On Art, Body Acceptance/Body Positivity and Representation

Last week a book arrived that I have been waiting for – Shrill by Lindy West. I didn’t know what to expect from her book – I didn’t care. I love Lindys writing and I was in, sight unseen. I totally expected to love her book. I didn’t expect to realise how much of the same stuff we’ve been through.

I decided to share some of my own journey in the hopes of adding to a movement that I love and that saved my life – body acceptance and positivity.

Growing up, I was always chubby. Being a mother now, I realise kids go through various chubby stages, before hitting massive growth spurts and turning into lithe, coltish, willowy teens and young adults. For me, this didn’t happen. I was chubby, then I got chubbier, then I got fat, and then I stayed fat.

My body was commented on regularly by my family, strangers and mocked and ridiculed by kids at school. I do not remember a time in my life where my weight wasn’t an issue. At school I compared to every large animal that exists – whales, manatees, hippos, elephants, you name it. The fact that there is an Elephant called “Savannah Elephants” was one of my bullies most revelled in discoveries.

At home, my Dad openly reviled his “gut” and he derided fat people with the same old tired tropes that go around and around like a merry go round you cannot leap off of. Fat people are lazy, disgusting, offensive, to be pitied or shamed, depending. He would announce he was going to “lose his gut once and for all” and then within the week he’d be binge eating.

My Mum wasn’t thin. My Mum was (and is!) one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I used to watch her while she made art, wondering if I could expect to grow up and be that beautiful (and talented). I loved everything about her. Her green cat-like eyes, her laugh, her hugs, her smell, the way her bracelets clinked when she walked. She was perfection to me.

I remember thinking Mum hated swimming because she never came with us. I remember her being desperately hot in the summer and wearing long sleeves. I remember being utterly confused by her not liking herself because she was everything good in the world, to me. If she didn’t like her body, was I wrong to like it so much? To see it as perfect and wonderful? But she had had all the same negative messages drilled into her.

As I grew up, I remember two very distinct things – everyone thought I was really smart and my body was a problem. It was either sad to people, or disgusting. In the beginning of Lindys book she lists available role models in her childhood who were fat. I roared laughing at her list because it was so true – I’d analysed almost the same identical list. I remember watching Roseanne growing up, and loving her smart ass retorts, while she grinned, her eye twinkling at Dan. I remember them kissing and hugging and being all LE SWOON inside, while my Dad sat beside me with commentary like “They can’t even get their arms around each other”. In my young brain, I just went “Oh”, as if a wonderful dream had been burst.

I think the hardest thing for me growing up, was how much my brother was disgusted by my body, and therefore me. We fought like cats and dogs but I looked up to him more then anyone ever knew. I was shy, awkward, fat and a geek. He was handsome, sociable (I thought), everyone liked him, etc. I couldn’t understand why he was seemed to have everything going for him and I was just… none of those things. As much as I love my brother and we’re solid with each other now, the names he used to call me when we’d fight, thrown like missiles to win the argument, would explode inside of me and shred all sense of worthiness in me. Fat bitch, whale, disgusting, etc.

When I was around 10 my Dad bought me the most adorable t shirt I had ever seen with a Rottweiler puppy on it. I loved it – we’d had a Rottweiler when I was growing up and they are my favourite dog – I was so thrilled. Until I found out that my brother and his best friend had found it, noticed it was over sized and decided it was better suited to a kite and not in an innocent way. My face burned with humiliation (and still does when I remember it). I never wore it again. I also started washing my own clothes so no one could assess the sizes I was wearing.

As I became a teen, the constant re-enforcement about how disgusting and offensive my body was continued unabated. Every magazine I read was about losing weight, every picture in it full of stunning teens with flat bellies and perfect pert boobs. I wanted to be like them so badly that if someone had said to me “we’ll swap you a thin body, if you let us take off your left leg” I would have jumped at the idea. I felt like a troll, horrifying everyone with my mere existence.

At some point in my teenage years we were at a family dinner and as we put food on our plates, walking around the table, my grandfather looks at mine and loudly asks “Think you got enough there, slim?”. My face burned, my stomach sank like a rock, all appetite dead and I blurted out “Go fuck yourself, Opa.” The room went quiet but no one got me in trouble – I think they were too stunned. I spent the rest of the day hiding in the basement.

