I Inhabit a Body

***Warning: possibly triggering for those sensitive to body image, eating disorder or weight issues***

The last few days have been something of an emotional ‘perfect storm’ for me.

It all started with this brilliant, beautiful and perfectly judged blog post by Foz Meadows, followed by this poem and this .gif (both seen on Tumblr), and finally this podcast from the Australian actor Magda Szubanski, which was shared by the wonderful Kate Wally over on Twitter. After I listened to the last link – the podcast – I had a good cry, and it wasn’t simply because of the power and sorrow of Magda’s story, though powerful and sorrowful it undoubtedly is. I wept because her experience as a woman, a woman with the temerity to exist in an imperfect body, with the cheek to appear in public in leisure clothing while enjoying herself at the beach, shattered something deep inside me.

For, like Szubanski, I am a fat person.

I am a fat woman, which is immeasurably worse than simply being a fat ‘person.’

I am a fat woman who has hated herself all her life, and I am sick of it.

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf. Image: gattonero.de

Paleolithic (c. 28,000 – 25,000 BCE) figurine of a woman, possibly a fertility idol, known as the Venus of Willendorf or the Woman of Willendorf.
Image: gattonero.de

I inhabit a body which is large, and misshapen, and unpleasing. I inhabit a body which some would say has no right to exist.  I inhabit a body which I know would be sneered at, judged, condemned and – metaphorically or literally – spat upon by certain others in the society in which I live, and I have been aware of this for a very long time. I have learned to live with it, and I hate that I have had to.

Once, years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight by, essentially, subsisting on about 800 calories a day for the better part of twelve months; my body shrank, but my mind stayed the same. I carried my larger self around like a shell, my new body shrinking within it like a grub, or a soft underbelly. It felt vulnerable. The smaller I got, the more visible I became. As I grew thinner, I thought my life would start to make sense. I thought the world would open up to me. I thought my heart would heal and my mind would clear, and every day would be like a Disney cartoon.

But it wasn’t.

I was still me – just a smaller version.

The self-judgement, the self-hate, the ‘checking’ that had been part of my life as a larger person – all that stayed with me. It got worse, even. The thin me was ‘normal’ looking, and she had a new, unfamiliar set of rules to follow. I had to wear the ‘right’ clothes, do the ‘right’ job, be seen in the ‘right’ places. And I was never good enough.

And, over the years, the weight has come back – and I am still not good enough.

I am an intelligent and well-educated person. I know how bodies work, how nutrition works, how exercise works. I know my Vitamin A from my Vitamin K; I know my saturated from my unsaturated fats. I’ve been wailing on about the dangers of excess sugar consumption for ages, long before it ever became part of the global conversation on obesity. I know the dangers of carrying excess weight, particularly around the middle – where I carry it.

But I am a vegetarian. I eat plenty of wholegrains, pulses, legumes and salads. I get my protein from beans, eggs, and cheese carefully selected to be as low in calories as possible. I eat plain natural yogurt with a teaspoon of honey if I need a treat. Every morning I make porridge with skimmed milk and water. I eat three small meals a day.

And, very occasionally, when I’m out with family or friends, I will have a dessert – and I judge myself with every mouthful.

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

Image: mongoliankitchen.com

The last time I attended the doctor, it was for an issue entirely unrelated to my weight. The medical practitioner spoke to me briefly about the issue concerned, and then hopped straight onto the topic of my size. She insisted on weighing me, even though I told her I didn’t require her to. She gave me a condescending lecture about ‘letting ourselves get too big,’ and when I tried to explain that I eat mindfully and that exercise is not unknown to me, and that I was perfectly healthy, her response was:

I don’t care if you tell me you’re eating two lettuce leaves a day. Eat one lettuce leaf a day for three months, and then come back to me.

I am so tired of this.

I am so tired of trying to explain to doctors that perhaps my weight is a symptom of something else, and not a result of my lifestyle – which, no doubt, they imagine involves buckets of fried chicken, gallons of ice-cream and beer by the vatload. I am tired of not being believed. I am tired of being sent for blood tests to check for the diabetes they will not believe I don’t have, simply because I’m large. My blood sugar levels, for the curious, are on the low side of normal, by the way.

Often, in my hearing, people will comment on the weight of others, because it is simply something that we do, as a society, without even thinking about it. ‘My, hasn’t she put on stones since we saw her last?’ or ‘Look at Joe – obviously marriage suits him. He’s wearing his contentment around his waist!’ I hate this. Where possible, I refuse to take part in conversations like this, and I ask the commenter to stop. Not only is it cruel, and unnecessary, but I always feel that if people are saying these things about others, what are they saying about me? And, in my dark and private moments, it’s these words of judgement that I hear echoing around my own head, directed inwards.

