Thursday, September 15, 2011

Things Deb Doesn't Love: Fat Shaming

Yesterday, after a rousing lunchtime ZUMBA! class with my dear Travis left my workout clothes unwearable, I was forced to bike my way home in my rather tight, denim pencil skirt. It must be noted that when I am bike riding in a skirt all of my almost non-existent modesty goes out the window. I love when the wind blows up a billowy skirt, or I get the chance to, as I did today, show a little leg. As I started my ride home, I passed three college students: two very thin girls, maybe 19, wearing distressed short shorts (the ones with the pockets sticking out the bottom) sitting on a curb, and a muscular boy, probably around the same age, working on the gears of his bike which was turned upside down near where the girls sat. As I approached these three young people they openly stared at me, and as I rode by one of the girls whispered something that made the other two giggle. I knew they were laughing about me. What they were saying I couldn’t hear, but all of the sudden I felt very self-conscious about my chunky girl thighs working so strongly to pedal my bicycle.

I have been lucky enough to be a victim of fat hate infrequently in my life. My brother’s best friend growing up would most unmercilessly call me “Whale,” a name that resurrected itself in middle school when I sat in front of a boy named Zach who would say it under his breath when he was feeling surly. But that was the worst of it until I got to college. One day while walking to class I was talking with a friend when a man yelled something out a truck window and then sped away. My friend instantly grabbed me, pulling me into a tight hug, and whispered in my ear, “He's a jerk,” at which point I registered that what had been shouted was, “LOSE SOME WEIGHT, BITCH.” I didn’t cry. Well, not then. Not until I got to class and sat in the back of the room silently weeping. Eventually I excused myself, and my darling teacher, Angie, followed me. When I told her what happened, she hugged me saying, “People are so cruel.” Aren’t they just.

Most of my discomfort as regards these fat hate stories is less that they happened at all and more how passively I let them happen, how easily I let those people make me feel bad about my body. Now granted I felt pretty terrible about my body before they said anything. I did think I was whale, and I did think I was a fat bitch, but you know what? That doesn’t matter. Nothing will ever, EVER give another person the right to make judgments about my body, whether you are my best friend or a stranger in a truck. I wish I could go back to that day so that I could stare at his car speeding away and flip him the bird. I wish I could turn around to Zach, slap him across the face and say, “If you call me that again, I will kick you in the nuts.” And I wish I HAD, in fact, kicked my brother’s best friend in the nuts the very first time he thought it appropriate to address me by such a cruel nickname.

In many of my fat acceptance books, women claim that if every time they were fat shamed their response was to hide in their rooms they would never leave the house. And I want to have this IAMFATGETUSEDTOIT attitude, but the truth is, I felt a little broken by those kids today. And I continue to feel broken by that one random stranger. It is of course laced with, “How DARE you,” but there is still all that deep, internalized, terrible shame.

But this is not to say I won’t fight back. In a brilliant essay by Lesley Kinzel in the book Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere, she talks about being catcalled while wearing a bathing suit and crossing the street to her local beach. Her response is this:

“Given the choice between restricting my movements and being assured of never being catcalled again, versus going out shamelessly and risking (or demanding!) attention—I will gladly take the latter. I like being visible. Even when I become a bull’s eye upon which the insecurities and savagery of others are exorcised. Even when I lose time processing and remembering the emotional risks I take just by being myself, time I would have otherwise spent relaxing in the sunshine. When I began my self-acceptance process, I decided first off that I never want to feel afraid of what those people—those who would mercilessly catcall me from a moving car, for example—might think or say about my body again. I never wanted to avoid life out of fear. And I’m still there, still fighting to be fearless. So I say fuck those people. I’ll be on that beach tomorrow, and this weekend, and for months to come, and if they don’t like it, good. I’m glad to displease them. They cannot stop me.”

This is the price we pay for not hiding. This is the price we pay for being visible. Am I going to hide because those dumbasses don’t want to look at me? Because they are somehow OFFENDED by me riding my bike, wearing my brightly colored helmet and GOD FORBID being fat and free and happy?

No. Fucking. Way.

Monday, September 12, 2011


When I started kindergarten I refused to wear pants. I would only wear dresses with ruffles and full skirts. In fact if the skirt of a dress did not go STRAIGHT OUT when I twirled I would lose interest. 

In the end, my mom found it easier to just make me dresses since I refused to wear ANYTHING without a full skirt and ruffles. And the dresses she made... WHOOEY were they ruffley. Oh and they all had poof sleeves. That was the other thing. I. Loved. Poof. Sleeves.

When my brother Jeffrey got married I was 5, and I got to be the Flower Girl. The dress was purple satin with a huge, hot pink, ruffley, lace flounce on the back, and a HUGE pink satin bow. When I saw that dress I instantly pooped my pants with joy. I actually remember having heart palpitations I was so excited to wear it. And once I obtained that dress I wanted to wear it everyday. But of course I couldn't. Cause I spilled on my clothes as a child as much as a I now do as an adult. And there were no tidesticks in 1987. And I had to look nice for the wedding.

