I used to think I was body positive. I was a feminist and every good feminist celebrates the female form, regardless of how it presents itself. My body as a young woman wasn't perfect in my eyes. I enjoyed being thin, and received social approval for it, but I was part of team Itty Bitty Titty and was sometimes so underweight that a spot in the middle of my chest looked like it was caving in. I thought I had my challenges, yet (as it is with issues of privilege) I had major blindspots.
Then I had a baby. A whole decade's worth of ageing and hormonal changes caught up with me in nine months. The transformation that I underwent to create the body of my daughter also radically altered my own. I gained 70 lbs and only lost 20 after my baby was born. I gave birth to new life and also a new self, and for several years afterward I thought the latter was a mistake.
I struggled with intense feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment at my weight gain AND I was determined to set an example for my daughter that was accepting and body positive. She would watch me as I got dressed in the morning. On my good days I would catch her eye in the mirror and pat my stomach, saying "Hello there belly.". On the hard days I would gently ask her for some space while I got ready, so I could contend with feelings of grief and frustration at clothes that no longer fit, without her sponge-like attention.
I became hyper aware of fat phobia in the larger culture. From television to children's books, fatness and obesity was synonymous with stupidity and laziness. Fat men were perceived as weak and impotent, fat women were seen as disgusting. On the bad days, I noticed that my critical self talk equated being "fat" with being worthless. I was shocked because I had never felt this way about weight on other women - at least this part of my "good feminist values" had been solid. But the truth was that deep down I had absorbed the same toxic messages about the female body and female worth, and was intolerant towards myself when I lost my golden ticket of perceived acceptability.
With mindful compassion, I investigated my feelings of guilt and shame. I realized that visible weight gain made me feel like I had nowhere to hide. I was imperfect, I was ageing, I was female and I was vulnerable. I had lost control of my appearance. It was more than control over diet or hunger. It was control over nature. Specifically, nature as a force bigger than ourselves that manifests in a fear of the wilderness, of hurricanes and tornados, of death. I realized that this seeming lack of power was where the embarrassment stemmed from - like a girl getting her period in 7th grade while wearing white shorts. I see London, I see France, I see... that you are nature. Quick girls, your nature is showing. Tuck it in.
Our culture celebrates dominance over nature - the perfectly manicured landscape, the garden maintained, corporate agriculture that forces the land under a yoke of production, the highly trained pet cat or dog that has lost all trace of its once wild instincts. But, as exemplified by the suburban lawn that still invites in and receives the seed of the dandelion, it is futile to exert control over life itself.
ECOPSYCHOLOGY AND THE BODY
In Ecopsychology, if we cannot discount the impact of the natural world on the human psyche, then we cannot discount the impact of how we treat the environment, who is almost always personified as being female - Mother Earth. She is seen as something to be conquered and if she is part of our daily view, she should be beautiful, something to admire and something useful. Like a field lying fallow, she is seen as useless until she can be of use again. This perspective totally negates the birds that scratch through the straw for seeds, the mouse with her nest of grass, the insects faithfully creating the compost to nourish new life, and the way that there is a season for everything - beyond "progress", "capitalism" and "success".
Our cultural view of the Earth is still largely Cartesian - a 16th century philosophy of dualism that premised separation of mind and body, with mind as omnipotent, seeking mastery over nature. If I may be hyperbolic for a moment, it is my opinion that mind over matter is an outmoded way of perception that has led to many of our current crises. Cutting off the mind from the body pits us against ourselves, and discludes the wisdom that emerges from sinew and bone, the neurological cells in the gut, the intuition that rises up through our feet and blooms at the solar plexus. If the Earth is soulless and mechanistic, if our bodies are not home, then where does our heart go to rest?
Moving towards a different relationship with our bodies, one that ceases to divide and foster hatred, is central to Ecopsychology. There are many reasons, but here are what I consider to be the top three:
1. We live in our bodies. They are the seat of our emotions and where we store our memories and traumas. If we hate our body, if we are constantly disassociating from it in a myriad of (often encouraged) fashions, then healing will be slow, fragmented or impossible.
