Updated: May 6
Part Two: Body Image, Fat Phobia, and Structures of Inequality
In the last post I wrote about the costs of approaching health and healing from the perspective of war and battle, winning and losing.
We also take a war-like approach to body size and weight. Fat* bodies become battlegrounds. With a few notable exceptions, it is culturally permissible to shame, oppress, deny care to, and discriminate against fat people. Despite decades of tireless advocacy, fat-acceptance remains culturally marginal. And fat stigma interacts with and compounds all of the other inequalities on which our culture is constructed (gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and health status). The consequences are deadly.
What's more, most of us have internalized the culture's fat phobia and so we police ourselves, shame ourselves, and silence ourselves. Regardless of size, most of us (especially, but not only, women) "struggle" with our bodies and food. These body battles steal our time, energy, resources, and power. They keep us small and quiet.
Body image is the term we use to describe internalized fat phobia. We are not born with a body image. We are born with a body. An image is "a physical likeness or representation of a person, animal, or thing, photographed, painted, sculptured, or otherwise made visible; a mental representation; idea; conception." An image is, by definition, a distortion of the thing it represents. Body image is something we learn, internalize, and then take on as our own. Learning body image is a process that starts at different ages for different people. But at some point in our development, we all make the transition from a person in a body to a person with a body image. We all get the message.
Because I believe in the power of stories, I'll share how it happened for me. The more we share, the more we can see this "image" for what it is: a deadly distortion.
I remember living freely and mindlessly in my body until I was about 11. When I thought about myself at all, I thought of a smart, strong, and agile girl who could be and do anything she wanted. My teachers favored me. I was told I was gifted. This was in the 1970s, the era of “Free to Be You and Me.” (If you are not familiar with that album and TV show, produced by Marlo Thomas in 1972, click the link and listen. Listen to the WHOLE album). It was a unique moment in American history when, thanks to the Women’s Liberation Movement, we played with exploding traditional gender roles. For a moment. It didn’t last, needless to say. But those were my formative years – primary school - the 1970s. I did not experience being a girl as a disadvantage.
It wasn't just the era. It was also my social status that allowed me to live freely in my body as a young child. I was privileged to be white, thin, cis-gendered, able-bodied and a member of an affluent and well-educated family. I was born lucky.
My mother set an unusual example for me and my sisters. She was a feminist, of sorts. She got married in 1960 (and had 3 kids by 1968), before the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement, so the movement did not shape her. But she graduated from Bryn Mawr, a feminist women’s college founded in 1885. She was profoundly influenced by her years there - it was where she learned she had a voice. She gave me the middle name Linn, after Dr. Linn, her professor, mentor, and hero at Bryn Mawr. Later, my mother joined the local League of Women Voters in our suburban town, and got a job when her youngest child went to kindergarten. That job turned into a career that culminated in a PhD in neuropsychology when she was 54. She was ahead of her time. She was - and still is, at age 81 - kind of a badass. I admire her immensely.
When I was 11, I transferred from a small elementary school to a middle school three times the size. I went through puberty. And we moved from our tight-knit neighborhood, filled with my childhood friends, to a bigger house in an area with one-acre zoning. I became aware, in 6th grade, that others were assessing and judging my appearance. Suddenly I hated my hair, and obsessed about the pimples on my face and the braces on my teeth. I started monitoring the flatness of my stomach. I realized that the boys liked the OTHER girls more than me. In short, I became self-conscious. Thinking back, it feels like body image took me over all at once that year, like some alien life force.
But the seeds had been planted earlier.
Though my mother was ahead of her time in many ways, she was also fiercely at war with her body. She had been, as she says, a “fat kid,” and the trauma of that was so profound that she dedicated the rest of her life to making sure she was never “fat” again. From as early as I can remember she made all manner of disparaging comments about her body. She was always on a diet. She cooked and baked for everyone else but disciplined herself relentlessly against indulgence. She had a beautiful hand-thrown ceramic cookie jar which was usually full of her creations. She would reach in, break one if half, and as she ate it she would quip “breaking them makes the calories fall out.” Today, at 81, she still watches every bite she eats. She can't keep "junk food" in the house, "because I'd eat it." She exercises several hours a day. If she eats dessert at night she barely eats the next day.
My two sisters and I absorbed this paradoxical understanding of what it meant to be a woman. On the one hand independent, smart, and very much her own woman. On the other, a slave to her food, her weight, and her body image.
There were hints at school as well. In first grade we had “heights and weights” for the first time. The class filed into the nurse’s office and sat on the floor. One by one we would go up and step on the scale and the nurse would call out the weight to the teacher, who would note it on her clipboard. There were a few kids in the class whose bodies were larger. When they got weighed, the nurse whispered the number into the teacher’s ear. Those kids’ elevated weight was a shameful but very public secret. That was my first lesson in weight-stigma and fat phobia, though I didn’t know it then. I also knew my weight was important – enough so that I wrote the number in pencil on my white tights, knowing my mother would ask me when I got home. I did not want to forget.
At age 13, I went on my first diet, along with my mom and older sister, not because anyone said I needed to, but because that’s what women did. I learned that as my body matured, I would forever have to “watch” my weight.
