Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Being Purple

DISCLAIMER: I think I over-generalise in this post, but it's because I'm trying to explain something that I'm only just understanding. The more I talk to other women, the more universal my experience seems, so I have been universalising it. I know it's more complicated than that and I invite women with different experiences to talk about it in the comments

I'm going to use a post that Ampersand wrote and take it in a completely tangential direction, because it gives me an opportunity to try and articulate something that I've been grasping at since I was writing this post. Ampersand was comparing the experience of being fat with the experience of being transexual:

Traditionally, untreated transsexuality has been described as feeling as if your body is wrong; that your true self doesn't match your body. (I say "traditionally" because it's unclear how often that's been a genuine description of some transsexuals' experience, and how often that's been what doctors have pressured transsexuals to say). That's what being fat feels like, to me. I'm supposed to be thin, aren't I? Not thin-thin, you know, just - normal-thin. But I don't feel normal. I feel constantly abnormal.

I feel like someone who, somehow, wound up in the wrong body.
I know the feeling that your body is wrong, I've felt it, I hear it every day and I've tried to talk about in small, scary, steps. But I don't think it's a result of being fat, I think it's a result of being female.

Ampersand's blog was the first political blog I read with any regularity. He has lots of great posts on fat-issues, and really helped me get to grips with the 'health' angle on obesity. He also has a great collection of links (you should go and check them out); I started reading bigfatblog occasionally, and got a view of some size acceptance groups.

But something felt wrong about their analysis. I'd keep reading it and thinking - 'yes, but...' and not being quite sure what the 'but' was supposed to be. It was Ampersand - whose analysis I agreed with more often - whose writing led me to understanding what the problem was.

I don't think the experience of being fat is worse for women; I think the experience of being fat is qualitatively different for women.

Maybe that's not even what I mean - maybe I mean: the experience of being fat is part of being a woman in the society I live in - whatever size you are.

I'm not dismissing the important work ending bigotry and discrimination. When I first tried to articulate this idea on Ampersand's blog he, rightly, pointed out a senator in Hawaii who is calling for all public school teachers to be weighed six monthly and for action to be taken against teachers who don't meet the standard (nope not a joke). But I find the analysis that accompanies this sort of action is often shallow. Yes it'd be great if we could end size-prejudice, but I don't think we'll be able to, and the reason I don't think we'll be able to because I think it plays a vital role in maintaining patriarchy (I don't like the word, but it'll have to do, because I don't have a better one). Now I have reasons and an explanation for this theory, but they'll have to wait for another post.

By and large fat activism puts a lot of energy into refuting the idea that there is much of a link between your size and food. I can see why, it's certainly annoying when Julia Roberts dons a fat suit and starts eating in every scene, but again I think this is a shallow analysis which is gender blind only because it ignores women's experiences. When my friends and I try and talk about our bodies we can't seperate this from talking about food. We grew up the daughters of women who were preparing our food (while hating their bodies), knowing that one day we should do the same for others. We tried to become women in our mother's footsteps; food is about being nutured and nuturing, and it's dangerous.

Of course fat is about more than that: it's about having your body change to a woman's body when you're a teenager, it's about accepting and rejecting society's standards for women, it's about your sexuality, it's about punishing and rewarding, it's about taking up space, it's about being invisible. But it is about being women.

I don't think there's that much connection, for me or the women I know, between our size and our experience of our bodies as 'fat'. I recently went to a wedding and complimented a woman I sort of knew on her dress, and she talked to me about how it was good for women (like us) who had something to hide, and pointed out its features to me. Now I'm no good at estimating this sort of thing, but she was considerably smaller than me, I'd only ever thought of her as tiny. I've just begun to try and talk about some of these issues with a small group of female friends (it's really hard), and they're all smaller than me, but I recognise everything they say.

Now I guess I'm more likely to suffer discrimination than these other women. I find it harder to shop for clothes, I'm more likely to have someone yell something idiotic out a car window, it probably affects my earning potential and my sexual attractiveness to most people. But I don't really care, I just want to stop hating my body.

14 comments:

  1. Nail on the head. Surfed on to your blog and like it very much:)

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  2. A really interesting post. There's a lot to think about. Thanks.

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  3. I think you are right about most women thinking they are fat. My head knows I'm not, but when I look down towards my feet I see a belly that I know "shouldn't" be there (by the standards of our advertising industry anyway).

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  4. Cool post.

    I think that any woman whose body does not fit the 'ideal 'image of beauty are much more likely to be discriminated against. I have no doubt it affects their sexual attractiveness, although it didn't occur to me that it might affect their earning potential. But I'm also thinking now that it seriously affects their job options too...in fact, I had a couple of experiences at school this week that reinforced that idea for me...

