Tag Archives: body shape

Body Shape Stories

I grew up with the story that ‘thin’ was the only acceptable body shape. There could be no beauty without thinness. As I was not thin, I was not attractive and it was unlikely that anyone would love me. I was told explicitly on one occasion (I was probably twelve or thirteen) that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. These stories informed my sense of self, and my sense of who I should be.

I spent my teens failing to be thin. I have the kind of body that gets efficient under pressure, and stores hard in a crisis, and my attempts at dieting looked too much like a crisis to my body. At some points I was down to one meal a day. The story of trying to be thin was more important than any other story. Even though it was never what I truly wanted for myself.

What I really wanted, was to be strong. From late childhood, I rather wanted to be Batman. This body was never going to run fast or climb ropes or leap between buildings, but even so, Batman was a much better story to tell myself. Had I been supported in going with my Batman story, I would have spent my teens trying my hardest to be fit and strong. I would have eaten good food to support my body in being as Batman-like as it could be. I would have been a happier and healthier person.

I’ve spent my whole life fighting against a story that says female beauty is thin, delicate, fragile, down to the bones and looks easy to break. That story has lived in my head, even though it doesn’t match my sense of self. I still want to be Batman. Or Vasquez from Aliens. I want to be strong. And in many ways it is a better investment, for now, and for the long term.

I don’t like it when people read stories into my body about who I am and what I might want to do. I don’t like it when people I don’t know at all want to engage with me on the basis of how my face looks. I don’t find bone thin fragility attractive in other women either, it just worries me. I’m conscious of the way the emaciated ‘beauty’ notion comes to us from the Victorians fetishing women who were dying of tuberculosis. I don’t like the awareness that women who take up less space are preferable in some environments.

The older a person gets, the less scope they have to be ‘pretty’ as society likes to measure it. However, the thin, fragile, delicate older woman is vulnerable in so many ways. I don’t want to age with fragile, brittle grace. I want to be strong. I am not, in my later life, going to get to be Batman, I accept that. But, if I am strong, I will do better. I will be healthier, and happier, and have a body story it is possible to live with, not a body story that would kill me if it got the chance.

Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.

Female body shapes

‘Thin’ is a problematic concept that has haunted me my entire life. Like many female-bodied persons, I tend towards curves. I’m aware that I have hips and breasts for breeding purposes. This is not an unusual quality in women. I also have a body that is perfectly willing to build muscle. Muscle does not make you thin. If you have muscles, you won’t have your bones on display.

Being thin depends on not eating too much. It depends on ignoring hunger. Calorie control, for me, means no energy, no means to be physically active. But then, thin doesn’t require you to be physically active, because thin doesn’t have any room in it for decent muscles.

What thin gives you is a delicate, fragile aesthetic. It says that you won’t be able to run away or put up much of a fight. You can easily be carried off. Thin female shapes can suggest pre-pubescence, or being a boy. There may be questions to ask about male tastes that favour girls who look like male children, and women who look easy to overpower.

Fit is a much easier thing to work on, I have found. Fit means choosing good food and not going hungry. It means having the energy to be active, and using that energy to be active. It means enjoying the body rather than denying it. That too, raises questions. Appetite for food is easily linked to other bodily appetites. If you’re working with an angels/whores take on womanhood, then the angles will be thin and unworldly, and the whores will enjoy all carnal things – food, sex, their own bodies… How much is thinness about not being allowed to enjoy your own physical self?

In the fashion industry, I gather the favouring of the very thin body has to do with how clothes sit. If the model is very thin across the pelvis and bust, you know the clothes will hang right regardless of who wears them. Thin is a way to make us all the same, to deny diversity and the reality of body shapes. Bodies are diverse. There would be more art in designing clothes that look good on different body shapes, but high fashion does not appear to be up for this challenge.

Thin is a full time job. You can’t take days off from it. Bodies that think they are living through a famine will store calories as soon as there are extra ones to play with. This is part of why many dieters find their weight yo-yos. Being thin, if it is not your natural body shape, is something you have to think about all the time. I’m not sure how many women have bone thin as their natural body shape. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who was really thin and who did not have to work at it. Naturally very thin women only seem to exist in films and TV shows, carelessly eating and drinking what they like and staying skinny because they are creatures of the (male?) imagination.

I think the quest to be thin is a dubious pursuit at best. There’s so much shaming of the female body in the industries that benefit from thinness. Imagine how much happier, and healthier we could all be and how much more time and money we could have to invest in other things if we gave up on the shapes we’ve been told to be, and started looking after our bodies with the idea of being fit and healthy instead.

Body differences and the weird logic of diets

There are a great many people who are not able to lose weight through diet and exercise. The standard response is to assume they just weren’t trying hard enough. We have no qualms about shaming people who can’t manage their weight by the means they are told will work for them.  As though the human body is a simple system, and always works in the same way, and as if what you eat and how much you move are the only factors involved in size.

To talk about this, I’m going to step sideways into the parallel world of muscle. Muscles are complicated, and we don’t all have it in us to build the same ones. Some of us are better suited to speed than lifting power. Some of us naturally have more stamina than others. Hit the limits on what your muscles can do, and the odds are good the people around you will assume it’s because you’ve hit your limits. It may be about how much glycogen your muscles can store – that may be genetic.  And of course muscles don’t work alone, there’s bone and tendon to consider, blood flow, reflexes, metabolism.

Get into the world of muscle even a little bit and you’ll find it is complex, and there’s no expectation that all bodies are going to work the same way. We don’t shame people for having sinewy strength rather than big muscles. We assume that difference is normal. This is in no small part because we have generations of knowledge that different bodies respond to exercise in different ways and that different people have different strengths.

