Body, positive

I’ll never forget the moment I realized I was fat. It was a few years ago, about three months after the birth of my first child.

Image via Stocksy

I considered myself chubby but not in a dramatic way. I routinely took long walks around the neighborhood with my daughter strapped to my chest.

That year my family got the Wii Fit gaming program. We all took turns designing our virtual avatar and filling in details about ourselves. Then I stepped onto the white electronic platform, which looked a bit like a wider-than-normal scale, and waited for the program to calculate our stats. I watched as the Wii registered my height and weight and then placed me into the “obese” category on the screen. Mortified, I watched as the little figure I had designed—short brown hair and hazel eyes—ballooned out in size, the program adding extra pounds to my online persona. It was a wake-up call. It was also the day that the shame of how I appeared to the world first bloomed within me, and it has stayed with me ever since.

I was raised in a Christian church. The body as a physical entity was not discussed much, and when it was, the conversation was mostly negative and revolved around issues related to abstaining from sexual activity and illegal substances. I was also a part of the wider American culture, and like every other girl, realized that to be accepted I must occasionally bemoan how unattractive I was.

For the most part, I didn’t absorb too much of the traumas of being teenage and female, mostly because from an early age I could tell I wouldn’t be coasting by on my looks. I found my identity instead through music and reading and being smart and good. I was neither obsessed with nor overly critical of myself, but instead viewed my body as a means to do what I wanted to do: I could skateboard or play the guitar or swing in a hammock while I read my favorite book.

Unbeknownst to me, as a young girl I intrinsically embodied many elements of the body positivity movement. I accepted my own body for what it was. I ate when I was hungry and drank when I was thirsty. I ate a wide variety of foods and enjoyed it all. I knew, although I could not put it into words, that the world was made up of so many variations of normal, and that one size was not to be belittled amongst others.

But even with my somewhat counter-cultural approach to size and body issues, I could not remain immune forever. The conservative estimates of the amount of advertising one experiences in a day amount to 3,000 attempts to convince us that we need certain products to be and feel better. I’ve been inundated with images of slender, smiling, mostly white women for several decades now. And the further I get from ever looking like them, the less I’ve liked myself.

I’ve never really been on a diet. At least, this is what I tell myself. I’ve always eaten basically whatever I wanted, and I had a body type that went along with this kind of lifestyle—i.e., I was not, and had never been, a thin person. When I was younger, my mother tried very hard to break the cycles of disordered eating that she herself struggled with, and she made a point to never discuss weight or food choices with her three daughters. We did eat extremely healthy foods—wild rice and salmon and steamed broccoli—but by the time I was 12 I was consistently eating Taco Bell and instant ramen as often as possible.

But I’m 30 now, and after two kids and the normal stressors of life my body has varied wildly on the scale. For both of my pregnancies I gained 60 pounds, and those pounds took months and years to leave (and some still remain). It wasn’t until I had my second baby and the weight wasn’t coming off quickly through exercise and moderate eating that I decided to do something drastic. I decided to go on a diet.

It worked, of course, because I severely restricted my food intake—only fruit, vegetables, and lean protein—and I enjoyed the feeling of the weight slipping away. But after about two weeks, as I started to eat more of my normal diet, I noticed that I now felt a sense of shame if I ate a piece of bread or a sugary dessert.

I had become used to weighing myself on a scale and now it was the main way I gauged if I was having a “good” or “bad” day. I fixated on food and thought about it constantly, yet also felt horror at the thought of cooking—lest I be tempted to make tasty things that made me gain more weight.

Luckily for me, that’s right around the time when I discovered Tess Holliday.

Tess Holliday smiling

Image via Getty

Tess Holliday made headlines last January when she became the first size-22 model to be signed to a modeling agency. Her Instagram feed is full of breathtaking images of Holliday in all of her unapologetic glory. I would stare at her pictures—her gorgeous face, her arms covered in tattoos—and I would experience a disconnect. She was confident, she was happy, and she was, in her own words, fat. How could this be?

Body-positivity cheerleaders, along with the Fat Acceptance movement, do not want to stop at normalizing “beauty at every size.” They are also passionate about highlighting the bias against overweight people both in our culture and the media, and the devastating consequences this can have.

Harriet Brown, in her book Body of Truth: How Science, History and Culture Drive our Obsession With Weight, dives into the research which has fueled most of the anti-obesity craze in recent decades. She acknowledges that between 1980 and 2000 Americans as a whole became fatter (although we also gained an inch in height).

But what is not so widely publicized is how, since 2000, that weight gain has stabilized, even though the dire predictions have not. Brown painstakingly goes through the research and finds almost no causation between being overweight and dying at a younger age (indeed factors like poverty—and the accompanying stressors—tend to have more correlations with early death).

