[This post talks about weight loss, body image, and public reactions to weight and weight loss. Please feel free to skip if you need to!]
So this month there’s been an odd uptick in the number of people who commented on my body at the office. My direct supervisor, two of my closest colleagues, and two colleagues who work on different floors and don’t see me all that often all, unprompted, offered comments like:
“Are you still running? I can really tell!”
“Good for you!”
“You’re looking so skinny!”
“Are you wearing stockings? Your legs are so perfect! There’s no scars or smudges or anything! You’re so pale! You’re perfect!”
“Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
“What’s your secret? You look so thin!”
And I never know how to respond (although the lady who was obsessed with my legs then took it to a VERY weird place re: my paleness, so I just gritted my teeth and said nothing). Like, first of all, why should I have to respond? Why are women expected to mercilessly dissect their own bodies, analyze their eating habits in public, and self-flagellate if their arms aren’t toned or whatever? It’s really weird you guys. Conversations about weight, diets, and eating/exercise habits never EVER bring joy to anyone (seriously, no one wins in these conversations), yet I have been around them daily for most of my life. It’s also weird that I feel weird about responding to what is, in my coworkers’ minds, a compliment. So take the most boring topic of conversation ever, add someone with insecurities and hangups about said boring topic of conversation, and then said conversation becomes awkward as hell.
When I hear comments like the ones from my co-workers, these are the thoughts that run through my head:
“They mean that as a compliment, say thank you.”
“But no, why is it a compliment, why is skinny good, and does that mean I looked bad before?”
“Just say thank you and move on.”
“WAIT, a year ago was I just blithely walking around while everyone was secretly thinking I looked terrible and they didn’t tell me?”
“Oh god, if I only look good now, I better keep hustling to keep the weight off.”
“Oh god, what if I gain it back?”
“I think I looked GREAT last year, fuck these people.”
“My appearance is not the most important part of me, goddammit.”
“If I confess I’ve been actively trying to lose weight, will someone think that I’m not body-positive anymore?”
“They’re still waiting for a response, make your face look normal and say something.”
“I’ve totally lost weight and gained it back before, and if I do it again this time, will they think I look bad again? That I’m weak and have no willpower and that I’m gross and lazy?”
“Dude, you still haven’t said anything and they are waiting for a response you are such a weirdo!”
I don’t weigh myself. I can’t do it. I’ve been instructed at various points in my life to chart my body’s measurements, keep food diaries, weigh myself daily/weekly/monthly, use numbers as goals, and it always, ALWAYS makes me miserable and anxious, and it triggers unhealthy eating and exercise habits in response. So about five years ago I said “nope, I’m not doing this anymore.” I get weighed once a year at my office’s annual health screenings, because if I go to one of those I get a flu shot and a few extra bucks in my paycheck. At my annual physicals I ask the nurse and doctor not to tell me my weight, and they are, thankfully, respectful of that.
So I don’t know what I weigh today, but as of October 2014 I’d lost 29 pounds since October 2013. I might have lost a few more since then, I might have gained a few more, I’m not sure, but based on how my clothes are fitting, I suspect I’ve maintained the weight loss through the holidays and into the Spring.
This weight loss was intentional. It was the result of a deliberate decision and a lot of hard, boring, hard, boring, hard work, and I am fortunate to be able-bodied and healthy enough that I could make that decision and undertake that work. In late 2013 I started having trouble finding clothes. Well, more trouble than usual– I’ve always had limited options. My shoulders and back had broadened from pole dancing, and after a couple of years of living alone for the first time in my life I’d slid into some unhealthy eating habits. Stuck between misses and plus sizes, feeling unprofessionally dressed at work, and finding my lingerie options suddenly more and more limited, I began to want to make some changes. I felt uncomfortable sitting in seats on public transit, I felt uncomfortable trying to reach certain yoga poses, and I felt uncomfortable trying to learn new pole tricks. I even felt uncomfortable trying to fall asleep at night. I practiced self-care and tried to think and speak of my body with respect and love, but I also acknowledged that, physically, I just didn’t feel good.
I also turned 30 in 2014, and both sides of my family boast some pretty not-good hereditary health issues, including heart disease. While my bloodwork, blood pressure, and health checks had always been in the healthy range (thankfully), I decided to take some measures to ensure that they stayed that way. In February of 2014 I used Lent to kick-start some healthier eating and exercise habits, but it wasn’t until I saw the pictures from the Bridal Boudoir shoot from April 2014 that I realized I wanted to make those habits permanent.
Those pictures are lovely: the gorgeous flowers, soft sunlight, elegant lingerie, and professional hair and makeup all made me so excited to have the pictures appear on the blog and on Burnett’s Boards. But the first time I saw them I was, frankly, shocked. The girl in the photos looked happy, and she looked so pretty, but she didn’t look like me. The person I saw in the photos did not match my sense of myself.