    I also think that every woman, whether she fits that 'ideal' image or not, experiences very similar (if not exactly the same) pressures on her with regard to her appearance. So, you're right - there's very little connection between size and experiences of our bodies as 'fat'.

    My 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt arrived today. It's totally awesome and I'm going to wear it all weekend. But I don't think I have quite enough guts to wear it to work on Tuesday (Ts only)...

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  5. Ultimately I think that any approach to body image should not be "Am I beautiful?" but rather "Am I healthy?". Being overweight is a bad thing, not because it makes you 'unattractive' (lets not even go into what attractive actually means) but because it reduces the likelihood that you will survive past 50. I think it is important to associate weight issues with food (but perhaps more so with activity levels), but realise that the concept of body image is more closely tied to feelings of self worth, self esteem, mental health issues et cetera. There are plenty of happy fat people who will sadly die at 45, and plenty of unhappy skinny people who will still be miserable at 75.

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  6. Xavier I'm really talking about something very different in this post, and I'd really like the thread not to drift. It doesn't help that you are just plain wrong with your association with 'fat' and 'healthy'. This is a good starting point: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/category/fat-fat-and-more-fat/page/2/.

    I'm happy to debate this issue with you on e-mail - or you could comment on one of the posts I've written which discusses this point. But if you post along this lines again I will delete your post because it's derailing a discussion I'm finding really interesting.

    The same goes for anyone who wants to reply to him - take it here: http://capitalismbad.blogspot.com/2005/11/16-reasons-green-party-food-policy.html

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  7. One thing I've been grappling with lately is the challenge of how to talk about this with female friends without reinforcing our collective anxiety about weight.

    When I was a summer camp counselor, I made sure to NEVER talk about my weight issues in front of campers, and to turn the subject whenever it came up among them. The last thing I want to do is model body issues as normal or reinforce the idea that our size should matter so much.

    On the other hand, it's something that comes up for me and that I struggle with, that I want to be able to talk about with my friends. But how to talk about "feeling fat" in a way that is empowering and not just feeding into the problem?

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  8. This really resonated with me. On days when I'm finding it particularly hard to accept my looks, I end up feeling sore and tired at the end of the day...and I just recently realized its because I spend all day being 'unobtrusive,' if that makes any sense. I end up taking sort of a timid posture, scrunching myself up and hunching my shoulders all day. Its a weird feeling of just not being really present in your own body, trying to take up less space and not be noticed, unconciously. I try not to do this, but its hard to break out of the attitudes that I've grown up with, and on my bad days I even look unhappy by my posture.

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  9. thanks for the great post. truly a lot to think about. one thing i've come to realize is that i don't really know how to create a productive conversation of positive body image outside of the same old tag line of beauty isn't about size. i feel a little more confident dismantling the lies of healthy=thin unhealthy=fat because there are studies that can be used to show that health comes in all sizes. why is it that people care more about 'facts' or 'cold data' than about persynal feelings, emotion, or even compassion?

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  10. Thanks for the comments everyone (and I really liked your post to the carnival vegankid)

    Tara and vegankid, the issue of talking about this is a really hard one for me too. On the one hand I just want everyone to shut up with verbalising their nuroses and imposing them on everyone else, but I also think talking about these things is important.

    I might try and write a follow-up piece specifically about food.

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  11. Oh and I'm wondering if anyone (besides my best friend who knows me too well) can guess what the title of this is referencing?

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  12. my guess is related to the Purple People Eater, but for no good reason at all.

    It's actually quite liberating, I'm finding, to read about other women's hang-ups in the area of body image and food, here in a safe environment. I'm realising I'm not the freak (none of us are), but societal pressures are causing us to assume forms (mental, emotional and physical) that aren't natural to us.

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  13. That makes me really happy span - I do believe that stopping women feeling alone and isolated, is the first place in building an alternative.

    The title is actually from somewhere much more predictable than that (well predictable if you read my posts). 80% of my non-obvious titles come from Joss Whedon quotes (the rest are all Billy Bragg or Dar Williams lyrics), this isn't part of the 20%

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  14. I used to be really thin... too thin, in fact. Then I developed schizophrenia and was put on antipsychotic medication.

    My weight has increased quite a bit since then, and I know it's because of the medication. But still, when I feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied with myself, all I can think is that I should stop eating this and that, and that I should start exercising to burn up the energy I'm eating, etc and so forth.

    I'm healthy, physically, and since I've been taking the meds I'm mostly healthy mentally. Except for the stress I'm copping from worrying about my weight and the associated "guilt" about what I eat.

    *sigh*

    I eat what I've always eaten... healthy, vegetarian food.

    It's a tricky one.

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