Anywho, in kindergarten I remember sitting on the slide and having a classmate of mine tell me I was the prettiest girl in the class. My response then: "I know." My response now: "Duh." With my curly hair and my green eyes and that gap in my teeth, twirling around in a pink dress with poofed sleeves covered in ruffles? Shut up. I was like the cutest child ever.

And then I developed body image problems. And I only wore over-sized t-shirts that I stole from my dad that more often than not had pictures of wolves screenprinted on them. I LOVED wolf t-shirts.

I probably would've pooped my pants over this shirt in middle school.

Well friends, we've gone full circle. I have recently re-discovered my love of skirts. I have decided, since I have grown out of most of my pants, that instead of buying more pants I am only going to buy skirts. Skirts and skirts only. Full skirts, pencil skirts, floral skirts, denim skirts. I don't give a crap as long as they make my butt look bangin or stick straight out when I twirl. AND I WILL BE TWIRLING. Also, I will be investing in brightly colored tights. And maybe some rainbow-stripe tights. And maybe some tie-dye tights.

Everyday I am adult. Everyday I pay my bills and go to work and drink my coffee and feed myself and brush my teeth and (sometimes) make my bed. I balance my checkbook and invest in relationships that are as difficult as they are rewarding. I struggle with my disordered eating and I struggle with my body image (both worthy struggles). So if I can dress like I did in kindergarten, if I can bring myself a little joy by ditching the concept of pants and by ONLY WEARING SKIRTS WITH RAINBOW TIGHTS I'm gonna do it.

Cause my office has almost no dress code. Booyah.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fat Clothes

At a most excellent party this past weekend a friend of mine was telling me about having recently taken stock of all her skinny clothes. For those of you who don’t know skinny clothes are the clothes a woman holds onto in the hopes she will someday fit into them. They are the clothes of which mere thoughts catalyze patterns of shame and self-hatred, the clothes which usually represent the skinnier self we could be if we just tried hard enough. My friend explained to me that as she rifled through these particular skinny clothes, which she had fit into in her early 20s, she would hold up pieces and feel shocked by how small she had been.  She didn’t remember feeling small.  She remembered thinking she was fat. My friend has an incredibly kind, devoted and savvy husband who, when she shared this said, "I know. I thought you were insane."

I remember being in middle school and thinking I was the fattest, most unattractive person in the world. I went on my first self-imposed diet when I was 14, limiting myself to 20 fat grams per day. I look at pictures from that time, before and after the diet, and I see a 14 year-old with a beautiful, strong body. The skin on my legs was soft and tan, I wore terrible clothes and my hair was a mess, but I had rather piercing green eyes that looked so sad and that round, warm face that wanted so clearly, more than anything, to be told she was perfectly all right just the way she was.

That was just the beginning. I hated myself quite a bit for quite some time. I didn't want people to look at me so I wore things that helped me blend in, that enabled me to be overlooked. I remember buying a sweater in college which I loved. It had green, blue, yellow and orange stripes with long bell sleeves. I kept that sweater for 3 years, looking at it in my closet, sometimes even trying it on, and then never wearing it. I thought it drew too much attention, and the idea that someone would have the opportunity to take stock of how fat I was terrified me. I eventually donated it to the good will. I hadn't worn it in public a single time.

So then, about 3 years ago, I lost weight and for the first time in my life I wanted people to look at me. I started wearing tighter clothes, brighter colors. This was when I developed my penchant for large flower headbands. I looked more put together. I started wearing thick colorful bracelets and necklaces that actually matched my outfits. It was as though for years I had no concept of what I liked and now had all these resources to experiment. It was wonderful. It felt like coming alive.

I have, over the past year, expanded out of all of those clothes. Every single skirt, t-shirt, blouse, pair of pants (jeans, dress pants and exercise pants).  Everything. I have gotten rid of a thousand dollars worth of clothes in a size 14. Every time I would clean my room I would give away more pieces, and it felt not only like a financial loss. I felt as though I was losing my capability to express myself through what I wore.

Here's the thing: regardless of whether or not you want to we say things with our clothes. My Soul Twin shops almost exclusively at Anthropologie and always looks light, billowy, romantic and beautiful, like she is from another era. I imagine she is saying, “I, sir… am a LADY.” Some people don't care about clothes (my mom for one) but even not caring, even being slovenly, says something. In the past I thought that, because I was fat, I didn't get to wear things that reflected my personality. I just had to wear what they sold in the plus size section of Kohls (a sad selection indeed, my friends) and that it was my job to just learn to like these things.

So I gained weight and, yes, I am just as fat once again. But the things I learned about myself during those years of thinner-ness I have not forgotten. I learned about my own sense of style. I learned what I like and just because I am fat doesn’t mean I stop wearing things I love. Every person should get to express themselves however they want to when it comes to how they dress. And if some d-bag doesn't like what you are wearing they don't have to look at you. The. End.

