A few years back, I wrote what was supposed to be a humorous post for this very website entitled “Obese and Pregnant.” It was shared on social media tens of thousands of times, and many women reached out to thank me personally for sharing my experience of delivering healthy babies at a size 20. These emails were emotional, women confessing their shame and fear, worried that it was impossible for a plus-size woman to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery. I had offered them comfort and reassurance along with a few laughs, and I was so grateful to have been able to gift them.
And those poignant emails were the only thing that saved me when the vitriolic spew of patronizing advice and outright disgust came flying at me from fat-hating internet trolls around the world.
Ironically, if the trolls’ goal was to shame me for my fat, to make me feel guilty for the fact that I take up more room in the world than they deem appropriate, they need not have bothered. I’ve been fat my entire life, and my entire life I’ve hated myself for being fat.
That is, until my daughter arrived, a miniature me. She was (and is) beautiful. And, if she looks like me, and I hate and degrade myself, what lesson am I teaching her?
From that time forward, I consciously followed Gloria Steinem’s advice: “If you and I, every time we pass a mirror, downgrade on how we look or complain about our looks, if we remember that a girl is watching us and that’s what she’s learning.”
Beauty standards in our culture are, for the most part, impossibly high. The vast majority of female models and many actresses fall into one category: tall, very thin, broad-shouldered, narrow hipped, long-legged, light-skinned/white, and free from any obvious physical flaws. These characteristics are genetic. And what small “flaws” these women may have are eliminated through the use of makeup, styling, lighting, filters, and Photoshop.
Here’s the concern: This standard is unachievable for 95% of women. And sadly, if we can’t live up to those standards, we are deemed unworthy of romance, sex, flirtation, or the right to feel beautiful.
Women of color, women with scars or disabilities or illness, women of size, women who do not fit the traditional idea of “femininity” are not just ignored by the media, we are actively scorned and derided, made to feel disgusting and freakish. Made to feel worthless.
Where does this leave my daughters, these beautiful, innocent little girls who still have no clue of what derision and ignorance could face them as they grow? Well, it leaves it to me to set an example, to teach them to be radicals, revolutionaries. How? By being one myself.
Even if I feel like a constipated elephant with PMS, I never, never degrade my looks in front of my children. In fact, even if I feel like a rotted, beached whale, I compliment myself within their earshot.
Additionally, I never, never talk to them about their weight. Instead, I talk to them about feeling strong and making healthy choices.
When talking with my children, I unashamedly describe myself as fat. It’s a fact, an adjective, not an insult. And if I’m not insulted by it, it can’t hurt me. I verbalize my beliefs about beauty, showing them the amazing variety of people, the variety of shapes and sizes and colors and abilities. I explain that beauty can be inclusive instead of exclusive.
I celebrate what my body can do instead of focusing on what it can’t or is not: working out regularly, taking my kids for hikes and swimming, teaching them yoga moves.
Finally, I practice subversive acts of sexual confidence. For so long, I hid under my clothing, wearing whatever covered me most thoroughly. A tent was preferable. Now, for my daughters’ sakes, I wear whatever makes me feel sexy or beautiful or comfortable, and #effyourbeautystandards. When it’s appropriate, I flaunt what I enjoy most about my body, draw the attention to this fabulous, hard-earned (I nursed three babies with these things) cleavage. I flirt audaciously (mostly with my husband). I live and choose with the belief that I deserve sexual attention and pleasure.
Sometimes it feels overwhelming to stand against society’s standard of beauty, to ignore the nagging voices in my head telling me that I should hide, stay quiet, be ashamed. But, for the sake of my daughters, I will fake it until I make it, secure in the knowledge that the model I set, the lessons I teach, will arm them against the trolls.
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