At 16 I met my first husband. He was 5 years older then me, a punk skateboarder type with tattoos and he LIKED ME. We met online. After a few months he flew up from Argentina to meet me. I lost my virginity to him. I told him I loved him. He told me he wasn’t sure. He went back to Argentina and suddenly had a change of heart and loved me too. Just one thing though – could I lose weight, he wasn’t attracted to me. I tried. It didn’t really work. He stayed anyway – this constant caveat between us that he loved the potential I had to be beautiful, if I could just lose weight.

When I was 17 years old, living in Argentina with him after high school, he proposed. We moved to Ireland, the only place we could be together (he couldn’t stay in Canada and I hated Argentina (at the time) so we used our EU citizenships we each had through our Dads, to move to Europe) and at 19 I was married. I never once stopped to ask myself if I even liked the guy as a person. It didn’t matter – he wanted me. SOMEONE wanted me.

I won’t go into all the details of what an abusive shit show of a marriage that was, but at one point I was told “You’re too fat, I don’t want to fuck you, lose weight or I leave.” I didn’t talk to him for three days I was so devastated. He didn’t even notice. I went to a nutritionist who put me on such a restrictive diet that I lost 45kils (90lbs) in 6 months. Every day I woke up and frantically biked to the gym to try and meet my goal of losing 1 kilo (2lbs) a week minimum, preferrably 2kilos (4lbs).

Suddenly the world changed. People made eye contact with me on the street instead of avoiding looking at me. Men would go out of their way to open doors for me. I got comments about the weight loss EVERY DAY. Instead of making me feel good, I found myself almost blind with rage at the realisation about how subhuman the world treated me because of my weight. Every guy who stopped to open the door, I wanted to scream at. I was nicknamed “The Amazing Disappearing Woman” at work. They all thought this was a witty compliment. All I could think was how horrified they must have all been by me all along.

It wasn’t enough for my ex husband. I was down to 80kilos (180lbs?) and he would go “Good job, don’t stop, get to 65kilos (135lbs – what my BMI said was my optimal weight). Friends started telling me I looked sickly. “I’ll want to fuck you more if you’re thinner.” When I had my daughter at age 23, I could see my ribs while trying on nursing bras. “Now you have to lose the baby weight!”.

I could go on, but suffice to say I developed Atypical Bulimia. I would eat in secret and then starve for two days or go work out for 2-4 hours to “pay” for the food I had eaten. I would beam with delight inside when people would say “How are you over weight when you never eat anything?” It became a badge of pride to never eat in front of people.

Eventually I realised I had an eating disorder. I found a counsellor (took a few bad ones to find a great one who saved my life), and she insisted I stop starving myself or working out for hours, no matter what I ate. Within months I gained 25kilos (50lbs) back. Within a year I was back to 120kilos (265lbs). But I stayed steady at that weight for four years with counselling, which was a very big success for me.

My marriage ended and I started my life as a single Mum. That meant dating at some point. I decided I didn’t ever want to be with someone who was disgusted by my body and loving me despite it. I tried websites for “BBW” women – big beautiful women, and unfortunately met umpteen men who were “feeders” (are into feeding their partner to make them fatter because reasons) and chubby chasers (sexually attracted to fat women) and all sorts. I also realised I was Bi, but we PREEEEETTY sure if I couldn’t find a guy who loved me as is, I wouldn’t find a woman either.

I think the thing that shocked me most about dating as a fat single mum (who was slowly getting sicker and sicker by 2010) was that I was convinced no one would ever want me, and yet I was always dating someone. In the years between 2007 when I separated and 2013 when I met my current husband, I was always dating or about to date someone. I met ONE guy who said “You’re perfect in every way except your body. I want to be with you but I don’t want to have sex with you.”. Lovely.

During that time though, I came across the body acceptance movement. Body love, body acceptance, fat acceptance, body positivity, whatever you want to call it. I also came across the HAES movement – Health At Every Size – which stated that most of the disease attributed to being fat was erroneous and it isn’t adipose tissue that causes most of them, but unhealthy choices in diet and life style. It said if you are fat, but eat healthy and move your body because you ENJOY it, you will be healthier then even many thin people. Activity and healthful eating was the way forward. Yo-yo dieting puts you at risk for more health problems then being fat ANYWAY.

