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The whacked narcissism of self hatred

I was reading an article the other day, and one of the commenters accused people who say their love their bodies of narcissism. I thought that was interesting. Is loving our bodies narcissistic?

Maybe for a few people, but body hatred is more so.

When I think about the narcissism of body love, I think of the scene in a gym locker room in Toronto, described to me by my husband: naked (and probably gay - it was the right neighborhood) men posing and flexing in front of mirrors, showing off to each other. It sounded funny; maybe even a little sweet. Made me wish I was a fly on the wall. My husband, who is a small, non-musclebound dude and was just changing into shorts to play squash, did not feel judged or denigrated. It was a fundamentally a benign show of narcissism.

Meanwhile, I was in the women's locker room. While the men were loving their big, strong bodies, the women were not. Stepping onto the scale. Looking disappointed. Hiding behind towels and changing one half at a time to avoid nudity. Can you imagine women posing naked in front of mirrors, in public, silently admiring their bodies? I can't. Because although we women are socialised to be vain, we rarely view ourselves positively and if we do, there's a stigma against expressing it.

The thing is, negativity is stickier than positivity. Loving the way you look doesn't imply hating how someone else looks. Only a sad and paranoid person would hear "I hate your red hair" in "I love my brown hair." But when someone with thinner, leaner, firmer arms than yours says "I hate my arms! They're huge and disgusting. Look how they jiggle!" then it takes a strong person and a conscious effort not to hear the logical extension of that: "if my arms are ugly, your arms are unspeakably horrible."

Yes, yes. It's your issue, not mine. You were not thinking about my arms when you said that. You see your body in a more negative light than you see others' bodies. Of course, that's how it almost always is. That was almost certainly not a passive aggressive, indirect criticism aimed at me.

And it usually isn't meant as indirect criticism, but it certainly could be.

Negativity is sticky; it's adhesive; it gets all over other people.

Although applying a set of standards to one's own body, clothing, or even achievement does not mean that those standards are meant to be universal or to relate in any way to the standards others set for themselves, the language can tell a different story. It's difficult to use negative and judgemental language - even about ourselves - without sounding self righteous as well as insecure.

But we women tend to be perfectionists, we hate it when we don't live up to our own standards, and we almost never do. We see this in our mothers and other role models; this intolerance towards self; this idea that anything less than perfection (however that's defined) is unacceptable and makes us worthless. And at the same time, we're meant to be much more tolerant and understanding toward other people.

This is not a good thing.

We could blame it on the patriarchy. It definitely weakens women. It keeps us obsessed with insignificant details, and that prevents us from being as active as we could be in business, politics, and discourse. But, it is a form of self absorption, and it is narcissistic. Who are we to expect perfection from ourselves? Is being flawed human beings not good enough? So many women are so busy; so weighed down with responsibilities. There's a need to give ourselves some personal, mental and emotional space. Why do we wrestle these precious bits of time and attention from our busy lives, only to waste them spreading around this negative, self hating muck? And demanding perfection of ourselves gives the negativity so much more power.

Loving our bodies isn't necessarily vain. I've heard that the English language has too few words for love, and perhaps people associate the idea of body love with romantic love; starry-eyed new relationship energy. That does seem a bit over the top to me. But isn't body love - self love in general - more like loving a family member or a very old friend? There's familiarity, a deep history, tolerance for quirks and foibles, steady affection, and an ability to forgive. Mature love isn't about perfection or the elevation of an idealised object. It's about respect and understanding. Don't we all owe ourselves that?

Why Women Need Fat posted an article today, "Why Women Need Fat,", subtitled "Evolution shows that women's dieting beliefs aren't just unrealistic -- they're unnatural. An expert explains," by Hannah Tepper.

It's a review of a new book called “Why Women Need Fat,” by Steven J.C. Gaulin, an evolutionary biologist, and William D. Lassek, a retired doctor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh. The article features some nutritional theorising (omega 6 acids are the villain), and the idea that Americans as a group are heavier than we should be is dutifully reinforced.

Be that as it may, set point theory - the idea that our bodies have a certain weight or weight range that they tend to gravitate toward - is presented as a well supported idea among evolutionary biologists and it's acknowledged that human beings naturally have a wide range of set point weights. While it seems that the book is aimed at women (because we are more likely to indulge in weight loss dieting), it's hinted that the author has a slightly different take on men and fat.

