Saturday, December 26, 2009

fat rolls and "roll models"

Forget cutting carbs. I'm talking about cutting self-criticism and becoming a true "roll" model.

This post was inspired by the image above, taken from Glamour, as part of a "body image revolution." The photo struck me because I have seen healthy, normal-sized models--even plus-sized models--but I have never seen an unedited fat roll on any type of model. The fat roll is actually what makes this image so provocative.

You know. Pooch. Muffin Top. Roll. Whatever you want to call it. Many of us, men included, spend our lives fighting against the roll, hiding the roll, being ashamed of the roll. This picture champions the opposite. Roll with the roll. Love the roll.

While critics of the media cast the "thin hype" as a top-down phenomenon (we are victims of what we see), there is a bottom-up mechanism that is absent from mainstream discourse. Two scholars come to mind. Of course, this has Foucault written all over it (we self-regulate, and self-discipline. Think panopticon). More strikingly, feminist scholar Marilyn Frye remarks on the way that we participate in our own oppression: "We acquiesce in being made invisible, in our occupying no space. We participate in our own erasure."

While men, women, gender queer, and trans people suffer from body image issues, this post focuses on women, simply because I am speaking from my own experience. In reclaiming our bodies, I think that one of the most helpful tools is considering the ways that our choices and self-regulation oppress other women by promoting a standard and encouraging destructive behavior. In this way, we judge and punish ourselves, and in doing so, judge and punish the bodies of other women, whether we do so knowingly or not.

Forget cutting carbs. I'm talking about cutting self-criticism and becoming a true "roll" model. What's a roll model? It means loving your healthy self and eating delicious things openly, and providing younger girls with better alternatives than deprivation and weakness. It means eating well-balanced meals, and indulging in life and desserts. It means being fit and active and having the energy to lift weights or swim or bike or kick box or whatever gets your goat. It means being truly focused with your friends and partner because you are not freaking out about what you are eating, or missing the gym to enjoy a night out. It means having energy to focus at work or to accomplish your goals because you have eaten enough food. It means appreciating your life, and letting it rub off on other people. It means you can be sexy and attractive and have some flesh on your body.

I am by no means advocating being "fat"--whatever that means. I am promoting being healthy--whatever that means. Being healthy looks different on each body. I feel for women who are naturally very thin and are constantly being accused of having eating disorders. After all, being active and fit looks different on each body. While I can't say what this means for each individual woman, I can tell you that for the vast majority of is, this means fat on our bodies. Millions of years of evolution don't care about your modern feminist agenda; even if you want to be a professional workaholic without children, your body has typically evolved to carry some abdominal fat to protect the fetus, plain and simple.

For women to reclaim our bodies, we need to reclaim the roll. I know there is that special moment in nearly every relationship where, in the midst of a cuddle or what not, the fat roll makes its debut. For a lot of us, this is a really mortifying moment. It totally kills the mood. We are embarrassed. Millions of thoughts begin to race, and we lose focus on our partner.

I'm saying that we need to reclaim that moment, and understand that fat is a part of our healthy bodies, and respect that part just as we respect the rest of us. If your partner finds this off-putting, I really hope that you do not emotionally or legally bind yourself to that individual. Call me crazy, but I think your partner should enjoy your healthy self--not some restrictive, self-deprecating, and calorie-obsessed version of you that can't concentrate in a romantic moment if you see a fold of flesh.

Beyond just you, young girls need to look around and see that they can eat and enjoy food, that they can be strong and active, and that they can be themselves, as well as successful, happy, and loved. When you are proud of your pooch, your life becomes more enjoyable, and you can potentially help another woman cope with body image issues. So I'm saying eat a fucking cupcake, and enjoy your life.

While women play the largest role in learning to love their rolls, their partners have an impact as well. It continues to amaze, disappoint, and sadden me to hear the way that (I am going to be heterosexist here) men talk about female bodies in discussing their attractions. The following conversation took place with a particularly (insert pejorative adjective here) heterosexual male earlier on in the semester:

Him: So-and-so is really hot.
Me: What does she look like?
Him: She's skinny and...

I was really blown away that "skinny" was the first attribute listed. Why skinny? Why not healthy, or active? It's really disgusting to me to think that a male would know or have reason to know that he was dating a woman who was depriving herself, and find this attractive. My mind goes back to an article I read a couple years ago by a man, reflecting on his college years. He talked about a severely restrictive and underweight former girlfriend. After their breakup, he began dating a healthier girl and curvier girl, with whom he loved eating pasta (which the previous girl would never eat). The former and underweight girl, feeling jealous I suppose, commented, "Oh, I didn't know you liked fat girls." The man shared in his article, "It's not that I like fat girls. I like happy girls."

That was really meaningful to me. If men want to be part of female empowerment, they need to understand that affirming unhealthy bodies is destructive to women. Even more to the point, I think some men need to seriously think about why they are attracted to a woman who is depriving herself and punishing herself to maintain a weight that is not natural or healthy for her. This is not to say that men should not be attracted to thin women. There are women who are naturally thin. I am talking about rewarding and affirming women who engage in self-destructive behavior to maintain their weight. Note that self-destructive behavior need not include a diagnosed eating disorder, but disordered and restrictive eating in general, coupled with destructive and self-deprecating thoughts and behavioral patterns.

Aside from loving your own body, and finding a partner that loves your healthy body, the other important part to this movement is changing the way we interact with our friends. The number one thing you can do to help your friends is to stop entertaining them when they deprecate their own bodies. This means cutting off friends who talk about how fat they are, or how many calories or carbs they ate. This is not helpful or productive for anyone. If your friend is seriously being unhealthy, then that is a legitimate conversation that has nothing to do with weight. It has to do with lifestyle. The irrational obsessions of "does this make me look fat," or "I gained so much weight this week" need to stop if women are ever going to be free of this obsession and live in the moment.

