Body Politics

Sera Davidow
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As I write this, my daughter is 18 months old.  She operates 24-hours-per-day, 7-days-azoey eyes 3-week under a baby’s natural assumption that she is loved and accepted exactly for her.  She throws her whole self at you with complete faith that you’ll not only want to catch her, but be delighted to do so.  She flashes her round belly, expecting those around her will fight for the privilege to kiss or blow on or tickle it.  Any sign that you are questioning her wants and needs leads to shock expressed with wild abandon and never self-recrimination.

zoey body double belly

Where does that sense of self get lost?  When does it happen?

sera 4ish0001 When I was about 5, I started to turn to food.  I remember standing at a window in my childhood home, hand pressed against the cold glass pane, peering out at the driveway and watching my mother drive away and leave me alone.  The world felt like a pretty unsafe place.  I was not safe.  I needed to take care of myself.  And so I made myself some chocolate milk.  I felt a little better.  I thought I’d get in trouble if my mother knew, so I cleaned up any sign of my little indulgence before she returned.  No one was the wiser.

But all was not well.  The cycle repeated, and at the same time my sense of being wrong in the world grew.  I felt ugly, too big.  I took up too much space.  Why had my father left me and moved out?  Why didn’t I connect and make friends with the same ease that others did?  Why did I seem to think about everything so much more deeply than other kids my age?  Why did I so often feel like I was travelling around in a little bubble that kept me separate from and sometimes floating above the rest of the world?  When I was about 8 or 9, I remember playing at a neighbor’s house on his swing set and having the swing break under me.  I fell  on the ground and felt humiliated.  I took it as proof that I was too big; too much.  I mumbled some excuse and ran home before he could tell me that he now understood that I was disgusting.

When I was in Junior High I started starving myself.  School lunch was torture.  Monday 16ish with dad0001 2through Friday, I made a charade of pretending to make important phone calls on the payphone in the hall, filling in the gaps by hiding in a bathroom stall.  I did it to stay away from the kids and the food.  The idea of having to ask for permission to take up space at some cafeteria table while displaying the food I was daring to take in was overwhelming.

And when starving would get to be too much, I would return to bingeing at home and hide the material remnants of my secrets in drawers around my room.  When I was a Freshman in high school, I remember coming home from the mall with a friend one day and rushing toward the stairs that led to my room only to have my friend and I greeted by a mountain of those remnants at the top of the stairs.  I was frozen.  My mother had been in my room; searched through my drawers.  She’d created a museum of shame for my friend to see to ‘teach me a lesson’ about my bad behavior.  I don’t even remember what I said or how I made it through that level of humiliation.  It’s a blank.

scan0021By the time I got to college, I was pretty confident in my sense that I should be apologizing to people for having to look at me.  I spent a lot of time putting on make-up every day largely because I could ease a bit of that pain in the illusion that there was something of a mask between me and the world.  At some point, I became so convinced that everyone was talking about me and saying how disgusting I was that I stopped going to classes or leaving my apartment and eventually got kicked out of school.

I could tell many parts of my story, including how I made it beyond that point to where I am today, but I won’t.  Not for now.  I’m telling this part at the moment for a reason.  This self-loathing for my own body – my most intimate ‘home’ –  that I so insistently projected onto others is not something I’ve ever completely overcome.  There are many ways in which it was seeded within me, and many experiences that helped its hold on me grow.  But I’m not so special.  My experience in this realm may have been bigger than some, but it’s not that different from many.

Our culture teaches us to hate ourselves; Women, in particular.  Should it be such a surprise that so many of us cave under its pressures in ways that leave us teetering on the brink of diagnosis or falling over the edge into its abyss?  What happened to me that led me to want so desperately not to be connected to my corporeal being is very personal and involves much more than I am sharing here.  However, had I not been directly and indirectly cheered on in my own self-hatred by television and movies and magazines and all the women in my life talking incessantly about how much they also hate themselves, I wonder if the outcome might not have been at least a little bit different.

