I’m about to have a birthday. Funny how that keeps happening. I don’t know if it’s because the birthday is imminent or if it’s because this muggy Southern summer is getting to me or what, but in the past week I’ve had several conversations with friends about getting older, getting our shit together, and generally feeling more like what we think “adult” should feel like. And the one constant among these chats with very different people is that we seem to have stopped giving any fucks about what others think of us. I mean, obviously we all want to maintain some semblance of social decorum – manners, professionalism, not hurting anyone’s feelings, etc – but we’ve grown into ourselves quite a lot in the last few years and have lost the fear, that horrible people-pleasing fear, that we used to have (to varying degrees). Interesting, that. And not the mark of maturity that I was necessarily expecting. From myself, anyway. Having spent most of my life desperately uncomfortable in my own skin, I must say this new thing is quite a relief.
Personally, I think a lot of this comes from shedding most of my body image baggage. Living in the middle of nowhere and not interacting with very many humans for five years has made me stop fretting so much about how I look. On the other hand, sometimes it gets shoved in your face. I had to go dress shopping yesterday for something to wear to my cousin’s wedding. You know this dress conundrum – cute but not too casual, appropriate for family photos but not too fancy, comfy for July in the South but not too revealing, on and on. I went to every store in the mall, stumping around on my busted ankle, and only found a handful of dresses in my size, most of which were ugly as sin dipped in misery. I’m not even a weird size. I’m a 16, hardly big enough to necessitate repurposing a circus tent (although that might actually be cuter than the shit I tried on – why, ugly patterns in grey and neon, why?!?). Sizes 12 and under get adorable stuff, and once you hit 20 or so you get to have (some, but less, and definitely more expensive) adorable stuff again. What is that about? What’s the angle on the psychological fuckery here? What’s the marketing goal? Do they actually not know that 16 is a super common size? Are they telling us to either get really fat or to lose weight? To pick a team?
I’ve been thinking a lot about fat lately. Damn Ira Glass got in my head. On a recent episode of This American Life, they did three stories about fat ladies – one about a woman honestly owning her fatness in a self-love, body-positive kind of way, one about a woman who is medically classified as “super morbidly obese” (a term I didn’t know existed, and makes no sense, linguistically), and one about a woman trying to reconcile her former and current selves after losing something like 150 pounds. They’re all interesting and touching stories, each deeply personal and somehow confessional (which, I suppose, is This American Life’s bread and butter). What I found most compelling, though, is their juxtaposition (also, obviously, the quintessential This American Life move). I’d love to get these three women in a room together, have them listen to the episode in each other’s company, and then discuss it. I truly wonder how that would go. I also recently watched a documentary about a woman who lost 200 pounds by going vegan and working out for an hour a day. As a newly-minted mostly vegetarian, I found her story more interesting because of her psychological relationship to food rather than for her shocking physical transformation. The idea that people really don’t know what they’re eating is kind of baffling to me. But it does speak to our impressions of fat people in general, doesn’t it? In America we’re trained to see fat people as lazy or slovenly, we assume they don’t care about their health or that they must want to be thin but lack the willpower to make it happen. We see fat as failure, as a character flaw, as a choice.
And I disagree, mostly, with that overgeneralization. Are there people who are fat because they’re lazy? Sure. Are there people who are fat because they mindlessly shovel garbage food into their gaping maws? Of course. Am I fat because I’d rather shove hot needles into my eyeballs than set foot in a gym? The odds are pretty good, yeah. But don’t ever call me lazy. And yes, I did lay absolute waste to a cheeseburger just a few days ago, but it was local organic beef and I’d been cranky for a week and found my mood much improved after my meal. Point is, I’m not uncaring or oblivious about my body. Just because I’m big doesn’t mean anyone gets to tell me how I think or how I feel about my health, my mental state, or my moral standing. That’s fucked up and we should stop doing it. People are not their fat. Or their skinniness. Or their tattoos, their piercings, their hairstyle, their fashion, their anything else that’s none of your fucking business. Perhaps as much as race or gender, these things inform and reflect our choices and our personalities and just because fat is (sometimes) within our control doesn’t mean it’s any more open for commentary.
