When I was larger and I would discuss my troubles with others – the topics ranging everywhere from body shame to small theatre seats – people would often ask “well, why don’t you just lose the weight.” I want to discuss the complexities of this question and why it is highly problematic.
First, the implication present in this question is that slender bodies are better and thus this question contributes significantly to the propagation of violent beauty myths that imprison what I imagine to be a majority of individuals. Asking “why don’t you just lose the weight” instead of asking why seats aren’t made larger, for example, illustrates a complacency with the ways in which bodies are surveilled and shamed through spatial organizing, media ideals, fashion policing, and the like. Through asking this question you are essentially stating that you think the suffocating ideal of thinness that is enforced in every public and most private places is not only apt but desirable. Instead we should be asking why our spaces are organized in the manner that they are, why large bodies intimidate folks, and what capital gains from forcing a size 6 down women’s throats … just to name a few.
Second, this question wholly supports a flawed and dangerous vision of ability that finds footing on the foundation of the meritocracy. It obscures the ways in which many folks can’t “just” lose weight due to ability, age, health issues, income, employment demands etc…
I lost my weight through diet and exercise. I lived off of protein bars, chicken, tuna, and green vegetables. I spent three times as much money on groceries doing this. To do this I had to sacrifice already scarce leisure activities, and ended up with credit card debt as well. Even so, I was privileged to have access to a credit card and a job that paid me enough to invest in my health through clean eating. Also, I worked only one job, so food preparation was possible. Before losing weight I often worked two and sometimes three jobs. I ate on the go and I ate what was fast and pre-packaged. I was poor, so when I made friends with fast food workers in the mall they would slip me free or discounted fried toxicity. When you are hungry, a processed sandwich that doesn’t mold is still far better than nothing at all. It also fills you more than an apple – and they cost the same. You figure out ways to satiate your hunger through spending less and obtaining quick meals.
I also had access to a kitchen with working appliances and pots and pans. Years before my weight loss I spent a few months living out of my car, which prevented any form of healthy eating. You can’t eat a salad for lunch or chicken for dinner without a refrigerator to store it in, a stove to cook it on, and a pan to cook it in. When I finally had enough for a place I was working all of the time, so again the temporal luxury of food preparation that is necessary for weight loss is something not available to all. If one also considers that most obese individuals are of poor or working classes we can begin the trace the ways in which systems of capital make it near impossible for vulnerable bodies to eat healthy let alone lose weight if they desire to.
I was also able to purchase a gym membership. Let us also consider that I am also largely able bodied, and while I was very large I was still able to nail an elliptical three or four times a week.
These are only some of the considerations that questions such as “why don’t you just lose weight” obscure. When we ask this questions we are erasing the complexities and vulnerabilities that folks navigate every day. When we ask this question we are assuming another human being exists in the same ways we do. I wish to stress that assuming this does not make someone a villain, as it is common to judge the world through our own experiences. Yet it is also comfortable to do that. What this question does is erase the discomfort necessary to learn, grow, and listen.
Third, this question further interrogates bodies that are shamed and humiliated on a daily basis. This question places blame on the individual who exists in particular, political circumstances instead of on systems of power and inequity that work to keep individuals in dire straits. This question, and those similar to it (such as why don’t you go on a diet, why don’t you get a surgery, why don’t you try walking an extra mile) propel conversations of inadequacy and ineptitude while simultaneously seeking to erase stories of great import.
Those questions contribute to moments where young girls are daydreaming of cutting away their flesh. They contribute to barnyard noises shouted out of car windows. They contribute to photos that are cruelly posted online with captions like “someone let the pig out of the barn.”
While they often come from a place of good intentions, they – like telling someone they are beautiful in “their own way” – are poison. They are implicated in the maintenance of pain and cruelty. They are implicated in a routine and toxic conversation that states some bodies are worth more than others. Furthermore, they have the potential to instill a sense of failure into people who desperately need encouragement. Each time this question is asked there is an air of judgment beneath it that cuts and burns.