By the time I was 5, I had also seen plenty of weight loss commercials on television advertising women in bikinis running on the beach.  (I still thought they were too fat.  Their flesh jiggled when they ran.  I didn’t want my flesh to jiggle.)  By the time I was 8, I had already heard friends and family and friends’ families complaining about their ‘too big’ stomachs or butts or arms and what they were eating to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  By the time I was in Junior High I was reading articles every week about how to ‘lose that ugly fat.’  By the time I was in college, I felt like I couldn’t even be near strangers without overhearing their own words of self-deprecation every day I entered the world.  And if they were saying that about themselves so freely in public, what on earth were they thinking and saying about me?

I want to plug my daughter’s ears up with cotton and cover her eyes.  I don’t want to have to bear witness to her loss of that care free sense of belonging in this world; of taking up just the right amount of space.  I don’t want to watch her begin to question if she really deserves to be loved.

January 1 2003 birth of jeremy0001

We as human beings – and especially those of us who are female – need to take this up as a political issue.  We need to understand that when we disparage our own bodies we are disparaging the bodies of those around us and re-enforcing the idea that they should do the same.   We need to know that trite sentiments like, “It’s what’s inside that counts,” (no matter how earnestly stated) aren’t enough because what they’re tacitly communicating is, “You’re right that what’s on your outside is something we’re doing you the favor of looking past.”   We need to realize that when we loudly exclaim how happy we are that we lost x number of pounds after a week-long bout with the flu, that we’re essentially broadcasting the message, ‘skinny at all costs, including your health!’  In my mid-20’s, I went through a volunteer training at AIDS Care in Northampton, Massachusetts and at some point I felt safe enough with the group to share that some dark part of my mind was actually jealous.  I was jealous of people who had contracted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus because they often got to experience wasting – a no-effort, super express pass to skinny.  Holy crap.  What was wrong with me?  What is wrong with all of us?

I refuse to talk about my current-day inner dialogue about my body with anyone.  ‘They’ say that men think about sex every 7 seconds, and I’m probably still competitive with that figure when it comes to disparaging thoughts about my body.  But I won’t speak them out loud.  I will not be a part of passing along that particular societal ill.  And I will not comment on other people’s bodies, even in supposedly positive ways.  And when someone ‘compliments’ me by saying they think I look like I’ve lost weight, I will not respond or – even better – state clearly that I don’t keep track of that sort of thing or that it really doesn’t matter to me (even if not mattering is a wish more than a truth at this point).  And if I’m really feeling saucy, I might try out one of my favorite but mostly unused responses:

“Yes, tomorrow I’ll be cutting off my left leg to drop some more.  Quickest 30 pound loss EV-er!”

Or

“Yes, I’m afraid the cancer has really set in now.  They say I probably only have six months left, but I’ll surely drop at least another 10 before I go.”

That’d stop them in their tracks.

No, I’m not suggesting that weight cannot or should not ever be an issue.  Surely, pharmaceuticals pour on the pounds for people in ways that absolutely do matter.  And, ‘too much’ weight (whatever that actually means for a given person) can bring on a variety of physical issues.  But I am suggesting that teaching body hatred has the ability to make us sick, and that it does the exact opposite of creating space for us to eat and move in ways that actually feel good and support us to be healthy and to look like and be ourselves.

I realize this is a bit of a deviation from the various diatribes about language, psychiatric oppression and misguided diagnosis.  But in the end, it is all related.  It is related because anything that fosters a sense of alienation for us from ourselves and each other also fosters the same kind of pain that so often ends up becoming labeled as ‘symptom’ somewhere down the road.  It is related because the same kind of cultural force used to define what makes our bodies ‘acceptable’ comes from a very similar place as the cultural force that also judges and evaluates our behavior and minds.  And let’s be honest.  Body hatred breaks down our most basic resiliency and leaves us all the more vulnerable and susceptible to all the other pervasive negative messages – including pathologization and diagnosis and the belief that we need to be treated for how we are ‘wrong’ on the inside because of how we are impacted by all the awful things happening on the outside around us.