So I did. Like a hawk. Through high school and college, I would go back and forth between restricting and feeling out of control and stuffing myself. I always compensated to maintain the "balance." I was especially aware of my belly for some reason – if it was flat, I felt ok. If it stuck out in the least, I cut back until it got flat again. I remember lying in the sun at the beach, being grateful that I was lying on my back because that made my stomach look flatter. I remember that much more clearly than the sound of the waves or the feeling of sun on my skin. I never looked in the mirror without turning sideways to scrutinize my belly.
That said, I was privileged. My weight stayed in the “acceptable” range and I never suffered from shaming or stigma. I just lived in constant vigilance. The fat phobia that I had internalized was a powerful driving force that was always with me, always warning of the dire consequences of fatness. But from the outside, I was "safe."
During my first year after college, I had a roommate who had anorexia. For two years I watched her exercise fanatically and eat lettuce and dry bagels. I remember making brownies once. She took one, cut off a tiny piece to eat, and then carefully wrapped the rest in Saran wrap and put it in the fridge. Every day she’d take another tiny bite and wrap it back up, like Charlie with the Willy Wonka candy bar. Her ribs and shoulders jutted out visibly. Her hair was thin and her face washed out. A couple of times, I looked at myself and felt self-consciously big in contrast. A voice would whisper, should I be thinner? Eventually I saw that was not well. She was suffering profoundly. She had a distorted view of her body and it drove her every move. That was when I first got a tiny bit of distance from the fear inside. I saw it’s dangerous flip side. I didn’t want to live my life in a cage filled with iceberg lettuce and tiny brownie crumbs.
I went on to graduate school and spent six years examining the social construction of race, class and gender, especially gender. My mentors were feminist women's historians including Drew Faust, who went on to become president of Harvard, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a National Humanities Metal winner who came from a generations of Black intellectuals and activists. I learned where the gendered cage had come from and whose interests it served. I learned that it was designed and constructed to keep women small and quiet. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the suffering caused by the stigma of “illegitimate pregnancy” before the sexual revolution and Roe v. Wade. I taught women’s studies for six years, The Beauty Myth, The Body Project, The Feminine Mystique. I could not have had a deeper understanding of gender, gender roles, and gender stereotypes.
But like many feminists, my understanding of inequality and oppression did not include body size. I remained vigilant about my weight and my appearance. I lived as if my body - not my mind, my heart, or my soul - were the measure of my worth. Time went by and my body changed. I’ve birthed and raised two children. I have chronic pain that limits my mobility. I’ve had three spinal surgeries while going through a divorce with adolescent kids (yeah, another story!) Menopause has happened. My body has grown bigger. The fear and aversion grew right along with it.
Seven years ago, as I was recovering from those three back surgeries, I became a certified health coach. I began supporting others in coming to peace with chronic illness and pain. I immersed myself in integrative and functional medicine, with its emphasis on lifestyle medicine and "food as medicine." For many years, I tried to control the chronic pain, fatigue, and digestive complaints I still had with an increasingly restrictive diet. I eliminated whole categories of foods, and spent a huge amount of time, energy, and money adhering to the new rules. Weight control was always part of the equation too. Pain control, weight management, and healthism got all bound up into a nasty Gordian knot. I developed a form of orthorexia, which is described by the National Eating Disorders Association as an "obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating" that damages ones overall well-being. I made myself pretty crazy. I coached others to follow similar regimens. As I've described elsewhere, it was immensely stressful and it was impossible to know if it made a difference. It was also unsustainable.
A little over a year ago I had an epiphany – one of those nothing-will-be-the-same-after-this-again moments - when I discovered intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, fat liberation, and other related material. I am not sure how it had escaped my attention up to that point. I was viewing the world through a very different lens. Fat-phobia was the water I swam in.
I devoured research, books, podcasts, webinars, blogs, IG and FB accounts. I pivoted my coaching practice to focus on these issues. I let go of food restriction completely and began eating intuitively. There was a long period of compensation when I felt like I couldn't get enough of the foods that I had feared and restricted for 40 years. This happens to just about everyone. I embraced food freedom, with no turning back, but the fear and aversion to my expanding body persisted. I began to talk to others about the paradox of knowing, intellectually, that I am more than a body, that my weight is not my worth. And at the same time, feeling besieged with visceral fear and shame about the shape and size of my body. I was done trying to change it by restricting - that much was clear. Why was acceptance - or at least neutrality - so elusive? I have done a lot of work on my thoughts, my emotions, and my behavior. There has been a lot of growth - I am much less self critical and much less fearful than I once was. But the shame and aversion still come up.
Now I see that I can't overcome this one by myself - because it did not come from myself.
Body image may manifest as a personal struggle, but it comes from structural forces. There are interests that benefit from each of us hating our bodies. Their power makes the cultural poison of fat phobia incredibly hard to fight. We each need to look inside AND outside to reckon with our relationship to it. The more light we shine, the more we weaken the monster.
Though I am new to it, this is not a new fight. I walk in the footsteps of generations of fat activists who have done and continue to do the brave work of putting themselves out there, of insisting that all bodies deserve respect, love, care, and rights. And I work alongside a beautiful community of weight-inclusive coaches, therapists, nutritionists and other professionals working for body-peace and universal respect. I have gathered some powerful tools and resources, which I will continue to share. And I will keep gathering and disseminating stories. The project is evolving. Please stay tuned.
* A note on the word fat. I use it - as other advocates do - as a neutral descriptor. It refers to adipose tissue that serves the function of storing energy in the body. People who are fat have more of this tissue. Fat is an adjective that should have no connotation and attach no judgment.