Nearly a month ago – when I decided to stop being overly philosophical for the holidays – I wrote this:
The definition of female beauty – or the you can never be too thin mentality – is based on a male dominated society which seeks to repress women’s power. Or so some people think. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I get where the idea is coming from but I’m not sure it’s still true today. But then again, when models are pre-pubescently thin and featureless is that a way of saying women should be children? Small, weak, powerless?
This is a big part of at least the beginning of When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. I mean, I get that we come from a male dominated society, particularly looking at it from the early 20th century. But is it really reasonable to say that our issues with our bodies are “an outgrowth of a culture that makes women feel inferior” or is that a thing of the past?
Apparently I live in the land of wishful thinking. I want to believe that we are past that period of our history where women feel inferior. We don’t pass that on to our daughters anymore, do we? The world – at least within our culture and similar cultures – would agree with me, right? Women are equal, at the least, and certainly not inferior. Okay, so I am aware there is still a serious problem with pay equity. So, okay that part is still an issue. But I don’t want to focus on that part. I want to just skip ahead to fixing my own thinking.
But then I ran across THIS. It won’t let me embed the video but please do follow the link. It is so worth it.
This young woman could easily be my daughter. What would I be teaching my daughter, if I had one, with my fixation on weight and eating and seeing my size and appearance as a measure of my worth? What would my daughter learn about herself from watching me?
“You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in.”
I know you won’t all watch the video, so read the text but know you will be missing a vital piece. Hearing those words makes me cry. Hearing these words reminds me of the lessons I learned from my own mother.
Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine that she drinks out of a measuring glass.
She says she doesn’t deprive herself,
but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.
In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.
I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.
I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.
Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”
It was the same with his parents;
as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach,
and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking,
making space for the entrance of men into their lives,
not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.
I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to say: we come from difference, Jonas,
you have been taught to grow out,
I have been taught to grow in.
You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much.
I learned to absorb.
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.
I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters,
and I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits-
that’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.
We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit,
weaving silence in between the threads
which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,
picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again.
Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.
Deciding how many bites is too many.
How much space she deserves to occupy.
Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,
And I don’t want to do either anymore,
but the burden of this house has followed me across the country.
I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word “sorry.”
I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza,
a circular obsession I never wanted, but
inheritance is accidental,
still staring at me with wine-soaked lips from across the kitchen table.
I learned I should be invisible. That I should never ask for what I want. I learned that I should not push my own needs forward. That I should sneak. That I should hide. That I should not appear to eat or want to eat. That I should jump on whatever the latest fad diet is. I learned that people would judge me based on how I looked or how clean my room was. I learned that the superficial was more important than what was inside me and that intelligence was not valued.
Why did I get fat? Did I rebel from those lessons? Did I simply find that the sneaking food, hiding what I ate, was somehow satisfying? I shouldn’t take up space in your world. I should be ashamed of the space I need. And where did my mother learn those lessons? From her mother? Is it the mother’s fault? Is it easier to blame the women for me than to accept the inheritance from a male dominated society?
Things are changing, but they aren’t finished. The past isn’t gone. It lingers in our beliefs about what we should look like, how we get our needs met, who we want to become. It lingers on in little girls believing that Barbie is the ideal and that they should let the boy win when they play tennis so that the boy will like them. Do we still teach our little girls that lesson?
I’m afraid we do.
I don’t have a daughter. If I did, my obsessions, my behaviors, would still teach that lesson. I’m not good enough unless I’m beautiful. What you – society tells me is beautiful is what I will believe.
I don’t want to focus on those things as I strive to change them. I want the easy answers. I want to learn to eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not but never have to address why I don’t even know when I’m hungry. Never have to think about why I need this space around me. I have created this space. I have padded this body. Don’t look at me, don’t judge me, just stay away and I know you will because my body will disgust you. Maybe I will never understand this part but I hope that it doesn’t mean I can’t change the behaviors.
I hear, by the way, people saying that they only want to teach their children how to be healthy – to eat healthy, to respect their bodies. And there is not a thing wrong with that. I just fear that there is a very fine line between encouraging healthy behaviors and reinforcing fat shaming and body hatred. I don’t have the answers, however. I haven’t even found them for myself yet.
Oh, and by the way, if you enjoyed listening to the poem – the next one is well worth listening to as well. In fact, if you like this kind of slam poetry, just keep letting them play for a while.