“You mustn’t mess me about.
I know I may look like a rhinoceros,
but I’ve got quite a thin skin really.”
-Benny Hogan, Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy
I was never the kind of girl who liked staying home from school. I loved books and learning, the soft pretzels they sold at recess (when all the operatic drama happened), and even the small wooden school desks with their deep secretive drawers. So if I stayed home, it meant I was really sick. I remember one such time, I was in the fifth grade, the year I got my period, the year I started to “fill out”, and I was marooned in my parent’s giant waterbed, sick as a dog, watching morning reruns of ER. My dad, my first fan and defender, was a bartender and worked mostly nights, so he would have been home too, resting probably, on the couch downstairs. Flicking through the channels, I landed upon the then-popular Jerry Springer Show, a talk show which promised belligerent guests, fistfights, abusive name-calling, and every kind of juicy love triangle. Springer even began the show by sliding down a stripper pole! This was the 90s, this was scandalous stuff! The episode that aired that day was about men who date fat women. Always having been the biggest girl in my class, I immediately tensed at the word fat.
I can still see the soft face of a woman with thick blue eyeshadow as she sobbed into the camera, wiping tears away with her stubby hands, and told the audience—and me—“Men who date fat women aren’t to be trusted. There must be something wrong with them. Just look at me! No one normal would want me.” This woman, who was fairly overweight, broke-up with her boyfriend on-air. At first, the boyfriend seemed like a normal guy to me. He pleaded with her to reconsider, but as the episode continued, I began looking at the boyfriend with a new vigilance too. What was wrong with him? Another woman told the audience—and me—that men only date fat women if they have a “fetish” and never for real love.
In those months, I had been reading through the Brontë and Austen canons, a lot of Maeve Binchy, Betty Smith, and learning about first love through books like Judy Bloom’s Forever…, where the protagonist Katherine is taught how to correctly rub “Ralph”, her boyfriend’s penis. And while I was self-conscious at that age like most kids, I hadn’t realized before that Jerry Springer episode that none of my literary heroines, who were intelligent and independent beings, were big girls. I had always identified with them, their bookishness, open-mindedness, and in many cases, love of walking, but now there was a disconnect. Despite various hardships, personal failings, or lowly circumstances of birth—I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Bennet—extra weight rarely seemed to plague any of them. Benny Hogan in Binchy’s Circle of Friends was my exception, but her beautiful and lean friend does ultimately come between Benny and her man. Thus, a bad seed was planted in me: you could be imperfect or poor or plain (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” –Jane Eyre) and still be lovable to men. The only inconceivable thing to be was fat.
I’d like to say I met a wonderful guy during my teenage years who disproved this notion, made me feel lovable, or that I somehow reached a higher level of consciousness between bell choir and Latin class and decided it was enough to love myself. I didn’t. It would take about fifteen years, when I moved outside of the United States, for a significant shift in my thinking. During the in-between years, despite beautiful friendships, academic accolades, and moving to college in New York City, my weight consumed me. I have always been amused by facts like ‘a person sleeps for approximately 1/3 of their life’ or ‘the average American will spend about 300 hours driving a year’, but I’d hate to think how many hours of my lifetime has been used thinking about the number on a scale. I won’t say ‘hours wasted’ because I do believe in prioritizing being healthy, strong, and active, but for a long time, weight was wrongly fixed to my lovability, not health. I once watched an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, where he coyly said that The Singapore Girl, the iconic flight attendant who always wears the form-fitting sarong kebaya, had to be on the “right side of thirty.” Or what? She was worthless. There was no question what side was the right side. While this example stinks of agism, that is how I felt about the number 200 – pounds that is. The further away from 200, the more worthy I felt. When I edged close to it, I’d stop eating, then binge, then over-exercise, stay away from parties and friends and dates, and instead walk for hours and hours from the bottom to the top of Manhattan. And when I would go over that number, everything in my life felt like a prop on a set for my real life, when I was doing the exact same things I was doing then but only, I was thinner. I remember how in college, a woman in an intro writing course told our class that though she was a skinny child, she wanted to be fat so she wouldn’t be raped. I could write a lot on this period of my life, but I’d prefer to focus on how it changed for me.