Many M.D.s have bought this fallacious line that the optimal weight for women in terms of their health is what M.D.s call normal weight, a BMI between 18.5 and 25. And they have thought this to be true because women with higher BMIs exhibit a series of physiological measures that are indeed risk factors for disease in men. But they are not systematically risk factors for disease in women. If you actually look at the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and data from studies done in other countries, the optimal weight for women who have had a kid is what doctors currently call “overweight.”

The next line? "I’m not saying that obesity is optimal..." Well, we certainly wouldn't want to promote obesity! However, implying that a 30+ BMI can be natural and healthy is not at all the same thing as saying "obesity is optimal." Given anti-fat bigots' typical (lack of) reasoning skills, I guess he had to cover his ass on that one.

The UK: clothing utopia for smallish fat women

I moved to the UK a year ago, and I want to share the lowdown on clothes shopping here. In short? It's a veritable paradise if you wear a US or Canadian 14W-18W (maybe up to a 20W). This is because around half of normal British shops carry large straight sizes: 20, 22 and sometimes 24. Almost all of them carry sizes at least up to an 18.

Let me explain why this is a big deal to me.

I grew up in the US in the 1970s and 80s and lived there until 2003. Then I moved to Toronto and was unsurprised to find that Canada is just like the US when it comes to large sized women's clothing. Through my entire life until the past year, I've had to shop in plus-sized stores. I could never just walk into a department store and find something that fit me. I'd have to go to the fat lady section, hidden in the back of the top floor or the basement, with vastly inferior styles and quality and higher prices. Alternatively, I could shop at Lane Bryant, the Avenue, Ashley Stewart, Addition Elle, Pennington's or one of a very few regular stores that carry 16s and 18s in North America. The trendy shops have always been out of my reach.

I've worn between a 14W and a 20W (16-22 in straight sizes) all. my. life. Yes, it's been a good 30 years that I've been in that size range, ever since I got to be tall enough to wear women's clothing. Before that, I occupied an even deeper circle of sartorial hell: the boy's "husky" section.

I've always needed to shop in the plus-sized ghetto because the vast majority of American and Canadian clothing lines stop at a size 14. Now some people will say "there's been size inflation since you were growing up and US 14s are like British 18s." Well, as far as I can tell, size inflation in the US has been in waist measurement only. My waist has always fit into a smaller size than my hips; it's my hip measurement that's the deciding factor. With bigger waists, US clothes are even more ill-fitting on me than they used to be.

Additionally, British straight sizes are not two sizes smaller than US straight sizes. They are only one size smaller, if that (for me, anyway). They're two sizes smaller than US plus ("W") sizes, which run a size bigger than straight sizes. Got it? So I have UK 18s and 20s, US 16Ws, and US straight-sized 18s in my wardrobe right now. Complicated.

Let me tell you, most British clothes are cut more generously in the hips and chest than North American clothes. Women with pear and hourglass shapes, take note. They also seem to be proportioned for shorter women. I'm 5'-4" or 5'-5", and I never wear petites in the UK. I wear "mediums" or "shorts." Yes, they have four inseams on most women's trousers: tall, medium, short and petite. The petites are actually made for women who are around 5' tall, not for women who are really medium height, like me.

I freaking love British clothes. The 20s fit me. They really fit, almost perfectly. I can even wear an 18 in some dresses. Some brands are cut straighter through the hips and those aren't as good for me, but my god. I can walk into a department store and buy almost anything I want. A mini skirt? They've got it in my size. A cheap but decent looking suit? Ditto. A nice dress for a wedding? No problemo. I was looking for one, and I found 10 of them to try on at Debenhams. Ten that I liked and eight of them fit! It was the first time I'd ever been able to choose something based purely on style. In North America, I'd count myself very lucky if I could find something that fit, was appropriate, and didn't look cheap.

This isn't true at every department store, mind you. Marks and Spencer has up to a 24 in most things. Debenhams carries up to an 18, 20 or 22, depending on the clothing line. Monsoon has everything in their regular line up to a 22. Evans, the UK plus sized chain, goes up to a UK 34, and I wear an 18 or 20 there just like I do at the other shops. However, House of Fraser is hopeless (their clothes are cut narrow through the hips and end at an 18) and John Lewis seems to be as well (they don't have sizes on their hangers, so it's hard to figure out what, if any, ranges go higher than an 18).

