[Content note: Discussion of body image and weight in the context of oppression and internalized feelings.]
I want to take a minute to talk about self-esteem, particularly as a queer and trans person.
Every day, at least once a day, I walk into the men’s bathroom, do my business, then look in the mirror as I wash my hands. I rarely used to look in the mirror before I came out and began transitioning. Now I check out my face, make sure my hair isn’t doing anything wonky. Then as I turn to walk out, I look at myself from the side to assess the state of my torso – my bound chest and my protruding belly, hoping I will see something different than the last time, hoping that I will finally like what I see. I rarely ever do.
I struggle with the belief that I am too fat and too trans to be attractive and lovable.
I have really great friends, several of whom have been great about pointing out to me that I am attractive and lovable, and this helps a lot. But then my brain says ‘yeah, but most people will know that you’re body is wrong, and not good enough.’ ‘Look at your big belly and hips, look at your chest which you have to bind to feel like yourself, which might repulse someone else, too. Surely no one could love this body,’ says my brain.
I know that attraction is not only about how well someone physically conforms to conventional – read: oppressive mainstream – ideas about what we’re all supposed to look like. I know that attraction and love go way deeper than that. That’s part of why it’s so easy for me to ignore this issue – I just stick it in the back of my mind and try not to think about it, because there are more important things to consider.
But as a trans person and as a fat person, I am told that my body is a problem. Is the problem. My body is part of who I am. I cannot separate myself from my body, as much as I have wanted to at times.
It is really hard for me to love my body as it is in this world, and similarly difficult to believe that anyone else could, too. This is a really lonely feeling. I try not to think about it too much, but it consumes many of my thoughts on a daily basis.
I also feel like my body is inappropriate and unprofessional. It feels as if my body is some personal weirdness that I shouldn’t bother other people with. All day, everyday, a small part of me is trying to shrink into myself. In the bathroom, I’ll look in the mirror and stress about my chest – surely people can tell something weird is going on there, even if they think I’m a cis man, and if they somehow knew that I was binding my chest as a trans man with no surgery, then I would somehow be being in appropriate, simply by existing as who I am. As if it would be my fault if other people thought I was weird, or if they felt uncomfortable about my body, and I would be somehow instantly less worthy of employment or recognition, as if my body were ever any of their business in the first place.
Even when this isn’t in my conscious thoughts, I carry this anxiety around everyday.
And when I’m not focusing on my chest, I focus on the rest of my torso, which isn’t skinny – and in fact testosterone redistributes fat to the belly from other places – and wouldn’t look as clean cut in a button down because it bulges in places that tall, thin, white, cis men in professional attire don’t have bulges (you know, because that’s what all worthy men are supposed to look like </sarcasm>). Never mind that all men’s clothing is designed with some imaginary, ‘conventionally’ attractive cis man in mind and doesn’t fit well to my narrower shoulders and wider hips. It feels like it’s not possible for me to dress properly in a professional or fancy setting because I cannot change my body to be shaped correctly.
Basically, I feel like my body, and thus I, am constantly inappropriate, simply by existing as I am, and that this is my fault and I have to hide this fact somehow, or pretend that I am not.
A major part of the shame I feel about my body comes from messages I receive from the media that I have a choice about the shape of my body, that this inappropriateness of my body is my fault, and if I am just shamed enough about it, I’ll be able to just be different than I am. “Just lose some weight!” Yeah, that’s not a reasonable thing to suggest.
- Weight does not equal health, and vice versa. You cannot assess someone’s health by how fat they are (or are not). In fact, exercise and fitness are more important health factors than weight (and no, ‘fitness’ does not include weight as a factor). (See these studies: 1, 2)
- Weight loss, and associated efforts, comes with risks. One risk for me personally that I don’t need an official study to know is true is heightened anxiety and plummeting self-esteem. When I have tried to lose weight in the past, this is all I got out of those efforts. Anxiety is a bigger threat to my health than my weight. Additionally, my diet and exercise have both varied a lot in my adult life – my weight has not.
- Shame is paralyzing for me, not motivating, and only increases my anxiety.