Except, during my darkest times, they’re spoken in my own voice.

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

Image: quiet-elephant.deviantart.com

I have been hearing, and repeating, these words to myself since I was a child. I have ruined any joy I could have had in my body, my looks, my person, because I have absorbed the judgement of others, which has – over time – become self-judgement. I have a body that works – it runs when I tell it to, it walks for miles, it sings and laughs and shouts with joy; it jumps over puddles and climbs up hills and it danced up the aisle on my wedding day.

And yet I hate it because it is not small enough.

And I hate the voice in my head that reminds me, whenever I see my reflection, how far short I fall of perfection.

And I hate the world we’ve created, where little girls like I was are made to feel like objects – of scorn, of hatred, of scapegoating judgement.

And I hate that this voice – this eyebrow-raised, hand-on-hip, pursed-lip, can’t-you-just-control-yourself? voice, is with me every second of every day. I hate that no matter how much joy I try to take in all the things my body can do, and in all the boundless capability of my mind, this voice will never fade.

Fat people are not all slobs – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people are not all impulsive, uncontrolled, binge-eating, lazy good-for-nothings – but even if they were, so what?

Fat people – people like me – are not here to be anybody’s whipping boy, and we are not here to be made fun of or shamed or used as a spectacle, or as an example of what can happen when you ‘let yourself go,’ or as a thing to be laughed at. Because – and this is important – fat people are people, and they are as deserving of respect and equality and consideration as anyone else.

I inhabit a body. It might not be one that meets with societal approval, but it’s mine, and it’s one that I want people to judge – because judge they must – by the smile on my face, and the strength of my hug, and the width of my heart.

And the dark voice inside me will keep on murmuring, and I will keep on trying to silence it.

31 thoughts on “I Inhabit a Body

  1. Debi Gliori

    This has put a silence on me. Like your previous correspondant, I’m also sitting with you and letting the echo of your words ring true.

    Reply
  2. susanlanigan

    What a powerful post, Sinead, and gives me pause for thought too.

    What people also forget about these diets is that they take up mental energy that we would otherwise devote to something else. I went on one last year and you can bet your bottom dollar I wasn’t writing when I was on it. The physical and mental energy to do both would not have been there.

    I wish you health and happiness in the skin you are in 🙂

    Reply
  3. Elaine McKay

    Really powerful post. I pick at myself in the mirror, when I know I shouldn’t. I think many, many people do the same. It is so damaging and negative. I’ll be thinking about this for a while. Ps I’ve never seen you, but I’ve read you, and you are fab!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Elaine. You’re right: it’s the worst thing we can possibly do to ourselves. Also, if children are listening to our negative self-talk, they can’t help but absorb and inhabit it, and that can be hugely damaging for them too.

      Thanks a lot for reading, and for your lovely comments – on this blog post, and on others. I’ll try to keep being fab. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Tara Sparling

    Thank you for writing this post… It is comforting to find solidarity in what you say, but still saddening.
    From such an early age we’re taught to hate ourselves in photos, to criticise our weight, to hate the way we look in & out of clothes. I don’t know how to change it because it’s been over 30 years work, entrenching it in this head.
    We also live in a country where to merely like your own photo is to be seen as boastful. The combination is a powerful weapon & I don’t know how anyone fights that. But you are trying. I want to, too.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Exactly – I have thirty years plus of conditioning behind me, and I guess it’s a lifelong struggle to overcome that. It’s the way this conditioning, this training in ways to hate yourself, is just part of our society, almost mindlessly. Nobody even notices how weird it is, though I think it’s starting to change. I hope it does.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting, and thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone.

      Reply
  5. senixv

    I am stealing your text, or rather, I am putting a link to this exact blogpost in my next post as it describes absolutely perfectly how I feel. You had me moved to tears, I literally could see the little big monster inside me nod “approvingly” at how he is ruining my self image and how he has ruined my self image, my body image and my confidence throughout my childhood, my teen years and my early adult years now… Thank you for sharing, I find it very emotional and uplifting at the same time, it gives me hope and it makes me sad. What a conflicting emtional blogpost you have posted, but it is so right, so true that I cannot help but write this comment with gratitude to you as a writer and as a woman in this sometimes very cruel body-image centered world…

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, thank you so much for this comment. That’s the reason I wrote it – to touch others, to help other people who’ve struggled with the same issues see that they’re not alone, and to make others see that the words they use *hurt*, even if they seem innocuous. Whenever we make a judgement on someone else, a child could be listening and taking those words in. Whenever we stand in front of a mirror and recite all the things we hate about ourselves, our daughters and our sons are listening and judging themselves by the same standard.