On the whole, fat is a new problem for us as a species. Perhaps for much of human history, it was fair to assume that more often than not, fat went with how much you ate. That didn’t necessarily make it an unpopular thing, either. Historically, fat has equated to wealth and opulence – historic portraits of people have a lot of bigger people in them. The rich have carried their extra pounds with pride. However, this century has seen fat become a widespread issue for poor people, and that makes it a problem, and no longer desirable.  Perceived greed is something the poor are always punished for.

Sleep deprivation causes weight gain – the evidence is out there but it isn’t much publicised. Sleep deprivation is for the greater part a industrial ailment, made worse in recent years by 24/7 culture, shift working, stress, screens and time pressure. Hard to get enough sleep if you’re working two jobs, and this too is a modern problem.

We feed growth hormones to creatures raised for meat, but I’ve not seen anyone suggesting that there could be a relationship between weight gain, and eating something that was pumped full of chemicals to make it gain weight. We put all manner of chemicals into our food, and the long term experiments to discover the long term impact of eating them? We’re it.

We should be asking about the relationship between malnourishment and weight gain – if your diet is about filling up on not very nutritional carbs, what does that do? What happens when you can’t afford to eat good food? What does stress do to metabolism and body size? Some of us burn frantically in response to stress, but what if some of us stock up reserves? What if dieting just adds to the stress that has your body trying to store calories? Why should there be just one story about how we get fat and how to shed that fat? It doesn’t add up.

We need better research into the issue of weight gain, rather than this endless preaching about the imagined moral failure of being fat. We need answers that take into account body difference and that we’re no doubt not all designed to be exactly the same shape. We need to work out what healthy weight means – the Body Mass Index is worse than useless. We need health measurements that aren’t just about size and we also need to start recognising that if a large person is ill, it may not be simply a case that they need to lose weight and get more exercise. Perhaps if we were collectively slower to pathologise fat, we would be able to have healthier ideas about how to live with the bodies we have.

The urge to be elfin

Comments on my recent ‘stuff going on in my life’ blog queried why it is that I want to be thin. A valid point and worthy of a ponder. I’ve spent my entire life considering myself to be overweight, and wanting to be thinner than I am. Photographic evidence suggests my child self was not as obese as I then believed myself to be. Post having a baby, I was quite large. In my teens I was certainly buxom, and at the moment I’m the smallest I’ve ever been as an adult. A few years ago I would have said I stood no chance of being this thin, and wouldn’t aspire to be thinner, and yet here I am, and still too big, by some elusive measure.

I absorbed very early on the simple message that only very thin people can be attractive. Super-waifs were fashionable and I longed to be visually appealing. So much pressure is put on girls to be attractive – not good, or clever, virtuous, kind or pretty, just thinly beautiful. I was ‘funny looking’ and too fat, from as far back as I could remember. I couldn’t fix my face, but in theory I could be thin…

The funny thing is that I’m perfectly capable of finding women who are not bone thin, visually attractive. I like curves, when I’m looking at other women. I admire feminine figures. Not my own body, though.

I’ve noticed a thing with weight loss… the idea of lose some pounds every week. There’s no end point, no sense that it should stop when you get to the right place. The kudos is for losing, week after week, even though if you did that forever, you would die. None the less, the concept of getting thinner, as something I should always be doing, is hard to shake off. No matter what clothes size I am, it never seems small enough and the reflection in the mirror looks podgy like a suet pudding.

Intellectually, I know that I am thinner than I have ever been, that bone-thin is not something I find attractive in others, nor is it healthy, but the impulse simply has not gone away. The only bit I found resonant in the otherwise tedious Bridget Jones’s Diary, was her observation that she had always imagined the ideal was to consume no calories at all, to somehow exist without eating. Irrational, troubling, wholly familiar.

It’s been drilled into me from so many sources and for so many years, that this particular demon will take some silencing.
The trouble is that I wanted to be an elf, a willowy fey creature, a nymph, a dryad… something delicate looking and romantic. I have always been solidly built, tall, robust looking such that people are quick to assume that I am all of those things, and emotionally robust as well. I do not look like a delicate little flower, ergo I do not need to be treated like one. There are times when looking like a fragile orchid might have elicited more helpful responses. People see, and make judgements, and I’ve dealt with that all my life. I’m a big girl, I shouldn’t be making a fuss. Smaller, more innately feminine and delicate girls have seemed, from my jaundiced perspective, to get cut a lot more slack. I wanted some of that.

On the other hand it makes me furious, this culturally ingrained idea that in women, only small is beautiful. The less space you occupy, the better. Appetites of any kind are unladylike, and vulgar. Ghosts of the Victorian parlour haunt us yet, with their eighteen inch waists and fainting fits. Half-starved models and actresses modified by surgery. Air brushed pop stars. Disney Princesses with their wasp waists and nice dresses. I know where these ideas come from, but they got in early, and there isn’t much to counter them with.

I spent a lot of years thinking that, if only I was thin enough, I would be loveable. Finding someone who loves me as I am has been a revelation, but there’s a lot of history to this one. I suspect I’m not alone in these experiences. Encountering tales of what other young women endured in order to be thin, and thire fear of weight, have made me realise that no one gets to win with this. The thin girls aren’t happy either, and they see fat girls in the mirror too. There’s an enormous wrong around how we portray ideal femininity, and I’m afraid the Pagan community is as rife with it as any other. Take a look at our representation of goddesses. Waifs predominate. Young, fashionable waifs, often scantily clad. I’d like to live in a world in which the ideal feminine is not profoundly unnatural.