Verso: the unbearable lightness of being thin by Jen Creer

I join the ranks of readers who has had a strong response to Morphing into Mama’s post titled “False Advertising.” I have read responses from Melissa at Suburban Bliss and L. at Homesick Home (and here), and I have my own experiences to bring to the subject.

I am fat. I wear a size 16. Even at my very thinnest, I was a size ten, which I understand is undesirable by Hollywood standards. Apparently a six or a four is acceptable. And my dirty little secret is that, like L., I actually don’t mind the way I look. I still feel sexy at this weight, and I did even when I was a size 20. Being heavy has not changed my relationships with anyone in my life. Which surprised me, because when I was very thin, I thought maybe it would.

The reason I thought this is because my husband clearly thought differently about me when I was thin and then when I had gained weight in my marriage. One year, when we had two small children, he started running and playing tennis and racquetball and lifting weights. He told me finally that he couldn’t sit around and become a fat slob like me. He said, “No man can respect a man with a fat wife. If you don’t lose the weight, I will leave. If you gain more weight, I will leave.”

I will never forget that conversation. We were sitting in the bathroom at two o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on the lid of the toilet, and he was sitting next to the tub. Our sixteen-month son was sitting in the steamy tub, suffering from the croup. Our four-year-old son was asleep in one bedroom, and our three-week old baby was asleep in another.

Yes, that’s right. I was three-weeks postpartum when my husband said those words to me. And the time that he chose to get back into shape? Was when I was pregnant with his third child. I had a total of three C-sections, and I was not even allowed to pick up our middle child, let alone exercise when he sat and said the coldest words I’ve ever heard from someone who was supposed to love me more than anyone.

That was the night I stopped loving him.

Despite the fact that I no longer loved him, I did not want him to leave. So, at six weeks post-partum, I strapped on running shoes and started running. And I started eating only iceberg lettuce with fat-free dressing, and air-popped corn. The weight started to come off. I reached my target weight: The weight he had chosen as acceptable. And then I lost ten more pounds. My collarbones jutted out. I could feel my hip bones sharply. My legs hurt at night because they were so bony, they clunked together. I weighed 125 pounds.

It took me three years after that infamous night to leave my husband. And after I left him, what do you suppose happened? Yes, I started eating. I discovered beer. I stopped running for an hour every night. I started gaining weight. I met the love of my life. I continued gaining weight. I didn’t even realize how much I had gained until I was a size 16. And then I fell into a deep, post-divorce depression and my doctor recommended anti-depressants, and after years of resistance, I finally took them. I went to a size twenty. I started running again. I ate slimfast bars, I ate salads. But the weight did not come off. I have been running five miles per day for almost a year now, and I have gone down two sizes, but it’s coming off slowly.

So, why am I running if I am fine with how I look? Well, because my neighbor asked. I started running, and then I wanted to reduce a little to improve the running. I kept running, and yes, it’s nice to have clothes fit me better. I got married last summer to the love of my life, when I was a size 18. I have had a better relationship, better sex life, more independence, and more self-respect since I gained weight and stopped starving my body.

I saw a counselor at Victim Support Services when I was going through my divorce. She encouraged me to see myself as more than a dress size. Not to attach how much I felt I was worth to that size, that weight. I was horrified. She suggested the size 18 to me, and I was really horrified. Well, whether I meant to or not, I got to that size. And it was okay.

So, I suppose that the strength of my response to MIM’s post stemmed from the fact that it echoed the words my ex-husband used to say to me. That I had an obligation to be thin to guarantee his attraction. Just as L. stated, my own views of what is and is not attractive has shifted as I have grown older. My husband has a paunch, and I love it. I think he is very sexy. And he thinks I am sexy. My ex-husband is very thin, and it makes me cringe that I ever slept with him, let alone that he is the father of my children. MIM does stipulate that a medical condition that prevents weight loss would somehow be acceptable—but why? It wouldn’t guarantee attraction. I run my ass off, but I am still fat. But is that okay since I could be said to be trying?

And I confess that I resent the oversimplification that if someone gains weight that they are depressed and that they must not have very high self-esteem, therefore they warrant some kind of spousal intervention, etc. My self-esteem is just fine. My husband doesn’t like me more because I run; he is happy that I still eat ice cream with him at night. And that I love his paunch. And that I love him. And that I am happy. And my weight has nothing to do with it.

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Author’s note: I am posting this response to my writing, and my response to it, because I think this dialogue needs to be continued. You can read it at its original source here: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2006/03/25/feminist-blogging/

The thing about blogs is they let people talk about whatever they like. So there are an awful lot of blogs out there about women’s experiences. Sometimes I wonder if this could be used for something more. If the barrier between feminist blogging, which is primarily about other women’s lives, and blogging on ‘women’s topics’ where feminist women (and non-feminist women) write about their lives, could be broken down. What would it look like if feminists who were writing about body image issues and reproduction, linked more to personal stories on weight-loss blogs and mother blogs (and yes it’s scary that those are the two female blogging topics that come to mind) and vice-versa. Because I do think that feminist analysis is stronger the more it links to women’s experience, and I think talking about women’s experience can be something more, it can be consciouness raising.

