Unshaming

Content warning: writing here about fatphobia, body shaming and my relationship to my own body. I’ve always hesitated to write about my own experiences with my body because they pale in comparison to the discrimination faced by bigger people but I was thinking about these things when I painted this little piece a few nights back… so yeah. This small acrylic painting (28 x 35.5cm) is for sale at jngaio.com/shop by the way. I’m going to start photographing myself with my art in order to give an idea of their scale and also the ways that they shift in colour depending on lighting.  

Whenever I get an advert on Facebook for shapewear, clothing designed to squash our fatty deposits into an approximation of something considered more desirable and socially acceptable, I report the advert as offensive. Whenever I get an advert for fad diets, knowing full well how diet culture is toxic, dangerous and has been proven to only succeed in creating unhealthy relationships with food and unhealthy bodies, I report those adverts as offensive. I am determined to keep my social media feeds as body positive and emotionally healthy for me as I possibly can, as navigating the social pressures put on women to adhere to particular standards of beauty is already hard enough and learning to have a healthy relationship with food is an ongoing process for me.  

I grew up in the 90s, a time of profound and toxic fatphobia. I was a chubby kid for a few years and I felt more ashamed of my body than any child should ever feel. When I was 14 and we moved to America, I secretly started putting my finger down my throat and bringing my food back up. When we came home to Aotearoa, New Zealand, adults commented on how slender I had gotten, like it was an accomplishment. In fact, I started feeling accomplished when I managed to only eat an apple and a little yoghurt in a day.

“Mum’s worried I’m not eating enough” I told my boyfriend back in America in an online chat “I think she might think I have an eating disorder.” My boyfriend replied “You’re too smart to have anorexia.” That’s not how eating disorders work, it’s not about intelligence… but I was 14 and easily influenced by what people thought of me and so I started eating more food and stopped putting my finger down my throat. But always, always, every single day, I obsessed about the minor fluctuations in my weight and felt guilty when I ate the things that gave me pleasure.

During lockdown last year, I put on almost 10kgs which is a dramatic change for someone of my height. I wanted to be kind to myself, I wanted to embrace the body positivity and radical self-love which are an important part of my politics. I believe, so deeply, that people are valid at any size and health comes in many different shapes. But I became incredibly dysmorphic and felt as if I had somehow “failed”. Much of my clothes no longer fit and my self-esteem faltered. I’m still coming to terms with that.

I hate that. I hate that during a global pandemic, when my body responded to the fear and despair with more comfort eating and lockdown meant less exercise, that I felt like somehow I was “failing”. And this is nothing compared to the stigma, abuse, medical mismanagement and judgment that my bigger friends have faced their whole damn lives.

My body changes in response to multiple factors of environment, diet, mental and physical health, genetics and the simple passage of time – for another thing has recently happened, perhaps a hormonal shift resulting in the texture of my skin and hair changing and grey hairs appearing more plentifully on my head tells me that my body is changing and aging and therefore my metabolism is also slowing down. I’m not interested in discussions and debates on what is “healthy” for what is healthy depends on a multitude of intersecting issues and for many of us, at different points in our lives, health is less of a priority than simply getting through another day.

My visual art has always engaged with the body and my own defiant struggle to love it and accept it in the face of all the external pressure to feel otherwise. In the last few years, I’ve been studying physical theatre in the forms of clown and Butoh and this has been helping me develop a relationship with my body where it is something that I find pleasure, play and creative expression in. This is giving me a love for my body and the ways in which it carries me through my one small, short life. I want it to be healthy but the biggest part of health, to my mind, is love. So I want to love my body no matter what. In a world that profits off shaming us and telling us that to be old and fat is to have less value, to somehow fail… I feel resolved to adore and accept my body no matter what shape it is, as difficult as this task might be.

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