- Weight loss is ineffective in the long term (>5 years) for most people, and often results in weight gain. (See these studies: 1, 2)
- Some of the health risks that have been associated with fatness cannot necessarily be separated from the risks associated with bearing the stigma of being overweight – being shamed and discriminated against will also cause you heart problems. (See 1, 2 – from this source, “Finally, statistical models suggest that the desire to lose weight is an important driver of weight-related morbidity when BMI is held constant”)
- Speaking of studies, a lot of the ones out there suggesting that weight loss is always possible and always healthy are deeply flawed. See this post for some more on that.
- It is totally possible to be healthy and fat! And besides, my health is no one’s business and should not determine the appropriateness or worth of my body.
Bottom line: Suggesting that I could try to lose some weight is about as effective (and offensive) as suggesting that I just try to not be trans. Even if you believe that weight = health, the idea that losing weight is something not only that is possible for me to do (which it isn’t necessarily), but also that I should make it my top priority (as if I am not allowed to make different decisions about what my priorities are or consider the risks I mentioned above unless I’m ‘appropriately’ thin), or else I deserve ridicule and shame, is horrendous and oppressive.
Also, it remains absurd and oppressive that any body of any size or shape is somehow inappropriate or wrong, the way I feel about mine. But these remain the messages our society cultivates and reinforces, and the messages I am stuck trying to stop believing.
Internalized fat shame is part of what made me disconnect from my body when I was younger, and ultimately was part of why it took until my mid-20s to realize that I am trans. When I thought I was a woman, I just accepted the fact that I was supposed to hate my fat body.
Just think about that for a moment: I simply accepted that I was supposed to hate my body.
Coming out as trans and taking medical steps are part of my journey toward loving my body – and thus myself. Not trying to lose weight is also part of my journey of self care and self love, just as riding my bicycle around for exercise is an act of self love and self care. And yet it still remains incredibly hard to love my body. I still am stuck with the belief that my body’s size and shape is a result of my own unworthiness and failure as a human, and is a significant problem. The media and our culture reinforces these ideas everyday: being fat is always bad and never ok and always the fat person’s fault and always a crisis, and also you’re not supposed to be trans. Learning to love my body is a long process, and requires constant effort that I do not always have energy for.
Loving my body requires that I reclaim it from all of these awful messages.
So here are some other things that I try to remember to do to reclaim my body:
- I think of friends of mine who I care about, who have bodies similar to mine in one way or another, who have love in their lives and do amazing things.
- I try to notice physical manifestations of anxiety and stress – muscle tension, grinding my teeth, holding my breath. Just noticing can be a good thing, but can also help me find ways to address my anxiety.
- I would like to focus more on what my body can do – it goes fast on my bicycle, it walks around and does lots of science, it’s there for me to hug people when I have the opportunity, it can feel the softness of my bed, it houses my really awesome brain, and it keeps on living and breathing and beating its heart when I sometimes do things that aren’t so great for it.
- I try to drink enough water, though often am not good at it. Hydration affects all levels of things for me, including my mood and self-esteem, and is an incredibly easy thing to fix when I’m focused on it.
- I avoid reading articles about weight loss. I try to avoid reading anything about someone else’s ‘dramatic weight loss’ – or gain. I try to avoid anything that will further my own internalized fat shame.
- I try to catch judgmental thoughts I have about other people’s body shapes or sizes and redirect my thoughts, and try to think positive thoughts about whomever it is. Honoring other peoples’ bodies helps me to honor my own.
- I try to notice what I am assuming about someone based only on their body. In fact, I try to avoid commenting on other people’s bodies in any way, unless it’s a very general, positive comment not associated with stigmatized ideas. Like, I’ll say that someone is hot or attractive. Or I’ll talk about dimples, or actually changeable things like hairstyles. But I will not comment on someone’s size or weight, or things they cannot change.
- I try to notice when I am assuming that I will never be able to do something because of my body. Says who? Then I try to think of others with similar bodies who do incredible things I never thought someone with a body similar to mine would be able to do.
- I try to imagine cis male pecs as being similar to boobs, because in many ways, they really are.
- I focus on how irrelevant my body shape and size is to my ability to do science and do it well.
- I focus on parts of my body that I do really like – my hands, strong muscles in my arms and legs, my face.
What do you do to love and reclaim your body? How is it for you and your body out there?
[Note: Because talking about fat acceptance tends to bring on the worst, most judgmental, concern-trolly comments, if you are interested in commenting, please first read the guidelines for comments that I have posted in the first comment.]