2. The earth is the life giving body upon which we depend. The same disdain, disassociation or hate we feel for our own bodies is projected upon, and linked to, this greater body. This comes into play with problems like Climate Change denial, pollution, total destruction of ecosystems etc.
3. The earth, nature and land are characterized as female. Whatever patriarchal oppression, external or internalized, that exists, is perpetrated on women and mirrored in the way we abuse land, animals and ecosystems.
Negators of the fat acceptance movement typically site the idea that body positivity is about glorifying fatness. This is bad because everybody knows that fat = unhealthy. Furthermore, if fat people would just stop sitting around all the time and eating twinkies, they could stop complaining about inequality and being a drain on taxpayers dollars with their diabetes. I sound like I'm making a cruel joke, but look through any comment section on fat activism articles or on fat activists' instagram accounts and you will see this theme repeated ad nauseum by the trolls.
Health at Every Size has some great resources on how the idea that fat = unhealthy is a falsehood. However, whether or not size equals health is not the point here. The health argument is a tactic used to derail the conversation, and a topic for fat squeamish people to hide behind. Fat activism has never been about health, and whether or not someone is healthy is also no one's business but their own.
Body positivity is about the right to feel good in one's body, at any size, at any stage of health or able-ness. It's about inhabiting the body that we have, unconditionally, without being bullied or discriminated against. It's about fair representation in the media and in the workplace. It's about teaching children, in particular girls, that body shape and size is about uniqueness, not uniformity, and that worth is not based on a patriarchal and capitalistic standard of beauty.
CULTURAL CONCEPTS OF BEAUTY
But everybody knows that fat girls are ugly and undesirable, right?
Like all prejudice, this is taught and learned, not inherent. In other words, it's an opinion, formed at a young age from societal messages and reinforced almost constantly. Feeling disgust at something contains emotion - aversion, fear and avoidance, which gives it more punch than a simple mental construct and therefore makes it seem more true. Yet still, at its core, it is just a preference, not fact.
It is possible to have our preferences and not enforce them upon other people. It is possible for two truths to exist simultaneously and not cancel each other out. You can have a personal aversion to certain body types and still allow room for other people's experience, even if it is completely different than yours. This is the hallmark of maturity - the ability to hold paradox. It is also how we can have better relationships with others. If we can both be right, with reasons that are equally valid to us based on personal experience, there is nothing to lose. No one has to be wrong, no idea has to be defeated.
THIS BODY OF MINE
Writing this post took over a month. I hesitated at first to bring in my own experience, imagining I should remain the ever-neutral therapeutic voice. This sent me down a rabbit hole of information gathering, and I began to think I would have to make this a four part series, in an effort to leave no stone unturned and quell every negative response a reader might have. This points to how loaded and complex the subject of fatness is. In the end, I remembered that the personal is political, and I knew my honesty and authenticity is the voice I needed to speak with. In order to shake off my self editing, I wrote some poetic prose. I share it here in conclusion.
This body of mine, what she loves the most, is to float down rivers.
Hands of the water supporting her back, arms drifting behind like the fronds of water weeds, a pose of total surrender, trust built by how good she feels in this place, away from culture and closet.
Later, on the city streets, she throws her hands in the air and lets the current of pedestrian traffic carry her downstream, heart easy.
This body, she goes missing in the mirror. There's something else there, but it's not warm stones and bones on the shore in the sun or muscles pumping love for the pleasure of being alive. No, this body is a stranger, a stalker, a jail cell, an entire world rejected.
This body of mine, she grew and released a child. Now this child pats my belly and sings love songs to a squishy mommy.
This body of mine, she's been a landfill. Trauma and grief and shame have been buried deep within sinew, marrow and gut. Now, at midlife, she is an excavation site, discarded selves like buried treasure.
This body of mine, she is shocking, like the sudden change from summer to fall. Her seasons change and there is no arresting the progress, she is the boat carrying us downstream towards the waterfall we all eventually go over. She is uncontrollable, she is nature, she is earth. She is home and I am grateful to have returned.
*The alternate title for this could have been "If Gaia was a human, she/he/they would be multitudes of colors, seasons, ability and sizes". Not catchy, but true. However, I think the real title is "Gaia is All About The Bass".