So now I try to run 25 miles a week. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but that’s the goal. I do this at the Planet Fitness in my neighborhood, whose blessed Wi-Fi allows me to watch my CW superhero shows to distract me from how boring and time-consuming running is. I try to eat dessert only once a week, which I’ve been less successful with but overall have managed to stick to. I do yoga a few times a month. I know I should do more to work all the muscles in my body, especially my arms and core, but doing sets and reps makes me angry, so I don’t do them, and I’m pretty okay with that.
I have never had a flat stomach with rippling abs. I’ve had slim arms and legs, but my belly and breasts have always been a little full, a little soft. Even so, and even though I still wear larger sizes, if my weight loss has taught me anything, it’s that thin privilege is a very, very real thing. The first day last year when I went into a store and the size 14 zipped up comfortably I almost started crying. It was a FUCKING GIFT– there were CLOTHES IN THE STORES THAT FIT. Clothes that I liked! My god, the clothes that fit were EVERYWHERE! At every budget! I had choices! There were pants and tops and skirts and dresses and jackets and coats and they were all going to zip and the way clothes suddenly became an easy, almost thoughtless thing took my breath away (I mean, easy within reason– pants and sleeves are still too short and shoes are too small, but baby steps). I had to work incredibly, incredibly hard for over a year and take hours out of my days just to reach a size that many people would still consider fat, and I wanted to cry: with relief, sure, but also frustration. We’re told, over and over, that there’s an acceptable size range that all people are supposed to fit in. I had to work so, SO hard just to touch the edge of that size range. Was I still, fundamentally, unacceptable? All that work, and I was still shut out?
Through much of 2013 I thought about my wardrobe with a sense of panic and dread. I tried shopping from some of the great plus size retailers out there, but I struggled to find clothes that felt like “me”. I love love love seeing women wearing their vintage, rockabilly, and retro inspired plus size clothes. They look dishy and gorgeous and happy and stunning. When I tried these styles for myself, I felt like I was wearing a costume. I felt exposed and on display.
I realized that I seem to use my wardrobe to blend in, or even shrink myself. I wear heels on rare occasions, because I’m well over six feet tall in them. I like creating sleek lines instead of volume. I like styles that show off my legs, because they are long and slim, and I use jewelry and other details to draw attention away from my waist. Don’t look here, I say. Look at my face! Look at my mind! Look at my red lipstick! Please don’t say anything about the rest of me please please please.
Because the things people have said about the rest of me over the years have suuucked.
Which brings me around to Plus Sized Wars, which aired in the UK in April, and while I was unable to watch it in the US, and therefore couldn’t cheer on the lovely Georgina from Fuller Figure Fuller Bust, my social feeds filled up with every single sucky thing everyone feels entitled to say to women about their bodies. More than that, people feel an OBLIGATION to say these things to women. It is of moral, life-or-death importance to them that they, as strangers, let women (and it’s always women) who wear plus size clothes and encourage body positivity know exactly why they’re disgusting, wrong, unhealthy, a bad example, unfuckable, hypocritical, drains on social welfare, destroying the country, and worse. Reading those comments reminded me that while all body snark is bad (why, WHY would anything possess you to do tell someone that something was wrong with their body? What the hell?), women who are bigger than some arbitrary standard are the recipients of truly appalling attacks. Yes, discrimination affects men too, but in all the discussion in the wake of the broadcast, I only ever saw people talking about “these girls”, “these ridiculous women”, or “these terrible role models for young girls.” The criticism had a seriously nasty misogynist streak: some people responded to a program that explores the intersection of body positivity, new retail sectors, and shifts in the fashion world with the same dismissive, silencing language women pioneers have faced since, oh, forever: the women in the documentary were called vain, stupid, slutty, greedy, and shallow. People were livid that the women featured wanted cute clothes, yet they would have been equally cruel if the women had worn sweatpants or oversized t-shirts.
I thought losing weight might protect me from similar judgment and evaluation, but apparently even when it’s a little smaller (I’m a big human being), my body is still up for discussion. Having been on the receiving end of comments about both weight loss and weight gain, I don’t for a moment consider “you look so thin” and “you need to put down the burger and exercise” to carry equal judgment: in my personal experience, the former inevitably comes as a compliment (or an expression of envy), the latter is inevitably intended to shame, to hurt, and to dismiss.
SO WHY DO WE ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT WOMEN’S WEIGHT? It’s almost like if we whip everyone up into a frenzy about women’s bodies then we won’t ever have to listen to their thoughts or honor their minds, their talents, their strengths. Why, it’s almost like if we make their weight the thing of primary importance about them, we don’t have to leave any room for those other, less-important things, like, oh, women’s souls.