“It has nothing to do with men.”

5 Dec

I wrote that sentence in a recent comment thread on a Facebook post, one wherein I had the bad taste to complain (indirectly, but still) about my weight. I should probably say, for further context, that my weight is actually pretty damn average–even on the stupid BMI calculations, I’m at the top end of the “healthy” portion of the chart.

I wrote, “it has nothing to do with men,” in response to a comment by someone I love who attempted to console me by asserting that men would just have to deal with the fact that women’s bodies change and fluctuate, etc. When the idea of men being a factor worth considering was introduced to the conversation, I may have actually tipped my head, perplexed, and stared at the screen.

I shouldn’t be perplexed, of course. One less kind and supportive version of this line of thinking manifests as “What the fuck are you doing in a bar if you’re married?” The implication of either comment, and all the comments in between, is that women make decisions about what to wear and where to go based on the anticipated reactions of men–usually strangers–and based, further, on the (deeply flawed) assumption that men are going to notice the outcomes of those decisions.

Specifically, on the FB post, I was bemoaning the fact that all my swimwear was ill-fitting. We’re going to Mexico in a week and a half. Nobody wants to lay on a beach in ill-fitting swimwear. This particular crisis has been resolved by Andrew, as most of them are. He bought me a spectacular new suit. Part of what perplexed me about the introduction of men to the conversation was the idea that I would give a single fuck whatsoever what anyone except Andrew thought I looked like in a swimsuit, much less anyone in a particular part of Mexico I’ll probably visit this once and never again. Will I be trolling the beach for sex while my husband naps nearby on a towel? And if not sex, why specify men?

I don’t mean to beat up the loved one who made the comment. I think her comment expressed a far more common perspective on this stuff than my own–the dominant perspective, in fact, in the culture I grew up in here in the Midwest, if not US culture in general.

For much of my life, I haven’t had an answer to the obvious question this raises: If it has nothing to do with men, what does it have anything to do with?* Until now.

Why do I want to be thin? Unless he’s an atrocious liar (he’s not), Andrew doesn’t particularly prefer me at the weight I carried when we met sixteen-ish years ago. And as for extra-curricular attractions, I feel at this point in my life that even if I somehow lost Andrew, the last thing on earth I’d be interested in doing is re-entering the dating scene, which sounds like the worst nightmare I could conjure. So why the expensive haircut, the self-loathing over a few pounds that usually go unnoticed by anyone but me anyway? Why would I mind ill-fitting swimwear?

Probably this is obvious to people with better emotional foundations than mine. But it was a bit of a eureka when I figured it out. Almost every change I would make in my appearance and lifestyle, given the resources to do so, has to do with a disjoint between the person I am and the person I had imagined that I would become.

The person I had imagined I would become has a little bit more dignity and class than I have. She can wear whatever style of clothing she prefers, but chooses elegance over T&A every single time. Her clothes may be slim-fitting, but are never tight. There’s never, ever any flesh oozing out or straining seams. She appears, always, to be composed, self-contained. Her nails are done, her hair brushed, her skin free of scrapes and scabs. She never, ever wears cheap shoes. She feels comfortable in just about any setting that doesn’t involve gratuitous vulgarity. She is basically never embarrassed or ashamed.

This is probably not a person I’m capable of becoming. Shame and embarrassment, in one form or another, are pretty deeply embedded in me. And those twenty pounds I’d like to lose? On me, they look sloppy. This isn’t something I think about other people, at any weight, that their bodies look sloppy. But the extra twenty pounds I’m carrying around make me too, well, round. A little too voluptuous, too sexualized. A little bit, if I’m honest, vulgar.

We all know, of course, that judgments about self-control make up the heart of fat-shaming. Without any consideration of individual lives, proponents of fat-shaming discourse assert that if people who are overweight just had a little more self-control, they wouldn’t have to be fat.** That being fat isn’t necessarily a problem for everyone, and that not being fat isn’t an option for everyone, whatever you mean when you say “fat,” just hasn’t occurred to a lot of people. At my most generous, I think this perspective represents a serious failure of imagination. At my least, I think it’s ignorant and deliberately cruel.

All that said, by even our most deeply flawed “objective” measure, I’m not fat. And yet: I’m not that graceful, composed woman I’d imagined, either. In order to become her, I’d have to reduce my calorie intake to about 1,000/day, maintain that for several months, and never let it rise above 1,500 or so again. I know these numbers from experience, just as I know from experience that they are entirely unreasonable.

Is it worth noting that I haven’t mentioned any men (particular or in general) in the last five paragraphs? Maybe it’s not. But for years–nearly twenty of them (there’s that number, twenty, again)–I’ve been trying to name this thing, to answer that question, what does it have to do with? The answer has existed for me, always, in images and impressions, but not in words. It makes me a little sad to name it, to subject it to the control of language, but I don’t know why. You would think that doing so might help me counter it with something more manageable, more real of my own, but I know that it won’t, that it will push against me, now, from both realms. 

*If you’ve ever been a very young woman with very short hair living in a medium-sized town in the Midwest, the fact that decisions about your appearance aren’t designed to attract men is a given. So, no. Nothing to do with men.

**It may be worth noting that I spend much of my professional life surrounded by teenagers, and that this perspective is widely held among people whose metabolism has not achieved its adult patterns yet. When I was 19, I lost 12 pounds in a week once, prepping for a formal dance. This is not a realistic expectation of any full-grown adult human being.

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