Friday, March 03, 2006

Using my misery as a crutch

I never expected I would say this, but I really enjoyed this piece by the Biting Beaver about playing a part in your own oppression. Take away the specifics she uses - I'm not one to believe that porn is inherently oppressive or misogynist - but the general point resonated with me, because it helped flesh out something I've been meaning to say for a long time now.

Like so many other women, I have Body Issues. No matter what my physical state is, I've generally had a notion in the back of my head that I am fatter and uglier than most everyone I know, and that I need to Do Something About It. I grew up in a food-phobic household, and now realize that I easily internalized the notion that being fat is wrong, that eating food is weak, and that I am responsible for preventing being fat and eating too much.

The funny thing is that I've identified as a feminist as far back as I can remember, and paid lip-service to the Barbie-is-bad-love-your-inner-Goddess talking points whenever the subject came up. It led to this weird double-life, where I would sit in the dark and do sit-ups in my room at night, not wanting people to know I was exercising, but to see the results and finally become whatever it was I wanted to be. I should say that even now, I couldn't tell you specifically what I would have been happy with.

This double life came out of three different forces in my thinking. First of all, there was the notion that to be a good person and be valued, I needed to be thin. Second, there was my feminist objection to such a superficial and arbitrary way of judging someone. Counteracting this was the third notion; I hid my exercising habits because I didn't want anyone to think I was screwing up enough to need to lose weight.

Beyond the usual griping about being fat - something that never really occurred to me as dysfunctional behavior - I kept my unhappiness with my body a secret. The feminist thinking and the misogynist thinking worked together against me, and I kept up with the somewhat sick behavior toward my body.

Just a few days ago, I caught myself in a very old, dysfunctional habit that I never noticed over the past 23 years. I was riding the bus home from work, and felt my stomach growl, and realized that it made me proud. It made me proud to know that I had skipped or burned enough calories that my body was begging me to eat something. That is not healthy.

After years of my husband telling me my attitudes about food and my body were fucked up, and his refusing to go along with my self-criticism (thank you, Andy), I finally sought professional help. I was in a generally terrible period of my life at the time, and I was just miserable enough to listen to someone telling me that I am perfectly all right the way I am. I'd gained some weight and was telling my therapist about my various plans to get rid of it, and she said, "So what if you don't try to lose any weight?" I didn't have any response. It was an idea I'd never considered. My immediate answer was some excuse, but eventually, as I became more committed to being a happy person, the idea got under my skin.

What if I don't lose weight?

The final straw was when I found a message board on iVillage (the board is now defunct) about weight and having a positive image. Every post there was about dieting. There I was, slumming it at an iVillage message board in an attempt to find some space friendly to someone interested in the idea of actually liking her body, and even that was full of hostility. I wrote a little manifesto, asking what really would happen if we didn't lose weight, and posted it, feeling rather angry. Amazingly, I got several responses that were adamant that losing weight is necessary for a happy life, and that my influence was dangerous on that board. Having to defend my position - this time with my own body and sanity at stake - really helped me define what was wrong with my previous attitude, and what I needed to do for myself. Embarassingly enough, iVillage changed my life.

What I finally realized was that I had been complicit in my own pathology. I knew better than to cry about having to buy a bigger pant size, or to skip meals in hopes of losing weight. At any point in my life, I could have listed the reasons that valuing myself by my weight was moronic, but I refused to believe them. I was so thoroughly seduced by the idea that prettiness and thinness are goodness that I would betray my own stated principles - not to mention logic itself - to hold on to my self-hating habits.

Even worse, I was using my own unhappiness as an excuse. If push came to shove, I would rely on the fact that I was too depressed or too insecure to actually change. I knew I didn't have to be so unhappy about myself, but I elected to be, in hopes that it would eventually pay off by making me thin. I was one of those women who wishes to be anorexic.

I'm doing my best not to tolerate this kind of behavior in myself anymore. When you live in a culture that is so superficial, it's hard to go against the grain, and even harder to go against it when you've let the culture instruct your own opinions about yourself. I let it warp me, and used my own misery as a crutch so that I could continue to hobble along toward something that by definition I would never reach.

I know I'm a smart person who can really think things through, but I can say: it happened to me. I went along with abusing myself, and unfortunately, I know I'm not the only one. What I don't want to be is the only one who is willing to really give up the obviously unhealthy attitudes about looks and weight. This is a challenge to every woman out there who has body issues to get over them. You know better.

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