SO... if you're in the US 14-20 size range and are thinking about visiting the UK, bring some money for clothes. If you wear a 14W, there will be very few places that don't have your size. Almost every UK shop goes up to at least an 18.

Oh, and I'd like to take this opportunity to link to my favourite UK fashion maven, Buttercup Rocks! She has a Tumblr, Buttercup's Frocks, and a a Fatsion set on Flickr (and so do I, actually).

Here's me in some British clothes. Click on the picture to go to the description on Flickr:

The bad news? If you wear over a North American 20W or UK 22 then you'll find a better selection in North America. The UK has fewer plus sized shops because the smaller, more common plus sizes are easy to find at regular stores. I think we should have a shopping post for size 24+ Brits visiting the U.S. and Canada next.

Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and All the Cakes

I started reading Amy Farrell's Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture recently, and I am really enjoying it so far. 

Amy was supposed to be in one of my NWSA panels last fall, but couldn't make it, and so instead I read her paper for her...a fantastic essay on how antifat sentiment was used by both those for and against women's suffrage, which was part of a chapter in her (then upcoming) book. I was so impressed with her work and fascinated by the topic, especially because I think it shows the way in which antifat attitudes have been woven into the historical fabric of feminism.

The white, Western mainstream feminist movement took off the same time that Western attitudes about fat began to change. Fatness became a serious character flaw, a symbol of failed citizenship. As Amy says in her book, fatness was a sign the middle class folk couldn't handle modern society, couldn't regulate themselves in amidst the new potential for excess. And as Amy points out, the body was increasingly understood to be an important marker...indeed, it was also the height of the Eugenics movement. 

And sadly, these discourses about bodies were utilized by claimsmakers (or people trying to persuade) because those arguments were found to be compelling. 

As such, some feminists of the time used Eugenicist language/arguments to make claims about their (white) right to "women's" suffrage and "women's" rights. They used ideas that already compelled people, that already panicked them, that already tugged at their (a)moral compass. 

Which is why feminists use of anti-fat sentiment didn't come as a big surprise for me...though I find it tremendously interesting. In fact, before I had even read Amy's piece, someone showed me this link to an old book from that time period, archived in Bryn Mawr's "Women's Suffrage Ephemera Collection," called "Ten Little Suffergets."

"Ten Little Suffergets" is a sad piece of anti-women's suffrage propaganda; it's hilarious in it's ridiculousness until you think about the fact that feminists still face these kinds of ridiculous arguments. The "suffergets" (pictured as little girls in dresses, maryjanes with socks, and bows in their hair) hold signs like "Votes for Women" and "Equal Rights" (innocuous enough), "No More Home Rule," "Down with Teachers,"  "Down with the Men," "Let the Man be the Housemaid," "Protection for Infant Industries" (not sure exactly what that refers to), "Every Day a Holiday," "No More Bedtimes," and........."Cake Every Day." 

That's right. Cake. Every. Day. I think it's clear to us all now that suffragists are the architects of the obesity epidemic. Feminism really is the downfall of society!

The storyline of the book is merely that each of the "suffergets" encounters an issue--either she throws off her ideals (the "sufferget" who held the "Down with Teachers" sign ends up bringing flowers to her teacher, thus the end of her feminism)  or she is injured in some way (the story starts out with the first "sufferget" getting a whipping--get this, cuz "suffergets" are naughty. Infantilization + sexualization + physical domination  = sexism win!). Essentially, if she doesn't learn her lesson on her own...harm shall come to her, as it should be.

Guess what happens to the "sufferget" who was fighting for "Cake Every Day"?

Her gluttony and cakelust is her own undoing and she can no longer protest on behalf of cakefreedom. Twowholecakes is one thing, this gal "gobbles" ALL TEH CAKES. If only feminists had an allthecakes shout-out back then to turn this on its head.

In her chapter on "Feminism, Citizenship, and Fat Stigma," Amy talks both about this kind of anti-suffragist attack and about how the suffragists tried to depict themselves a slim, young, and beautiful...and anti-suffragists as fat cats or fat and aging (behind the times).  

