Mirror, Mirror: “Fat” And “Ugly” Aren’t The Only Body Issues Women Have

I have a friend who does bodywork — massage and chiropractic, basically — who is helping me to get through marathon training. This happens to be the same friend who’s training me in practical self-defense and who knows all about my traumas.

When he was working on my quads last week, I instinctively did what I always instinctively do — tensed up. “Agh, I hate having my thighs worked on,” I said.

“Yes, I’m aware of your safeguards,” he said.

“No, it just tickles.”

“Well, some people have physical safeguards and emotional safeguards. Just relax.”

And, it being for the benefit of my tired legs, I did. But it got me thinking about something I’ve been mulling over since I wrote about posting on Reddit’s GoneWild forum and my new approach to body image. Some of the feedback that I got was that I was unconvincing as far as my body positivity went, and that the GW posting would’ve been more interesting if I had been more upfront about overcoming body issues. Reading that made me think, Well, what if some women just don’t really have big problems with the way our bodies look?

The idea of “fat” or “ugly” hasn’t been a problem for me for quite a while. I do occasionally fall into a trap of calling myself “fat,” but it’s not an assessment of my looks so much as a straw man for bouts of depression and a way of summarizing all the things that we’re taught to associate with fatness — laziness, ineptitude, failure. I grew up being told by bullies that I was fat and ugly, and my coping tactic was to make my attitude toward my looks hyper-rational, to be realistic about how much and what meaning I should give my physical appearance and, also, realistic about what I actually look like. In high school, I took back my ownership of my appearance by making myself into a walking canvas (sometimes literally, I let people paint on me), and made self-expression the meaning of my looks in place of moral worth. That’s carried forward, in a different and more political way, with my tattoos, and with my intentionally minimalist self-care routine and wardrobe. As far as my looks go, I’m very aware of the shape of my body (curvy-ish, tall, big-boned, maybe slightly-higher-than-average body fat) and the way others perceive my face (striking if not always exactly conventionally pretty). I see them as facts, not value judgments, because as value judgments they rationally aren’t productive or meaningful.

So that isn’t what I’ve had to overcome as an adult. I became aware of the effect of media images on women and girls’ self-perception when I was very young and I figured out a way to cope with it. I don’t think that the story, as far as the way a woman relates to her body, is always about overcoming social demands to be pretty and thin.

For me, the story is more about all the conflicting social demands about women’s sexuality. I became sexually aware very early, too. By 14 I had come out as bisexual. I spent high school on my school’s Queer-Straight Alliance, and was already knowledgeable about not just the fact of human sexuality but its various expressions and incarnations; I understood sexual attraction, sexual play, alternative sexualities, the ideas behind BDSM and kink. I knew what safe sex constituted and I was outspoken about it. I don’t know if I had any higher of a sex drive than my peers (maybe?), but I certainly was more willing to talk about it. In other words, sex has always been important to me, both as a sexual human being and as a politically aware queer woman.

There are plenty of things people do to rob women of their sexuality, though: I have been raped twice. I spent a long time in a relationship in which I was expected to both have the appearance and attitude of prudence and chastity, and be sexually willing, ready, and available when my partner required it; in which it hurt much, much more that I was called a whore than that I was told that I needed to get fit because I had no coping mechanism for slut-shaming in place. Even beyond these worst of other people’s interactions with my sexuality and bodily sexual being, though, I’ve also been told that I’m not really bisexual, which is a way that both hetero- and homosexual people lessen the identities of bisexuals. It’s meant to make you doubt yourself. There’s catcalling, which in essence is men making sexual demands of me without ever talking about consent, and reducing me to their sexual desire without ever asking or thinking about my sexuality or desire. The total goal, here, seems to be to make it so that women are empty sexual vessels, stripped of our own sexual identities and needs and wishes and fantasies, ready to give both our bodies and the way we think of ourselves over to what other people prescribe for us. They don’t want us to be less sexual, they want us to be less sexual in our own right.

So when people work on my legs, I clam up and I tense up, and it’s not just because it tickles — it’s because it tickles and I want it to stop, and I’m not sure it will without me removing myself physically from the situation. And when I post semi-nudes on the Internet, it’s not a story of me accepting the shape of my body, it’s a story of me saying, “I will do what I want to with my body, and I will be as rabidly sexual with my body as I am and want to be, in the way I want to be, for the first time in seven years.”

The way women relate to our bodies is more complicated than just calling ourselves “fat” and “ugly.” It makes me think that maybe this very simplistic story is the one we’re telling ourselves because acknowledging all the different ways in which even just one single, individual woman might be told to doubt and denigrate the skin she’s been given is just too hard.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.