I hope that those of you reading this will consider how you think inwardly about yourself, but even more importantly, how you talk outwardly about yourself and others.  I urge you to give up the conversations about your latest diet or weight loss (especially in front of children!), to stop making public remarks about your own body hatred, and to stop commenting (particularly unsolicited) on other people’s bodies even when you think you’re saying something positive.

It may not change everything for you or for me, but perhaps it can be some part of cultural change on a broader scale; of teaching each other by example how to be more connected and loving to ourselves and each other.  Perhaps it can play some small role in supporting children from our next generations to avoid the paths that self-loathing can lead us down.  Perhaps teaching a little self-acceptance now can help avoid at least a few Prozac prescriptions later.

Our words really do have power.  How we talk about ourselves and each other means something.

I don’t want my daughter to experience this kind of pain.

For me, it still hurts.

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Sera Davidow
Tangible Intangibilities: Sera writes here to share her thoughts on how the language we choose and our apparent need to concretize the inherently complex is leading to violations of rights and humanity on a daily basis.

43 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! What a beautifully written essay Sera!!! Thank you so much for this. It is certainly related to the theme of this blog, as a lot of these ideas (if not all of them) about how our bodies should look are marketed to us by large corporations selling products that would harm our health even more and cause addiction/dependency on them. Sound familiar?

    When I was a child and teenager I was told, “you’re so skinny it’s disgusting” and made fun of for being “flat chested” when I was 12. WhatEVER!!! Hahaha…I can laugh at it now, but I cried inside when the kids on the school bus whispered behind me that I was a “flatty.” It had never occurred to me before to attack or scrutinize my body. As you say, this is a learned behavior, not at all a natural one. And if EVERYONE feels their is something wrong with their body (or mind) EVERYONE is a customer of some product or pill to “fix” them. If someone doesn’t think they are too fat or too skinny, whatever can we sell them?
    I remember my mother projecting her own culture-learned obsessiveness outward-by obsessing about my appearance for positive or negative. It was incredibly annoying and distracting to have her constantly talking about my appearance or her weight, almost as a way of fitting into society and trying to seem normal. She still does it today-often comments on any tiny “imperfection” in my appearance, and it appears to truly bother her like she is projecting her self scrutiny outward onto me. Honestly, having not seen her in a few years and having more gray hairs which, no I have not purchased anything to cover over, I have anxiety about seeing her, expecting she will comment on them right away and suggest I dye them.
    UUUUGGGHHH!!!! That’s all I have to say about that.
    I’m glad you are aware enough to actively not wish this on your daughter. Happy mothers day and thanks again for your vulnerability in this article!

  2. I, too, was taught to be deeply critical of my body in high school. I know that dread of cafeterias VERY well… so much so that even in college I refused to eat in cafeterias, ever. This was something of a handicap as a lot of social bonds were formed over dinner.

    But now, only a few years later, I honestly have near ZERO critical thoughts about my body. This is how it happened for me:

    Part 1: I did an analysis towards the end of college of TV advertising for fairness creams. These are bleaching/whitening agents marketed across Asia (particularly in India) to women of color… any color at all. They typically show a darker woman who is poor, uneducated, unsuccessful, or (!) unmarried… who finds the object of her desires after she lightens up a bit by using one of these creams. And what I learned from this analysis was that these ads teach us WE WILL NEVER BE FAIR ENOUGH, BEAUTIFUL ENOUGH so that there will ALWAYS be a demand for their product. They generate a feeling of shame in the women viewers to catalyze the NEED, the NEED TO BE BEAUTIFUL… which will never be fulfilled.

    Obvious, I know. But it was a revelation for me at the time! I saw it first with these wholy unfamiliar commercials, but then realized that all the beauty product advertising I’d been taking in since I was little was essentially the same repeating cycle. Perhaps the first true perpetual motion machine… with my shame and unknowing consent its motive power. Because, obviously, this thing stops working the moment you say, “I don’t need you in order to be beautiful.”

    So that was part 1.

    Part 2 was finding a food lifestyle (not calling it a “diet”) that worked really, really well for me. I feel satisfied, eat as much as I like, and stay a shape that seems natural and healthy to me. I eat whole, real foods (many of them fermented!), avoid gluten and sugar and processed foods, and make mealtimes a social, sharing event with family and friends.