      Whenever a child is belittled or shamed because of how they look – as I was, and perhaps as you were – it hurts in such a deep and private place that, sometimes, it feels like it will never heal.

      I hope that hurt will heal, for me and for you.

      I wish you a wonderful day, and a magical build-up to your wedding, and a happy life in your wondrous body. 🙂 Thank you for visiting me, and leaving me your thoughts.

      Reply
  6. Sam Seudo

    “Fat people are people,” and you are a person with a husband who thinks you’re beautiful, family and dear friends who cherish you, and a rather sizable (and ever growing) gaggle of readers who think you’re incredibly gifted, inspiring, and all-around swell. I’d say all of that is worth quite a bit more than a cover girl body, wouldn’t you? 😀

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Sam. Yes, thankfully, all that is true – but it wasn’t always so. I guess I wrote that post while channelling the little girl I once was, who was made to feel too big, too loud, too ungainly, always in the way, a spectacle… I hate that we do this to our children. I hate that not everyone can get past it.

      But you’re right. There’s so much more to life than looking like a cover girl. I know that now, in my advanced years. 😀

      Thanks so much for reading, and for your lovely comment.

      Reply
  7. Cerulean

    a) “I don’t care if you tell me you’re eating two lettuce leaves a day. Eat one lettuce leaf a day for three months, and then come back to me”. Isn’t recommending a diet that even a rabbit couldn’t survive on considered malpractice? Please tell me you got a new doctor….
    b) As someone who has been diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic disorder, a lot of what you wrote here really cut to the quick. I’ve barely left the house in two years for fear of offending people with my hopelessly imperfect appearance; It’s helpful to be reminded that at least part of notion of “perfection” is based on misrepresentations of the female form, so I really appreciate this post.
    c) You will always be my princess Leia ❤

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I haven’t got a new doctor yet, but I will never be returning to that woman’s practice, believe me.

      I’m glad to know you appreciate the post, but I am really sorry to know you struggle with these issues, too. I think you’re one of the most beautiful people – inside and out – that I’ve ever met. And, yes, this notion of ‘perfection’ is an intangible impossibility, and the sooner the better we stop tormenting ourselves with it. I hope you’re getting some help with your BDD, and that you’ll feel able to re-engage with the world soon. xxx

      And thank you for the Princess Leia memory. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and all my love to you and the Boy. xxx

      Reply
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  9. Graham Connors

    Sinead O’Hart, my sister. I’ve known you all my life, 31 years. You have amazed and inspired me so so much and I don’t know if I’ve ever really highlighted the fact that you have given me more than sisters usually do. You have been my friend, my confidante, my teacher, my rock, my compass, my wiser voice and someone who I admire in ways I can’t even express here in words. I love you for who you are, little or large. I admire you not for your dress size but the size of your heart. You are my older sister, you will always have me by your side but reading your words has made me so sad, im crying writing this. You are amazing and I am heartbroken that you have felt these things. We all have dark voices and tough times but please don’t forget that the world pays off on character. The wealth of a human being is not in the clothes they were but the way they treat the world and those in the world. That makes you are the wealthiest person I know; your respect for others astounds me. I can’t say anymore than I love you for who you are, just as you should and I know you do. Do not let others impact how you feel about yourself, you are far more than just a collection of opinions and you know it. Who has defined this idea of perfection that you seem to think you fall so far short of? You define yourself, and don’t think any other way. You are you, so just be you and dont get caught up in trying to squeeze yourself into some mould or category. You are perfect.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      My darling brother: I am so sorry that this post has caused you, and other people who love me, so much pain. That was not my intention in writing it. What I wanted to do with this post was exorcise a demon that has been eating at me all my life, not to make those close to me question whether they have loved me enough – you have, and I know it. I know how lucky and how loved I am. The judgement I talk about in the post has come from many places, primarily society, the media, other women and – going back to its earliest days – bullies and cruel teachers at school, but I want you to know this: it has never, *never* come from you. Thank you for this heartfelt comment, and for the lifetime of love and friendship you have given me. I love you more than I can say.

      And, some day soon, we can sit down together and talk about this post, if you like. Just so you know, since I wrote and posted it, I feel like a new person. I feel so much happier in myself. The exorcism worked. I am only sorry that it caused my beloved people so much pain to read my words, and I apologise a thousand times for that.

      I love you. xxx

      Reply
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