I was 18 when I found the fat rights movement.
Unlike my peers who spent years of weight cycling and trying every diet they could, I have only ever been on one diet. My entry into this movement came from understanding the ways beauty ideals oppress those who cannot conform to them. I spent my whole senior year losing weight believing if I just got down to a size where I would no longer be fat, I would be worthy, I would be beautiful.
My need to be beautiful began at the age of 5 when my parents were told I should participate in beauty pageants. The recommendation came from the mother of Ashley Johnson who at the time was in my brother’s preschool class and moved away the same year to take the part of Chrissy Seaver on the show Growing Pains. After that I was thrown into a life where my outward appearance was made to be more important than the characteristics that made me who I am today. While I only spent a year actually participating in beauty pageants the need to be pretty stayed with me and attached itself to my sense of worth and to my gender. Once I became fat those values I built up around me were ripped away over night.
I was 11 when I was first called fat. I was not always called fat; I had a whole slew of names that came with the change in status when I entered middle school, Big Bertha, Earthquake (this was often screamed while my classmates shook tables), and Jolly Green Giant. When I think back on it now I find it amusing that my classmates somehow thought that my body would create a seismic event when I walked. To be honest I changed that year, emotionally shutting down and trying to build up a wall around myself for fear of being vulnerable to their attacks but it wasn’t until I took a road trip with my dad at the end of the school year to visit my aunt everything came into focus.
When I talk about my past with body shame and fat stigma, it isn’t abnormal for people to tell me how it wasn’t the media, or their peers but parents and family members that brought on their own shame and the resulting consequences. I truly believe it is different when it comes from your family. We are told family is suppose to love us no matter what, but this isn’t true and when they say hurtful or damaging things it should be addressed as such.
The words my aunt said to me were simple and in her own mind were probably coming from a place of misplaced care. When she told me, “You would be so beautiful if you were thin,” it was not only the first time a family member addressed my body, but also the first time it became clear that I lost something tangible by being fat.
That is why I am so passionate about the work I do today. Being taught to hold my personal appearance as a sign of my worth and my femininity, only to have it taken away when I no longer conformed to societies beauty ideals changed how I felt about myself. Because performing beauty is a standard requirement for someone who is gendered female, I spent a long time disassociating with my body and my gender. When I was finally able to understand that my pain was from the way I was socialized in my early childhood and teens I was able to disconnect myself from the equation. In other words, the way I was treated was not my fault or because of my body but due to the fat stigma in our society.
The changes were drastic, I stopped speaking negatively about myself, my body and/or otherwise. I also stopped speaking negatively about other people’s appearance instead judging them on their own interactions with me personally. This alone made learning to love my body and feel more connected with it, after hating it for so long, easier. Once I change the ways I thought and talked about bodies I started to address why I learned to feel that way, taking my life and tearing it apart to give myself a deeper understanding of where all of my shame came from.
Stopping my own body shaming was not an overnight process, it is still something that comes up at unexpected times, but when it does I’m not scared anymore. The only thing I fear now is going back to where I was before.
If you suffer from body shame, seek help. Surround yourself with people who will support you no matter what body you live in. Address why you feel the way you do about your body, and know that those feelings are not because of you. The Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor and is an amazing resource to take back your body.
Oct. 19 is Love Your Body Day:
The National Organization for Women’s Oakland County chapter will be holding an event titled “Love Your Body: Media and Body Image.” I will be speaking about the language we use to talk about our bodies. For more information visit the event page, here