    The reason I felt called to share this long response to your beautiful article, Sera, was because the RELIEF and JOY @ no longer worrying about being “fat” or “ugly” or hating my body in general have been AMAZING! A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders… I am now free to be confident and beautiful!

    I truly hope that other women can find this, too. I believe that both components — the philosophical and the nutritional — were necessary for me to make this leap into a healthier attitude towards my body and my self.

  3. Your words are highly pertinent Sera, I’ve seen body hatred destroy lives physically and spiritually and eating distress [my personal term] carries the highest mortality rate.
    It’s also an area where they has been so little activism from psychiatric EDU survivors, maybe because we live in such vicious body hating cultures that until there’s some societal shift it isn’t that easy to speak from the conference platform about it because the first thing people will be sizing up is the speaker’s body! EDU’s massively damage people, and some don’t survive them. Others end up being spat out after many years and declare them hopeless, at this point the BPD industry steps in. It’s psychological death..
    Before I was diagnosed as Schizophrenic I was in an EDU, just one admission but they did a lot of damage so that I couldn’t speak of it for a very long time. I witnessed things that to this day I will never come to terms with.
    For myself I came to the decision to accept my disgusting/gross/add a a whole ream of words..body. I thought to myself, well I’m never going to be XYZ, never going to feel ABC so I’ll accept feeling &%^****$!&^!. As I did that, I stopped fighting myself so much.
    In saying this I knew I couldn’t trust my own eyes so the use of scales I managed to turn around. With services they are a tyranny, but I turned them into a reassurance to myself that I hadn’t changed dress size overnight, but crucially changes did not dictate my existence.
    The hardest practical shift can be in taking the risk of one good meal a day, then two. I have suffered long term physical consequences and that saddens me but some of friends didn’t survive at all.
    I just wish the sisterhood would also be more supportive because women can sometimes be the hardest judges of other women and we shouldn’t!!!!
    Lol I like your humour, I can’t stand anyone commenting on “looking well” because what does it mean? A friend looked great the day before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and women are especially good at putting on a good face [and dress] because we know that care with appearance is viewed as indicator of our mental health – that subject is an essay..

    • Joanna,

      You nailed it.

      We should all read feminist, Dr. Phyllis Chesler’s WOMAN’S INHUMANITY TO WOMAN to validate our reality that as much as we don’t want to admit it most women do a number on other women by using “relational aggression” to do them in in an all out war to get the most goodies at home, at work, at school and other social spheres.

      Research shows that when those “mean girls” grow up, many just get all the meaner and become all the more expert and sneaky about their serial bullying to compete unfairly and making us all look bad.

      We should all take that to heart and realize that women are never going to get anywhere until they develop the old girls’ network similar to the old boys’ network!! But, rampant competition, cattiness and character assassination remain the rule and not the exception as also explained in such books as IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN and WOMEN: THE BEST OF FRIENDS, THE WORST OF ENEMIES.

      As Dr. Phil says, you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge!

        • Agreed, but I think we should show each other unconditional positive regard in general while supporting each other in all areas including family, school, work and society at large.

          I know I am guilty of talking about my weight when I feel fat due to my own insecurity (and occasional pigging out of course). When I do this unintentionally especially around people who are heavier than me because I’m feeling bad about myself, I want to cut off my little toe (symbolically) for doing what I hate and probably making others feel bad. Anyway, I keep working on it and I doubt many women can escape the fat complex imposed on all of us. But, we don’t have to add to each others’ misery by the constant focus on such superficial traits including ourselves.

          The truth is I now try to focus more on eating healthy and being more healthy with a the great program described in Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s best selling EAT TO LIVE book! Check it out on Amazon.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful article. I wonder if as the culture of body hatred has become less acceptable / successful, the power structures that be have moved on to our minds. Not being impossibly happy, friendly, brilliant, successful, confident has become the new way to “fail.”

    • Cataract,

      Barbara Ehrenreich, a popular author and journalist, has written a great book, BRIGHT SIDED: HOW POSITIVE THINKING IS UNDERMINING AMERICA, which is in keeping with your post about the never ending pressure to be happy, positive, etc.

