little secrets that many of us have, and don't share, because we worry that it diminishes our agency. Well... of course it doesn't... if anything it gives us greater agency to analyse, ponder and demonstrate how these things have been a part of our journey.

    I think programs work for some people and are defeating mechanisms for others (and there are a lot of other experiences inbetween), and it's a shame that this has been transformed into not being able to talk about individual success. I had written 'success' just now, and thought better of it, it isn't 'kind of' success, it's actual success... it's setting a goal and meeting it. Of course mine usually involve Peace Pies and Lord of the Fries, but they are - nevertheless - goals. Seriously though, goals and the power over your own body and the power over how you feel about your body IN the world that we live in (cos we don't get to live in another world, only change this one), is great, and should be supported not challenged.

    I love that our bodies can change. It's one of the things I love most about my body. It gets bigger or smaller, I can weigh more or less, I can look more this way or that way. Having power over that, as well as having power over how others engage with my body is all within my power. I have that kind of agency... and I love that you've talked about that here.

    Does it mean I accept others imposing negative criticism... nah, not at all...and I have never done it about weight. It would be bizarre now, since I am overweight... but when I wasn't... I always had someone in the family who was, and I just never imagined that I would want to make someone feel badly about themselves. Judgements about ourselves can manifest in judgements of others, and I think we worry that up more than it often is the case.

    I suppose, for me (and it only works to own this, not to project - for me anyway) I love bodies in all shapes and sizes, and I love people taking control of their bodies in some meaningful way... to give it a rest, to exercise it, to feed it, to feed it differently, to love it, to pamper it, to dress it in different ways, to shod it in interesting ways. I love that... and I think these sorts of programs that you were involved in support people in those transformations, well beyond the society expectations that they use to sell the programs and into the personal experience of being in them.

    Strengthening anything is a lovely thing... whether it's how we feel about ourselves or what we do in the world or how we live in our bodies.

    1. Sandy, I just love what you wrote here (and am thinking of chasing up some LotFs right now, funnily enough). Bodily autonomy, and the ability to change, interpret, call our own shots on, and be empowered by it is a wonderful thing. I also couldn't agree more re: judgements about ourselves manifesting into judgements of others. Freedom from that in the first place is where we should be at!

  2. I'd be interested to get your take. I'm a guy, raised by a single mother, herself always self conscious about her weight. As young as I can remember she drilled into me the importance of never being fat. When I was 4 or 5, I returned from a month long holiday with relatives mostly consisting of ice cream, chicken nuggets and all things forbidden, well fatted, and discovered that her love was, in fact, conditional. I remember my first years in primary school asking potential friends, "do I look fat?" Negative body image continued through childhood and eventually culminated in morbid obesity.

    I got my shit together in my mid-twenties and lost around 80-90kg. Being a hetero guy, I've had my share of meathead guy nights out, on the pickup, objectifying everything in sight (albeit after the weight loss). There were always comments about "fat chicks". (Hope you don't mind the language. I'd rather be honest and for you to get angry than sugar coat what actually happens). Occasionally we'd encounter a women who had lost weight. Usually, she would be proud both of her accomplishment and how she looked. My then guy friends, being the typical type went solely on what they saw right in front of them, didn't care about backstory, and if they liked what they saw just went for it.

    Here's where I get to the point. When I talked to women about myself, I wanted to boast about what I thought was worth boasting about. I was once a blimp and I lost the weight. No lap band, no programs (not judging). I was proud, both of my accomplishment and how much better I looked. But in my case, every single woman I mentioned my weight loss to went instantly cold. When I admitted that I was once a huge fatty, I ceased to be seen as attractive. To this day if I happen to be flirting I sometimes play a game. I'll drop that piece of information and watch with a secret smile as the conversation goes cold as dead fish.

    I have my theories, of course. I'd be interested in yours.


    1. Hey Stephen!

      Cheers for writing, in the first instance. Really appreciated.