Rather than saying something radical, like, "We're fat, so what, give us our fucking votes!" it seems early feminists used the antifat sentiment and lookism of the day to argue for their cause. Although it's lazy (and often despicable), it's much easier to utilize narratives that people already accept or find persuasive, symbols that jive with their (often fucked up) cultural logic (Eugenics, antifat denigration, etc.) than to vie for your cause AND challenge systems of privilege and oppression that are in place...or at least refrain from perpetuating them. Fatness is a place marker people can use to rile people up and win them over with the sensationalism, fear, and panic (not so dissimilar from the functions and dynamics of panic about racial purity) when otherwise they fear their argument is not compelling or persuasive enough. When in doubt, rely on fear and hate, right? It's a surefire plan.

As fat activists, we should do our best to avoid falling into the trap of relying on or reinforcing systems of privilege and oppression and/or cultural tropes to vie for our cause. Our cause stands on it's own.

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

NOW Foundation's Love Your Body Poster Contest Winners

NOW Foundation's Love Your Body 2011 Poster Contest winners have been announced. The winning entry looks nice, but there's no hint that it's possible to love a larger than average body. The images in winning posters from past years have been perhaps slightly more fat-positive. Maybe. A little.

Of course, that's not really the point. The point is that all women are taught to hate their bodies.

Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts -- lips, legs, breasts -- airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem. Is it any wonder that 80% of U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance?

Women and girls spend billions of dollars every year on cosmetics, fashion, magazines and diet aids. These industries can't use negative images to sell their products without our assistance.

Well, I can get behind that. However, how much cooler would it be if the "Love Your Body" poster made it clear that larger or (better yet!) bodies of all sizes, shapes and abilities are worth loving?

The deadline for next year's poster contest is December 3, 2011. Details are here. NOW tends to choose artwork depicting thin to average sized bodies. Let's make sure that isn't because it's the only kind of entry they get.

I wish I was joking...

I saw an ad for this show Mike & Molly during How I Met Your Mother last night. At first I was excited...look! Actual fat people on TV! Then I read the premise:

"Police officer Mike Biggs knows his way around the Streets—and the donut shop. As a cop, Mike’s not scared of anything—except dating, so he’s joined Overeaters Anonymous® to lose those extra pounds and gain some Much-needed confidence. When he meets Molly at a meeting, the attraction is immediate, and suddenly Mike is excited about the prospect of a new life. But now he must find the willpower to give up his beloved junk food for the apple of his eye."

Oh BARF. Anyone seen any more of this tripe? Comments?

Geez America, why can't you be more like your sister Japan?

Check out this article on Japanese attitudes towards weight. I feel almost like the author is saying "Gee, if Japanese women can lose weight and keep it off, what's wrong with Americans?"
They say the rates of anorexia and bulimia aren't any higher over there than they are here, but I have to wonder if that's because the idea of an average-sized woman not eating because she wants to be thinner is so widely accepted as normal. Certainly the act of specifically not eating or eating only vegetables when you are hungry for more is something of a disorder, whether it's officially anorexia or not.
Anyone have any other ideas about what might cause the disparity between our attitudes toward weight and that of Japanese women?

Is it okay to be fat?

This is the question posed in the Nightline debate linked to in withoutscene's posting below. The way I see it, when we ask "is it okay to be fat?", we're really asking a bunch of other questions:

  • Is a person allowed to have and maintain a body that is larger than average?
  • Is being fat a health problem?
  • Is a person with a health problem allowed to choose to not treat that problem?
  • Is fat caused by lifestyle choices?
  • Is a person in a group health plan allowed to make choices that might cause them to need more health care in the future?

When you break it down to what we're really talking about, I don't see how any rational person could conclude that it is not okay to be fat. What are your thoughts?

There are worse things than being a fat bride

This article just broke my heart. Samantha Clowe didn't want to be the dreaded "fat bride", so she dutifully got permission from her doctor and started following the LighterLife diet plan. It certainly seemed to her eleven weeks on the diet Samantha decreased her BMI by two whole points. Then she collapsed and died.

My heart goes out to Samantha and her family. I can only imagine the thoughts that might have driven her to choose the plan, like longing to fit her body into society's favored mold, the idea that whoever she was now wasn't good enough to stand up in front of her friends and family and get married. Maybe, like many dieters, she believed that this fat thing was only temporary and if she could just find the right plan and just try hard enough, she could finally be "normal" and, therefore, "happy".

