The Paradox of Body Acceptance

Image of street art reading "Love your fat body"
Photo credit: Green Kozi, via Flickr

Fat acceptance isn’t always about loving your body. It’s not always about standing up and proclaiming that fat is flabulous. Sometimes fat acceptance is just about accepting your body as it is at this moment.

My road to fat acceptance has been a long and winding one. Unlike some of the larger voices in the movement, I’m not a lifelong fattie. I’ve fluctuated up and down in body size since childhood, although I’ve been holding steady at my current size for the last decade or so. My first introduction was back in 1996, when my mother gave me a book called Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body, by Cheri Erdman. This was long before the fatosphere — even before the blogosphere — and it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that fat people shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. I’d already gone through two large fluctuations in weight at that point: once in the sixth grade, and once again in college. In the sixth grade, my mother took me aside one day and told me that obesity ran in our family, and that I “had to be careful.” I joined the YMCA and began to run every day. I still remember one of the neighborhood kids looking at me incredulously and saying, “You can’t run!” I went ahead and ran anyway. Puberty caught up with me and I grew out of my ugly ducking phase.

Over the next few years, I continued a regular exercise routine. Like most teenaged girls, I was ashamed of my wobbly bits, but looking back now I can see that I was — like most dewy-skinned teenagers — quite attractive. Plenty of boys seemed to think so. At the end of my senior year, I came down with a chronic illness that runs in my family. I spent the last six weeks of high school in the hospital, missed my prom, and almost missed my own graduation. The drugs used to treat my illness made me foggy-headed and sluggish. They also gave me intense cravings. Over the course of two months, I gained about thirty pounds. HMO coverage being what it was in the early 1990s, the follow-up care I received was negligible. I spent my first semester of college seriously overmedicated, nodding off in classes and uncomfortable in my own skin.

A photograph of the author at age 19
Skinny and depressed at 19

That January, I discontinued the medication and joined Weight Watchers. Every Wednesday evening, I’d drive from campus to the local strip-mall, line up to get weighed, pay my $10, and sit in a meeting where a skinny lady taught us fatties how to take better care of ourselves. It wasn’t a diet, it was a lifestyle change! Nine months later, I was 60 pounds lighter. People on campus were nicer to me. My love life resurrected itself. And I was terribly, terribly depressed. Depression following a major weight loss is actually a fairly common occurrence — and many women would, apparently, rather be depressed than overweight. Three years later, I’d gained all the weight back and then some.

When I picked up Erdman’s book in 1996, I was at one of the low points in my life. My post-college ambition to move to New York had failed, as had my first live-in relationship (she left me for a man 20 years our senior). I was 23 years old, living in a shitty little town in central Connecticut, with no friends and no job. Reading Erdman’s book was a real revelation to me. It energized me and gave me permission to stop postponing positive changes in my life until after I lost the weight. After I found a job, I overcame my body shame enough to join a gym and become more physically active. I began to look in the mirror and say, “It’s the only body I’ll have, so I might as well learn to love it.”

And here, for the first time, I experienced the paradox of body acceptance. While I was busy loving and enjoying my body, I lost about sixty pounds without any conscious effort or intention.

When I met Quick in 1998, I’d become slender enough to shop in “normal” clothing stores. My collarbone, ribs, and hipbones had become visible again. My butt would hurt when I sat on a hard surface. I came by all these changes organically, and I had mixed feelings about them. I was uncomfortable with the extra attention and praise that people gave me, because inherent in it was a condemnation of what my body had been before. As Margaret Atwood wrote in one of her novels (I think it was Cat’s Eye), it was as though I always carried around two bodies — a fat one and a skinny one.

When I moved to Boston, I found a job at a company with headquarters in Sweden. Surrounded by Nordic beauties — we all worked out at the same gym — I couldn’t help but feel inferior. Looking back, I can also see how Quick’s crazy fat-phobic attitudes eroded at my sense of self. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, my weight began to creep back up again. I also began to look at my eating behaviors. I joined a 12-step fellowship for people with eating problems. While this fellowship does seem to help a lot of being, my body shame and crazy ideas about how I “should” be eating exploded during my membership. There’s no official position in the organization on what kinds of food people should eat, but Boston area meetings have a long history of insisting that people cut out all forms of sugar and flour.

