I remember once when I was thirteen years old in the middle of PE class. A teacher came along and told us that we would soon be having swimming lessons over at a nearby private school’s swimming facilities.
At first, I was excited. I like swimming, I had a swimming pool at home, and my standard swimming costume of a one-piece, a rash shirt, and board shorts was something I felt comfortable swimming in.
My hopes were dashed when the teacher told us that we were to wear “proper” swimming costumes only. No board shorts allowed.
I started to panic. Board shorts were in style at the time, and I was definitely not the only person in my year who was unhappy with the news. My friends tried to console me, telling me that their swimming costumes were also not great for one reason or other. In retrospect, this was really very kind of them, but eventually I got annoyed and said, “No! You guys don’t get to complain about this! You all have normal bodies!”
Admittedly, this was sixteen years ago and the memory is not crystal clear, but I do remember insinuating that I was the only one of my friends who was in any real trouble. And my logic made a whole lot of sense to me. My friends would be all right, regardless of this swimming costume rule, because they had “normal” bodies that looked fine in swimming costumes. I, on the other hand, had a fat body, and fat bodies did not look fine in swimming costumes.
In my defence, I don’t think thirteen-year-old me can be entirely blamed for believing my body to be abnormal. I’ve always been fat, and, as I have written about in the past, I grew up in a fat-shaming household. Even if my family were warmly accepting of my fatness, I was still a young person being exposed to advertising, Hollywood movies, and Australian soap operas, all of which displayed people roughly my age with bodies that were not remotely similar to mine in size and shape.
Then, of course, there were the various health professionals, teachers, and others in positions of authority telling either me or my worried parents that my body was so abnormal, its abnormality would eventually kill me.
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These experiences are all examples of institutionalised fatphobia. And I am far from the only fat person to experience them. As somebody who has always been fat, I’ve always known that my body is considered abnormal by society. I hated that about myself for years.
When I discovered fat acceptance about seven years ago, I started to look beyond my own body and the heavily fatphobia-influenced thoughts I was having about it. Instead I listened to what other people were saying about their bodies. At this point I discovered that nobody, regardless of their size or shape, thinks their body is normal.
As it turns out, there is a very good reason for that: nobody’s body is “normal”.
It just about blew my mind when I first made that discovery. As a fat person whose mind was so occupied with thinking unkind things about her body, I tended to just presume that anybody thinner than me had a “normal” body.
But the truth of the matter is that there’s no such thing as a normal body. Regardless of who you ask, everybody will be able to point out something about their body that deviates from the norm, whether their waists and hips are considered out of proportion, or their boobs are uncommonly large for their frame and they can never find bras that fit, or their skin is too spotty, or they’re too hairy, or not hairy enough. There will always be something “abnormal”.
And if you think about it, it makes sense. We all know that everybody, and every body, is different. How, then, can we then turn around and say we want a “normal” body? What can a “normal” body possibly mean, if every body is different?
When fat people talk about wanting to have “normal” bodies, what we actually mean is we want to have thin bodies. That is an important distinction to make, because while there is no such thing as a “normal” body, there is certainly such a thing as a thin body.
Bodies within the parameters of “thin” all come with their own perceived abnormalities, of course. But thin people are not told to be ashamed of the bodies they possess to anywhere near the same extent fat people are. Indeed, in this new world of body positivity, thin people of all shapes are actively encouraged to celebrate their bodies, “abnormalities” and all.
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To be clear, being encouraged to celebrate one’s body is a fantastic thing, and I do not begrudge thin people who practice body positivity in the slightest. But fat people should be encouraged to celebrate their bodies as well, and they largely aren’t thanks to the fatphobia that continues to run rampant in our society. I have yet to find a fat acceptance advocate who has not experienced some sort of negative backlash from prejudiced arseholes bleating insincere concerns about our health in order to justify their bigotry.
It’s hard to celebrate a fat body when institutionalised fatphobia continues to push against that celebration from all sides. However, fatphobia makes it all the more important for fierce fat folk like us to celebrate our bodies.
It is important for all of us to love and accept our bodies from a self-worth and self-esteem perspective, but when anybody with a “non-conventional” body celebrates that body, it’s also an act of activism. Fatphobia tells all of us that fat people should hide away and live in shame of the bodies we possess. Therefore, the most powerful act of protest and resistance that we can make against fatphobia is to stand up and shamelessly celebrate our bodies.
There is no right or wrong way to celebrate a body, but I personally believe in two key guidelines: do what you want to do, and do not apologise for doing it. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to run, run. If you want to eat a satisfying dinner and rest afterwards, do it. And if you want to go swimming in a revealing swimming costume, and take a picture of yourself looking sunkissed and happy and alive in your fat body, do it.
Never mind anybody who has ever made you feel as though you can’t.
[Featured Image: Photo of a group of friends, all of whom are people of size of various genders and racial backgrounds, smiling outside as they pose for a selfie together. It is a bright sunny day. In the background are some buildings and an expansive hillside. Source: Michael Poley of Poley Creative for AllGo, publisher of free stock photos featuring plus-size people.]