Changed. My. Whole. Life.

So where does art come into things? Well, eating healthy and moving my body because I enjoyed doing so was definitely healthier for my body. But there was a gap between knowing these things and actually accepting my body. When I was reading Lindys book she mentioned she got to this stage where she was on Tumblr constantly looking at fat bodies as a means to normalise her own body type for herself. I shouted at my book ME TOO! Tumblr is amazing for this.

I wasn’t so much looking at photos of fat bodies though, but drawings of fat bodies. Not negative stereotypes and cruel jokes, but stunning, funny, adorable, cute drawings of fat bodies. SEXY drawings of fat bodies. I started hoarding them. I saved every single depiction of a fat body I came across, that wasn’t portrayed negatively. I so loved seeing bodies with rolls and dimples and big boobs and thighs as beautiful instead of ugly and shameful.

Eventually I was taking an art course locally and one of our projects was to create a sketchbook of things we like. I started out with the standard stuff for me – reading, gardening, Terry Pratchett, steampunk, etc.

Then, I suddenly got incredibly bold and decided that I wanted to include my fat bodied women in my sketchbook. I was terrified to do it, but it was something I had to do for myself. To this day I have no idea if anyone even opened that book to mark it, but inside was like 4 solid A3 pages of fat women, positively depicted, in all states of undress.

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To me it was a watershed moment where I shifted from being ok with my body even if everyone else wasn’t, to deciding my body was GOOD and LOVELY and I wasn’t ashamed of it any more. Every 6 months or so, I print off the pictures I’ve been collecting and add them in. It’s over 4 years later and I am still collaging these pictures. I love them.

I wish I had kept notes on every single picture I took (at the time I hadn’t even considered artist credits, and now that’s important to me) so I could actually go and msg every artist who put these pictures out and thank them.

As the body positivity movement caught on, things started to change in mainstream media. First there was a youtube video posted by Whitney Way-Thore of her dancing her heart out as a fat woman. Suddenly instead of looking at cartoons of women with my body, I could see a real life woman with my body dancing unapologetically. My heart screamed with glee – I dance ALL THE TIME, but only ever alone. And here she was being unapologetic and dancing and killing it! ON YOUTUBE!

Then Tess Holiday landed a modelling contract with a massive mainstream modelling agency and the fucking internet exploded. People lost their SHIT, crying about how such women being models glorified the obesity epidemic.

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The first picture I ever saw of Tess Holiday

Meanwhile I was crying from shocked happiness. Tess has my body shape. That stunning creature in the photo above, looks LIKE ME.

From my eating disorder I developed body dysmorphia. Especially ESPECIALLY when I see pictures of myself. I feel sick – that isn’t me. I remember my best friend who photographed our wedding, posting our pictures on her FB to showcase her skills (she has mad skills, lads) and I FREAKED out, had a raging panic attack and begged her to take them down. I loved the pictures, with my fat body and all, but I expected nothing but shitty comments about my body and I couldn’t bear to have someone ruin my wedding by commenting on my weight. I couldn’t stand being that vulnerable to people. So to see someone, in their fucking KNICKERS, with my body, portrayed as sexy and beautiful? Lost it. LOST IT. I was like “is this really going to happen in my life time?”.

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Because here’s the thing – I was learning to love my body but I was VERY VERY aware that the world did NOT. I was still being pressured by family to lose weight. I was concern trolled constantly saying “Oh we just don’t want you to DIE!”, etc. Before I met my current husband, every time I met a new person to date my Dad would ask me “Are you going to lose weight so they are more attracted to you?”. Every time. When I talked to certain people I wasn’t asked about my art, my garden, or any of the things I am fiercely proud of – I would get asked how much weight I lost. Or how much was I up to now? Was I ever going to lose it? Have I considered weight loss surgery?

While creating a new narrative around my body – that I was lovely, beautiful and worth being loved and respected – the world was working its hardest to undo all that work and remind me I was deviant, disgusting and unworthy.

I met my husband while a single mum, broke, disabled by chronic pain no one knew the cause of at the time (but sure as shit people tried to say it was my weight) and a size 22/24. That man fucking adored me from the moment we met and it’s so obvious to me and everyone around us, we get comments all the time about how nice it is to see us so in love.