This is in response to the great ‘false advertising’ debate. I’ve read a lot of posts on this issue. I feel like I understand the issues around the role women’s bodies play in a relationship, particularly in middle-class white America, but I think many of those observations would apply outside that specific context (incidentally I’ve also developed a plan, if I am in a relationship with someone who thinks a change in my appearance is ‘false advertising’ I will simply tell a couple of my female friends about it, and they will take care of him).

But while I know more, I’m still feeling really ambivilant about the debate, because I’m not sure it’s what I’d call feminism. In supposedly feminst blogs and comments women have been attacked for feeling like they owe it to their husbands to keep their weight down. From I Blame the Patriarchy

Regarding said ass: Women of some races naturally have asses like that. Women of some races naturally have hair like that too. But the kid’s white, and both hair and butt look bought to me. Also besides, being as they are both staunch supporters of the patriarchy, I assume she’s read the fine print. As soon as her ass goes south, he’ll have (and probably take) the option to find another, younger butt.

I get it, I really do. I understand the frustration, the desire to get angry at a woman for accepting and perpetuating so much shit. When I read this:

My boyfriend, the man I thought I was going to marry, brok up with me after 4.5 years. Because I gained weight. To be fair, it was a significant gain (about 25 pounds).

I wanted to yell at the woman why the fuck are you being fair to a man who leaves you because you’ve gained 11 kilos? You should be dancing Numfar’s dance of joy that you got out. But I don’t think that that helps build anything, except the idea that I think I’m better than her. And I’m not, I have my own issues, and I don’t write about them on my blog, except with eight layers of feminist analysis. But does that just make me less honest than her?

Despite these ugly personal attacks, there were real benefits from reading so many different perspectives on one issue. One of the things that really disturbed me, and showed how good the patriarchy (still don’t like the term) is at colonising our minds, was that we shouldn’t just want to attain beauty standards to catch a mate, we should want them for ourselves. From a comment on I blame the patriarchy

I’ve met women who have “let themselves go” after marriage out of the idea that they already have their man, so they don’t have to try anymore. To them, the idea of putting any kind of effort into themselves was a tool to get a mate, and once they had the mate, they could stop doing those things. I’m not saying that one has to wear make-up, exercise, whatever to be happy, but it disturbs me greatly to think that I should only care about my appearance to trap a man, and once I’ve got him I can just “let myself go.”

A slightly different version of the same thought on Tertia

It doesn’t matter if you are 10, 15 or 50 pounds heavier than you were when you got married; if you take pride in yourself and dress nicely, do your hair, spray some perfume on, wear pretty earrings etc, you will feel nice and you will look nice. And I am sure that is all that most men want. They want us to like ourselves and to be happy. Because they know, the happier we are within ourselves the sexier we will feel, and that can only mean good things for the long suffering husband. A happy wife makes a happy husband.

Unfortunately, I can’t really have a conversation here about what these women have said, I’d be attacking them, attacking what they said. Informal, unsure conversations, where you learn stuff together – it’s easier to do that in person.

Which is a shame, because the analysis I found most interesting came from blogs that would probably identify more as Mommy blogs than feminist blogs.

Moxie seemed afraid that everyone would hate her when she came to I Blame the Patriarchy, but I thought her analysis was really useful.

I’ve been thinking about this topic all day. The notion that a woman owes it to her husband or her relationship to keep her body thin (or whatever way the culture decides is beautiful–I’m sure there are women in Africa who feel pressure to stay fat) is part of the truth that when a woman gets married her body no longer belongs to her, but instead is the property of and a symbol of the marital unit.

It’s the woman’s responsibility to get and stay pregnant. Even if she gets pregnant easily, she’s the one who takes the entire physical hit of the pregnancy. Heartburn, acne, sciatica, backache, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, PSD, tendonitis, skin tags, stretch marks, insomnia, swelling. And the labor and delivery is a horror, featuring pain and often cutting or tearing, even when it’s relatively easy. Even if a woman loses all the pregnancy weight, her body is never the same. She sacrifices her body for the family unit.

She goes on to explore what happens if a woman can’t conceive and how this changes as the baby gets older. It’s a really good point, and so much more of what so many other writers say makes more sense when it’s put in this context.

I’ve been reading Jody from Raising WEG for a while, I love her analysis and her writing (and freak out at the very thought of triplets).

As Moxie points out far more eloquently than I could, stress and our mental responses to stress affect our eating habits, too. And exercise that comes naturally to single people gets very hard for parents to find. And I’ll also point out that I don’t believe we are our bodies, and that there’s a difference between living well in the body you have, and trying to make your body into something it was, or should be, so that it looks better to other people. It’s been my experience that it’s not any more work to learn to love your body as it becomes.

[….]

Your body isn’t your self. Your relationship with food isn’t your relationship with your body. There are many ways to be attractive, and they don’t remain static over time. And the thinner women in our neighborhood? I’m pretty sure at least two of them are anorexic. Anything is better than an eating disorder.

