If our bodies tell the stories of our lives, we need to let them say more than that we are desired.
About two years ago, a Facebook friend of mine began posting tastefully erotic pictures of fat women. The first time that I saw one in my feed, I physically cringed. I was not feeling disgust for the model. Rather, I was experiencing an involuntary spasm of self-loathing. I quickly scrolled on.
But a few days later, another picture showed up. And soon I was being confronted by an erotic fat picture every second or third day. I went through a range of emotions, unreasonable anger being primary.
After about the third week of this, I began writing about it during my morning journaling. Why did erotic pictures of fat women bother me more than any other erotic picture I had ever seen? It took me two and a half pages of writing before I finally got to the truth: “That is what my lover sees when we are naked together. Oh God, he must be disgusted by me.”
I am a fat woman. There I said it. But even as I make that statement, I want to follow it with a paragraph explaining that I am not that fat and that I have only fallen back into this disgraceful condition following three years of illnesses, injuries, surgeries, and convalescence.
But I am trying to learn from my friends in the fat-friendly culture that fat is not something to be ashamed of. According to them, being fat is not an outward manifestation of moral depravity, severe psychological problems, or even an absence of healthy habits. As a friend of mine says every time I bemoan my most recent fall from my idealized eating goals into a pattern of normal human eating: It is pasta, not genocide.
Being fat, in our society, is like a shroud of penance that we are supposed to wear all of the time. We are not allowed to enjoy food—ever. There is an extremely limited selection of clothes but a never-ending list of rules for dressing. No baring our arms, and we should absolutely stay away from short skirts, leggings, or skinny jeans.
For about 10 years, I lived with a leg that looked hideous. It had been crushed in a car accident. So not only was it crisscrossed by scars, but there were several sickening hollows in places where bone should have been and mounds that spoke of clear deformity. During those years, I felt obligated to protect the sensibility of others by keeping that leg under wraps. I didn’t want someone to be forced to view something that could make their stomachs turn or make them feel awkward.
The one time that I willfully displayed my leg was when one of my supervisors was critical because I did not take the stairs. I wore a short dress to our next meeting without opaque tights. I could see on his face the minute he saw my leg. And from that day forward, he acted more protectively of my leg than I did.
Over the course of many surgeries to improve my leg’s effectiveness, my doctors have also made steady progress toward making it more cosmetically neutral. They filled in the divots and cut out some of the most obvious scars. Of course many scars are still very obvious. But I no longer feel the need to protect others by covering up my leg.
How I felt about my leg is how I felt for years about my body: obligated to protect the world from its repugnance. Fat was worse than being ugly. It was being deformed in a way that made people queasy.
Sadly, losing weight only reinforced my belief that I had been grotesque when fat. People did not just compliment me on looking better, their entire opinion of me—my intellect, morality, and competence—changed. I was suddenly smarter, funnier, more reliable, better at my job, a fashionista, and above all, far more credible. People who had previously ignored me, suddenly realized that I existed. Those who had quietly mocked me began to wonder if maybe I had a few redeeming virtues.
I basked in the new positive attention. I believed that I had rehabilitated and redeemed myself by losing weight. All of my other efforts and achievements, the work I had done in all of the other areas of my life, all seemed to be eclipsed by weight loss. I gave myself no credit for all of the therapy that I had done to overcome my abusive childhood and experiences with sexual violence. In addition, I had found an effective treatment for my depression, earned a college degree, and I was thriving professionally. I had even forced my fibromyalgia and other pain conditions into remission with lots of physical therapy, surgery, and medication.
Despite all of the intensely challenging and worthwhile work I had done, what had conferred acceptability on me was the fact that I was now within the parameters of a normal weight. It was the outward evidence that I was now an emotionally well-balanced, productive, and worthwhile human being. For the first time in my life, I felt confident, competent, and yes, sexy.
So you can imagine what happened when I hit a health glitch, when I could no longer undertake the strenuous exercise that was keeping me acceptable in my own eyes and those of others. As the weight began to creep back, my opinion of myself began to drop—precipitously. I became invisible in public again. People I worked with once again considered me less competent, less smart, less credible. I became dismissible.
I crawled back into the sackcloth of plus-sized clothes, resigned to the asexuality they imposed. I stopped relishing my food, enjoying my body, aspiring to health.
I was mired in that state of fat-hatred when the erotic fat pictures began showing up in my feed. At first, I was seriously tempted to unsubscribe to the feeds of the women who posted them. But I liked the other things that they posted too much to do that. So I braced myself to look at the flesh of other fat women.
I could not continue to judge the other women as I judged myself—with fear and loathing. Even though I did not know those women and my contempt for them couldn’t possibly cause them any harm, I felt awful. And so I had to find a way to be kind in my thoughts toward them.
The phase of effortful kindness lasted for several months. As the pictures came up in my feed, I would stop and make myself find one attractive thing, one kind thing to say about the woman in each picture. At first, I had to actively work against my automatic aversion to photographs of fat. But as time went by and one lovely fat woman after another came across my feed, it became easier.
At some point, I become desensitized to fat enough that I could start seeing the true eroticism and beauty of the women in erotic fat pictures. I noticed that the light of sexiness cannot be hidden under a layer of fat.
I still have trouble seeing rolls of fat as sexy or beautiful. But the steady trickle of those pictures is wearing away my self-loathing, and chipping away at my worship of incredibly thin female bodies.
My experience of having friends who love the eroticized fat body has taught me an important lesson. It isn’t enough to banish unrealistic or unattainable images of the female body. We must also destigmatize and come to love the fat female body.
In a society that worships the “perfect” body, we owe it to ourselves to form a choir that sings the Body Eclectic, the folds and scars, wobbly bits and jiggles that make us human and authentically sexual.
If our bodies tell the stories of our lives, we need to let them say more than that we are desired. We need to allow them to tell the stories of how we are liberated, laden, limited, lucky, and loved.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.