A matter of fat. How shame is used to control women.

The last time I remember standing on a set of scales was in 2010, six years ago.

I was 6 weeks pregnant and at my first medical appointment. I weighed in at 107kgs. My GP pursed her lips and indicated that she wouldn’t like me to get over 113kgs over the course of my pregnancy.

Outwardly, I sighed a little. Inwardly, I sighed loud, long and heavy. I reached for a mental security blanket of matter-of-factness. That was the number on the scales. There was an instruction from the Doctor. That’s that. When you deal with simple facts, you don’t have to deal with the emotion jam-packed into complex arguments and structures.

And that was the last time I would have been able to tell you what I weighed.

AlysClareFeatFB
Alys with her youngest child, Clare. (Image provided)

There are two reasons I have not weighed myself since then.

Firstly, I’m proud to be able to claim that I don’t know my number. I feel profoundly self-satisfied that I don’t know what I weigh. It feels deeply counter-cultural, as if it’s my very own ‘up yours’ to the world.

In a culture so obsessed with policing the bodies of women, the very fact that I have escaped the scrutiny of the scales allows me to defiantly proclaim, “yeah, I’m fat. So what?”

Listen to Alys discuss her article on the latest episode of Mamamia OutLoud:

“Fat is an adjective. Fat is a body shape. Fat is not a moral judgement,” I declare.

Fat doesn’t make me unlovable. It doesn’t make me unworthy, nor does it make me ill-disciplined or lazy.

I might be fat, but I am desired. My husband loves me. Men flirt with me. Women are drawn to me.

I might be fat, but I’m not dumb. I’m not defective or evil. I’m not a terrible mother nor am I a bad example for my children.

I might be fat but I’m not hateful.

Equally, I’m just fat, not curvy, or big boned or full-figured. Call it what you like, I suppose, but at the end of the day, on the continuum of body size and shape, I’m just plain fat. I don’t need you to use the word voluptuous to make me feel better.

When you remove all of the meaning culture has shoved into the word fat, you don’t need to dress it up in more socially acceptable terms. You don’t need to use the term big-boned as some sort of excuse, because there’s nothing to excuse.

Fat is a body shape, not a moral judgement.

It’s a mantra I have repeated often enough to almost believe it.

Almost.

Like most people, I’m a mess of cognitive dissonance.

Rationally, I know it’s true that fat is a body shape, not a moral judgement. And for at least some of the time, I’m confident enough to believe it. But not for all of the time.

I’m constantly holding this in tension with the disgust I feel when I look at myself in the mirror. The hatred I feel for myself that I try to force down underneath a façade of body confidence. The feelings I quash with my mental security blanket of matter-of-factness.

I might defiantly declare, “yeah, I’m fat. So what?” But only in the safest of situations. In a workplace of progressive women, amongst my closest of friends, in groups of people younger than I and not yet confident enough to potentially challenge me on my culturally outrageous claim.

I don’t say it in front of people I don’t know. I don’t say it in front of people from whom I sense small moments of judgement from, or where I detect the mere hint of an eye looking me up and down, assessing my appearance.

I’m not that defiant.

But, I am that fearful.

And there we hit upon the truth of the matter, the other reason I don’t know what I weigh.

valuable career advice
“I’m not that defiant. But, I am that fearful.” (Image provided)

I’m terrified that if I know what I weigh, I will lose the thing holding back my own shame, my own disgust and my own judgement, and I will be left depressed and unable to function.

The great paradox of my life is that while holding onto matter-of-factness as some sort of mental security blanket and the source of my bravado, knowing my own weight would be the one fact that would render it gone.

***

It’s not exactly earth shattering to say that women’s bodies are public property. It’s been said by many many women before me and it will be said by many after me.

Look at comments on Instagram, the writing of the tabloid press, magazines, social media, the conversations happening in homes all around us. Collectively, we bang down the gavel and report on who has stacked it on, as some sort of indictment on their moral fibre. We worship weight loss as redemption.

Look only to the treatment of Magda Szubanski’s public journey from glorified weight loss success story to shameful cautionary tale when she was publicly dumped as an ambassador for a diet company.

Someone has a baby, and we pounce on her first public appearance, desperate for the photos of her post-baby body so we can judge her virtue and personal value. The poor woman just pushed something the size and weight of a couple of rockmelons out of her vagina, but as long as she’s sexy, slim and toned, then she’s alright with us.

It’s not just public figures who endure this kind of shaming. Regular folk, every day people, we put up with it as well.