I had to learn to trust he really thought I was beautiful. I had to learn not to flinch when he touched my belly because I had never had my tummy caressed with love. It took me ages to realise there was no weight loss caveat to our relationship. For the laundry list of why the world thought I was unloveable, Joris looked at me, fell in love and thought he won the lotto.

He isn’t a saint for loving me. He is just a dude, who met the woman of his dreams and loves the shit out of her. He isn’t blind to my fat body. He recognises my body as part of me and he LOVES me. This was  genuinely more confronting to me as a fat woman in a world that hates fat people, then being abused and mistreated over my weight ever was. Realising I could have THIS kind of wonderful relationship WHILE FAT, blew my mind. I kept wanting to ask him “Are you sure?!”. I never did though, because I knew his response would be “Hell yeah I am sure!”.

I am still learning not to hate my body. I am learning to love it. I’ve unlearned the act of putting myself down and learned to refuse to speak negatively about my body to others, ESPECIALLY my daughter. No I won’t join you in bemoaning that 5lbs from xmas, or get excited about whatever new fad diet. It’s a lot of work unlearning negative self image and learning self love, self advocacy and self acceptance. Its a life time of messages, being counteracted by a small group of people loudly demanding their right to exist without abuse and shame. It’s going from wishing I was dead, but too embarrassed to kill myself, because someone would have to deal with my fat body afterwards, to living unapologetically as a fat woman in a world that still doesn’t like fatness.

I wanted to tell this story, because representation matters. I wanted to tell this story, because my story matters. I wanted to tell this story because people make beautiful art of beautiful fat bodies and it changed my life. I wanted to tell this story to thank Whitney and Tess others like Meghan Tonjes for living so unapologetically in the media, despite CONSTANT abuse for it, because every single day I see their faces and fat bodies doing wonderful things in my news feed, it helps dissipate the idea that I am unworthy, unloveable and disgusting and need to be fixed. That seeing their bodies in the media being beautiful, strong, sexy, naked, pregnant has helped whittle away my body dysmorphia.

I wanted to write this story because I am still regularly pushed by new Drs I just met, who have no idea how to help the rare genetic disease I have (the reason I am even seeing them), so change the subject to have my stomach sliced open, shrunk down, sewn back up and forced to live with a permanent medically induced eating disorder. Yes, that is how I view weight loss surgery. I’ve researched it, I almost said yes because there was so much pressure. I tearfully talked about it with my husband and he pointed out to me I would be forced, for the rest of my life, to eat in a way that without weight loss surgery would be considered bulimia – you can only eat a tiny amount and if you over do it, you puke it all back up. Bulimia – the thing I had to recover from and still gets triggered by fat shaming. I wanted to share this story because people I love have gotten that surgery and I support the shit out of them (without judgement) while hating that fucking surgery.

I wanted to share this story because that art work, Whitney, Tess and Lindy and women like them all helped me realise I wasn’t a fucking before picture, and maybe someone will read my story and it will help them realise they aren’t either. I am sharing this story to cement in my own head that I am fat, my body is strong and fierce even while disabled and that isn’t a moral failing on my part. I am sharing this story because representation matters, and body shaming made me want to not exist for most of my life.

I’m now among the ranks of unapologetic fat women, advocating for an end to fatphobia, body shaming and self hatred.

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4 thoughts on “On Art, Body Acceptance/Body Positivity and Representation

  1. dekasteps says:

    You are quickly becoming one of the greatest positive aspects of my universe. I love you to bits, you are an incredible woman, and I am so delighted that I can proudly align myself with you. I wish there were more people who could deal with things like this in such a raw, beautiful, and vulnerable way with the grace and poise you do. ~clumsypixie

  2. Amanda says:

    You are so fucking amazing! And one of the most beautiful loving people I have ever had the fortune to know. Keep on loving yourself and teaching the rest of us how to love ourselves.
    ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  3. jessica says:

    Love you. I have two daughters. (This is going to sound odd.) The older one is tall and incredibly skinny and the other is short and chubby. They have been concern trolled by doctors and teachers and family and coaches and passerby and the funny thing is they weigh exactly the same to the ounce. The only difference is the height. All we do now is height jokes. Mostly involving who is going to get something down for short mom.
    But I spend a lot of time thinking about the burden put on how big we get, and how we are made to feel filthy due to a number. We really suck sometimes.

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