These findings have been published before, but there has been little to no attention given to them, since we as a culture are so used to thinking otherwise. In truth, weight is not a great way to assess overall health, but we continue to believe and act like it is. We’re so used to shaming the overweight that it’s become second nature. Think of the local news segments on our “obesity epidemic”—usually showing stock footage of morbidly obese individuals lumbering about, faces and heads cut off. Imagine having your BMI (Body Mass Index) checked and being told you were overweight or obese therefore at risk for consequences (even though the BMI was never meant as a measure of good health). Think about the way desserts are marketed as “sinfully delicious” and “decadent”—training us to feel guilty for indulging at every turn.

But perhaps our unease with appearances and overweight bodies comes from a much deeper place. Tara Owens, author of Embracing The Body, writes that “no condemnation of our bodies is more harrowing than the silence that entombs our discussion of the body as beautiful and good.” We are much more comfortable demeaning, picking apart, and trying to control our bodies as messy, impulse driven entities to be conquered.

Mask Fukol, in an article on Christian morality and the female body image, writes that “fat is so often associated with immorality; a thin body is a disciplined body, and by implication, a disciplined mind.” A quick glance at Instagram or Pinterest shows countless “thinspiration” messages—telling women that they too can control what they eat and exercise enough and ultimately become thin and happy and in control of their own lives.

I, too, get caught up in these messages, even if it’s just for a moment, and imagine myself with smaller arms and a flat stomach, laughing quietly to myself as I eat a green salad. But that moment passes, and I realize I cannot imagine (nor do I want) a life for myself that involves monitoring and restricting and shaming and policing every morsel that goes into my mouth. I want to enjoy the good things that the good Lord made, and I want to glow with good health and self-esteem. These desires, it turns out, are not contradictory. But sometimes our culture sure makes it seem like they are.

As an experiment, I calculated my current BMI using an app on the Internet. I received a big red mark and a diagnosis of being overweight. I wasn’t surprised, but the sting of it was still there. Curious, I typed in lower and lower weight amounts to see what I would have to be at to be registered as “normal” and therefore “healthy.” It was a number at which I can never be cognizant of actually having attained, except for when I traveled around Asia and developed a hearty case of parasites. (As a side note, when I was sick with parasites, I did indeed lose a lot of weight and felt miserable due to the various side effects—but it was not lost on me that during that period of my life people constantly commented on how good I looked.)

Ragan Sutterfield, author of This is My Body, appreciates how the fat acceptance and body-positivity movements work to guide our understanding of our physical selves beyond the categories of “good” or “bad” bodies. He also doesn’t buy into the centuries-old assumptions in regards to excess weight and gluttony. He writes: “I know many people who eat quite moderately and are overweight and many people who are thin and can be quite gluttonous. The difference in body fat percentage likely has more to do with the intersection of food choices, genetics, and hormone responses to certain foods than a tendency toward sin.”

In recent months, I’ve started to surround myself with messages from some of the leaders of the body-positivity movement. There’s Jes Baker, author of the forthcoming Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, who has held campaigns to petition advertisers and companies to include all variations of normal body sizes. There’s Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga instructor who challenges our ideas about fitness with her mind-bending poses. There’s January Harshe, founder of Birth Without Fear who started the #takebackpostpartum campaign, urging women to post pictures of themselves just as they were after pregnancy and birth—stretch marks, extra weight, and all. I started to combat the other thousands of images I see in a day with ones that highlighted my intrinsic worth and my right to be comfortable in my own skin, just as it is. And I can feel it starting to change me.

The Fat Acceptance movement is an important one to pay attention to. Health, happiness, and longevity should be our ultimate end goal, and for many this can and will be accomplished without ever becoming acceptably thin in our culture. As Brown writes in her book, the more a woman diets (and the earlier at which she starts) correlates directly to her gaining more weight in the long run. Our obsession with thinness translates into more people becoming unhappy with their bodies—their bodies becoming more unhealthy as a result. The physical and psychological effects of both shame and deprivation are incredibly damaging and have long-term consequences.

In the end, health does not look the same for every individual, and for the sake of our bodies and minds this must be recognized in the wider world. Instead of focusing on excess pounds, for instance, we might want to move our energies towards combating inequality and poverty in America—a much bigger signifier of early death. We can make empowered choices to eat food that makes us feel good—that we enjoy and which makes our bodies flourish. We can pursue the mental and physical benefits of exercise and movement, in whichever form we prefer.

But truly, the most radical thing we can do in a culture of fear and judgment—one which at every turn strives to remind me and so many others that we’re fat, that our bodies are commodities, that we need to buy or do or be something different in order to have worth—is to start loving ourselves, exactly as we are.

DL Mayfield
DL Mayfield
D.L. Mayfield writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Her work has appeared in McSweeneys, Geez, Christianity Today, and Conspire! among others. Her book of essays, "Assimilate or Go Home; Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith," is now available.

Leave a comment: