I don’t want this to read as just another woman’s experience with body image. It’s been done already, by myself and many, many others. I want this account to be different. I want this to be a vulnerable, personal portrait of what my journey with body fat has been and how I’m working to free myself and others from that prison.
It’s clear that our American culture has unrealistic ideas of what a woman’s body should look like, especially in terms of where it is appropriate for fat to deposit. Breasts, for instance, are obvious places. Finger pads, maybe selective deposits on the butt and hips. Ear lobes. But I think it’s safe to say that the majority of women walking the streets of our country are trying to get rid of fat somewhere or the other.
Think about that: millions of women going through life hating their bodies. Nearly every woman you see, unhappy with her form in one way or another. Unhappy women, everywhere.
Fat is a type of loose connective tissue called adipose tissue comprised of specialized cells. Adipose cells contain large vacuoles, or little cellular compartments, that are full of fat. If you look at an adipose cell under the microscope, you can see a tiny nucleus and a large, fat-containing vacuole comprising the rest of the space. Adipose cells are simply storage sites of reserve energy, used after our body has burned available glucose. Looking at fat on a larger scale, adipose tissue is used to insulate and protect organs, to insulate our bodies against heat loss, and to protect the nervous system. Our brains are mostly fat.
Fat is energy and fat is protection.
Where our body deposits fat is, I believe, mostly due to genetics. Where our body naturally deposits fat is largely beyond our control. Humans like to be in control. The world is so large and complex and chaotic that we consistently, to varying degrees and under varying levels of consciousness, work to maintain order. This can be exhausting and is fairly useless. We can’t control the world around us, what happens and how others perceive us. Cultural expectations regarding female fat, in a way, are providing women with exactly what they crave: something to control. If I can control my fat, then I’m in control of my life. I can navigate through my life if I can just manage the deposits. So we (many of us) do just this. We smoothie, cardio, and obsess our way to bodies that are five pounds lighter, ten pounds, twenty pounds, something that’s always less than what we are now. And if we ever get there, we expend more precious energy on keeping ourselves there, staying there forever, until we die and our perfect bodies are laid to rest for eternity.
I believe that shame is responsible for fat accumulation on our bodies. Shame of what and how much we eat, shame if we can’t get our run in, the special shame that comes when we are ashamed that we are ashamed of body fat. Since I was 18, I have weighed between 119 and 167 pounds. Nearly fifty pounds of difference. The 119 was during the height of control, the 167 during the height of shame. The journey I’ve been on with numbers and food and exercise and clothes and boyfriends and how they have all influenced my weight and body image over the past ten years is too complex and personal to go into here. However, what I’ve discovered along the way is to stop pretending that this isn’t and hasn’t been a personal struggle for me. That almost every woman alive has stressed about her body’s shape. And the cycle of weight loss celebration and weight gain dejection can be broken. It can be broken by airing out shame, observing our judgements, and altering our means of complimenting the women in our lives.
Notice the shame you feel around your body. Notice how it feels in your body when you’ve realized you’ve gained weight, or when you lose weight. You may feel flushed and your chest may tighten when you realize you’re heavier, and you may feel tingly and energetic when you realize you’re lighter. Talk about it with trusted friends. If a friend talks to you about her struggle with weight, and you’ve had a similar experience, try these two magic words: me too.
Notice how you judge others. Notice the assumptions you make about other women based on their body shape, about their level of physical activity, what they eat, if they have a boyfriend/husband, if they are or should be embarrassed about their fat. Notice how those judgements are likely the same judgements you heap upon yourself.
Notice when you compliment the women in your life. Have you ever told a friend or relative, “you look great since you’ve put on twenty pounds!” Likely not. Have you ever told a friend or relative, “you look great since you’ve lost twenty pounds!” More likely. Think about the messages you’re sending. Nothing against complimenting, just a recommendation to notice. If we are consistently receiving compliments when fat leaves and not when fat comes, what are we to think?
It is healthy to be strong, it is healthy to eat enough nourishing food, it is healthy to know when to stop, and it is healthy to physically exert yourself. With He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (hint: not Voldemort) entering the White House on Saturday, consider resolving to be an advocate for body shame resilience, resolving to become more aware of your judgements, and resolving to support the women in your life regardless of their size, instead of resolving to finally lose those ten pounds.
I now weigh 142 pounds. Who cares?