Their are many of us who have lead unhealthy lives, and we are in the process of getting on the right track. During this process, we may experience frustration about our bodies. It seems hard and counter-intuitive to love your current body when you know you are undergoing a process that means your body will be changing (presumably losing weight). In this context, it's hard not to obsess. This is when it's helpful to know that your body may change, but to realize that you love your body where it is today.

Their are also many of us who internally obsess over destructive thoughts about ourselves, and can't seem to stop them. This calls for the "fake it til you make it" approach, where you pick a one-liner and repeat it in your head until you force destructive thoughts out. This can be anything as simple as, "I love my body" over and over and over again. The goal is to stop entertaining your own destructive thoughts, the destructive thoughts of your friends, and the destructive thoughts of your partners, and hope that you can be a roll model along the way.

(Note that men also experience pressure to self-regulate their bodies. See "rethinking the beef cake: weightlifting and the regulation of male bodies")


Kelly said...

Vanessa, this post really struck a chord with me. I've been wrangling over these issues over the last year and a half, as my increasingly desk-bound behind has, well, increased a little bit. I am no where near what I'd call "fat," and I certainly maintain an active lifestyle to the extent possible given my work schedule, but lately I've really felt the internal tug of war between my desire for a satisfying social life and to drop back down a size. Recently, I decided to stop beating myself up so much about it and acknowledge that I'm happy at this size, in this job, and with my friends. Sometimes I think it just takes a little reminder from others out there that yes, it's okay to have a fucking cupcake. Thanks for such a great post!

Today's Tom Sawyer said...

I find it interesting that one can be criticized for their attraction and choices in the opposite sex (i.e. skinny) as destructive and oppressive behavior which should be modified, yet to say that attraction to the same sex is destructive would be does one draw the line between the two, or should it just be left to the conscience of the individual?

Vanessa said...

Tom Sawyer, I think the same concept can be applied in both situations.

To be clear: I am not criticizing an attraction to thin bodies, as there are healthy people who are naturally thin. I am criticizing the affirmation of destructive behavior as being counterproductive to happiness.

My overall point is loving and honoring self--one's body and one's sexuality. I don't think you can fully enjoy your sexuality if you are hungry or insecure about your contours, or if you deny your attractions in general.

Rebecca said...

That was the most amazing article I have read. It should help all, men or women to learn not to be so obsessed over their bodies but to be healthy mentally and physically. We need to fulfill our own needs and not that of society. Bravo

Tarzana Man said...

Fine article! It is a complex topic. For example, is someone who is attracted to "skinny" or "thin" people being oppressive, or just expressing what their natural inclination is? What about someone who is madly attracted to very large people? Is that not just as oppressive or natural?

I suppose the answer is that, rather than being content to be just the object of another's gaze, one must be one's own subject, and insist on that; don't be made over by the tyranny of the Other's gaze.

The emphasis you put on health and balanced well-being is a key point. Up until this year, I had really let myself go, and every area of my life suffered--physical, emotional, family, friends, relationship, work--I just had no energy or passion for anything. Losing my job was a huge wake-up call, and I realized I had to turn things around, stop being self-destructive, and work towards greater physical health, at least to start with. This meant eating right, losing weight, going to the gym regularly, and setting some goals. I had to re-invest in myself, in me. I also took a very serious look at radical bariatric surgery as an answer, but I thought first I would do it the old-fashioned way. At least I'd try...

Within a few months I noticed some big changes. No one would accuse me of being a beefcake---not my goal--but I feel a lot better and can participate in Life, not in isolated self-destruction. I remembered how much I have always loved sports and working out, things that come very naturally to me. Now, that is back in my life.

My goal is to get down to a weight that is about 50 pounds more than I "should" weigh, but I was very comfortable, energetic, and productive at that weight some 25 years ago, so I'll take it, gladly. At that weight, I ran laps around the reservoir in Central Park, played basketball, danced and partied all night, and had plenty of attention from the opposite sex; sounds pretty functional--and fun!

It is hard to deny that a nice healthy, toned, taut body can be an extremely beautiful thing to gaze upon or to touch. You know, the Ideal of Society thing--which changes about every 30 years or so. When I was growing up, we didn't have waifs or "cut" babes as the most-hotly-panted-for poster girls: it was hippy, curvaceous Liz Taylor; busty and shapely Raquel Welch; the full-figured Ann-Margaret. (Male/hetero point of view--sorry!). The latter two were certainly "in shape" as performers, but we are not talking the kind of body-builder outlines of today. Later, we had Twiggy and Kate Moss, yes, and wispy and boney was in, and famine spread across the land as the way to get there. Bad idea.

All kinds of bodies can be healthy, attractive, loveable, and hot--especially if you feel that way about the person who inhabits them, and that is the more crucial variable in all this. And it is important, as you say, to set those same standards for yourself, to be at the center of your own sense of you-in-your-body-and-soul.

We get far too much input from the media on this topic--we are bombarded by it, aren't we? We are told and shown what is beautiful and what is not, how beauty means success, how success means happiness, happiness means love--but it all starts with that svelte, cut, hard body, and fresh clear skin, mounds of bouncy hair, and the killer outfit and accessories. This kind of messaging drives our psychology and turns us into consumers, and so, brainwashed, we chase the Image...Trying to disconnect more from the powerful influence of media on our brains and bodies is essential. Don't watch TV so much, ignore commercials, ads, billboards, packaging. Talk to your friends & family, go to the gym or the park instead. Become your own ideal--not in an empty, narcissistic way--but in a gentle, accepting, affirming way.

Sorry to go from comment to blog, but your article inspired and provoked a lot of thought. Thanks!