Sunday, 30 March 2008

the story of a body

When I was fourteen years old, a friend of mine, after a class swimming trip, reported back to me a conversation she'd had with one of the boys in our class (a boy, incidentally, that I would, a couple of years later, have a huge crush on).

She was commenting on the body of one of the girls in the class, saying she thought this girl had a great body.

"Oh no," said the boy. "No, if I had to choose, it would be [Maddie]. She's perfect."

You would think this would inspire a person to try to maintain her figure exactly was then, even if it was a size 14 with DD cup breasts.

But my eating and my relationship with my body were already fucked up, alas. I always wondered why no one ever picked on me for being fat - it turns out, it was because I wasn't, except in the eyes of my well-meaning and otherwise lovely parents, and I've no idea what their problem was, unless it was the boobs. And the hips. I was always a curvy girl.

I'm not extolling my past physical "perfections" here because I'm trying to disassociate myself with my present fatness. I am fat. I'm pretty much exactly as fat as Miss Perfect thought she was.

I guess it's just that in reassessing and reforming my relationship with my body now, I'm also thinking a lot about my past relationship with it. It says a lot that a third party could tell me that a boy I liked a lot thought I was perfect, and it changed nothing about how I felt about myself. You'd think it would, wouldn't you? It reminds me of this ad from Dove.

To be honest, it still doesn't change how I feel. My husband tells me I'm gorgeous all the time - "magnificent" on more than one occasion - and although I've learned not to argue, in my head, I call him an idiot.

Now, I'm fixating on my looks at the moment, which is problematic in itself because there's a lot more to any person than the body that holds them. But there's a disjunction, you see, a total inability to see what I really look like or to see my SELF as represented by thsi body. And love has always seemed out of the question.

But since we're bound together tell death do us part, my body and me, it seems to me that there can't be a healthy body when living with a mind which despises it, or a healthy mind when living in a body it sees as a prison. As much as I've learned to feel this way, I am not a separate entity to my flesh, and not only because my relationship with it has defined a significant part of my psychology.

This is all me, whether it's the hands racing across the keyboard, the legs the laptop is resting on, the breasts being slightly displaced by the arms reaching for the keys, and the mind guiding the fingers. I can't separate me from my body.

And it tells you my story. Oh, a lot of people won't read the story it tells. They'll glance, assume they know what it's about, decide they don't want to read it and move on, never knowing that not all fat bodies, or thin bodies, tell you the same story.

But here is the story mine tells:

Once, I was perfect, but I've spent so many years despising myself that now, when you look at me, you will see a mass of failure, of imperfections you may believe I should hide. But this body is the story of my struggle, and I am not ashamed of the journey I have taken. It has taught me to think, and to have compassion. It has taught me not to assume that I understand the story I'm looking at.

Parts of this story are very unhappy. For far too long, I've treated my body like an abusive spouse, pounding away at it like it was dirt, instead of my most intimate partner, my best friend, the companion of my life. If we really were separate entities, I'd tell my body to leave me. I'd find it a refuge where people would be nice to it, say kind things, and not make it feel worthless.

But since that can't be done, we need a new relationship, and it starts with this: I'm sorry, body. I'm sorry that I've hurt you for so long in so many ways. I'm really going to try to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. I'm going to learn to love you beacuse you are my story, because you are me, and because if you're going to spend your life with someone, you really should love them, and love them hard.

Friday, 28 March 2008

the girl in the pictures

Two or three years ago now, my mother sent me an album of my life. This is the first time I've been able to look at it without crying.

I barely recognise the beautiful girl in those pictures. I don't remember ever seeing her in the mirror. I certainly never thought I looked like that. All my life I've felt that I looked like I look now. This may be why my weight has been stable for about three years. This may be why I'm this big at all.

But that beautiful girl in those pictures believed from her soul that she was the fattest, most unattractive girl in any room, and that no one could ever find her attractive.

I really wish she had known how lovely she was.

I don't wish to imply, by the way, that I'm pig-ugly now, that fat people are automatically unattractive, or that beauty is a woman's only value, because none of those things are true. It's just that at the time, I had placed so much of my own value in my looks, and so much conviction in my unattractiveness that it undermined everything else.

I recently saw someone make the suggestion that feminist fat acceptance shouldn't really be about believing that we're beautiful, regardless of size, but about re-addressing the notion that a woman's value is based on her looks. I agree with this to a significant extent - after all, if I hadn't believed my looks were so all-important, not seeing my own beauty wouldn't have mattered as much.