I encourage people to consider that not every person who is deemed “large” wants to lose weight, and that’s ok. I have heard the argument about health and higher costs of health care (we healthy folks shouldn’t pay more for them). What of individuals who utilize tanning beds and further their risk of cancer? What of the folks who often wear heels and further their risks of damaged leg tendons and nerves?
My point is not that we should start interrogating those folks. My point is that we should stop judging others based on what they do or do not have on their body. My point is that we live in a society that is incredibly dangerous. From air pollutants, water contamination, GMO’s, and streams of radiation emanating from our various electronic devices – we are all going to need healthcare and there isn’t a single way to guarantee which body will need more or who will pay for it. Nor should that be our concern.
Our concern should be securing a system of ethical care that nurtures all bodies equally without reference to those who can pay. Our concern should be cultivating a kinder and more accepting world that doesn’t encourage humans to traumatize others with their cruelty. The various mechanisms of power in place are really quite adept at inflicting trauma – they don’t need assistance and we should, as socially conscious actors, resist the hell out of them. We should begin creating a better space where we talk to strangers instead of belittling them; where we help someone struggling instead of walking by; where we call out problematic statements, jokes, and questions instead of pretending we didn’t hear. We are all guilty, but we should release our guilt. Guilt serves no purpose other than keeping us frozen. Instead we should seek out the stories of others as opposed to assuming we know them. We should dig for the problematic questions and work to eradicate them. We should start a new conversation.
In 2005 I sojourned to Rhode Island from Utica, NY to see a rock and roll band play. I was with two good friends, both of whom were attractive, kind, and much thinner than I. I always had a terrible habit of comparing myself to the people I was with – feeling somewhat misplaced and always far too visible when my girth was placed alongside their more slender forms. On the way to the show we stopped off at a rest area – the three of us stood in front of the mirrors atop the sinks and primped, as they say. Of course as big as I felt, when I looked at them I felt bigger – more out of place because there was no space big enough to hold me.
There was a scale in the bathroom – one of those pay $.25 and get your weight carnival-esque type machines. I avoided scales. It had been years since I stepped on one. I decided to try. I weighed over 330 pounds. I knew I had gained some since leaving high school, but I didn’t realize it was so much. I was crushed. I felt nauseous. My self-disgust reached new heights in the public restroom of a parking area on the highways between New York and Rhode Island. My only sanctuary was the metal walls of a stall that millions of strangers had visited over time.
I turned to my friend and asked her if she could tell that I weighed so much. She said she could but it was ok because I was beautiful in my own way and fuck anyone who said different.
***Please, if you take anything from this blog, I hope you take this --- avoid telling people that they are beautiful “in their own way.” Avoid telling someone that, while they are not pretty like girls in magazines, they have their “own look” about them. You shine a light on the fact that they don’t fit, and while these words come from a place of good intentions they are poison. They are a condemnation. It is not about supporting the status quo. It is not about buying into ideals. It is not about wishing to fit a fabricated and violent mold. It is about breaking those things. It is about not being compared against something that's done nothing except haunt you. It is about not feeling as if there is something wrong with you. It is about not being made to feel like the unwilling spectacle or cabinet of curiosities even around those closest to you.***
I went into those public metal walls and I closed my eyes. I imagined cutting myself away with scissors and tying the pieces back together. Even the scars would be an improvement.
I almost drove back, but I always felt at home at shows. In a room of misfits – tattoos, mohawks, torn clothes, missing teeth – I didn’t feel hyper-visible. When the dance began it didn’t matter what you wore or looked like, it mattered that you could keep pace and move or stand back in grand appreciation. I always kept the pace up; it was part of my resistance. I decided to go.
I was wearing a mauve shirt cut wide at the shoulders with a black camisole underneath. This particular shirt had black felt birds scattered around the neckline and I loved it because it was hip. Finding great clothes when you’re obese and on a strict budget is pretty much a modern purgatory filled with shame, frustration, and often times a good deal of bathroom and/or fitting room breakdowns.
