Seeking a peace accord in one body’s war against itself

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After my first year away at university, I returned in smaller proportions, a condition my mother was hard-pressed to celebrate. Though on the one hand, she had tried to help me find thinner throughout my high school years, on the other my smaller size dramatized our contrast rather than our longstanding alignment as overweight. I had been her ally and food our frenemy. Caught between thick and the desire for thin, we ate within closets and scolded ourselves in public in front of full-length mirrors in department stores: she in Plus Plus, me graduating from Chubby to Plus. It was difficult for both of us to accept the seeming dissolution of our alliance. The thinness was not permanent, however. I grew larger once more over the summer; the strain between us dissipated.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2022 (209 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After my first year away at university, I returned in smaller proportions, a condition my mother was hard-pressed to celebrate. Though on the one hand, she had tried to help me find thinner throughout my high school years, on the other my smaller size dramatized our contrast rather than our longstanding alignment as overweight. I had been her ally and food our frenemy. Caught between thick and the desire for thin, we ate within closets and scolded ourselves in public in front of full-length mirrors in department stores: she in Plus Plus, me graduating from Chubby to Plus. It was difficult for both of us to accept the seeming dissolution of our alliance. The thinness was not permanent, however. I grew larger once more over the summer; the strain between us dissipated.

I am not unique in the ping-pong move from fat to thinner, from thinner to fat birthed by sizeism industries, unhappily as relevant in this day as they were in my own growing up 70 years ago and in my mother’s a generation before me. She could not downsize. She hated herself for breaking the restrictions she sometimes imposed upon consumption; she hated the tremendous energy it took to prepare for the world outside — the way it assessed her defection from the “normal” that defined acceptable and appealing. Her desperation diet by the kitchen sink — white bread, Cheese Whiz, strawberry jam — soothed but did not ease. My mother could never conceive that her very being, her talent and ability, trumped her size big time. Ironies.

We smoked together, perhaps imagining smoking to be an effective appetite suppressant. Not once, however, did we imagine we’d ever beat this thing that plagued us both from childhood to maturity. I write aware of another plague called COVID-19, whose dimensions and impact have changed the contemporary world in which I live. Perhaps I can’t use plague to name how we were both haunted by “big” and “sloppy,” by cravings that had as much to do with self-esteem and the longing to belong as they had to do with chocolate. More so. The plague of body shaming, the advocacy of shapewear that fetters flesh — foundation garment girdles, corsets, Spanx — has a long history.

When I was 14, I was sent to a diet doctor. I was the only person there younger than 35, but my anguish at being fat was as mature as the oldest woman present, as steeped in a losing battle against the size we came in. Fourteen and “too big” matures the owner of the body deemed unacceptable, turns her inward, renders her keenly aware of differences.

I longed to be “less.” The doctor put us through paces he had devised: carrots, humiliation and exercise. I took to jogging in place in my second-floor bedroom with a vengeance. I rocked the house. My parents did not say a word as I thundered overhead. They were hoping. I was hoping. I got to smaller in a fog of shame and determination, and one day, two of my best and “better”-proportioned friends from Grade 10 commended my shape shift, offering, “Now you can look like us.” The language bewildered me. Even within my “big,” I had always thought I did… look like them in real ways. We were humans, girls, 15, in high school, with the usual array of crazy that distinguished many families in the ’60s.

I did not “look like” them for long. My mother, hoping to correct that development, bought me a girdle and longline bra. They met at my waist; there was no seepage. (At nine, I myself had imagined a sculpted body suit that ran from my neck to my ankles now fetchingly called Skims, available online.) As far as I could see, I made so much noise coming and going, the elasticized girdle chaffing underneath plaid skirts, I was no further ahead.

I remember the line from the Civil War epic Gone With The Wind: Scarlet, hungry, alone, incensed, shaking her fist at a lurid, twilight sky, cries, “I will never be hungry again.” Something like that. At 17, I substituted girdle and longline bra as my rallying cry, vowing nevermore to be harnessed by undergarments. I used the cry in the little dressing room I shared with my American aunt who had been brave enough to take me shopping. I was visiting her in Detroit, just before the 1967 Riot. Again, insofar as plague has taken on harrowing meaning in this 21st century and therefore might not accommodate that war on fat in my time, the differences between a fat girl’s rallying cry and the Civil War (however defectively presented in the film) may not be fair. But FAT in my growing-up culture and FAT in this one comes with soul-destroying bigotry and denunciation.

My aunt laughed as I railed. When she told the story over the years that followed, she still laughed. I had never intended a joke. I was claiming my human right to breathe, to walk unencumbered, to be taken seriously, on my terms, in the battleground in which I found myself. My aunt was beautiful, petite. Perhaps she could not conceive the full nature of the resistance exploding in her 17-year-old niece.

Throughout my long life (and how lucky am I, how privileged), I have waged various campaigns in relation to body shaming and the promotion of skinny. Even the long, pointy, men’s winklepicker and its sister, the stiletto, enshrine odd and unnatural proportions, prizing lean-foot lines and tipped toes. I wait for further weighty issues to develop: the attack on fleshy earlobes, oversized nostrils, thick necks, spatula fingers. In reality, I don’t wait. Given the preoccupations with thin as defined by a “just-right” body normative, the attack must already be expansively underway.

While I might succumb periodically to promotional materials enshrining just-right — think that somewhere over a rainbow a miracle plan exists that will amend my proportions — in my Third Act, I stand more fully in my own power. Accordingly, I am more clearly devoted to my body as she grows old, grateful for the good work she continues to do on my behalf; humbled by her wisdom; in cahoots with her need for movement and nourishment; and, finally, amazed by her capacity to endure the travail of battles I so often waged against weight “gained” and “lost.”

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