I have never been what you might call a sporty person. As a teenager, I shied away from putting myself on display. I was tall and awkwardly designed. I felt like I took up too much space, both upwards and outwards. I had no idea of how to dress myself, alternating between stuffing myself into the trendy (trendy was still a word then) get up of my slimmer friends and draping myself in tents that I thought might disguise my lumbering frame or disappear me entirely.
I recall a period in which I wore nothing but polyester caftans sourced from op-shops, no doubt impressed with myself for discovering an ensemble that hid my lumps while lending me an air of mystery and retro-chic. Another summer saw me scour the same charity stores for men’s trousers which I would pair with vintage location t-shirts in sky blue and baby pink that screamed things like ‘Welcome to Darwin!’ and ‘Charleville Fun Run 1974’. It was supposed to translate an aura of acknowledged irony: I knew I didn’t really qualify as a woman (sophisticated, pretty, thin) so I dressed myself as a man to let everyone else know I was in on the joke.
It’s safe to say I had a fractured relationship with my body. But then, so many do.
So many of us women understand our bodies to be prisons, a cage from which we cannot escape. We starve ourselves so that we might slip through the bars unnoticed. When that doesn’t work, we pick at every corner, every weak point so that we might find a way to collapse the hinges. We swing between refusing to look at our bodies out of fear, or looking only at them out of obsession. In a confused act of kindness and competition, we offer our own bodies up as comparisons to other women to try and make them feel better, while hoping they might repay the favour and allow themselves to feel worse for our own comfort. This last act becomes like a drug in itself, the ritual self flagellation that takes place as part of a group. My calves are so thick. But my arms are so large. Well, I have you all beaten - have you seen the size of my stomach?
And the ritual moves into its second stage. The reassurances, the denials. Of course you’re not thick, of course you’re not unwieldy. Of course you’re not fat.
Because ‘fat’ is such a loaded term. Despite the very best efforts of the cleverest of the fat acceptance movement, it seems unlikely that it can move far beyond its negative connotations as long as people are afraid of what it means. Fat activist and writer Kate Harding once wrote that some people refused to accept she was fat (when she is) because when they looked at her, they didn’t see someone who reflected our cultural understanding of what fat means - someone who was dirty, smelly, lazy, greedy, gross and stupid. Even though that assumption continues, Harding insists on trying to destigmatise the word fat until its meaning is returned to its literal roots.
I can’t really say at what point things changed. Perhaps it’s merely age, experience, the simple fact of boredom or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the cure, it appears that at the age of 31 I have developed an easy if not always friendly camaraderie with this exterior in which I exist. She is like my sister; there has never been a time in which I have not been able to touch her, study her, compare myself to her and find things lacking. We have hated each other, fiercely, and we have loved each other without equal. At last, I have found a way to hold her hand and let go of the blame for the things she could not give me, and she too me for the cruel punishments I directed her way. It’s a liberating feeling. Unfortunately, now I'm being confronted by the new insistence that women's bodies be loved for all that they are, praised and admired for their utter normalcy. Revered, even! And expressing a desire to be less than you are, observing that you might be carrying a little too much winter weight…this is a big no-no for Empowered Women.
I support and admire the fat acceptance movement, but particularly any attempts to remove emphasis away from women’s bodies entirely - both the shaming and the lauding of them. One of the downsides of the ludicrous Girl Power, head-in-the-sand empowerment cheerleading of the late '90s and early 2000s has been the continued infantilisation of women by way of body image. The flipside of caring too much whether or not you’re fat is the assumption that you need to be reassured you are not. Typically, this comes by way of outright denial or the use of supposedly more attractive and desirable words like ‘curvy’ and ‘Rubenesque’, but the end result is much the same - an overwhelming and exhausting obsession with women's bodies.
True size acceptance is understanding that there are certain sizes at which you are more comfortable, and it is up to the individual to decide. For me, this is largely less to do with how I look now than how my body feels when it’s moving. Expressing the desire to carry less weight for the purposes of comfort is not ‘selling out’ or letting the side down. It’s not caving to the pressures of the diet industry. It’s not even necessarily about poor body image. It’s annoying enough that women have so long been slaves to how everyone else thinks their bodies should look - we can hardly hope to be liberated from this by swinging too much in the other direction.
For a long time, I wanted to look different because I didn’t like myself very much. I didn’t understand my body, so I fought with it. Having come (mostly) to terms with these limbs, this trunk and these lines, I am enraged to discover that I cannot make quite factual observations about it without being told to ‘embrace my curves’. My frustration at being unable to find a pair of jeans that fit my bottom does not need to be met by the marvelling at how I am still beautiful, as if the only thing standing between me and comfortable denim is the cloaking curse of my own self-loathing. A more helpful suggestion might be directions to an outlet that stocks roomy jeans.