I never believed my self-worth was completely tied up with my body, but I did believe that people could only love me despite my body. A different article by a different person can go into obesity and its link to health; I’ll only say that mental health matters too. And a childhood and early adulthood of being shamed for one’s body, constantly dieting, and obsessing over numbers, is unhealthy and unproductive. You can read the studies that say fat-shaming doesn’t work. It’s true. For me, what worked was a constellation of changes. First, moving away for college allowed me to finally be in control of my own nutrition, and while I sometimes lapsed, I did start to understand how my individual body responded to different foods. I also read about nutrition and exercise; I started eating differently than how I was raised. I lost weight. As an emotional eater, I have gained weight time and again after a loss or a period of “the mean reds” as Holly Golightly would say, but I have the tools to get back on track now. In graduate school, when my father was ill, I began to read a lot more about health in general, and started to understand how other factors outside of our control contribute to our health and weight, things like environmental stressors, the tentacles of the processed food industry, and poverty. In US American culture, there is an inflation in the credence of self-reliance. This is one reason why the States doesn’t have universal health care and affordable higher education, and also why we see being overweight as an individual’s moral failure. These realizations were the foundation of a change I would have with my relationship with my body. The next stage came from stepping out of my own culture and seeing that the kinds of pervasive messages I grew up with about bodies were just ideas–not universal truths.
While I grew up knowing ideas of beauty were different in ancient cultures (Rubens’ paintings, Tang Dynasty’s plump princesses), these messages did little to empower me as a young woman, because White America is a forward-oriented society, valuing the new and progressive, while mostly denouncing what is old and traditional as either backwards, quaint, or fleetingly interesting like the fun facts on the lids of Snapple bottles. In societies sure of their own exceptionalism and superiority like White America, ideas of beauty from other time periods or other contemporary cultures will always be inherently inferior. This is why it is impossible for me to discuss my understanding of my young adult body without mentioning race. I grew up in Philadelphia, in a racially mixed neighborhood which was in a state of flux, moving from a white space to a black space, as defined by sociologist Elijah Anderson. As more people of African, Haitian, Arab, and Latino descent moved into my neighborhood, even as a child, I felt the tightening of ranks by the white families who stayed and smelled my first whiffs of racism from the exhaust fumes of the white families who fled. My family stayed and therefore during my girlhood, I was privy to eavesdropping on the gossip of white women appraising the new women of color in the neighborhood. Time and again, their conversations, imbued with both amusement and envy, would return to larger black women’s “confidence in their bodies” and “black men liking curvy women”, simultaneously implying that this was impossible in white culture, and internalizing for their younger white daughters that non-white (and non-white love) was “other” and therefore, “inferior.” Considering her white boyfriend, the question the larger white woman on Jerry Springer had asked was: “What is wrong with him?”. Now, considering our neighbors who were women of color, some of who were thick or large, the message I received from the adult white women in my neighborhood was: “What is wrong with their non-white men?”. For the majority of these white mothers and eventually their white daughters, there was also a lack of motivation to get to know these women of color as individuals and understand the complex relationships they most likely were having with their own bodies, including issues of race and oppression. I will always feel there was a missed opportunity for all the mothers and daughters in the neighborhood to understand each other and the intersectionality of oppression before intersectionality was even a household word.
At this time, I’ll admit, my external behavior was mostly no more enlightened than my neighbors and I believed the skinny white girls who took Irish dance classes and cheerleading were the beautiful ones and everything else was “other” and “inferior”. Though, internally, as an avid book reader, I already felt something dishonest in these ideas of beauty and race. It would not take long until I chucked them. I distinctly remember an episode at recess in the seventh grade when a close friend, a white male classmate of mine, remarked on the sexiness of a black female classmate’s legs. This has stayed with me not only because even in the late-nineties, in my working class neighborhood, interracial dating or “crushes” were irregular, but also, because this girl was not tiny like the white Irish dance girls. She was shapely and her body echoed my own in that it was already metamorphosing into a woman’s body, and like me, I now imagine, she was already beginning to understand how it felt to be sexualized by men. If our social circles had not been self-segregated by race, maybe she and I would have been able to connect on this in ways that I could not connect with some of my white friends who were still waiting on the arrival of their period and womanhood. So, this was the village I was born into, but something told me it did not have to be this way, and that I could eventually, once I was free, create my own village. And this is exactly what I eventually did, starting with moving to the United Arab Emirates when I was twenty-three.