It seems retailers and fashion designers are hell-bent on dressing obese bodies in denim button downs with embroidered birdhouses, because it hides the body. It screams that the body isn’t sexual – it isn’t a threat and it is laughable. It is something to decorate in mellow patterns because that body shouldn’t want to stand out – it should want to hide and fold itself into pastel colored pop tents. There is something ultimately comical about affordable plus-size clothing – always in pastels or grayscale with three-daisy buttons or some other ridiculous and infantile accompaniment (like birdhouses). When a body is dressed in these garments it becomes safer. These clothing styles state that the wearer is like a grandmother or a child, they are not a threat, and warm. They are not witty, sexual, or confident. Skirts are never cut short or tight, pants often have elastic waist bands, and shirts avoid low necklines. The goal is to cover the skin as much as possible, to suffocate it underneath layers that deny the existence of mass.
Of course there are many great shops dedicated to plus-size fashion, and there are some cute styles there. You pay for those styles. Such stores are not as common as the local Sears and they are far more expensive. This too states that if you are fat you are going to pay. You are going to venture away from the skinny shoppers and you are going to spend an entire paycheck on two outfits – all so you don’t look like an Easter egg when you walk out the door. Even stores that have a plus-size section divide the store so that the thin folks and the large folks don’t look through the same racks. As an obese woman you are relegated to an over-there space – it is easier to keep track of the bodies then, and it keeps bodies in their “place”.
So, I was wearing this shirt that I was really quite fond of and in the midst of the dance the shirt was pulled widely around me. The boat neckline that was such a refreshing change from the chokingly high crew neck wasn’t a smart choice for a rock and roll show. Let me explain that, while I often had individuals grab my body or clothing maliciously while oinking at me or making some other such barnyard noise, this was not what happened here. When you dance you lose your footing, you start to fall, and you grab hold of whatever is near. When you dance you are surrounded by bodies – all sweating and bumping against one another. A casualty of the dance is torn or stretched and pulled clothes. Yet I felt vulnerable and exposed and deeply shamed. No one was looking at me (that I knew of) because the high from the show was too thick. But there I was, my shirt drooped to near waist and I wanted to cry. I had a brilliant time dancing, but all the parts I had been trained to hide were in view – the sleeves had fallen so my shoulders were showing, my fleshy arms available for all. The camisole, while covering my breasts, was dreadfully tight and clung to the roll of fat below my chest. I remember quickly drawing the shirt up and tucking as much of the neckline as I could under my bra and camisole straps. Then I ran out the nearest door, both from heat and the determination not to be seen.
But the door led right to the entrance of the tour bus. This was serendipitous in its own way because it gave me the opportunity to meet the band. Yet while hugging two of my (then) favorite musicians I was painfully aware of my body overflowing around them. I flushed with shame when I asked the lead singer to sign my ankle (it was symmetrical to a tattoo a have on the other leg) and I had to hold onto the shoulder of a friend to both stay balanced and support my leg with my other hand.
I decided on the way home – both riding the waves of euphoria that follow a great show and considering how my body shame took such joy from me – that I had to change something. Something had to give. I had come to this realization multiple times before. I lived my life dreaming of a different body. I even wrote a story about a magical portal that takes people to a factory where they can assemble their form from doll parts for the price of their empathy. It was a price I probably would have paid then. Unfortunately, the real-time monetary price to lose weight – and make no mistake, it takes incredible financial resources to healthily drop pounds from your form – was too high. It would be another two years before I had the ability to do so.
In less than one week I am having a fold of skin removed from my abdomen. It is the remnant of the loss of 140 pounds. It is a marker of how far I’ve come. My shame over it is a reminder of how far I have yet to go. As the surgery draws near I find myself juggling complex thoughts regarding transformation, shame, embodiment, and voice – I totter between wishing to share my story and silencing it. It is not easy to admit that I am having cosmetic surgery, and it is not easy to discuss the deep-rooted body dysmorphia I navigate, or the impact that has had on my selves and on my relationships.
I offer these words to begin a conversation I feel we need to have – about how we see our selves, others, and the treatments that result. I offer these words as a political statement: every story has worth and perhaps with one sharing another will be encouraged to do the same. Maybe we can work towards a bridge across our experiences without consuming the life of another.
