Have you ever said something like the following, or had it said to you?
“I don’t want to hear you put yourself down.”
“ You’re not fat, why do you say you are?”
“ Why do you read those stupid fashion magazines?”
“ I think you’re sexy just the way you are.”
Seems pretty affirmational, right? Then why doesn’t it make me feel better?
Here’s what’s really going on, well meaning partners of people who have body image issues (aka everyone). When you reject my expression of my body image issues, what I hear is that I’m a failure for not getting over the patriarchy already. When you say you think I’m sexy, what I hear is that your pleasure matters more than me feeling comfortable in my body. When you say I’m not fat, I weigh that against the entire culture telling me I am, and decide that I can please precisely no one.
I’m genuinely not trying to fish for compliments, and I won’t trap you in a no-win situation like asking “does this make me look fat?” Thanks to Stacey and Clinton of “What Not To Wear,” I mostly dress for my body type, and when I don’t, you can bet that I have a keen awareness of exactly where it doesn’t flatter me. If I’m asking what you think about my clothes, I’m probably asking if I’m fancy enough for this event, or if you get the reference on my t-shirt.
A couple of thoughts on fat acceptance: I AM SO GLAD THAT THIS EXISTS. It has helped so many people feel more comfortable in their bodies, feel comfortable admitting what kinds of bodies they are attracted to, be able to find clothes that make them look and feel great. It helps them fight the mountains of bullshit backlash that comes from a fat person saying in a public forum that they are ok how they are. It’s helped a lot of people get into, and keep, an activity routine, to know that having a goal of being healthy, not skinny, is ok. But, it’s not for me. I don’t identify with fatness, I don’t think I can do it healthily, and I am holding out for body shame being a motivator to get me to eat better and move more.
That’s why your words affirming my fatness will always ring hollow for me. Because it’s not what I want for myself. That’s why I like these reactions better:
“I’m hearing you say you don’t like your body. What do you want to do about that?”
“I’m happy to set aside time to work out with you.” (Because, let’s face it, if I were single I would be eating at restaurants less and working out more, because I wouldn’t be spending time with you).
“Patriarchy is a real bitch.” (Acknowledging how hard it is to reject our culture’s beauty notions > giving me grief for not having done so already.)
“I still like you.” (This one’s subtle, but the reason it’s different from saying I’m still sexy is that it takes the focus off your own pleasure.)
I’ve selectively accepted the size of parts of my body. For example, as a college graduation present my parents got me a very high quality interview suit, thinking I was done growing. Within 3 years, I had outgrown the pants and skirt because I got cyclist thighs from bike commuting. My parents, meaning well, said “keep the pants and skirt, you might lose the weight!” No, parents, nothing short of a drastic lifestyle change, and probably plastic surgery, will make those pants fit again. I gave them away in a clothing exchange and felt better. But I still freak out if people touch my belly fat.
Acceptance isn’t a one size fits all process. It’s really hard to do a good job supporting your partner through their body image issues. Meet them where they are. Listen. Offer support, not advice. Think about how your own choices may be affecting their body image. I wish someone had told me earlier that it was ok to still be on a journey toward self acceptance. Weight can be a really fraught issue. I think the most feminist thing to do is not to say “you’re perfect just the way you are” but “I support you becoming who you want to be.”