Get Stuffed: holidays and the politics of body image
Thanksgiving is tomorrow, with its brined turkey and fluffy stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce in a can. My mum’s a brilliant cook and a foodie, so the boy and I got treated to Thanksgiving early, and then yesterday I had second Thanksgiving with a couple of friends. And then, Thanksgiving proper, tomorrow, where I’m looking forward to discovering how pomegranate lamb tastes, personally.
Oh, it’s not just about the delights of a huge spread of food, mind. It’s also about family, of course, with the joys and/or absolute horror that comes from any family gathering. There’s often a lot of pressure involved with family gatherings (my British readers may have similar feelings about the 3-day Christmas)- for some families, it’s the only time they all get together, so it’s the perfect opportunity to get all the passive aggressiveness in for the year!
It’s the time of year where I think a lot about our relationship to self-esteem, bodies, and food. Looking at my facebook wall for the last two days I have at least ten female friends actively upset right now about how they look. These are not women who read Cosmo, and they’re women who identify as feminists- and yet, I see comments about how naughty it is to eat cookies or how they mourn not being able to afford surgery. I would be delighted if I never heard the phrase “guilty pleasure” or “oh, I shouldn’t” again, and I’m not alone:
Talking about guilty pleasures does nothing but a) take the fun out of said pleasure, thereby inherently rendering it no longer pleasurable, and b) attach a crazy amount of emotion to food, where we should be working, somewhat, towards a world where food is food, not a measurable way to determine whether we are inherently good people.
I know that if I were to say something fat-shaming, these women would rally around me and tell me how gorgeous I am, how I shouldn’t cave into body fascism- but why do they all hold themselves to a different standard? Even more frustrating is how even among them, there are cries of “oh, you’re not fat!” or “have you lost weight?” I do not find the question of whether I have lost weight or not to be flattering in any way. If you want to compliment me, say I look good, not that I look thinner.
Here’s the thing- when I look at my friends twitter feed or facebook walls and they’re being down on their bodies, it makes me feel anxious and body-conscious too. Sure, I know it’s a personal relationship between them and their bodies, but it also has a reinforcing impact outside of them- it reminds me (and others) that there is a body standard and that I, too, don’t fit it. I wonder if I ought to be more upset about it. I start to worry. I start to look in the mirror and pinch my fat too. It’s contagious. And that makes me sad, to realize that the media has done such a good job of making sure we police each other.
The main, most consistent reason I get down on my body is not because I’m fat. It’s because of how hard it is to dress myself. Seriously, it’s the only thing that depresses me, and it’s part of why I’m happier in the UK- I can dress myself for the same cost as slender women, and mostly in the same sexy styles. I don’t have to go to special shops for fat girls. I don’t have to order cute bras to fit my breasts online. I can stay up to date with fashion, in the UK. Not so in the US. I mean, yeah, you see “plus size” models here and there, but they’re under considerable pressure to be the right kind of fat girl– ultra feminine, hourglass figured, fat only in the right places.
This isn’t just about a desire to be a consumerist, though. No, this is about wanting to be seen as worth marketing sexy clothes to. In the US, fat girls are not sexy, so why would they need sexy underwear that fits well? I just reviewed two pieces of lingerie that were plus sized, and they fit pretty poorly, not supporting my breasts at all- but who cares, right, cause why make lingerie that fits well for fat girls when no one’s looking? I mean, the dress you see here (and a few of my dresses) are from the seventies- a time period that actually fits my curves well.
But people ARE looking. Sure, patriarchal media (which fucks guys over too, never mind trans people, btw, and has a record making willowy women feel shitty) wants to persuade you that you’ll be forever alone if you aren’t the current fad- trim, pale-skinned, straighthaired and smooth (and please notice how racist/classist those standards are)- but that is fucking bullshit.
I found this article over at Sociological Images to be fascinating and really worthwhile:
In Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery, Kathy Davis upended the common sense view that people undergo plastic surgery because they want to be beautiful or handsome. Instead, she found that most people sought cosmetic correction because they felt ugly or strange. They didn’t want to be great-looking, or even good-looking, they wanted to be normal, unremarkable, to blend in with the crowd.
Check out this awesome post on BMI, which includes a project where people took photos of themselves and listed where their BMI places them. For the record, I have a BMI of 38- I am severely obese, almost morbidly so. Can’t you tell?
Not that this is always true. I know multiple women who have breast implants, for example, and I find it equally problematic to assume that they decided to get breast implants because they hated their bodies. I approve of tattoos, piercings, and corseting, so other body mods are ok by me, as long as your reason for it is to accent a body you love rather than fix a body you hate.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as it relates to feederism, actually. It’s a fetish I didn’t know or think much about until fairly recently- I’ve always joked that the boy was a feeder cause he loves to watch me enjoy good food and he loves larger ladies. And you know, there is a world of feederism that’s not healthy, that’s about making it so people can’t move and are helpless. Yeah, that exists. There are unhealthy areas about every kink. But it says a lot to me about my own fears and discomfort with fat that the fact my boy loves my belly and enjoys me taking pleasure in food made me want to blow it off as “just a weird fetish”. How awkward are we about food that liking a round belly or watching a lover savor a good meal means they must have a kink for it? I mean, hell, I love that my boy has a bit of a pudge. I like introducing him to tasty new things. Guess I must be a feeder too, then.
Anyway! That’s another whole article. Back on track.
I’m issuing a challenge. And it’ll be tough, particularly when family likes to poke and prod and comment on your body. But I’m challenging you to listen and take note of every time someone says something that suggests that slender = healthy and positive (“you look good! have you lost weight?”) or that fat = guilty and shameful (“oh, couldn’t have pie, got to watch my figure”). You don’t have to call it out (though I will, FYI) but just listen. It should clear up how prominent these messages are, and make you think- do you really honestly want to look different to be healthier, or to feel less ugly?
Wanting to be and feel healthy is a good goal (and one possible with multiple body types). But it’s equally important to understand that there’s a difference between “yay I love eating veggies!” and “I ate a cookie and am now crying”. Linking food with shame fosters an unhealthy relationship to it that is counterproductive anyway and encourages overindulgence or dieting to the point of self-abuse- ask any binger or anorexic.
I was asked if I didn’t think that this post comes across as victim-blaming. Believe me, I understand all too well how easy it is to internalize these standards, and how hard it is to unroot them. However, fatphobia sits in the same place as transphobia, homophobia, sexism, cissexism, ableism, racism, classism- and if I hear things that don’t sit right with me there, either, I’m not going to be quiet about it. Sure, I recognize that women saying misogynist shit are living in a world where they have internalized it- but I will challenge them to think about why they feel that way. Just as I expect my friends to call me out on my privilege and my own self-abusive behaviour. You don’t have to be a bitch about it, you can point it out as a loving mirror… but without challenging these attitudes, how can we ever hope to change them?
So this holiday season, I beg you, please enjoy food and company… without the side serving of self-loathing. A happy person is a healthy (and sexy) person. As one of my twitter followers said-
“Your body is a small part of who Kitty Stryker is. Dont let anyone carve who you are into little pieces for their approval.”