Body Wars

“The danger of falling into the habit of demanding that our bodies-fat bodies, or otherwise “ugly” bodies-be pretty too is that by doing so we are reinforcing the cultural importance of prettiness.  We are acknowledging a longing for social acceptance, a willingness to indulge prettiness pressures so long as we are allowed to play too.  It is a classically liberal stance: all we want is our fair share.

I’d prefer to occupy a space outside the pretty/ugly paradigm, a space where the parameters are self-determined.”

Lesley Kinzel, Two Whole Cakes: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body

Sometime before my double digit birthday, my mom fell ill.  Limbs swollen and the skin on her legs so taut, I worried that a mere pinprick might deflate my mom. It was the mid-nineties and there was very little information about this mysterious illness.  My mom bounced from doctor to doctor, searching for answers.  Her body continued to balloon.  Was it fat?  Yes, my mom had always been heavy.  I inherited her body type.  She wore a size 16 (same as me).  My mom was active, going for long bike rides, gardening, and playing.  From my childhood perspective, she ate normally.  I don’t ever recall extreme diets or unusual eating patterns.

My mom’s new body, so distorted and large, became a source of shame.  Despite rapid and disproportional weight gain throughout her body, doctors insisted that she was fat.  Instead of answers, she was prescribed diets.  It wasn’t until much later that she received her diagnosis: primary lymphedema.  Her lymph nodes, which had so dutifully drained fluid from her body for over 40 years, stopped working.  Fluid accumulated in her body, creating physical and emotional pain which few people understood.  In pursuit of physical healing, my mom was destroyed emotionally.  The physical symptoms of her disease were treated with diuretics, manual lymph drainage, and wrapping.  Everywhere she went, she was judged by strangers.  To cope, she treated her emotional pain with opioids.  And that was the beginning of the end.

Eyes wide open, I observed (and absorbed) it all.  I internalized the shame.  It spread like a disease in my own body.  I felt unworthy, unloveable, and flawed.  In hindsight, I look at school pictures and see a beautiful child.  Emerald green eyes and blonde hair – a walking cherub.

Lindy West writes about the evolution of fat acceptance in Shrill, saying, “Vicious was normal.  It was perfectly acceptable to mock fat bodies, flatten fat humanity, scold fat people for their own deaths.  You only have to look back five years to see a different world, and by extension, tangible proof that culture is ours to shape, if we try.”

The body wars that my mom fought depleted her – dimmed the luminous being which so many people recall.  Those wars are no longer mine.  I have declared a truce with my body.  I no longer internalize that shame.  This wellspring of peace comes from a variety of sources: a thriving body positive movement, strong feminist inclinations, and a fierce determination to love myself.

Sharing this deeply personal experience is my attempt at shaping culture.  For all I know, I may have some genetic abnormality waiting to destroy my own lymph nodes.  One day, my own limbs my swell.  My mobility may become impaired and I might live with chronic pain.  Each of my toes will struggle to fit uncomfortably into tight shoes. I’ll be robbed of the ability to wear cute jeans or sit cross-legged on the floor.  People will stare and there will always be those who will think I am an out-of-control slob.

I will greet each of their stares with a smile.

I’ll rock purple hair.

My fingers will dance on my keyboard uninhibited.

My life will be luminous.

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