But at the same time, we still live in this world, and as much as I want to move beyond the beauty=value equation, I still can't deny that my belief in my own unattractiveness (based largely on the belief that I was too fat to be pretty) was the main reason I felt bad about myself for twenty years. Still is, most days.

There are other factors, of course, early rejections that left me with a paralysing fear of opening myself to more rejection. But the dominant thought was always "I am too fat and ugly, he will never like me." And while we should absolutely encourage the importance of all other aspects of a person of either sex, we can't ignore the fact that our looks matter to us.

Some time ago, before I met my husband, I liked a boy I thought was so gorgeous I might die from it. I was, of course, convinced absolutely that he was far out of my league. But really, the girl in those photos, the girl I still was six years back when I fell in lust? She could've had him. Actually, there were a number of hims she could've had, if she hadn't been so terrified of their judgement of her looks, too convinced of her own unattractiveness to admit the thought that, hey, this one wants me.

Depression and compulsive eating have taken their toll. I'm not that girl any more, and that's okay. That girl was gone even when I met my husband, and he's still crazy about me. I'm older, smarter, just beginning to figure this fat thing and this self esteem thing out. There are advantages.

I just wish I'd known, that's all.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

the desire not to be something it's okay to be

I hate my wedding video.

Oh, it's well put together, it's actually quite entertaining for a wedding video, and there are many lovely things about it. But I spend the whole time I'm watching it fixated on a bulge in the shoulder blade area over the top of my corset.

I spend the whole time wondering how my husband could bear to marry me.

Logically, this is stupid. Logically, both from my experience and from his own words, my husband adores me and my body. I understand this on an intellectual level.

But since I've been sure most of my life that I am hopelessly undesirable, I find it very hard to trust that love.

That is a goal of the healing process, if you like: not just to love my own body, but to accept others' love for it. More, to understand that love, so that when I watch that video, I can see what my husband sees.

I feel, though, as though I'm in two places at once. Intellectually, I accept and appreciate the notion of fat acceptance. Intellectually, I want to embrace that, and myself. I had about a week of doing exactly that, and I felt great. Unfortunately, it didn't last, and now I'm trying to get it back, while trying to fend off the shades of habits past.

Around the time of my epiphany which resulted in the week or so of feeling great, I had a conversation with a friend who has recently lost a lot of weight, but had also been reading fat acceptance blogs, and she said something that is hitting a chord with me right now. She said, "it's hard to reconcile my belief that it's okay to be fat with my desire not to be."

This is a problem for me at the moment. I want to accept myself fully, regardless of my size. And I do not want to be this fat. I do not want to waste my mental or physical energy trying to lose weight, because that inevitably leads to the exact opposite as well as misery. I want to feel happy with myself because I am me, not because I have managed to coerce my body into fitting into a social standard of beauty.

But oh, how I do not want to be this fat.

Or at least, how I do not want to feel this ashamed, and I still can't conceive of a world in which I am the size I am and am not ashamed of it. So it's not really the size at all, I suppose. It's the shame.

I don't want to be ashamed to want to be smaller, as well as ashamed that I'm this big in the first place. I don't want to be ashamed full stop. And it's that lack of shame that I had for all of a week that actually gave me a really good boost in terms of exercise, because I started doing it for its own sake instead of for the possibility that it might make me lose weight.

I know that, for me, trying to lose weight is destructive. The desire is still here, but I know that the attempt makes me insane. So there's probably not any way to just treat it like hair colour - it's okay to be a redhead, but that doesn't mean I can't want to be a brunette, just for a change. I can't treat it like that, because I really am okay with being a redhead, and I won't see being a brunette as being a huge step forward either in looks or in health. It's just different.

I really need that feeling back, that "it's totally okay to be where I am, and I never ever need to change it" feeling, because at the moment, I'm chasing my tail.

Friday, 21 March 2008


I was in a meeting recently, in which someone made the remark that nearly a third of year 6 children in the town I live in were overweight.

"It's appalling," she concluded, and went on to talk about the plan to promote healthy eating.

She's lucky that I didn't have anything sharp with me, and that I was an observer rather than an active participant in the meeting.

