I am so tired of the myriad of articles I see these days about loving your body no matter what its shape. Celebrate your spider veins! Love your muffin top! That new roll of fat -- embrace it! As far as I can tell, not one of those articles is written by a fat woman. As someone who is fat, probably even obese by the clinical definition, I am calling bullshit. I don't believe them for one skinny second because I think those other articles gloss over some important distinctions. I don't want to diminish anybody else's struggles with their body image, but I do want to put fat into context. I see four factors that affect the severity of body issues:
1) The degree to which we are perceived to have control
2) The degree to which we can hide or change our "problem area(s)"
3) The degree of correlation to our health
4) The degree of discrimination
So what does that all really mean?
Society seems to be generally more forgiving if we're born with a cleft lip, scarred from a childhood accident, or are finally old enough that not having a wrinkle would be weird. In those cases society gives us its pity rather than its contempt. On the flip side, society believes that we can control our weight. We are told over and over again that being fat is a choice, yet we feel powerless. Since fat is not considered beyond our control like a birthmark, we are judged very harshly for it.
Second, plenty of body issues can be camouflaged, hidden, or disguised. No one needs to see your cottage cheese or spider veins unless you let them, and you can hide most superficial facial imperfections with expertly applied makeup. While you can disguise some fat (thank you Spanx!), once you become fat, there's no more hiding it. Your least-liked attribute is on display all the time, a parade of shame that you can't seem to stop. Certainly, cosmetic surgery is an (extreme?) option for many body issues, but there's no easy fix for fat. While a nose job is a rather permanent solution to a nose you don't like, there is no guaranteed way to surgically remove all your fat and keep it off.
Third, the implications of most body issues are subjective. You might be embarrassed about a physical characteristic such as your height or a mole, but chances are it's entirely superficial and people who get to know you probably don't even notice it any more. But being fat is unhealthy. That means it's open season on criticism and we're subjected to unsolicited advice about losing weight from everyone. We can't escape it in the media, whether it's the magazines in the checkout line, infomercials on TV, or that damn web ad about weird old tricks for losing weight. Worst of all, the people we love the most, the friends and family who care about our health, are judging our "unhealthy lifestyle" and every single morsel of food we place in our mouths. (Don't pretend like it's not true... we fat people know what you're thinking!)
And lastly, we come to the subject of discrimination. We are treated differently based on our looks from the time we're little. All else held equal, classically good-looking people win popularity contests, the raise, and the most attractive mates the rest of us drool over. Mediocre lookers with money can buy expensive clothes, jewelry, and cosmetic enhancements, but the rest of us with neither looks nor money are kind of screwed. And while we have passed laws against discrimination based on skin color and disability, it still happens. So, you can imagine how bad the discrimination is against a class of people who are not protected by any laws and whom everyone likes to poke fun at. I have heard people boo some really crass routines at a comedy club, but I have yet to hear people yell at a comedian for going too far on a fat joke.
So, is it any wonder I am embarrassed and ashamed at how I look? I don't want my kids or even my husband to see me in a bathing suit. I can't even look at myself naked. I don't find the way my breasts sink heavily to the ground attractive. I don't think that my flabby, slack stomach is womanly. I hate how my thighs rub together. The list goes on.
I weigh the most I have ever weighed. Two pregnancies and fertility drugs have done a number on me. I wasn't skinny before all of that anyway. But I certainly wasn't bordering (illegally crossing?) on obese. This body of mine is not in the shape it's supposed to be in, Pollyannas be damned. And the only thing that can help (on my budget at least) is changing my diet and physical exercise. With a toddler and 6-month-old twins, I am struggling to find the time. And eating? I would probably starve if I didn't order in. (Hmm... maybe then I would at least lose weight?) But if I don't eat, my milk will dry up. I suppose one day in the not-too-distant future, I will stop nursing, but I'm not so sure the cycle of self-recrimination and justification will stop with it. Will I be able to dig myself out of this fat hole I'm in? I'd like to think that one day I'll have time to start running again, peruse my cookbooks, write a proper grocery list, and cook great, healthy meals on a regular basis. But that time clearly is not now.
All that being said, I react with self-righteous indignation whenever I hear skinny women (or even average-size women) champion their curves and promote self-love. These women are not truly fat, so they can't understand what it's like. Let them have my body for a day, even just an hour, and then let's see if they will be as proud of their bodies as much or write to the masses about how beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
The cold hard truth is that, in this society, no woman likes to be fat. Practically every woman I know personally, regardless of height, weight, age, or ethnicity, finds fault with her body and complains about her pockets of fat. We live in a nation where a third of us are considered obese and the rest of us are struggling not to join them. Of course, intellectually we can all appreciate the message to celebrate the unique body that God gave us, the hard-earned lines in our face, and the marks that symbolize the challenges we've survived. But until you've had a belly that looks like an elephant seal's snout or walked inside someone else's skin, let's leave these silly proclamations about self-love alone and just provide the empathy and support that women who struggle with their body image actually need.