Without fail at noon on every Friday, 30 minutes before my beginner ballet class starts, a mixture of fear and dread ooze into my mind. It starts when I think of getting dressed for class. Despite a well-stocked closet, I am never content with my choices. I spend 20 minutes scouring my closet for a garment that doesn’t exist—I am looking for something that will make me invincible. Exasperated, I leave wearing the same men’s gym shorts and oversized t-shirt. My nerves don’t get any better once I get to class. I am scared to look at my body in a mirror; I am scared to compare my body to my peers. I try to stand in the back rows as far away from the mirrors as possible, and I still occasionally catch a glimpse of my double chin. Or my belly escaping the drapery of my shirt. I am scared that even after working at accepting my body and fighting tooth and nail to get those around me to change their actions and opinions, I will see something repulsive. I can’t get through a weekly dance class without having to give myself pep talks. It takes all that I can muster to remind myself that I am beautiful and, more importantly, worthy of being in that class. It takes all that I have to remind myself that I love my body and that I can take pleasure in moving it. I can take pleasure and find beauty in my body.
I loathe classifying these problems (yes, I acknowledge that they’re problems) as “body image” problems. “Body image” isn’t really about the image of bodies. It’s about the holistic relationships we have with our bodies. It’s about how bodies look, how they move, what they feel like, and how we treat them. Even if we ignore semantics, conversations about body image almost always come down to health. Most conversations I’ve had about body image blame the media and advertising for exposing young girls to impossible standards in order to sell products. But more than selling products, these images drive people to unhealthy habits—crash diets, disordered eating, and sometimes even more dramatic actions like diet pills and self-harm.
And yet many of these behaviors have been recommended to me by health professionals. You see, I’m fat. Not does-this-dress-make-me-look-fat fat, but eligible-for-weight-loss-surgery-morbidly-obese-death fat. I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember, but the first time I remember my size being an issue was at a check-up. I was 8 years old, and after plotting my height and weight in one of those grids, my pediatrician had one of those ‘talks’ with my parents and me. I was too heavy for my height and age, so he presented me with a Xeroxed list of 10 ‘helpful tips’ for eating.