[x: Numbers have been omitted, because when have they ever helped?]
I’ve been feeling the heat recently.
By this I mean a couple of different things.
For one, I mean I’ve literally been feeling the heat. I’ve been in a hot country, the sun’s been on my back, the sweat’s been beading on my nose. I hate the heat- but more on that later.
For another, I mean I’ve been feeling the idiomatic heat. I.e. I’ve been feeling uncomfortable, I’ve been feeling pressured, I’ve been feeling watched. De Niro sits across from Al Pacino in a swanky restaurant and says he needs to be able to walk out on anything and anyone as soon as he feels the heat around the corner. He’s a career criminal, always on the run, sleeping with one eye open, can’t let down his guard even for those 30 seconds. He feels watched, trapped in the beam of the interrogation lamp he’s constantly dodging.
I get that.
Row sits at a table- the dinner table- and feels the heavy gaze of the interrogation lamp. It’s spotlight swings from plate to body, plate to body. Not enough, too much. Lack, excess. Most of the time, there is no lamp. There is no gaze other than the one I imagine- the illusion of omniscient observer- and my own. I am the only one watching, keeping tabs on size and portion, doing the complexly flawed maths of this disordered dance alone.
Sometimes the lamp is real, and it is on full beam. Sometimes the gaze of the Other is very real and rests very heavy on my bones- which already feel heavy under the weight of false perception and dysmorphia.
The thing is, being fat was easy. In the twenty-first century, we have evolved beyond outspoken in-person fat-shaming. That sort of thing only happens behind the safety of computer screens or the anonymity of strangerhood. When I was fat, no one close to me commented on my body (beside my parents) and no one commented on what I did or didn’t eat. The attention I got from men and women was genuine, based on my personality as much as my looks. People were careful not to offend me- that is the protection found in additional layers. If people were concerned, they kept their thoughts and comments to themselves. As well they should. And the truth was there was a lot to be concerned about- I was as malnourished at [2x]lbs as I was at [x]lbs. But no one noticed that, and no one voiced concern, nor compliment. People kept quiet, and that was easier for me.
When I’d lost [x] amount of weight, people started talking. And they haven’t shut up since. And it is not easy for me.
The problem is I didn’t suffer from body dysmorphia when I was overweight. I knew I was [x] pounds overweight and I hated it, but I also knew I looked [x] pounds overweight- no more, no less. By the time I’d lost enough weight that people started talking, I was severely body dysmorphic, and I continue to be to this day. Excess skin, mixed signals from others and years spent carefully crafting a self-hatred and sense of physical presence based on being medically obese means that I still feel overweight and very often see myself as appearing overweight.
People don’t understand this. I suspect they don’t want to try to understand this. There is very little sympathy for this side of the lightness and heaviness of being. Everyone thinks thin is healthy and attractive and desirable and intentional. They are often wrong.
People comment now. Boy, do they fucking comment now! This comment seems to come in three flavours and all of them are bitter on the palate.
On one hand, you have the people who comment with concern. I had a couple of periods in which I lost quite a lot of weight- a noticeable amount- quite quickly. Suddenly everyone was all a-flutter. Suddenly everyone was a goddamn nutritionist. Suddenly everyone had something to say about how much weight I didn’t need to lose and what I needed to eat more of and brows were furrowed all round and all eyes were on me. Now that my suffering was unfortunately visible, they took it seriously- and it was too little too late. Most importantly, their sound nutritional advice and preaching of body positivity was entirely unsolicited. I did not ask for comment on my body or plate, but I was force-fed. More was piled on my plate than I’d asked for, literally and metaphorically.
On the other hand, you have the people who comment with compliment. Who knew that a 4:3:4 bust to waist to hip ratio meant that every man and his dog suddenly had a right to comment on your body? Suddenly the outward-in gaze was awfully real and I felt consumed by it. I wondered what was left of me in between the highlighted best features, dissected body and unasked for words. And the ultimate catch-22? I meant it as a compliment, they whine. No one likes a girl who can’t accept a compliment gracefully. Yes, someone actually said that to me in the early days of acceptable BMI-hood, when I dared to tell them to shut the fuck up.
I don’t tell them to shut the fuck up anymore. Why? Well, there’s the third flavour of comment. The misc. category. The majority of comments, for which I can see no motive nor design other than to comment, unsolicited, on my body or plate. See, the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you’re speaking from concern or compliment or boredom- I didn’t ask. No one asked. No one has a right nor valid reason to comment on anyone’s body or food choices unless their infinite wisdom is specifically requested. I know this, I feel anger because of this powerfully, like a bitter, acrid surge of vomit at the back of the throat.
But I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. I’m running out of words to use to try to explain why people shouldn’t say these things. This is my last attempt at those words.
This is not an issue of feminism, nor body positivity, nor inappropriate flirtation- of masculine origin or otherwise, it doesn’t matter. This is the issue of everyone’s right to their selfhood. Their right to exist and appear however they please- however makes them most comfortable and happy- without other people commenting.
I am not comfortable, nor happy, with how I appear. But this is something I am working on, with myself and people whom I have specifically asked for help from. Whether or not someone is comfortable and happy with their appearance, you do not have a right to comment on their appearance. But this is never more crucial than with those of us who are uncomfortable and unhappy.
Let me break it down for you.