Granted this is a very difficult attitude shift to achieve but there are numerous ways to remedy it. I recommend 1) finding photos of people your size on the interwebz and seeing what they are wearing. I love Soul Twin, but, in addition to being much larger than she is and shaped fundamentally differently, I would never dress as she does because my personality is baser, dirtier, very youthful and pretty rebellious. When I think of my style icons I think of Beth Ditto and Marianne Kirby. I want to be bold, slightly inappropriate, child-like AND beautiful. I look at pictures of those two women and I feel emboldened by their style. 2) Only buy clothes you love. Figure out your own style. Wear things that make you feel like you. If you don't care about clothes and that suits you then keep not caring. But don’t not care because there aren't options.

So my friend went through some skinny clothes and remembered how much, even as a relatively thin person, she hated her body. I thought I was worthless when I was young because I was fat when I wasn't even fat. But the point is not that we weren’t fat. The point is that what our bodies looked like made no difference. This really and truly saddens me, but I think feeling sympathy for ourselves as children, as teenagers, is such an appropriate reaction. If you are young, and if you have no one to tell you any different, of course you are going to internalize some sh*t ideas. But we are adults now. We know better. And when we think on these ideas, we have the chance to remember our own brokenness and to, finally, become our own advocates.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Bit of a Relapse

It's about to get pretty personal y'all.

Yesterday while eating lunch with my dear friend, Elizabeth, while talking about a headache and feeling loath to return to work, I was suddenly in the middle of b. good crying. Let it be known that, though I am a frequent crier, I am always quite embarrassed by weeping in restaurants. Who wants to see a girl ugly-crying while he/she eats their french fries? No one. 

The crying didn’t come out of nowhere. An hour before I had been waiting for Elizabeth on a sunny bench obsessing over the idea that someday soon I was going to get so fat I was going to need to buy two airplane seats (this has been a point of anxiety for me since I watched a youtube video a couple weeks ago of a girl who was shamed into purchasing two seats, and subsequently shamed out of one of them). I was sitting on my bench imagining my body expanding until I couldn't shop even in the plus size sections of stores, expanding out of airplane seats and sexual desirability (funny how I wrote a blog just the other day about the topic, and it all comes back to this), expanding out of all my clothes and into debt and heart disease. Fast forward 30 minutes to eating a hamburger across from a friend I trust with even the crappiest of my feelings, and you have public weeping.

Fast Forward to last night. I got home, made myself dinner, watched Big Sexy (which I will talk about at some point on this blog, I'm sure) and took a shower. At this point, I remembered that I would be going to a fancy-type bar-thing for drinks the next day for my Soul Twin's birthday and needed to figure out what I was going to wear. In my current state of mind, this, my friends, was a bad idea. I tried on my first-choice dress with a pair of high heels I love but have never worn, and, because my full length mirror recently fell off my closet door and broke, wandered into my roommate’s room to look at myself in her full-length mirror. Probably another bad idea.

I was shocked at my own width. Shocked and dismayed. And all of the sudden I realized that every pound I had lost two years ago I had gained back. And this is where we relapse.

Years ago, before fat acceptance, before Health At Every Size, before I even did Weight Watchers, there would be times where I would walk around my apartment experiencing some of the most self-abusive thoughts a person could have. Sometimes I would even write them down. Terrible thoughts about how worthless I was as a person because I was fat, how unlovable I was in any capacity, how I was probably going to die of a heart attack the next day and that it was what I deserved. I could hear these things in my head, and I could see how destructive and cruel they were. In my head I was beating myself up and not in the nice way we talk about in therapy. I was emotionally bloodying myself because my body wasn’t what I thought it should be. 

This is the space I was in last night.

I feel ashamed to even write these things down. I feel ashamed that people I don’t necessarily know will read them, but I’m also pretty sure that these feelings I have are not extraordinary. I am pretty sure this is the manic, angry place many women go to when overwhelmed.

And then I woke up this morning. And picked up all the clothes that were strewn on the floor of my room, ate my breakfast and rode my bike to work.

I am tempted to end this here. To not comment on any of it. But I want it all to make sense. First of all, there are people who can’t shop in normal plus sized stores or have to buy two seats. I am simply a more socially acceptable version of fat. I feel ashamed of these feelings, ashamed that I still associate being fat in that way with some sort of personal failure even if I don’t think of those specific women as failing. Do I blame the woman in the youtube clip? Of course I don’t. I blame the Southwest douchebags. But still…

I suppose my real response to this experience is that there is literally nothing I can do but live through these really tough moments. I could sign up for Weight Watchers or resolve to exercise more, but in the end these are just temporary fixes for a masochistic belief system. And I think sometimes, while reading all my fat activism blogs written by these strong, eloquent, assertive women, I forget they’ve been thinking about these ideas for years. They’ve relapsed I’m sure. They’ve wandered their houses hating their bodies, because, fat or thin, haven’t we all done this? 

So I hated my body again for an evening. And when I woke up this morning, I was still kind of hating it. But the bottom line is, whether or not we believe the truth doesn’t make it any less true. The truth is I am healthy. The truth is my body does all the things I ask of her. The truth is my body is good. And the truth is sometimes I suffer and most of the time that suffering has nothing to do with my body. And maybe I should give her a break.