      Sandy has covered most stuff that I thought, but what I wonder additionally is how much of this almost ends up being a form of trans-generational abuse. Why I'm saying that in the first instance is that you mentioned your mother and her transference of her own body issues on to you (that's how I read it, incidentally. It may, or may not, be true). Sometimes I have to wonder how women, in their socially-enforced focus on appearance and physical perfection, end up replicating that same oppression on to others. It's almost like a bullying behaviour, where the bullied then finds someone on a lower rung to bully in order to increase their own feelings of self-worth. I have incredibly simplified here, and please excuse me as it is not the best time for me to be responding, but I definitely wanted to give you an answer.

      When it then goes to these women you speak of who go all "dead fish", I again wonder if it's a case of them actually buying into this sort of "body shame" stuff and then replicating it onwards. One of the things I bemoan is that nowadays there is so much focus on the individual rather than the collective, and what I believe this has led to is a superficiality that is manifesting in so many ways. People will argue that their personal choices (no matter how questionable those choices may actually be) are "empowering" and when they come across those that don't adhere in some way, they may see that person as not empowering themselves. Even though weight has been lost, as Sandy said in the first instance they may judge you being heavier in the first place as laziness as opposed to actually either seeing your achievement as something worth celebrating, or, more preferably, not making a judgement on something that is but a small part of what makes up you as a whole person. It's ridiculous and it should be called out because nobody is actually going to be empowered whilst oppression continues to go around in circles!

      I'd love to write more, but as I said, at this point I am limited. But if you get an opportunity, please respond

    2. I wrote a whole boring thing full of academic language responding to this. I did you a favour and deleted it. I think now that when I posed the topic here in terms of gender and implied a hypocrisy in that female body image oppression and compared that with myself being similarly oppressed by women, I made a mistake. (I'm not seriously saying that a woman not being attracted to me is oppression, by the way). When I thought about it more, I realised that framing wasn't going anywhere useful. I could've argued that pressure to conform to body image / physical ideals exists in both genders, but really, that argument was destined to go around and around like a tumble dryer until someone mentioned the Origin of Species.

      I think the things people say to each other to introduce themselves, especially in the situation I posed, in the short amount of time allowed can only be given the same consideration as, say, the personal information in a sperm donor dossier book. If something is even slightly off, flip the page. The aberrant information didn't have to be a history of obesity. It could have been a history of cancer. Or a brief dabbling in Mormonism. I think the issue isn't necessarily that I used to be fat and that triggering a hidden biological or cultural warning. It's that I was socially moronic enough to say something unexpected that's going to get my page flipped.

      It'd be nice to live in the world where superficiality wasn't so necessary. But I live in Melbourne with 4 million other strange faces and it's impossible to make the time to really get to know a whole person THEN decide whether to admit them behind the velvet rope. The inevitable consequence of urbanity is superficiality. And I really, really like urbanity. The food is so much more interesting.

      So, I guess I complained about being stupid. Wouldn't be the first time.

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. Both you and Dr Sandy.


  3. Sorry Stephen, I know you're not asking me, and also I'm not a heterosexual woman (though I went out with dozens of guys back when I did identify as het), but I think I get it. I think there is this idea that weight means something *beyond* the weight itself... I think for a lot of people it represents laziness and a lack of control and a lack of care. Which, of course, as someone who has struggled with weight my whole life and is also a control freak, work junkie I take some issue with... but then individuals are complex, and objectification doesn't individualise, does it? And I think the fallout is that women or men see that change as both revertible, and that it means some of those other things. Which is a bit ironic since clearly if it did demonstrate that, then losing weight should mean the opposite. I think it's also about the contrived... the contrived body for instance. I mean we work on our body, should we ever talk about that? Especially when we plan on being intimate with someone... do we tell them we had a bit of a shave in the nether regions (not an early on a first date moment, agreed), or do we talk about even how we dress and what we look like. The answer is probably not... but weight loss (and weight gain) is often so transformative, that it also seems like an odd thing NOT to talk about when it matters so much to us. But I like your final comment on it... it may well be a shit detector... to work out just how shallow or at least uncomplex the woman is.

    And, frankly, they are always the worst in the sack.