Every time someone comments on my body’s appearance (speaking from any motive), I become painfully aware of my body as a see-able thing in the objective gaze of the Other. At the best of times, I struggle to feel connected to my own body, both as it is a human body and a feminine body. My body and I became fairly estranged from one another over the years of episodic self-abuse. I am currently working very hard to feel one with my body again, to work with it to accomplish (climb) cool things, to feel into its far reaches and capabilities, to enjoy the pleasures and pains it accumulates- to include it in my sense of being. When someone comments on my body’s appearance, that fragile ownership is brutally ripped from me. The definition and description of my body by others steals it away from me. It confuses me. It takes me away from myself.
Unless you are me, who needs to learn to love and claim this resilient form,
Unless you are my medical professionals, whom I have gone to for their informed opinion on my physical health,
Unless you are my lover, who has earned the right through rigorous trial and mutual respect to touch and gaze and communicate about what he admires,
Please stop commenting on my body and plate.
One day I will be strong enough to ignore you, but for now- please just don’t.
Counter argument: People have been genuinely concerned about me at times. For those who were genuinely concerned, and not just pitying- I mean, that’s nice and all. But there’s a complex and long story being lived over here. Not all is as it appears, nothing is straightforward. I eat what I eat and don’t what I don’t as much because of my OCD-related textural issues and concern for the planet as because of my disordered eating behaviours. Even concern doesn’t qualify you to comment. Only closeness of heart does.
And don’t worry, I can still hear those of you whining in the background. It’s a compliment. Don’t be so touchy. I meant it as a compliment. Ick. My body does not exist for your appreciation. You have not earnt the right to comment, nor for your words to mean anything to me. All they do is run the risk of being distorted by my dysmorphia into feeding the disorder. You’re hurting, not helping. Stop.
But if you’re genuinely hell-bent on hyping people up and spreading positivity, here’s some alternative ways to compliment other people that aren’t appearance-specific:
Damn, you’re climbing strong!
You are the slab/roof/etc master!
I really appreciate you going out of your way for me- that was cool.
Thank you so much for listening, it really helped to vent.
…You get the idea.
I’ve been feeling the heat recently. Never am I more aware of my body and its many perceived flaws than I am in the heat. I can’t breathe in the heat. I get too hot. I want to unzip my skin and discard it, find a cool patch of earth to curl up in and hide my nose under my tail. Wait for winter.
Reverse hibernation. It’s not just something I’ve considered, it’s how I use to live.
I can’t breathe in the heat. My throat gets tight, my lungs feel crushed by their cage. I break out in a sweat, my heart races. My skin itches. It feels an awful lot like the makings of a panic attack.
What is biology and what is memory?
Is my life-long discomfort in the heat the realities of Scottish and North German genetics? Am I a fascist’s dream, all blue eyes and blonde braids? Or am I just a pale English rose, pinking at the slightest blush of sunshine? Or is this discomfort something learnt but no less fundamental for it? Body memory is a powerful thing. For me, summer and heat will always be reminiscent of long summer vacations in Texas, stuck at home, without the distractions of school from self.
I was Skyping my childhood friend back in Texas last month and she said, you know that thing where you feel down in winter? Seasonal Affective Disorder? It’s like I have the opposite of that. I’ve been joking to people for years that I have reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder myself and was surprised to hear someone else say the thing. Because generally people don’t understand this reversal.
People are happy in summer and sad in winter. Summer is positive-growth-life-sunshine. Winter is negative-bad-cold-the stillness and silence of death. For most people, this metaphorical binary is so innate and grounded in the usual metaphors of living that it is unquestionable. I have found this is especially true in the UK, where despite the inventions of global warming and central heating, people still fairly worship the sun like the deity it has always been to us mortals. And I get it, I do. When such a large portion of the year is taken up with incessant rain and grey skies, why wouldn’t you cook yourself to a crisp in those three weeks of real summer?
Texas is not like this. In Texas, we like to say there are four seasons- December, January, February and summer. In Texas, summer stretches out into white-hot, blinding blue-sky months. Us mortals scurry from air conditioned building to air conditioned car. The air is so thick with humidity and heat that you might be swimming through it. Or maybe that’s just your own sweat, which causes you to shower multiple times a day.
For me, summer will always be the long Texan summers of my teenage years.
When summer meant it was harder to hide your body, which you hated.
When summer meant it was harder to hide your self-harm habit, on which you were unknowingly completely dependent.
When summer meant three long months at home, trapped by the yawning infinity of blue sky like a bug pinned on corkboard, squirming out of its skin.
So I am anxious in the heat, even before the comments start. The comments make everything so much harder for me. Before last week, I hadn’t worn shorts around a non-family member or romantic partner since I was fifteen. I can’t tell you what it took to do that. I can’t tell you how it felt for someone to immediately comment on how pale my legs were. Before last week, I had never worn a bikini around another person before. I can’t tell you what it took to do that. I can’t tell you how big of a relief it was when the person I was with didn’t comment.
I have never been so painfully aware of everything I eat and of my womanly body as I was last week. I now watch them both with a wary eye.
So I felt the heat for a week. I endured the heat for a week so that I might sample the joys of Grecian limestone. Then I stepped off the plane and was lashed with cold English rain and wind. 9 degrees C is a happy me. Ah, Arcadia!
The heat- your heat- means something different to me. It burns. Let me be.