      She especially got ticked when she was put down for not being positive enough about her breast cancer! Give me a break!

      http://www.amazon.com/Bright-Sided-Positive-Thinking-Undermining-America/dp/0312658850

        • Right on, Joanna! “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you…”

          Thanks for the great link on Barbara E. on youtube. Very enlightening. There are others there that look good too like the one on honesty.

          I agree with the bogus enforced happiness making us feel worse at times. I find that when I get busy doing things I want to get done, I tend to forget my problems and feel better with a feeling of accomplishment and more positive feelings for getting the thing done especially when I’ve procrastinated; it’s all the more of a relief like completing taxes!

          Joanna, I hear you, but as I say to my son and myself, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” or rebel for the sake of rebelling just because your perceived enemy recommends something good for you. This can cause you to play right into their hands especially if they know you have a stubborn streak!

          • I agree Donna never any point in doing that.

            The weight and insurance issue is worrying, here we’ve had payment offered to people to lose weight, but this isn’t offered to people with anorexia to gain weight!
            We’ve also had studies paying people to take medication…deep sigh..

  5. Sera,

    May you daughter continue to experience what simply *has* to be the greatest blessing life has to offer… May she continue to feel she is loved and accepted for being *exactly* who she is!

    You revealed a lot about yourself in this post. Thank you, Sera. I’m certain your story will give others some hope.

    Best,

    Duane

  6. Sera,

    Thank you for this. Although women have traditionally carried the burden of worrying about their looks and bodies many men also struggle with this. We may not admit it but you sure do see a lot of us in the gym working out constantly so that we’ll have all the muscles in the right places. I think that there’s a big push now to make men feel badly about themselves if their bodies don’t look just “right” in much the same way as women have had to put up with. The body image industries are attacking both sexes in earnest to make more profits from all of their ridiculous products.

    Thanks for sharing this very important part of your story.

    • True Stephen but more women actually die as a result of it through eating distress and psychiatrically our appearance has a greater bearing on diagnosis and notions of looking ‘better’ than for men. Care with appearance is more commented upon, women have found that if they put on a skirt and a bit of lipstick for ward round they are more likely to get leave/discharge [I reckon this should researched]. Women are more likely to be diagnosed purely on grounds of their appearance – a medical student told me of her psych placement where this psychiatrist who couldn’t even quote the diagnostic criteria for BPD told her that he could tell ‘just by looking at women’, as ‘they tended to wear too much eye pencil’. This prompted some of us to draw up spoof clothing and makeup mental state examination guides!

      • I agree. It’s terrible. Man are allowed to look like slobs and they get away with it but women aren’t allowed the same accomodation.

        Your response made me remember something that a psychiatric nurse told me when I was in clinical pastoral education training. She said that you could always spot a woman who had what was called hysterical personality disorder (her terms not mine)because they all wore too much jewelry and way too much makeup and they loved histrionics! At the time I wondered what amounted to too much jewelry and makeup and who got to be the judge of such stupidity. Then she went on to tell me how you had to watch out for these women because they were such manipulators and would accuse you of all kinds of things! When I think back on it now I realize how ludicrous it was.

    • Stephen, You are absolutely right and I have seen books and articles about the pressure on men to look like Adonis and be obsessive about their weight and similar issues.

      However, studies do show that women on the job do suffer much more discrimination when their BMI hits about 27 while men don’t suffer as much unless they want to be CEO! Then, their BMI gets more critical. Notice Christie of New Jersey just had weight loss surgery as he considers a presidential run after constant harassment.

      That was according to a recent study I read, but you don’t need studies or to be a genius to know that overweight people are a convenient target just like smokers for the those who have now substituted “health” as the new morality just like the mental death profession focuses on “behavioral health,” an Orwellian example of perfect doublespeak and bogus metaphor for maximum social control.

      Pretty obscene when the mental death profession inflicts the most obesity with their toxic drugs causing metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes and other toxic effects in the body that will be used to vilify and scapegoat the already vilified, stigmatized and scapegoated all the more!