As my relationship with the man who is now my husband progressed, I met with a minister from my Church. We talked about my life, my spirituality, and this new person in my life. It was serious, I told him, suggesting that this was a person I could marry.

The minister, a person ordained by the Church and charged with the pastoral care of people, suggested that in order to get married I would have to lose weight.

alys red scarf edit
‘The minister suggested that in order to get married I would have to lose weight.’ (Image provided)

My grandmother has told me that I am, “certainly worth my weight in gold.” (I assure you, she doesn’t mean that as a compliment.)

My uncle once rang my mother to discuss my weight. Why he didn’t call me personally, I’m not entirely sure. I was in my mid 20’s at the time, hardly a child. I guess my weight was a serious enough matter to discuss with my parents.

I turned a bloke down in a pub once. He responded to my rejection by telling me I was too fat for sex, anyway.

My good friend in the days after the birth of my son suggested I probably wasn’t having any trouble breastfeeding, referencing my large breasts. I was, as it happened, but that’s beside the point.

People have passed me on the street that have told me that I should go on a diet. At least they’re happy enough to say it to my face, I suppose.

While the bravado in me can laugh all of it off, I’m furious and mildly depressed that, culturally speaking, my worth is found in my body shape. I want to shout, “My brain is up here, people. You can stop looking at my belly,” in the same way I would tell boys to stop looking at my boobs when I was a teenager.

***

“For me, I’m naturally skinny,” says Jessica Rowe, co host of Studio 10.

“What I’ve found quite surprising over the years is the number of people who I don’t know who bail me up and say, ‘oh dear, do you have an eating disorder? You’re very thin. Do you eat?’ And in really quite a rude way.”

Jess is not alone in her experience.

Look at the tabloid media’s treatment of model Jodi Anasta in recent weeks. As The Daily Mail reports on her break up with husband Braith, they use her apparent dramatic weight loss as the hook into the story, all backed up with invasive paparazzi shots to prove the point.

Rebecca Judd has also been on the receiving end of  the tabloid press. Within days in 2014, headlines went from “Rebecca shocks with scary skinny Instagram photos” to “Rebecca looks healthier while showing off her new curves in response to public backlash.”

Rebecca posts on Instagram, and speculation runs rife about her body. 

composite jodi jess and bec
Jodi Anasta, Jessica Rowe and Bec Judd. (Images via Instagram: @JodiGordon; @JessJRowe and @BecJudd)

Rosie is a mental health counsellor and mother to two young boys. “I’ve had a number of incidents in the locker room, especially after I had my youngest. One of the worst was when a woman I’d never met before interrupted me in the middle of a conversation I was having with another woman, and then actually cornered me while I was basically naked because I was changing after the gym, to tell me how much she hated me for being skinny.

“There were times when women who I sort of marginally knew stood in the locker room and sort of narrated what my body looked like post-birth, which was intended to be flattering, but which was really uncomfortable for me. I can’t image any situation where someone would like someone else to assess their body after they’ve given birth.”

Rosie describes how people frequently demand to know how much she weighs, telling me that often they become quite agitated when she refuses to answer them. She tells me that in the past people would insist that she must have had an eating disorder when she was younger, that being the only explanation for her body shape.

Rosie says that there have been times of significant stress in her life, and that at those times she also tends to lose weight. “After I had my first child I was exhausted and had post-natal depression and I was breastfeeding so I ended up losing seven kilos. I really felt horrible in a lot of ways but it was almost totally overlooked by most people in my life because I was skinny and people think skinny should be enough.”

Just as insidious as skinny shaming is the way slim women are told that they’re overweight, and then have to endure the delegitimising of their genuine feelings of distress about their weight. A close friend tells me, “I’m fairly wobbly on the physical self esteem thing sometimes and the most common response from friends is ‘whatever, like you have nothing to worry about.’”

Slim women also have to endure the shaming that comes from community conversations about so-called real women, that real women have curves. What of the very real woman who has an angular body?

In the January issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, Caroline Overington writes and interviews a range of women including Jess Rowe about skinny shaming. The piece is headlined, “Skinny girls fight back. Why is fat okay but not thin?”

And, in my conversation with Jess Rowe, she tells me that she feels skinny women are an easier target; that people assume you can’t naturally have a body like hers, that if you do, it must be because you have an eating disorder. She tells me that people would never dream of making the remarks made to her to women who are overweight.

Mamamia sat down with Jessica Rowe last year. You can watch a snippet of what she had to say below. Post continues after video…

I have no doubt that Jess is speaking from the heart and being as honest as she can be when she tells me that. This is her lived experience, after all.

