Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Body Positivity and Nudity

[Content note: body shaming, weight talk]

I feel like at the outset I should mention that this is a pretty personal post for me. It's mostly just a collection of my experiences, observations, and thoughts, so take that for what it is. But I'd like to embark on a little journey down the road of my experiences with nudity--or really, lack thereof--and body acceptance.

I was thinking recently about a very specific experience from my past. I think it was the first time that I really felt body shame. I was in the 4th grade...I was in the throws of puberty starting, but we hadn't had our first big girls-only talk with the nurse yet. My mom was pretty informative about things, so I understood what was going on with my body changes, but my classmates didn't necessarily, all depending on what their parents were or were not telling them.

I wasn't by any stretch of the imagination fat yet--but I was a chubby kid. "Baby fat" if you will...but I hadn't yet learned to feel shame about my shape or size.

My family was fairly modest...I'd say we were somewhere on the continuum between hippie families that parade around naked and repressed families that consider naked bodies sinful. But all this is to say that while I didn't feel any shame yet, I was naturally more bashful about just stripping down than some of my friends where nudity was just more normalized in their lives. My best friend, Ellen* from school was very much a body opposite of me. She was tall and thin and much of puberty was still a few years away for her. And she did come from a family where it wasn't a big deal to change in front of each other.

All of this is to lay the context for the experience that is so perfectly crystallized in my mind. Ellen and another friend from my neighborhood spent the weekend at my house. We had your stereotypical slumber party and we did some kind of fashion show as 10 year old girls are apt to do. In the process we changed in front of each other several times and I felt fine about it--I was having fun and being free. All of that changed at school the next week.

A mutual friend of ours (I can't even remember who, honestly, it's not that part that sticks in my brain) told me that Ellen had been talking about me and our experience that weekend. I don't remember the exact wording--I just recall directly that this mutual friend told me something that made me confront Ellen. I was coming off of this high of having had THEABOSOLUTEMOSTFUNWEEKENDEVER and I was really confused about what was going on. I remember it perfectly 18 years later...I got a chance to talk to her in gym class. I asked her what she had said and she told me, "Well...I just said that I was surprised that your boobs are bigger than I thought...and your stomach."

I remember feeling so fucking embarrassed and betrayed and weird. But I distinctly remember making a decision at that moment to save face. I wasn't going to look weak or shaken, or cry, or show that it had affected me. So I said, "Yeah, I know...I hide it really well."

It's so odd thinking back on it now and understanding that moment for what it was. I mean, I feel that moment was the official start of what ended up as a 15 year battle with hating my body. (Working in tandem with that was the continued changes of puberty and weight gain on my body and my dad's verbal abuse began to include food policing and body shaming.)

I know that Ellen didn't have ill intent when this all happened. I know she was a 10 year old girl and was existing in this fatphobic world and I don't blame her--she just happened to be the person who kicked off what was bound to happen to me anyway. Ellen and I remained friends throughout grade school but drifted apart in high school. After graduation we rarely lived in the same city, but when we did reconnect in our hometown every so often, we'd talk about our younger years. I should be perfectly honest about this...I know for a fact that I also negatively impacted her self-esteem. I believe it was sometime in college during one of those random times I saw her she told me point blank that I used to make fun of her for being flat chested and I "scarred her." It was something that didn't stick in my mind like it did hers; just as she wouldn't remember our incident in 4th grade gym. So again, this isn't about placing blame for me, I'm just coming to understand my formative experiences.

But no matter the intent behind it, I learned a really concrete lesson from Ellen that day at 10 years old--if you got naked in front of someone you trusted, it made you vulnerable. And they might turn on you and make you feel like shit about your body later. You never know. Because of this experience and the additional interactions with body shame, comparing myself to others, and our culture of fatphobia, I became the girl who had complicated changing rituals in the middle school and high school locker rooms, trying to never be exposed. I became the girl who opted out of things that involved any kind of skimpy clothes. I became the girl who wouldn't participate in the ridiculous naked-antics my female friends in high school often embarked on (what can I say--I had very free and weird friends. I say that lovingly.) I became the girl who would change in the bathroom at every slumber party.