I’m going to end with my favourite story. The one that makes me think that maybe this sort of conversation is worthwhile. Maybe it will give women strength, and show them that they are not alone. This is Jen Creer from inkstains

The reason I thought this is because my husband clearly thought differently about me when I was thin and then when I had gained weight in my marriage. One year, when we had two small children, he started running and playing tennis and racquetball and lifting weights. He told me finally that he couldn’t sit around and become a fat slob like me. He said, “No man can respect a man with a fat wife. If you don’t lose the weight, I will leave. If you gain more weight, I will leave.”

I will never forget that conversation. We were sitting in the bathroom at two o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on the lid of the toilet, and he was sitting next to the tub. Our sixteen-month son was sitting in the steamy tub, suffering from the croup. Our four-year-old son was asleep in one bedroom, and our three-week old baby was asleep in another.

Yes, that’s right. I was three-weeks postpartum when my husband said those words to me. And the time that he chose to get back into shape? Was when I was pregnant with his third child. I had a total of three C-sections, and I was not even allowed to pick up our middle child, let alone exercise when he sat and said the coldest words I’ve ever heard from someone who was supposed to love me more than anyone.

Ok that’s not happy, but her next sentance was:

That was the night I stopped loving him

There’s more to the story. Awful horrible stuff that makes me furious, but three years later she did leave him.

I do think bringing together different women’s experiences of the same problem can be helpful. I even think this debate is. But without trust, without sisterhood (with all the problems that brings), I’m not sure this is building anything much. I’m worried that it’s just making ‘feminists’ another group of women with special interests and experiences.

Also posted on my blog.

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One Response to “Feminist blogging”

  1. emma Writes:
    March 25th, 2006 at 6:21 am You should go with the person who loves you rather than your figure or beauty. The ultimate thing that reamins with you is your behavior, your attitude, your feelings, your emotions and your care. Beauty is just your prime time friend. Who says it is going to be with you always. No, never.

    I would like to prefer the person who loves my inner soul not my short-period beauty.

  2. Jen Creer Writes: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    March 25th, 2006 at 10:36 am Thank you so much! This literally brought me to tears. I am not the same woman who sat in the bathroom that night and endured those words. Sometimes, I actually think of “her” with pity. But I do remember in some ways the crippling feeling of that marriage, the ways I constantly felt that I was clawing for some sense of self the entire time.

    The story of my actual leaving him was simply the most empowering action of my life. I had asked him to leave, and I was punished for it, but I was in graduate school by that time. I was teaching my students liberation pedagogy, so I plunged forward, yelling at him every night for what an asshole he was. Finally, I told him I was taking the kids and moving out. He told me that he thought *we* should *voluntarily* commit me to a mental institution so I could reflect on what I was saying.

    That shook me to my core. But I insisted that I needed to go see a counselor about my anger toward him. He made me an appointment 90 miles away so nobody in town would know what an asshole he was. The counselor told me, after fifteen minutes, to call the women’s shelter. She gave me materials about emotional abuse. My husband was going out of town on a trip the next week. He was taking our oldest son, and that was one of the most paralyzing moments of my life: if he were to find out what I was doing, he might hide my son with his relatives.

    I watched them drive away, then went to the computer and emailed the friend who helped me pack: “I’m ready.”

    Over the next four days, we found an apartment. She and her daughters moved in with me and my three boys and we shared childcare and expenses. I went with my joint credit card, after calling friends to make sure I could, and I bought furniture. I went to Wal-mart and bought six months’ worth of diapers, tylenol, stocked up on other things I knew I would need. Friends from my department came with trucks and vans to move us out. Other friends watched my younger two sons. I didn’t sleep that week, or I don’t remember sleeping very much.

    Two other friends came with me to the house to get my oldest son back, which, at twilight, we were able to do without incident. We first removed my ex-husband’s gun from the house (a .22 rifle, so not terribly scary, but still) and put it in the trunk of their car. I went out and took my sleeping son from the front seat of the truck my husband was driving and walked quickly away from him to the bottom of the driveway, while the presence of my other two friends kept my ex from stopping me. And we drove away.

    That was the beginning of a nearly year long custody battle which culminated on September 11, 2001.

    But I did it. I got out, I got my boys, and I got my life.

    But I tell you all of this because this entire dialogue has been such a source of obsession for me this week because apart from all of the rhetoric that has been pitched about self-esteem and taking care of oneself, underlying that is a very real tendency to reduce women in particular to their cellulite, their ass sizes, their bodies. I have seen the dark underbelly of this argument, which still claims an innocence and pretends to be about empowerment, in the form of women “taking care of themselves” by maintaining a weight. We live in a world that values women only if there is LESS of them. We are encouraged to weigh less, say less, BE LESS.

    Regardless of whether or not women find men who are balding with paunches attractive, men’s power does not lie in their physical appearance, and women’s *should not either*– and that, for me, is the real shame of some of this thinking– because it so clearly still is perceived that way. By women. We still have a long road to hoe.

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