My mother used to be a body builder. She was really good, too. She had to train up from her competition weight to have enough body fat to get pregnant with me. Who does that? So it was difficult growing up as a little chubby kid with this stunningly fit woman as my role model. She’d take me to aerobics classes, tried to get me to lift weights with her, took me running, and taught me to play softball. All of which I hated, mostly because I wasn’t any good at them. I was sick a lot as a kid, and had asthma and zero coordination. I simply wasn’t built to be sporty. I’m a writer. We sit. We drink. My body is perfectly suited to those activities. I’ve accepted it, just as I’ve come to terms with never wearing red and avoiding putting my hair in pigtails at all costs. It is what it is, as they say. Am I a little chunkier than I’d like? Sure, but I’m healthy and I’m strong and I’d lose most of that weight almost immediately if I didn’t like beer so much. Do I have bushy eyebrows and a luxurious mustache? Yes I do, and I fix them when they bother me, which is almost never. Do I wear raggedy cargo shorts and tank tops every day? Yup, and I couldn’t give less of a flying fuck what anyone thinks about my furry legs and armpits and lunch lady arms. It’s ninety degrees and 100% humidity outside, y’all, and I’m perfectly comfortable not wearing layers just to appease some rando’s aesthetics.
I shouldn’t have to state the obvious here but this is all directed at women more than men, all this body standard shit. A dude could be fifty pounds overweight and order a heaping plate of food and the server wouldn’t ask him “Are you sure?” (True story, that happened. I immediately changed my order from a half rack of ribs to a full rack just to spite her.) A dude could wear cargo shorts and flip flops with his hairy legs hanging out and no one would give him a second thought. (I get weird looks all the time for my unshaven legs, even in a town with way more hairy-armpitted women than most.) To be fair, though, I’m positive that men have to deal with the body image stuff in the media just like women do. Those guys on magazines and billboards are airbrushed all to shit, too. It’s just as unrealistic and absurd, there’s just less of it and less chatter about it, I suppose. That hardly seems right. Feel good about yourselves, gentlemen. Rock what you got and don’t sweat not looking like that ab monster in the underwear commercial. He’s got a team of fifty people to make him look like that.
Of course, ogling a hot person and making them feel uncomfortable is just as bad as turning your nose up when a fat or funny-looking person is around. Really beautiful people have their own set of issues. Just a couple of weeks ago I realized that for most of my life I’ve made fun of folks who get plastic surgery (not reconstructive surgery, but elective surgery – boob jobs, Botox, that kind of thing). It never occurred to me that equating those things with shallowness or vapidity is just as ugly a form of body shaming as all the rest. I don’t know why it took me so long to grasp that and it makes me feel like a real asshole, but I’ve put it on the list of things to stop saying so, progress? I guess? Although utter self-absorption remains one thing I can’t stomach, I’m finding it hard to separate from focusing on one’s outward appearance. How does anybody measure how shallow someone is? Do we quiz each other on our working knowledge of the Kardashians? Do we kick it like Maoist China and hand out matching jammies? More to the point, does it matter if someone is shallow? If they’re kind or loving at the same time? If I can’t discuss anything more in-depth than American Idol with you does that make you shallow or just dumb? It’s perfectly fine to be dumb, I guess, so long as you give a shit about other people. Vanity comes in many forms, after all. As someone who spends nearly a thousand words a week writing largely about the nonsense in her own head, I don’t really think I have a lot of wiggle room on this one.
What am I getting at here? I don’t really know. This is just what’s been clanging around on the old hamster wheel. I suppose I wonder why we’re so judgy about other people’s bodies, for good or for ill. Bottom line? Do what you want. Eat a whole cheesecake. Wear that shirt that shows your tummy. Get the boob job. Get the tattoo (check your spelling first, though, seriously). Rock that ridiculous eyeliner or that stupid fucking haircut. Life is short. Be happy. Be yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you how you feel about your body. They don’t have to live in it.