The plan is to write a series of blogs – with great ambition I have decided one per day until the surgery – that details many stages of my transformation and the new worlds I have traveled since losing weight. I do hope you’ll join the conversation.
Part I – Big Body Matters
In Kindergarten I weighed 120 pounds. I remember the school nurse lecturing me and making a phone call to my parents. I didn’t understand then why this was a big deal or why we should have to talk about it so much. I knew I was bigger than the other children, but that didn’t seem to matter before I entered school. I realized quite quickly that it did matter. My body, or rather the ways in which my body occupied space (too much), did matter to those around me. It was too large. I moved too slowly. I breathed too heavily.
The taunts started at five and lasted until twenty-three, when I began a journey to lose weight.
School was hellish. I imagine it is for most of the misfits and wayward souls. I could be wrong about that, though. I don’t think I am. People screamed out my name (Stephanie) as Step-on-me “or don’t because the fatass will break your back.” Boys grabbed at the folds of excess weight in the hallways and laughed. Sometimes when walking through the halls people would oink or moo behind me. Always there was a reminder that I didn’t quite fit into the world the way people wished that I would. I couldn’t fold in on myself, and I didn’t want to shrivel underneath their words.
I cried on the last day of classes when I watched my high school fade in the side mirror. It was joy. I weighed over 300 pounds yet still found a space to believe in a different, less painful existence. I thought things would be different now – as if those halls were the only place folks are expected to cut themselves down under bodily expectations. Of course this was quite wrong and foolishly naïve, but we need hope to get us by and sometimes we store too much of it in the wrong place.
What happened in hallways shifted onto the streets. People love to scream out of their car windows. “Buy a treadmill.” Of course fatass endured. I still don’t exactly understand the appeal of that particular taunt because, realistically, most asses are fat. It wasn’t just walking around my city - this happened everywhere. Folks in restaurants stared with morbid fascination while I ate. The clerk at the grocery store scrutinized each purchase made. The doctor shamed me. Employers asked if I thought I was “up to the pace” of retail. Eyes followed me around the mall where I worked, as if I were there for their entertainment – a body created for them to measure themselves against and praise their own form against my own. I was an unwilling spectacle.
Yet I presented myself as proud and fierce. I learned in school that if you broke in front of them you didn’t inspire mercy – you just waved blood under the nose of a very emaciated hound. They bit deeper when you broke. Perhaps guilt made them dig deeper, or power. Either way, I presented strong and full and sometimes convinced myself that I was. Underneath it all I hated myself. I stood in front of mirrors and cried a lot. I refused compliments that centered my physicality. I admired other, more beautiful bodies and day dreamed they were my own. And I was angry. I was angry nearly all of the time.
Most of all I was angry at myself for being angry, because I knew the taunts and occasional assaults were the result of minds supersaturated in a field of normality politics that excludes all – even those who embrace the rhetoric. I knew that centerfolds poisoned minds. I knew that money affords things not available to all. I knew that it wasn’t as much about me as it was about the relentless stream of messages that proclaim how we and others should be. And I knew these things deep in my soul, but that doesn’t change the effects of cruelty or the brutality of self-hate. It doesn’t mitigate the moments where you desperately wish to be someone different.
In the end it came down to a decision – lose the weight or continue to break myself down in front of glass and in the lonely corners where folks couldn’t see (and sometimes where they could). Now, that sounds simple. I want to clarify that the decision, the journey, the maintenance … none of it is simple. It is mired in hard choices, demands for resources, and new sets of shame and guilt alongside celebration. It is, quite simply, a road you never stop walking. It is a voice that carries, and it is rich and terrible in both beauty and trauma.
Stevie N. Berberick is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Washington and Jefferson College. Stevie often finds themself hostessing solitary dance parties in the kitchen, hanging out with her furrmiliars (Ivy and Halle), or playing with alchemy while electroforming jewelry -- when they're not reading, researching, and/or writing, that is.