We all have an image of ourselves that we hold in our mind’s eye. I think this is especially true for women. Whether you like it or not, there does exist a generalized ideal of the female form, even among the so-called enlightened and sensitive among us. Be curvy, not skin and bones, but not TOO curvy (i.e. “fat”), because that’s a definite turn off. By all means, have a nice, round bum, but not so round that it extends beyond the span of your hips. And big breasts will do quite nicely, too, thank you, but not sloppy titties, for Pete’s sake.
The other day I caught a glimpse of myself in a photo my daughter Ayla took as I entered our community’s swimming pool. All I could see were giant thighs and a protuberant, albeit small, belly. “Oh,” I uttered disdainfully and not a little shamefully, “I’m fat.” As if fat were a dirty, bad word, as bad as stupid in their lexicon. “Mommy’s fat!” My four-year-old son David yelled out gleefully. Then my five-year-old Ayla joined in, and they were both calling me fat, laughing at me. I felt like the chubby kid on the playground, a sensation I’ve never experienced before. Tears welled up in my eyes. I admonished them not to call anyone fat, but is this really the right advice? The issue is that fat is a subjective word in the English language. It’s loaded with negative connotations. It shouldn’t be; if you are fat, you should own it. I’m realizing this only because I don’t look like the girl I was at 22, 32, or even 42. I’ll be 44 in August. It’s not the number that bothers me. It’s the changes that my body has undergone—and will continue to undergo. That night, I consoled myself with—what else? Food. Instead of mapping out a more strenuous fitness plan or planning healthier meals, I chose to savor the flaky, deliciously reconstituted crumbs known as Ritz crackers. Many of them.
So who was the Venus of Willendorf, anyway? I consider her the Jennifer Lopez of the Paleolithic era, a symbol of fertility and unbridled sexuality. At least that’s what the man who first fashioned the Venus in stone had in mind. Life was uncertain those days. Drought and famine were frequent but inexplicable occurrences. Food was probably a scarce and valuable commodity. Any woman who could keep on the pounds was probably revered. There couldn’t have been too many women who managed to do this. If you were fat, it meant your man was prosperous; your fields were fertile.
Nowadays, fat connotes the opposite. If you are well off you can afford to eat small amounts of organic foods from Whole Foods. You can afford an expensive monthly membership at a gym. If you maintain a slim figure at any age it shows somehow that you care about yourself and, by extension, the world. Just now I am realizing what horseshit this is. I bought all of it, by my own admission.
Does it have to be either/or? I wager that the men who came up with the Venus of Willendorf were wrong, too. Or rather, the activists who claim her likeness as some sort of justification for being overweight are mistaken. Is it possible to remove emotion, positive and negative, from weight? At least we could try to do this when it comes to our own relationship with the scale. I do not want to hate myself every time I gain a pound. I am going to try to eat better and exercise more for my health and to prevent myself from gaining more weight (in fairness, I only weigh 5lbs more than I did in college, yet those pounds have seemed to have redistributed themselves on my body, and my muscles are more slack), but I do not want to tie my well-being to my weight.
On the other hand, we should stop equating thinness with goodness and being overweight with negative connotations. I, for one, am going to embrace fat neutrality to save my self-esteem.
I have an okay diet. I exercise regularly. But I’m also aging. I can’t expect to look the same as I did 10 years ago, or even two years ago. I thought that I could. The recent, unwanted changes in my body? I’m learning to accept them instead of letting them become sources of anxiety and self-hatred, or self-pity. As an added benefit, embracing the fat in me has enabled me to neutralize my once complex feelings for the fat in others. Excess body weight is just that, and that alone.