Tag Archives: body image

The awkward business of shrinking

Warning: contains body size issues and possibly irrational thinking.

I’ve been losing weight for a while now. Intermittently, people compliment me on my shrinkage. It’s not been deliberate – which is odd all by itself, having spent most of life trying, and failing to reduce the amount of fat I’ve carried. At times in my life when I’ve dieted, I’ve gained weight, and in the recent years of just not bothering about it at all, the weight has gently fallen off. If there’s a sensible, mechanical process, it’s that I’m sleeping more and this helps me regulate my weight. There’s science around for this one.

Weight loss is held up in our wider culture as something to celebrate. It’s normal to praise people for it, and dieting is invariably presented in the media as a good thing: Feel great, look great, have more energy. This is not my experience of weight loss at all. I invariably feel worse and have less energy when it’s happening. The reasonable explanation for this is that unpleasant substances stored in my fat cells are releasing into my blood stream. Certainly, increasing water intake helps me get through, which could be a placebo, or could be the washing out process.

I notice, when I’m shrinking and feeling awful, it brings up memories. Usually intense and painful memories of times when I’ve been shamed, humiliated, or hurt. This is especially noticeable last thing at night when keeping my thoughts on a good and peaceful track is hard. During my most recent shrink period, I went through hours of painful recall. It felt (and this is the bit I can make no rational sense of) as if those memories were releasing from my fat cells. During the worst of it, I started wondering if what I had in my body wasn’t fat at all, but shame. Memory is distributed to some degree – muscle memory exists. Does fat memory exist?

I’ve been fat shamed for as long as I can remember, and I know weight is not a new issue or source of discomfort in my family line. There’s ancestry here and  am repeating it. My stomach has been a focal point for shame for as long as I can remember. The more able I am to accept myself as I am and let go of other people’s judgements, the less weight I seem to be carrying. The more I can say ‘this body is ok and it will do’ the less shame-fat there is. The less I see the measure of my girth as a measure of myself, the less girth there is to measure. Is that a coincidence? If there is cause and effect, which way round is it going? I don’t know, but the effects are becoming obvious.

Body-mind duality is a core part of western thinking, but it’s a flawed logic. Our brains and central nervous systems run on chemical and electrical processes. These are not separate from the rest of our body chemistry. The mind affects the body – that’s what it’s for. The body, inevitably, affects the mind. Emotions are chemical experiences. Stress is a very toxic chemical experience. Is it irrational to think that the physical processes of shame and distress might have a lasting impact on my body?

Further along this line of thought is all the New Agey ‘we make our own reality’ stuff, and the idea that by getting rid of negative thoughts we can fix everything. I’ve never bought that, I still don’t – it’s too simplistic. Avoiding negative thoughts means we can’t recognise vast swathes of truth. There are times when we need to acknowledge error, lack of care, poor judgement and so forth. We can’t grow if we can’t see where we are going wrong. Shame has important social functions. But how much shame, and how we process it is worth thinking about. How entitled our culture feels to shame us for things we have little control over is well worth considering. How much we pile the shame on ourselves for not meeting expectations is also a factor.

Once again, magic words like ‘enough’ seem relevant here. Good enough, tolerable – that’s all we need to be, any of us. And what if it isn’t that we feel as we do because we look a certain way, but that within the physical issues and limitations of our specific bodies, we’ve come to look a certain way in some part because it reflects elements of how we feel?

Female body image, fitness… and joy

A guest blog by Autumn Barlow

In this blog post I want to write about female body image, fitness … and joy. Celebration. Positivity. Love. Support. And laughter.

Twelve weeks ago, I would not have imagined I would be writing that. Indeed, you only have to stray onto the internet to be assailed by a ream of blog posts and articles which warn you about the trials and pitfalls of simply being in possession of a female-presenting body. You will always be too big, too small, too muscular, too rounded, too angular, just too real.

Twelve weeks ago, I decided to join a gym. I had a few reasons; after the death of our dog, I lost all motivation to go walking or cycling, and a history of medicinal steroids for Crohn’s Disease has left my bones thinner than average. The best thing for bone density, I found, was “resistance” training, also known as strength training, also known as … weightlifting. In my case, I chose powerlifting.

I googled. I read article after article that warned me about the terrors I was about to face. The articles told me I was going to be doing A Good Thing but that no one else would understand. I would have strangers warning me to “not get too muscular.” I would have men looking at me in the gym and trying to “mansplain” things to me. I read case studies and facebook posts where women documented their struggles to be taken seriously in the weights room. The negatives were endless; women struggling to eat enough for their training because society was judging them. Women trying to hide their toned arms. Women being used as bad examples to others – the woman who overheard a trainer tell his client not to use the big weights “Or you’ll look like her over there.”

I compiled a mental list of witty comebacks and strode into the gym with a face like a slapped arse. Come on, I snarled. Let’s have it.

Three months later, and I’m still waiting to be able to use those cutting retorts.

There is a website I have been following which talks about the everyday oppressions that many people experience; it discusses issues of race, sex, gender, able-ism and concepts of the “other”. I have read it, daily, for many months.

I recently unfollowed it.

Day after day, to be told that whatever you do – in whatever way you try to understand and be an ally – you will always be, somehow, wrong or privileged or in some way too entitled to ever really understand – that is draining. I ended up feeling like the very fact that I was trying to educate myself on issues was a problem! My desire to understand was a symptom of my education privilege, my intellectual privilege, these walls not of my own making that would forever see me on the other side, the evil oppressor.

When you go looking for wrongs, you can find them very easily. I went into the gym fired up and ready to take on the world because I had been told that the world was out to get me.