      Stephen, I have been meaning to tell you I appreciate your supportive comments and I am very glad you are here!!

  7. if it wasn’t real life it would laughable wouldn’t it Stephen.
    I know women who carefully consider now whether they look “normal” enough before going to hospital. Bright colours can be interpreted as ‘manic’ and black is depressed.
    How do you reckon they’d classify my star trek costume?!

  8. Sera, thank you for starting another courageous and important conversation with us and through your own beautiful body (and yes, it is, beautiful, and yes, I get how little my saying it means stacked against a lifetime of culturally approved self loathing).

    Yet another thing we share, this journey. You are right, it is all too common. I trekked through years of starvation, binging, a graduate degree devoted to deconstructing the objectification of women, and decades of meditation trying to work this one out. Thought I had in some ways. Not so quick.

    It was the gift of two beautiful girls that reminded me how far we have to go. That we ALL have to be liberated from this morbid obsession and fetishism with what is NOT beautiful (how crazy is that?!).

    My feminist parenting checklist:

    No women’s magazines allowed in house. Check.

    (They still look every time we check out at the grocery store)

    No discussion of weight in our house. Check.

    (“Mom, am I fat?” My underweight 8 year old asks. What the hell?!)

    No Barbies. Check.

    (My oldest daughter is beginning to look like Skipper.)

    No vanity/vacuous TV programming. Check.

    (We watch Hulu to avoid the bulk of commercials. Helpful for avoiding pharma ads too.)

    And still, I have two girls who are conscious about their weight. I still worry about their body image.

    For me, I think I only began to heal a part of my own body politics when an extended bout of anxiety resulted in a dramatic weight loss that surpassed my high school eating disordered days. I was seriously considering the Ensure shakes (so was my family doc).

    During this time, I went on a weeklong silent meditation retreat and realized, with my whole frail body, that I didn’t believe, at some core level, that I had the right to take up space.

    Breathe. Contract. Breathe. Weep. Breathe. Expand.

    This has become a new practice for me. Taking up space. Embodiment (uncomfortable, uncharted territory for someone used to living only in her head).

    Do I still feel bad when I look in the mirror? Yes, sometimes. Do I still avoid the camera? (always!). Do I still worry about my girls’ self image? (big time, especially as high school looms near).

    But I am committed to taking up more space, and feeling like I have a right to it. That we all have a right to inhabit our bodies and lives. A right to live our lives LARGE.

    It’s a long road… I’m grateful to know you are in it with me.

    With great affection,
    Jen

  9. When I fell in love for the first time in High School (with a guy not with a girl) I think I didn’t eat for a week and lost weight. Then after high school was over I lost many more pounds; but became obsessive. I got my weight down to a dangerously low level, I could never keep myself limited to such a deprivation and kept gaining again and I started having digestion problem.
    I still remember the taste of the jelly filled doughnuts I made for myself, thinking I could indulge in providing myself with such items and not over indulging. I still don’t keep cookies in the house most of the time, because they are gone too soon; although I do have them occasionally and they aren’t always gone within a couple of days. If I buy ice cream it’s always in a small container, since that’s gone just like that as well.

    I must be lucky though, I’m not really over-weight, and lately have been losing a bit, which I like.

    In the end I think that it’s fear, and when I learned to just eat what I wanted to when I wanted to, to not feel guilty; and get involved with cooking healthy food which makes me feel good (I eat vegetarian and love different legumes with grains and the many different combinations there-of); then I’m not thinking too much about food.

    I do notice that when I’m stressed about something I might give myself the freedom to indulge in sweets and stuff, but then there’s this really good book A Course in Miracles which gets my mind off of responding to the stress, and then I notice I’ve ditched the desire to ride to the nearest Walgreens or Rite-Aid to get a two cup sized ice-cream or such….

    No one should feel guilty at all about anything. No matter what. They shouldn’t even feel guilty about not being able to not feel guilty….

    But you can relax your mind, get out of the worlds way of dealing with things, and just let go not trying to fit into an image; and you can also let go of not trying to not fit into an image so much it’s another image.