At that time, I was taking beginner’s Arabic and reading a lot about regional and Islamic culture, including the essay “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem” by the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, in which she details an eye-opening experience she had during her first trip to a department store in the United States. At the store, the saleswoman tells her, “Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores.” Mernissi is dumbfounded for as she tells the saleswoman:
“I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,”…I buy my own material and the neighborhood seamstress…They just take my measurements each time I see them. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time.”
She goes on to compare how western men use time (and weight) to restrict and oppress women the same as how the Muslim man uses space (the harem). She says, “When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.” In the United States, isn’t it true that the damning messages we receive about our bodies start to proliferate just as we are coming into womanhood? As it had for me during the year I first got my period? I knew Mernissi was onto something, and I began to question the motives of a society that would make me feel unlovable just because of my size. Mernissi became part of my new village.
Then, I met a man in the UAE. Actually, we met while we were both traveling solo in Turkey, but soon discovered we lived as expats in the same country. This man was kind and smart, and though I’d had boyfriends before, he became my first adult love. On our first night together, my head was full of what he would think of my body. I wondered would he still, as Carole King sings, love me tomorrow? He would. I learned too that he wanted to save “going all the way” for marriage as he was religious, but I also learned there are so many ways to be intimate when you are loving. He constantly told me how beautiful I was and how much he loved my body, and I eventually believed him. There was no “despite my body” anymore. The woman on Jerry Springer had been wrong and I felt bad for her and for my many many girlfriends who still felt that way. This man and I would eventually part ways, but there would be other important men in my life, almost all of them not from the United States, who also made me feel lovable. I don’t want to give myself or the men or Mernissi all the credit; meeting so many women with different understandings of beauty in a small country like the UAE, during graduate school, and throughout the world has also helped me tremendously. My new village is wide and colorful.
In general, it might seem like the world is still stacked up against big girls, and in many ways, it still is. But the climate is a lot more diverse now than ten, twenty years ago. Every day, through various media forms, I see bodies of different colors, abilities and shapes in ways that weren’t visible when I was growing up. Social media, especially Instagram, can be damaging to people’s self-esteem, but it can also be empowering through the right kind of searching. You can find folks like Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn), a black American woman with curves, who doesn’t look like the typical yogi, but she is—and she is phenomenal. In her profile, she writes things like, “yoga is for every body” and “I see with my soul instead of my eyes”… a line Jane Eyre could get behind. There are also prominent body-positive women like Roxane Gay, Ashley Graham, and South Korea’s Vivian Geeyang Kim. There is more representation in traditional media too. Leaving Lena Dunham’s other issues aside, it was exciting to see her body on television, to see her mother’s body on television. Also, while plus-size clothing shopping used to be very limited and expensive, now there are more options, both in stores and through online shopping. Though, I still think Mernissi would feel restricted in American shopping malls for our insistence on arbitrary sizing of fast-fashion clothing.
This is a difficult essay to end because my knowledge of the body is constantly expanding, and my own relationship with my body and food is evolving. So I’ll end where I began, as a fifth grader reading. Another favorite childhood heroine of mine was Harriet the Spy. At one point, Harriet tells her nanny, “I want to see the whole world and I want to write down everything.” I might not have much in common with my fifth grade self anymore, but that fifth grader and my current self still want the same things Harriet wanted. And for this reason, I refuse to spend the hours of my life focused on making myself smaller, in body or soul. There are so many things to see and know, but we can’t do that if we are spending one-third of our lives sleeping and another third in our head obsessing about our body. It is our responsibility to not just accept what we are given, messages or ideas, but to keep taking from different places, further and wider. I also don’t espouse any kind of “real girls have curves” mantra; it is divisive and wrong. We are all real.
I wish I could close with the same soaring chords as “My Body is a Cage”, a song about a person who can’t be with the one they love because of their body. We don’t know if its because of sexuality, anxiety, disability, or physical appearance. We only know that the singer says, “we take what we are given.” But we don’t have to accept what we are given forever, because it isn’t the body that is ever really the cage. Society is the cage. And since we are society, we can change the shape of our bars, and we can let different people, villages, and ideas in or out.
Artwork by Lucian Freud