I am not dismissing the horrible and negative experiences that many women have had in the gym. And men, too; how terrifying is it for anyone to walk into a place where everything is unfamiliar and the rules are unwritten? No wonder that many people, if they find the courage to step inside, leap straight onto a running machine – they are near the door and they are simple to work out how to use – and they never make it to the sweaty freeweights section in a dark corner. I judge no one on their choices in the gym. Everyone who is there is damn brave.

And I acknowledge the disgusting comments that some women have heard; the well-meaning patronising advice; the sneers; the dismissals; and the abuse. I do.

But that’s not what this post is about. Not today. This post is about my experience … and my profound gratitude to my allies. Those who have tried to be an ally. You have succeeded. Thank you.

I hope that you, too, have people in your life – friends or family or strangers – who have helped you and supported you. It’s not always done overtly or directly. It might be the man in the gym who you don’t know, who chooses to stand at an angle while he does his biceps curls, so that he is not facing you head-on and intimidating you. Did you notice that he did that? It’s a small thing. But an important one. For all the douche-canoes I have heard of, that like to stand behind a woman who is squatting a heavy barbell, there are a dozen men who hold a respectful distance.

These allies, unacknowledged, unthanked. They don’t need a website to tell them that they are never going to understand me. Yet they can support, be respectful, be encouraging. And they do.

This, then, is for my parents. When I told them I had managed to deadlift 50kg after a few months of training, they did not shriek with alarm about how “big” I was going to get. They laughed and said “But that’s more than 100lb! Well done!” This, too, is for my husband. When I told him I was going to start lifting weights, he did not look scared and feel emasculated that I would no longer need him to open jars. He smiled and said, “Have fun!” This, then, is for the fitness instructor who said, “Finally a woman wants to do the weights!” This, then, is for the man in the power-rack before me, who said, “Do you want me to unload my weights or is this your warm-up weight?” His max was my warm-up weight and I appreciated his unforced comment. There was no assumption that I wanted a lighter weight. Small things. But … yes, important ones.

I could have driven myself crazy with the imagined terrors the internet warned me about. The experiences of other women, the online comments, the bad times. And I know I am not immune and some doofus will make a stupid remark at some point.

But hey … I’ve still got those witty come-back lines I need to use, right?


Image credit: http://thorvalkyrie.tumblr.com/post/128129428179/littlemoongoddess-booksomewench

Goddess Breasts

The arrival of breasts marks coming into womanhood and sexuality. Their importance in nourishing life is largely overshadowed by their sexual aspect, but both are critical for many women in their sense of being female.

Breasts can be anything from tiny nubs – the fried egg shape, the small plum, through to watermelon proportions. Being small has its uses if you want to run anywhere, but not all women with small breasts are comfortable with them. Being big might give you porn star fetish credibility, but they weight a lot, can cause back ache, get in the way of doing. Whatever their shape and size, breasts inform a woman’s sense of self and worth, and all the world seems willing to judge and make demands about how those breasts should look.

I had an ex who loved me flaunting my cleavage, until I got involved with him. Then he wanted me to cover up, keeping that part of my body exclusively for him. Another ex, had a second girlfriend (back in the days when I was exploring polyamoury). Her breasts were easily twice the size of mine, and he commented on that a lot, which did my self esteem no good at all.

I happen to like breasts. In terms of bodily beauty I’m with every classical painter who ever lived on this one, and every marketing director: Frequently, the male body isn’t that aesthetically pleasing. Breasts, on the other hand, are inherently lovely and pleasing to the eye. But by this, I do not mean pumped up breasts, I very specifically mean real ones, in all their variety, large to small, sagging to perky, in any combination. Breasts are femininity made manifest, and all of them should be celebrated.

Here in the UK, we’re in the aftermath of a French company putting industrial grade silicon into women’s bodies. Thousands of women have had their bodies modified with sub standard material that could harm them. Now, some of those women were no doubt having reconstructive surgery in the aftermath of illness or injury, and I have no argument with that. Most, I expect, did it because they felt the breasts nature had bestowed upon them just weren’t good enough. Too small, to please all those men like that ex of mine who considered breast size to be the sole measure of a woman’s worth. Too small to be a porn star, a pin up, or these days, a regular pop artist or movie star. Or maybe they had breasts that showed they had carried and nourished a child. Not so perky, not like the breasts of a woman who has not given birth. And we all know that women are not supposed to look as though they’ve reproduced, that’s not sexy. Real isn’t sexy. Plastic, fake, and impossible is sexy. Going under the knife is, apparently, sexy. Having your body cut up and reshaped to fit in with other people’s expectation, is sexy. Bloody hell!

Of course the big argument for breast ‘enhancement’ is self esteem and tackling poor body image. Of course, if we lived in a culture where breasts were loved no matter what their size or shape, there would be far less reason for normal, healthy women to seek surgery.

So here’s my question to all you pagans. What does a goddess look like? Does a goddess have porn star tits, of back breaking proportions and gravity defying magic? Or does a goddess look like a real woman? I know what kind of world I want to live in. It’s one of the reasons that when I’m writing erotica, I don’t go in for crazy bodies. I’ve never written a woman with breast implants, nor would I. I love the way lesbian fiction already tends to celebrate real women, I just wish the mainstream would hurry up and catch on.

Love the breasts you have. Respect the breasts you encounter. Never judge a woman by her chest, and if a man tells you your breasts aren’t up to scratch, take this as clear evidence that he isn’t up to scratch and ditch him right there and then. The answer is not to be cut up and redesigned.