I sort of wish, though, that I'd pounced on her, either in the meeting or immediately afterwards, and asked her what she thought that highlighting the supposed obesity of twelve year old children would actually achieve, apart from humiliating the children and laying the groundwork for eating disorders. Hell, when I was twelve, my own shameful weight had me eating compulsively in secret and occasionally, when I had the courage, barfing it all up again.

When I was twelve, I thought I was the fattest thing in the world, and that no one would ever love me.

When I was twelve my mother told me that, at eight and a half stone (119lbs) and 5'4", I was overweight and should make sure I never got any heavier. Ironically, of course, this is at the lower end of the BMI "normal" range. Worse, when you look at photos of me with my peers throughout my teens, I look perfectly normal at every point. And yet from the age of ten or eleven, I believed that I was a huge fat thing, completely unlovable and undesirable (and since I'd also absorbed the cultural decision that women's value is largely based on our physically desirability, this was devastating).

My actual averageness isn't really the point, though. The point is that telling a child that they are not okay does not automatically make them strive to be okay. Sometimes they rebel. Sometimes you create problems far bigger than a few extra, or even a hundred extra pounds. My problem isn't actually my body – it's my mind. And if this woman had come to my school when I was a self-conscious twelve year old and told me that my body – my confusing, changing, frightening, developing body – was wrong, she would only have had the same effect that my mother's words did. I would become obsessed with being thin, but utterly fail at it for more than two decades. That wouldn't make me a more healthy eater, and it wouldn't make me thinner. It would make me miserable, and it would make me fatter.

To this day, I wonder if I would actually have gained all this weight, or spent as many hours as I spent agonising over it, if my mother hadn't decided that I was too fat when I was going through adolescence.

My mother, by the way, deeply regrets this action. She, unfortunately, was always very slender herself, and she just didn't understand that her very curvy daughter was never going to be built like her, even if she lived on celery. She wasn't bad, any more than the woman in the meeting above was bad. She just didn't understand. But it's this very lack of understanding that created the fat person I am today. If I'd just been able to go through adolescence without that pressure, would I even be fat now? If the woman with the food plan goes to a bunch of twelve year olds and says "being fat is bad, stop being as fat as you are", is she actually, in trying to make them thinner and more socially acceptable, going to create people who are fatter than they might have been if no one had ever said anything that put them in the wrong?

Oh, she might make a few of them skinnier – she might make some of them so skinny they'll die from it. But I'm pretty damn sure that she'll make a few of them fatter as well.

I do believe that I'm fatter than my body is really happy with. I completely believe there are people my weight and heavier who are the weight their body is happy with, but I am also sure I'm not one of them. In a perfect world, where I only think of food when I'm actually hungry, and eat in the way that makes my body happy, I suspect I'd be around a UK size 16. So…still fat, from one point of view, but not this fat.

Sometimes principles are difficult. I strongly believe in what I understand to be the principles of fat acceptance. I believe that I have value regardless of my size and should be treated as such. I believe, and know from painful experience, that dieting doesn't work. I know that I don't need to lose weight to be loved.

But all this knowledge and belief is still at odds, to some extent, with my gut. My gut keeps telling me this isn't good enough, that I'm failing at both fat acceptance and having the body my body wants.

This, I have to recognise, means I've got a way to go before I get where I want to be.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


Ask me what part of my body I can appreciate without hesitation, without ifs, ands or buts, and the first thing that springs to mind is my hands.

So about my hands. They're nice, my hands. They're strong, and extremely capable. About medium size, quite slender, with deep nail beds. They have a few freckles, like most of me. The middle fingers have a slight outwards curve. They don't dry out, they're almost always warm, and they're sensitive and soothing.

The thing I like most about my hands, though, is what they can do. They're absolutely fabulous in that regard. They'll type eighty five words a minute. They make wire jewellery. They knit perfectly evenly. They massage superbly. They're great with clay, which I recently rediscovered after sixteen years.

I had a conversation with someone awhile ago about how I got into making jewellery.

"Oh," I said, "I just thought I would like to try it, and I did."

"Is that always how you do things?" she asked, with more than a little sarcasm. "Just assume you can do them?"

I didn't like to say so, but actually, that's exactly how I do them, and that's largely because these hands of mine are trustworthy. About the only thing they can't do is draw, and I think that's more the eyes than the hands. If I really wanted to, I trust that they could do it.

If I touch the fingertips of both my hands together, I can feel my pulse in my fingertips. I can even see my forefingers pulsing just slightly.

