[TW: Eating disorders, fat phobia/hatred]
Yippee, personal anecdote time!
Today, I'm going to talk about food and body image. Two disclaimers. One, I am mostly a n00b when it comes to the emerging movement known as Fat Acceptance, mostly because, as a thin person, I've had the privilege of not having to think much about what it is like to live in a virulently fat-phobic society. For instance, I can clean my plate, part of someone else's, and then order dessert in public and mostly not think twice about how other people might be whispering "no wonder" and, instead, am often treated as though my Healthy Appetite For A Lady is somewhat endearing.
It wasn't until I began reading Shakesville a couple of years ago, and specifically various posts by Melissa McEwan, that I began thinking about the politics of fatness and society's hatred of fat people in any real way. See, for instance, this post and the links and comments therein that speak to the ubiquity and the social acceptability of fat shaming.
Two, I am coming to a growing awareness of how living in a fat phobic society as a thin woman has combined with class considerations to give me a somewhat fucked-up relationship with food and body image. How many of us, no matter our size, feel as though if we're women and we have bodies we can't fucking win? But at the same time, I want to fully acknowledge that, perhaps in a way similar to how patriarchy also hurts men, my experiences with fat phobia, hatred, and body image are qualitatively and quantitatively different than what a fat woman (or man) experiences on a daily basis. I intend no equivalence with this post. Construcitve criticism is welcome.
I am thin. I have always been thin. I don't know how to define "thin" but, if this helps, basically even after puberty I used to look like a 2x4? (Which, of course, can have its own set of body shaming experiences in a society that likes its women Voluptuous But Not Too Voluptuous). Or, and I know the Body Mass Index has shortcomings, I have always fallen into the problematically-named "normal" category of the BMI.
Despite my lifelong thin appearance, it was when I went to college that I learned for the first time in my life that I was fat, actually. Or, rather, that I had a lot of it and was "at risk" for becoming noticeably fat. See, I was an athlete and during our pre-season physicals, which included a body fat measurement, I learned that my body fat percentage was significantly higher than that of all of my teammates despite the fact that all of our bodies looked, on the outside, very similar.
I didn't understand then why my body fat percentage was higher than other people's, but by the raised eyebrows of teammates and coaches regarding my body fat, I do remember feeling as though I had done something very wrong by having this fat. Stereotypes of fat people dancing in my head, I felt ashamed and judged as lazy, undisciplined, and immoral. I also see now that it was a remarkable privilege that it wasn't until I was 18 that this was my first fleeting encounter with fat shame that some people live with every single day of their lives.
So, after the physicals, I was called into my coach's office to have a meeting about my body and all of its (un)apparent fat. After taking an inventory of my typical meals, my coach jokingly asked how I was still alive. For the record, I genuinely thought pop-tarts for breakfast, doritos and a 3 Musketeers for lunch, pizza for dinner, and ice cream for dessert were all totally fine meal options.
It's a cruel irony, no?
Fat people are often lambasted for the inaccurate perception that all they do is scarf down whole cakes all day long (while possibly sitting on their beds alone and feeling sad for themselves), but there I was having actually eaten almost nothing but the nutritional equivalent of chocolate cakes for most of my life while nonetheless appearing skinny and, thus, "healthy." I got a lifelong free fucking pass to eat whatever junk I wanted as long as I stayed skinny while doing so!
Society gave me brownie points for looking thin. But, thanks to my food ignorance and growing up poor, I was malnourished, pre-diabetic (thank you high fructose corn syrup!), and had a fucked-up metabolism.
Prior to college and its wonderful meal cards, food for me was never about quality. When you're poor, you don't have that luxury. Eating, during much of my childhood, was always, always about taking in what I thought would make me full enough until the next meal. When you're a kid, you don't usually have your own money to buy your own food. You don't always want to take the free lunch at school and, sometimes, even your parents are too proud to let you take it. What you eat is whatever your parents put in the cupboards. Then, when you're a teenager working at a fast-food joint, finally earning your own money, you don't go shopping at the Whole Foods that doesn't even exist in your rural town. You eat free french fries at work.
Now, as an adult with a decent income, when I am eating with friends in a restaurant, my heart still sometimes races when someone asks the inevitable "Why don't we just get a bunch of stuff and share it?" Perhaps some of you reading this also hear that warning in the back of your head whispering, "What if I don't get enough?" To some of us, "sharing" is associated with going to bed hungry.
And so, I eat.
I eat and I finish my plate, almost always, because growing up poor means you don't waste food. And yet, when you eat and finish your plate you put yourself at risk for Becoming Fat.
I don't know what combination of genes, environment, or metabolism kept me thin during my young adulthood, but after meeting with my coach in college, I picked up on some subtext. Screw diabetes, if I didn't make big changes to my diet, my sneaky skinny fat would somehow spread to the outside and, thanks to her and so many other societal messages, that would be the Worst Thing Imagineable.
I have been battling different levels of that fear for most of my adult life.
During and immediately after college, I was probably exercise anorexic, which apparently seems to be a real thing. I loved food too much to forego it and so when I ate, which was frequently, I would work out to maintain caloric equilibrium. I would work out. For hours. Despite what I led people to believe, my working out was not mostly for purposes of Being Healthy, but for purposes of Not Getting Fat.
Throughout my life, compulsive exercise has interferred with my education, jobs, relationships, happiness, health, joints, and vacations. Yet, compulsive exercise isn't a typical After School Special topic because the skinny athletic person is Doing Everything Right according to fat-phobic cultural criticism of bodies.
These days, moderation is my mantra, but I will probably always live with some part of me worrying about becoming fat. Haven't we all, to varying degrees, internalized the message that to be fat is to be lazy, immoral, and gross? Doesn't it seem like for fat people, It Doesn't Get Better?
Today, every woman in my life has had at least some degree of a frenemy relationship with food and her body image. I am a Fat Acceptance ally not only because I believe fat people have the same human dignity as thin people, but because challenging narrow cultural standards of beauty effects all of us.