And I became the woman who always arrives at the gym already in my workout attire or the pool in my swimsuit.

I clearly have made strides towards appreciating my body overall and I almost never feel shame anymore. But the truth is that this initial experience with Ellen really did impact my behavior and how I feel about nudity, even now (to the extent that I often joke that I'm like Tobias Funke from Arrested Development and I'm a never-nude.)

This complicated relationship with nudity often interacts with my fat activism and body positivity. As I've mentioned numerous times, there is a wonderful, vibrant community on Tumblr for any fat activist or body positivity-believer. One of the best things about these blogs is that they center on normalizing fat bodies--of all shapes, sizes, colors, and gender expressions. And frequently these pictures are nude (non sexual) photos. It's something that I truly appreciate and think is critical to the movement, but it's also something that can feel a little alienating to someone like me, when it's promoted as the pinnacle of body acceptance.

I mean, I've heard people say point blank before that if you're not comfortable getting naked in front of other people, then you don't really love your body.

I guess what I want to say with all of this is a reminder to myself and everyone who believes in body positivity that there is not some kind of magical hierarchy of body acceptance and that we all must rise through the steps in the same ways or that we all have the same steps. There are many ways to practice fat activism and self love. While we can find inspiration in and learn from each other, we've each got to chart our own path through this process and figure out what works for us. For some people that might include the liberation of unapologetically posting a nude photo**, where others will speak out about these issues daily with their friends, family, and/or coworkers, for others it might be very internally focused like doing yoga, journaling, or creating art, and for others it might be by putting together outfits (fatshion) or performing fat positive pieces. For most it will be aspects of all of the above and things I didn't list.

And again, that's ok. There's no one right way to learn to love yourself.

*Name changed, of course.
** I don't want to entertain discussions of slut shaming about this topic. I believe that everyone has a right to do what they want w/ their own body. And there's nothing inherently sexual about the general nude form.

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  1. I can't remember a time when I didn't know body/fat shaming. I've always been overweight, and that was brought to my attention more than a few times during my childhood by kids and adults alike (as if a 7-year-old has control over their diet and understands the complexities of nutrition). But I also think a lot of it came from my mother's issues with her own body. She was pretty skinny the first twenty years of her life but gained a lot of weight during her pregnancies with me and my sister. I can remember her constantly being on one diet or another, dragging us to the YMCA with her, and feeling embarrassed about her pants size. My sister and I would often go one "diets" too because little kids model behavior. We didn't know what a diet really was, just that it meant you couldn't eat certain things and you had to lose weight.
    I have a memory of when I was about five-yrs-old; I saw my mom changing in the bathroom, and I like any little kid I said the first thing that came to mind. I said, "Mommy, you're fat." It wasn't malicious; I was just saying what I saw. And my mom cried. I felt terrible for hurting her and my dad made me apologize. I learned then that the worst thing you could call someone (and therefore the worst thing you could be) was "fat."
    I still struggle with my weight and body shame. I'm terrified of passing that on to my own daughter. I really don't want her to have to deal with this. I want her to love herself inside and out and know that her true worth is not on a scale but in her head and heart.
    I love my mom and we have a good relationship, but even today, I don't think she knows how much her own body issues rubbed off on me.

    1. I think what you've described is heart breakingly common, from what I hear in my work. I just wrote about the start of my body shame here, there's so much after it that I didn't write in detail. My mom said similar things about herself but the much bigger impact on me in my teen years was my dad's constant body bullying of me because he wanted me to be "healthy." (Clearly it's health focus to emotionally abuse your kid...)

      The fact that you are conscious of all this will set you ahead of the game when it comes to your daughter. All you can do is try your best

    2. AMC I feel like I just read my own story. I had similar issues, as my mom spent most of my childhood off and on weight watchers and Richard Simmons and so forth. My kids have made innocent comments about my weight and I usually just reply with "Yup+(change subject)"

      I cringe every time my kids talk about their bodies. At times I've accidentally sabotaged my own efforts not to pass my issues to them. My oldest daughter had taken to weighing herself and would announce her weight. Given her age, I worried that she was having image issues.. Turns out, she was weighing her self because she wanted to weigh enough to sit in the front seat of the car.


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