My hands are awesome. Yay hands.

i think you know what i mean

This morning I woke up with a pain in my chest. After four hours of constant pain, I gave in, and spoke to my boss, who took me to the emergency room. They checked me out, described all my heart readings as "perfect", and concluded that I have pericarditis as a result of a virus I had a week ago.

On the way back, my boss, a man I generally get on very well with, said, "sometimes it can be a wake up call. I think you know what I mean."

I did. I didn't pursue it, though, and neither did he, and that's a good thing, because the last thing I want to do is explain to him the kind of relationship I have with food and with my body.

But I keep thinking about the remark. I think you know what I mean.

Yes, boss, I do know what you mean. You mean I'm a fatass, and that you think you know how that happened, you think you understand its value, and you think you know how I could change it. But this is why the good/bad fatty argument has to die: because you don't know. You don't know how much exercise I get. You don't know what I eat. You don't know what I don't eat. You don't know what vitamins I take or how much meditation I do, what my blood pressure is, what my cholesterol level is, what my family history is.

You know two things, boss: that I'm fat, and that I had a pain in my chest which the doctor has examined and found to be something unrelated to my fat.

I believe that he meant well. He lost a bunch of weight himself a couple of years back, before I started working for him, and maybe he had gained it through eating and drinking too much. Maybe I have too. But he doesn't know that. He knows nothing about my health except that I'm fat, which he assumes to be bad, and that I've currently got an infection in the outer part of my heart due to a nasty virus.

The truth is, most of the anti-fat feeling I experience comes from myself. I've never had a doctor try to tell me to lose weight – the only time we've had a bollocks up in that department was when I asked for some help (assuming that losing weight=being healthy), and she referred me to the practice nurse, who, despite being told that I had massive eating problems, gave me a long list of dos and don'ts, which promptly sent me insane. No one ever teased me about it as a kid (though this was probably because I wasn't actually fat at the time, even though I thought I was). I've had things shouted at me in the street, but that's a side effect of being female as well as being fat. I don't get hassled about this too often, except by myself.

But here's my boss, who knows almost nothing about my health, concluding that he has the answer to what ails me – even though what ails me has been determined to be something else entirely, over which my fat or lack thereof has no control – and suggesting, albeit in a fairly low key way, that I should get on fixing that. Because, in his eyes, there's something wrong with me, and therefore anything that is actually wrong with me must be connected to the primary thing that's wrong with me.

Even when it isn't.

Monday, 17 March 2008

so bad

Sophie and I stroll down to the canteen, mostly to take a few minutes away from our desks. I'm not hungry, so I'm not really bothered, but I think some water and a hot chocolate would be nice.

Sophie, however, starts eyeing up the pastries.

"It's still warm!" she bemoans. "But I've been so bad this weekend…"

I shrug, because I can't encourage her to have the pastry without making her mad at me, and I won't encourage her not to have it, because I don't see why she shouldn't, if she's hungry. To be sure, I've no idea if she's hungry or not. But I'm going off my own reactions, and I'm not hungry and have no desire for pastry. Oh, I could eat it – hunger and eating are not necessarily part of the same event for me – but at the moment, I don't really care for it. I want my hot chocolate, and that'll do me.

But Sophie is in a lather of guilt, simply because she wants the pastry, and presumably because she ate on the weekend.

"I can't be bad," she concludes, and buys some sparkling water.

This is becoming difficult. Sophie and rarely have a conversation in which she doesn't berate herself or moralise about the relative goodness or badness of food. I've never seen her eat anything that I'd even call unhealthy, let alone "bad". She's not skinny, being about a UK size 18, but she looks great, and she gets a ridiculous amount of exercise.

I just resent the moralisation of food. It's just food. Unless Sophie ripped that pastry out of the hands of a starving child, it doesn't have a moral value. It may be higher in fat and sugar than, say, an apple, but that doesn't make it bad. It's flour and water and butter and sugar and some fruit and almonds. Wherein lies the morality? Obviously, I am aware that there are morally problematic sources of food. That isn't the point here. Sophie isn't denying herself a pastry because the flour was ground by three year old slaves, she's denying herself a pastry because she feels that eating it is in and of itself a "bad" act.