Of course, the lived experience of almost every overweight woman in Australia suggests that people do make the same sort of remarks about fat people.

That Jess Rowe wouldn’t dream of making those remarks is testament to her integrity. If only everyone had the same values she does.

****

In 1991, Naomi Wolf published her ground breaking work, The Beauty Myth. In it, she argues that as women have achieved more and more emancipation legally and politically, the cultural expectations of women to be beautiful, to maintain a certain (unattainable) appearance, dress and body shape are the new tools of the oppression of women.

She writes in her opening paragraphs, “The affluent, educated, liberated women of the First World, who can enjoy freedoms unavailable to any women ever before, do not feel as free as they want to.

“The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us… in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

Wolf goes so far as to suggest that the unattainable and continually shifting standards of beauty presented to us as the ideal now serve to control women in the same way that the social structures of old did.

“The contemporary backlash is so violent because the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable: It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity, no longer can manage. It is seeking right now to undo psychologically and covertly all the good things that feminism did for women materially and overtly.”

Importantly, Wolf links the beauty myth to men’s power structures.

“There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted then the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women… It is actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression. The beauty myth is about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.”

Let’s be perfectly clear. Wolf is saying that the patriarchy is working systematically to keep women back and to destroy their self-confidence in an effort to control them.

Naomi Wolf via Twitter@naomirwolf
Author of ‘The Beauty Wolf’ Naomi Wolf. (Image via Twitter @naomirwolf.)

It’s been 25 years since Wolf wrote her book, but what has changed in that time?

In 2009 Bianca Dye posed nude for Madison magazine. In the months afterwards, Jennifer Hawkins posed nude for Marie Claire. When Jennifer Hawkins was praised for her efforts and lauded as brave for stripping down and being published unretouched, Bianca Dye told Sydney Confidential, that “She was born beautiful. She has not had to go through any stress to look like that.”

Bianca tells me now that women are still at war with each other, that women have always been at war with each other. She tells me that “I think it comes down to each individual woman to battle with herself.”

Jess Rowe says that “We’re our own worst critics. We need to let up on ourselves. We need to stop giving ourselves a hard time and we need to stop giving other women a hard time.” Bianca Dye tells me,“I think it comes down to each individual woman to battle with herself.”

Jess Rowe says that skinny women are an easier target. The Women’s Weekly pits skinny women against fat women. Bianca Dye says that women are at war with each other.

I would argue that women are being collectively gaslit. The patriarchy is still working to control women through the beauty myth. And then the patriarchy is telling us that up to us to overcome personal demons, while setting us up to fight each other.

The truth is that it is women that are the easier target. The truth is that in 25 years since The Beauty Myth was published, nothing has changed.

****

Alys happy image supplied
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have made much progress in 25 years. (Image provided).

At work this week, one of my colleagues asked us to reflect on the times we had been publicly food shamed by strangers.

Surprisingly, I had nothing to offer. And after some reflection I worked out why.

Having been subjected to the kinds of comments on the street that I have been and having witnessed the way other women are treated publicly, I tend to go out of my way to avoid eating in public. Deep down, I’m so worried about what people might think, what people might say if they see me, a woman of some corpulence, daring to eat.

I go running under the cover of darkness to avoid being seen on the streets around my home, a little voice in my soul mocking me. ‘Why would anyone want to see you jiggle like a giant blancmange of flesh?’

And yet, the slim physiqued experience life no differently.

The petite woman with whom I work; a waiter commented that she ‘certainly liked her food, my dear friend not yet comfortable in her body six months post-natal; pointing to her beautifully rounded tiny tum with disgust, my family member who has been chronically ill for over two years who hides her body away in baggy shirts convinced everyone is fixated on the small changes to her body – all of us experience shame.

We are all hiding ourselves away. And the culture that has put us in this position has convinced us that these are individual battles to overcome, or that we have to fight each other in order to achieve personal peace.

I want to finish this with a message of hope. It’s deeply unsettling for me, particularly as the mother of a daughter, to lay out a problem like this and walk away from it without offering a way forward. It’s not even that I want my daughter to know that she’s beautiful inside and out, it’s that I don’t even want this issue to register for her. I want her to move through life focused on her potential, what she wants to achieve in life, her creativity and her spirit. But I don’t know how to create that for her.

I’m mournful, grieving the hours I’ve wasted believing myself to be less than I am. I’m filled with regret that at paths I’ve not walked out of the fear I’ve felt, sorrowful for the hatred I’ve felt for myself.

We need more campaigns like this, celebrating ALL women’s bodies…

Video via Natalie McCain

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

More articles