I will confess, I have had these thoughts too. Some not even all that long ago. You know why Samantha and I and millions of other people have felt this way? Because somewhere along the way as we were growing up, enough people told us that our bodies were wrong that we started to believe it. Some of us believed it so much that we tried whatever we could to make our bodies behave and were thwarted when they fought back and grew even bigger, further outside of the realm of okay. Eventually, some of us were so freaked out by being fat that we gladly paid someone to cut into our bodies and mess with the way our digestive systems worked, all so we could finally be..."normal". The thing is, there are a million different kinds of bodies out there. "Normal" doesn't really exist.

The thing that really incenses me about this article is that the LighterLife people are blaming Samantha's death on the fact that she started out all deathfat so she was probably just a ticking timebomb anyway. So it seems we are doomed to death even if we go along and do as we're told to conform. What a load of crap.

Samantha was only 11 weeks into the program but on the LighterLife website they say women should do it for 14 weeks or even more if they want to lose more weight at the end of that time. This is at least the third death linked to LighterLife. I wonder how many more people have to die while following their program before someone finally shuts them down.

Update: As suggested by MichMurphy, I've started a photo gallery for fat brides on flickr. Feel free to join, post any and all fat bride photos and pass on the link to all of your fat bride friends! Here come the Fat Brides!

Ye Olde Double Standard

Sorry to devolve into TMZ territory for a minute, but I was just struck by this article about Leonardo DiCaprio being asked to lose weight for a role. Imagine for a second that the article is talking about a female starlet who happens to be 30 pounds heavier than a director wants her to be. I bet we wouldn't be hearing about how she's beautiful "at any weight" and how after the shoot she will hopefully gain back to a "healthy" weight. It would either be about how rightly ashamed she is that her body displeases someone or how she foolishly chooses to love her repugnant fat body as it is. Silly women, with their misguided self-love.

Drop Dead Diva deserves a second look

I watched the first episode of Drop Dead Diva with the same skepticism as everyone else, and I found plenty to pick at, from the mainlining of easy cheese to the fat girl is all mousy and doesn't take care of herself thing. The second episode, however, really took me by surprise by how much it got right.

First, there's a storyline on fat discrimination in the workplace. Jane's client successfully worked at a hipster bar and then gained 50 pounds and was fired, so she sued the bar. During the course of the case, Jane's boss tries to pressure her into using the idea that fat is a disability to bolster her argument but ultimately she ends up telling him to shove it. There's a nice moment where she is giving her closing argument and discusses how the word 'fat' doesn't have to be a negative thing, just a descriptor. I mean really, when have you ever seen that on entertainment TV?

There's still a little too much talk around how Jane is fat because she likes to eat and is too tired to exercise at the end of her busy day, so not much Health at Every Size on the show, but I was so impressed by this second episode that I wouldn't be at all surprised if one day in the future she stumbles across that concept as well.

So if you can, please give the show a second chance. The writers seem to really get some of the concepts at the heart of fat acceptance and that just makes my day. Both episodes are available here. I'd love to hear what you think!

Fox News Anchor Defends Fat People?

By now I think most of you have probably heard about the NWA flight attendants who are demanding that they be allowed to wear the same "sexy" red dress as their thinner counter-parts.

And I'll give you one guess as to who thinks it's an outrage and that fat women shouldn't be allowed to be flight attendants anyway?

That's right, via Jezebel, obesity's arch-enemy, MeMe Roth, is on the warpath again. This time she's on Fox News. But there's a twist: The anchor, Stuart Varney, publicly shames her for her indulgent hatred!!

We have seen MeMe Roth and her special brand of crazy before, but this time she's got a crazy look and crazier antics than I remember. She acts like a two-year-old desperate for attention, holding up a pair of size 24 pants, laughing uncomfortably...and this guy tells just keeps on her and tells her, "That, madam, is a disgrace."

Who could've predicted that the taming of MeMe would have happened on Fox News?

(Go to Jezebel for the video. Can't imbed it at this time.)

Postscript: Granted, he goes way overboard and is out of line to say fat discrimination is "one of the most hurtful forms of discrimination," as if other forms of discrimination are somehow less hurtful. I'm pretty sure all forms of discrimination suck pretty badly. Oppression Olympics are unnecessary, sir.

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