Content note for frank discussion of body shaming, disordered eating, menstruating, depression, and suicide. I’m also using photos from a mini photo shoot I went on with my partner in May 2014. This was a really hard post to write, and I loved how I looked that day, so images will be sprinkled throughout. You can read part one of “The body I have” here.
“How long have you hurt?” the rheumatologist asks me.
We’ve been chatting for about 5-10 minutes, building a relationship, building trust. We both know why I’m there. And yet the question still catches me off-guard.
“How long have you hurt?” she asks.
My breath catches in my throat as I stare wide-eyed at her, unsure what to say. She smiles reassuringly, so I swallow and answer as honestly as I can.
There are certain rules and expectations for bodies in our culture. Rules and expectations that must be followed in order to show True Discipline and Morality, in order to be accepted and loved and respected.
A Good Body must exist happily while it moves about largely free of pain, consuming a wide variety of healthy fresh foods and water, with the promise that these things will automatically allow it to attain a shape society appreciates and approves. Everything from clothing to furniture to medical equipment is predicated on the insistence that Good Bodies exist in a specific form, and those bodies are The Norm.
A Good Body that has developed breasts, uterus, ovaries, and a vagina must follow even more rules. It must accept the label of Woman: a label that not only supposedly defines who the person inhabiting the body is intrinsically, but also further constricts what it is allowed to do and express. It’s expected to keep quiet about topics that make others uncomfortable, especially if those others embrace masculinity. It must keep any “unsavory” activities or feelings to itself — topics like sexism or experiences like shedding uterine lining, enjoying orgasms, or pooping are simply not allowed to be discussed. It is also expected to walk a very thin line between arbitrarily defined Too Sexy and equally arbitrarily defined Too Prudish.
Of course, it is assumed that a Good Body, The Norm and Default, is white.*
And any deviation whatsoever from these rules is proof of moral deficiency of the highest kind.
Growing up with all of these societal rules, I internalized all sorts of things about myself. Things like shame. Self-hatred. Hopelessness. An intense desire to be invisible.*
The body I have is large — in height, weight, and circumference. Its features are at once both striking and repulsive, causing more than one person to comment wistfully how beautiful I could be — if I could just lose weight. After all, I’m the height of a model, at 5’8″. Don’t I want to be the weight and size of one, too?
The prescribed remedies for this deep fault of mine — my weight being more than society wants and distributed throughout my body in a way society abhors — are very simple, I’m told. Eat right and exercise! Otherwise I am unhealthy. Undisciplined. Monstrous. Immoral. Unworthy of respect and expectation of bodily autonomy.
I discovered at a very young age that food had morality attached to it just as much (if not more so!) than my body. Some food was Good Food, like vegetables and fruits and some meats. Some food was Bad Food, like breads or sugars or potatoes.
Unfortunately for me, most Good Food (and even a sizable portion of Bad Food) were things that I was unable to eat without throwing up or crying.
A mixture of an undiagnosed anxiety disorder mixed with an as-yet undiagnosed sensory processing difficulty made eating at all nothing short of sheer torture. I would pray for hours before most meals, particularly meals at someone else’s house, that there would be something I liked to eat, that I wouldn’t get That Look of disapproval — or even worse, commentary that I was a picky eater, ungrateful, undisciplined, sinful. The times I did try to eat things — for family approval or at the insistence of some friends’ strict mothers — I would inevitably gag, choke, cry, or throw up. Textures and strong tastes were impossible for me to overcome.
And so my inability to eat Good Food meant that I was bad — for not making the proper effort to have a Good Body. My shame and panic over my eating habits (particularly being observed by or commented on from others) was overwhelming, contributing to my eventual and recurring struggle with disordered eating.*
Unable to win the Battle against Food, I turned instead to physical activity. My body was already shameful since it possessed layers of fat and developing breasts and widening hips, but its inability to do things that my peers could do was a yet another deep failure and further proof of my laziness. And it made me a target.
I tried so hard, but I was fat and I was unable to keep up. In games of tag, I would be first to become It. The game often ended when my peers grew bored with circling me and laughing as I fought unsuccessfully to catch them. I was often relegated to goalie during gym class since I couldn’t run, but my coordination was so bad that I was terrible at that as well. In high school, I formed an agreement with my phys-ed teacher to get a passing grade if I could show him bruises on my body that proved I participated during the 45 minutes of gym every day. I never lacked the bruises to show him.
But there was something else going on. Something more than just being slow and uncoordinated.
I distinctly remember one incident in junior high, walking down the hallway with a friend. That particular year, punching each other on the arm was A Thing We Did — largely to show affection, partially to test our own strength and endurance. But that day, when she punched me in good fun, I almost screamed from the pain. The years of bullying held my tongue, lest others learn of this new weakness of mine. But my arm positively radiated pain for the rest of the day. I stopped punching people after that.
