In a recent webinar with TBINAA founder Sonya Renee Taylor, she asked participants to recall their first memory of body shame. Everyone had one. I went blank. I had none.
The truth was, I had far too many. My entire life flashed, and shorted out the lights in my mental attic. There was no clearing out this closet, especially not in the dark.
Weeks later, it surfaced. A kiddie pool. Amy’s backyard. I was three or four. I had gone down the block to Amy’s on a hot summer day. Her mother was filling the pool with a hose. I was in my favorite bikini — the top was little watermelon slices – pink, green, gingham strings. I looked down. I saw this belly. I looked at Amy and I didn’t see that. I looked down again and there was this roundness. This round smooth expanse seemed in need of covering. I thought the word “fat.”
So it started. My mother was weight obsessed. I rarely saw her eat. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and drank endless coffee. She loved to tell everyone how much she weighed. In our family, she was the skinny one. Now, I see her as anorexic, but then, I just knew that my family was made up of large, round people and it seemed I was one of them. I had a round face and “baby fat,” and my family considered it acceptable for people to pinch my cheeks. Grown ups had free reign to poke at me, pinch me, and comment about my body. I was meant to smile and be accommodating.
As I got older, my mother body shamed me daily, compared herself to me, policed everything I ate, and refused to see the changes in my body as what they were – the onset of puberty. Pictures from that time show an average weight girl who was developing breasts, but every day in one way or another, I was being told I was fat. I believed it. I saw myself as fat – very fat. So fat, it didn’t matter what I ate or did, because I was fat. Whatever the reasons for the gaslighting in my house, it was effective. So effective, I began to put on weight. I couldn’t see it, because as far as I was concerned, I was already fat.
Pinching cheeks gave way to “but she has such a pretty face.” The little avalanche that took place inside me when I heard this buried me deeper in my own image of fat. At twelve, I started taking dance classes. By thirteen, I was obsessed and danced from four to eight hours, five days a week. I didn’t eat; none of us did. We drank large bottles of natural juice and Diet Coke and club soda. We ate rice cakes and “health salad” or iceberg lettuce. I stayed the same size. I was fat — which is to say, unlike many of the other dancers, I had curves. Unacceptable curves to be starved and exercised away, but which refused to go. The less I ate, the more I stayed the same.
At a youth center reunion, I looked through old photos with a friend. I saw a picture of a girl in dance class wearing my leotard, tights, and legwarmers. The photo was taken from the back, so I couldn’t recognize who was wearing my dance clothes. I asked my friend. He said, “That’s you!” I said, “No, it’s not – she’s wearing my stuff, but that’s not me. I was fat.” “No, that’s you,” he said, “You were hot.” The cognitive dissonance overwhelmed me. I knew for certain those were my clothes; I remember saving money to buy the leotard, I remembered how it felt on my body – everything was familiar, but the shape of the girl in the picture. She wasn’t ballerina thin, but he was right – she might definitely be described as hot. I want to shout at that fourteen year old that she was absolutely fine.
After this, it was a long, revisionist road back from thinking I was fat all my life, to believing the physical evidence that I wasn’t. I recalled the way I was treated at home. My mother would take me shopping and when I found something I coveted, would offer to buy it for me only in a smaller size than I needed. Instead of tactics like these getting me to a size zero, I started to go the other way. I worked my way up until the picture in my mind was the picture everyone else saw. Now they could call me overweight, fat, lazy and other insults with impunity, because it was true. I had done their work for them. It never occurred to me that it was no one’s right to comment on my body and its appearance or that I didn’t deserve denigration for not being a perfect size two.
Life has a way of flipping the script. In 2007 I went to perform at the Fringe Festival, Edinburgh — three weeks of no eating and no sleep. I lost fifteen pounds. Normally that would just jump back onto my frame, but this time, it didn’t. Next I went to North Carolina to work on a movie. We had a killer caterer and a lot of night shoots, which often wreak havoc on the metabolism. Despite the rich food and the schedule, I didn’t gain anything back. The next year, I did the Fringe again and lost more. I was swimming in my clothes, and in need of constant hand-me-downs to stay dressed.
In 2012 I got injured, and went on a nutritional healing plan. Whatever weight was left on me walked out the door forever. Not even a note. It was impossible to eat enough calories, impossible to hold my weight. While I still saw fat in the mirror, buying a size zero forced me to reality check myself.
What I didn’t expect was the way other people would react. Everything to how great I looked to I was too thin to “you’re so skinny!” “You’re so skinny,” became a judgment about everything I was doing or not doing to heal, but it exposed more about the speaker’s own body image than what they saw in front of them. It lacked understanding of my health struggles, pain, my conscious eating, and my body’s excessive need for calories to heal. At that moment in my life, the thing I least cared about was how I looked. I was putting all my effort into how I felt. To be told I was skinny, sometimes with envy or bitterness, hit me like a riddle. Why did people think they could comment on my weight? Why did they think they preferred to be like me when I could tell them a dozen reasons they didn’t? What did they see?
I would have thought that being called skinny would have felt like a compliment, that I’d be doing a skinny dance, reveling that my baby fat was finally gone, and my ‘such a pretty face’ was not a consolation prize. Instead, I thought it was weird and wondered why anybody would say that. I thought it reflected poorly on the speaker.
More Radical Reads: 5 Ways to Find Radical Self Love & Joy When Your Body Says Otherwise
Being called fat had always shamed me; I felt called out and receded into myself. Never mind that I was the size my body wanted to be, that I was healthy, that I cared for my body, used it well and loved it. I reacted emotionally, giving people who spoke these words power. I let myself feel wrong.
Being called skinny wasn’t shaming, because skinny equals good in our culture, in the community I grew up in, and in my families. Suddenly, the idea that someone would comment on my body, in casual conversation, seemed completely absurd. I could see the comments for exactly what they were – intrusions. My skinny was none of their business. My body was not presented to them for comment.
More Radical Reads: Learning to Eat Despite Shame: Managing Masculinity at the Table
Even if someone thinks it’s a compliment, for me, there is no difference between calling me skinny and calling me fat. In certain respects, when you call me skinny, you are calling me fat. With either, you are trying to take a level of ownership over my body, how it lives in this world, how it moves through space, how it reacts. You are deciding what I value, and what value I have to you, based on my size and shape.
This body is what I came here with, the only thing I consistently carry, and will signal when its time for me to leave. I value it. I take care of it. As far as I know, I live alone in here. It belongs to me and I to it. It’s no one’s right to get between us.
[Feature Image: Drawing of a bust of a person with short hair and underneath the drawing of the bust it says, “YOU CAN KEEP YOUR THOUGHTS ON MY BODY TO YOURSELF.” The drawing is posted on a wall. ]