Furthermore, you have to wonder, why is it always food we crave that is considered "bad"? Is it just that desire for something delicious or luxurious is morally problematic? Oh, I know there's this assumption that certain foods will make you fatter, and that, again, is assumed to be "bad". But again, is being fat supposed to be bad because it looks like you've been enjoying yourself too much?

Hell if I know. As I've mentioned previously, I'm not fat because I've enjoyed myself. I'm curvy genetically, and I'm as fat as I am because of a disorder which is so full of self-loathing that the notion of enjoying food has, at times, seemed as ridiculous as turning the act of eating itself into an ethical minefield. So it seems to me that enjoyment in food is something to be achieved, not rejected.

I don't believe that food is good or bad. Some food may have more nutritional value, but that's not the whole story. Health doesn't just apply to a body, and a person whose mind is entirely preoccupied on the morality of food, or their own worthiness as a human being because of the fuel they've consumed on a particular day is not a healthy person. I know this, because I'm not one.

Learning to be is going to mean unlearning everything I've ever thought about food or health.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

self control

One of the things that seems to be a tricky area in fat acceptance is that, although studies seem to show that, generally speaking, fat people do not eat more than thin people, some of us have very problematic eating behaviours which make us fatter than, perhaps, we would be if we were eating in a properly intuitive way.

By "some of us", I do mean me. I eat too much, on a regular basis, because I have compulsive eating disorder. The funny thing is that if I had the reverse of this disorder, people would pity me. If I compulsively refused to eat, they would hospitalise me and feel bad for me. As it is, they think I just have no self control and should be berated for that. They're partly right - very often, when it comes to food, I have no self control. But they're entirely wrong about what this means, and how I feel about it.

I always get the feeling when people talk about "lack of self control" that they're angry with with those of us who don't appear to have it. They certainly seem angry - if they weren't, why would they need to make such a big deal out of it? Why would the questioning of my eating behaviour be so rude and dismissive? Why would they need to make me feel ashamed, of a mental illness that, as yet, I've found no way to overcome?

I can only assume that this is because I "get" to eat like a person with no self control, that somehow this is an experientially superior position (as opposed to the supposedly morally superior position that is controlling your appetite. So because I get the supposed benefit of being able to eat without restriction (which is supposed to be all pleasurable), I have to get the supposed punishment of being fat, with all the social scorn that entails.

The bad news is, it doesn't work like that. Eating is rarely a pleasure to me. It is something I often do with compulsion, almost always with loathing of myself for being so weak and pathetic, always with guilt. I don't pay much attention to what I eat, though there's a definite bias towards things that come under the social heading of "forbidden". You can't have a carrot binge, it wouldn't soothe whatever urge it is that makes me want to eat until I puke. I hate myself when I eat too much, and yet I can't seem to stop it. I find it unbearably hard to just sit down and eat with no distractions. I hate myself for succumbing to the seduction of chocolate because I'm bored or unhappy, usually both, and I punish myself for it, both by ignoring the chocolate even as it's in my mouth, and by calling myself names for hours afterwards. So where's the benefit in my eating anything, when I never enjoy it and always feel guilty about it?

I have a plan this year, and it's pretty simple: learn to love myself. I think that will involve learning to properly appreciate food, as well as appreciating what my body is right now, regardless of any weight gain or loss which the future might hold.

You wouldn't believe how hard this is.

mirrors in the house

I work with words, so the hardest thing, before I can even begin to work with these words, was a title. In the end, I found a poem by Esther Kamkar, part of "Three Poems on Being:

On Being Real

My mind-eye’s image of my body
Is not real, but my body is real.

Like the mirrors in the house
The love between us is real.

But the truth is, the love between my mind and my body is not real - not yet. That's the point of this blog. I am learning to love my body.

It's only recently I accepted even the notion of fact acceptance, thanks to a friend or two, and Shapely Prose. And then I had an enormous epiphany, and a week or two of walking on air, because suddenly I knew for the first time in my life that it was okay to be fat. It was really okay. It didn't make me less than anyone else, or more unattractive. It didn't change who I fundamentally was, and who I was wouldn't change even if I lost half my current body weight. My body didn't say bad things about me, even if others read it that way. It hadn't betrayed me.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn't last, and the struggle between the desire to lose weight and some part of me the absolutely refuses to bow to that desire has taken hold again, with even more force than before, with added strength to the resistant part because now it has a logical reason to battle.

So here I am, a raging battle between wanting to be thin and wanting to love myself fat.