People would proudly declare how many years it had been since they’d last eaten bread or pasta. They’d say that they no longer had the capacity to know when they were full or when they were hungry. Many people weighed and measured everything they ate – even at restaurants. I tried and failed to follow every variation of food plan these women used, all the while becoming more and more obsessed with food and ashamed of my body.

A photograph of the author at a larger size
Fat and happy on the beach at 39

For the next several years I suffered through a living hell of judgment, denial, secret eating, and shame. Looking back at it, I see how needless all of that suffering was. The irony of all ironies is that the more I tried to deny my own hunger, the more my weight crept up. Then in 2009 I began working with a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders. The first thing she did was tell me to eat more food — not more chocolate in secret, but more healthy, nutritious food more often than three times at day. She encouraged me to enjoy my food, a concept that had become utterly foreign to me by then. It took a good year, but I slowly began to experience some relief from the constant obsession, hunger, and shame that dogged my thoughts. And the longer I nurtured my body with good food on a regular basis, the more my weight gain slowed. For the first time in years, I began to maintain a consistent weight.

Reading fat acceptance literature has been an important part of my ongoing process of loving and accepting my body as it is. I recommend Marilyn Wann’s book Fat!So?, Lesley Kenzel’s Two Whole Cakes, Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size, and Hanne Blank’s ample oeuvre – especially Big, Big Love and The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Hearing the voices of other people with a similar experience has always been helpful for me. Hearing voices that challenge the mainstream belief that fat=death is revolutionary.

Contrary to all the dire predictions surrounding America’s so-called obesity epidemic, I have never developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or any of the other illnesses people like to blame on being fat. My chronic illness is not related to my body size, although some of the drugs I take to control it probably contribute to my being overweight. I’m not the healthiest person on the planet, but I’m also not the sickest. This body has walked ten miles in a single day, climbed mountains, and bench-pressed close to 200 pounds. It’s held babies in its arms, made delicious meals for my friends, given me a rather breathtaking variety of sexual pleasure, written volumes, created art, planted gardens, worshiped the goddess, and housed my spirit for 40 years. I try to treat it with the same dignity and respect that I would any close friend.

The subject of fat is a highly divisive issue. It’s difficult to talk about it in the public sphere; to do so opens one up to an avalanche of hate speech. Lesley Kinzel’s co-moderator at Fatshionista found the constant online battling so draining that she quit the fatosphere. As with all controversy, the loudest voices seem to be the most extreme. It’s probably for this reason that people still find my website because of a letter I wrote to a catalog company about their plus-size offerings back in 2012. It’s definitely the reason I had to close comments on that post. But my body is not an issue for public debate. It is not a battleground. It’s just my body – special, delicate, sexy, frumpy, sweaty, meaty, and mutable. It’s the only body I’m going to get in this lifetime, so I might as well enjoy it while it’s here.

[NOTE: This post was featured on Gender Focus on September 15, 2014. Shout out to Jarrah Hodge, its creator and moderator, for all her work in the feminist blogosphere.]

4 Replies to “The Paradox of Body Acceptance”

  1. Often seems to me (though I haven’t done any extensive study, and I’d be curious if you have thoughts on this) that how I experience my body size today as a fat adult woman–but one who, similar to you, was thin as a teenager–differs somewhat from what I hear from friends & activists who perceive themselves as “lifelong fatties,” to borrow your words. I don’t mean to suggest better/worse or easier/harder–but it often seems to me that many of our adolescent self-perceptions imprint and endure in a unique way, body size among them. A small part of my mind persists in often getting caught off-guard by the breadth and depth of my current flesh.

    And, of course, this may also just be me and my own current way of living in the meaty and the mutable!

    Thank you for your piece.

  2. Alice, I’d agree that individual experience influences how we perceive our bodies, and how we perceive or judge bodies in general. I do find, however, that body size doesn’t necessarily correlate to body acceptance. I often felt worse about my body at a smaller size than I tend to feel today. To borrow your words, it’s a meaty issue that remains mutable.

  3. Body size, body acceptance, and–I’d add–body perception (body self-perception?? I’m sure there’s a better word I’m just not thinking of): quite right, these things do not correlate with one another in any stable or predictable way.

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