For two and a half years in junior high and high school, I was on the school volleyball team. It was a sport I was delighted to find I was actually good at — and it didn’t require a lot of running or the same kind of coordination that the games we played in gym class did. I was thrilled to shine in games, earning a reputation for being a consistent server, intuitive diver, and brutal spiker. But I dropped out my sophomore year of high school. I still loved playing, but I physically couldn’t stand it anymore. Games were fine, but practices were hell. It would take me a full day or two to physically recover from the pain and exhaustion. I kept the reason for my quitting a secret, much like I kept all of my body pain secret. I was intensely ashamed. Despite my best efforts, my body was once more failing to live up to the moral standard set for it.
Determined to build endurance and lose weight, I took to exercising on my own. I’d do sit-ups and push-ups alone in my room until I was lying on the floor in tears from physical and emotional pain. I’d grab the soft rolls of my stomach and pinch and wrench and punch and cry, willing my body to shrink on command, willing it to stop hurting long enough for me to mold it into the model of discipline and shape. The only way I’d found to consistently lose weight was to just starve myself, but I’d been shamed into abstaining from that in order to make my mentors more comfortable with me.
I felt so betrayed by my body. I was doing the things I was told to do. I was trying to do them. But my body simply wouldn’t allow it. It simply wouldn’t respond.
My size was proof of my inability to control myself. My pain was punishment for giving up too soon. My anxiety over food was proof of my ungratefulness. After all, I was a fat girl. Everyone knew how lazy and unmotivated fat girls are.
For a sizable portion of my life, music has been an escape for me.* Singing is a passion of mine, a passion I tried to pursue academically in college. I had a pretty impressive vocal range, able to sing anything from first soprano to tenor. My instructor decided to train me as a second soprano, and I was thrilled with what I was learning and how I was improving.
Until I couldn’t breathe.
At first I just thought it was allergies, sure it would clear up soon. But I kept getting worse and worse, missing lesson after lesson because I was incapable of singing. I learned later that I actually have asthma, but at that point in my life I thought it was simply a 3 month long bout of bronchitis.
Every year since that 2004 autumn, I have had multiple sinus infections, bouts of bronchitis, and an ever-shrinking vocal range and ever-shortening span of time in which I am actually able to sing. My voice, once strong and clear, is hoarse and uncertain from disuse and vocal damage from months of coughing. An intense joy of mine has lessened almost into obscurity because my lungs are so damn sensitive.
“What brings you in today?” the nurse practitioner asked me. It was my first visit to the free clinic, in mid-January 2015.
I laughed a little, coughing as I did. “I haven’t been able to breathe well for 3 months.”
That was an understatement, to be sure. I truthfully had begun to fear for my life, as my lungs had been closing and closing and nothing — not cough medicine, not essential oils, not my rescue inhaler or even antibiotics — had helped in the least.
As she was writing down my symptoms, I paused briefly, then blurted out, “And I’ve been bleeding since April of last year.”
She snapped my file down on the desk, startling me, piercing me with her gaze. I was briefly afraid, but her look softened with understanding and empathy. She asked questions, and I answered. Twenty minutes later, I had a gynecological appointment scheduled and I was handed 2 grocery bags: one full of all the allergy and asthma medication I’d been doing without for 6 years, and one with a nebulizer for 4-times-daily breathing treatments. I stared down at the bounty in my hands, tears of gratitude blurring my vision. I had the fleeting thought, Maybe I’ll be able to sing again someday.
I’ve always had difficult periods. I started menstruating at 11, and overnight became best friends with heating pads and Tylenol. Without fail, every month, I’d have to call my dad away from work to pick me up from school. The pain was excruciating, feeling like my ovaries were being gouged out of my body and my uterus was being used as a punching bag. My flow was so heavy that an overnight pad often couldn’t last more than a couple of hours. My migraines, present as long as I can remember, became worse after puberty. Debilitating when they occurred, devastatingly so when combined with my period. And yet I thought all of this was normal. Other people complained about their cycles, so I assumed my pain and flow weren’t out of the ordinary.
Then, in 2009 at the age of 22, my cycle went off the rails. After a pregnancy scare during a time I absolutely was unable to have or raise a child, I was relieved beyond belief when I finally started bleeding again, 2 months late.
A week went by. And then another. And then another. To my growing panic, I didn’t stop bleeding. Not just spotting, either. Positively gushing blood, all day, every day. I would go through half a year’s worth of pads in a month or less. One day, I had to carefully leave work and make an emergency trip to Target…to buy pads and underwear, since my flow was so heavy I’d used all the pads I had at work and soiled my clothes. As I changed in the Target bathroom after purchasing everything, I sat and cried.
I approached one doctor timidly about it, as I went in for a sinus infection. Her response was that my weight would cause my period to react the way it was, as she gave my belly a very pointed look. I instinctively tried to shrink myself, wrapping my arms around my body and fighting the spiral of shame. I started trying to eat even healthier, exercise more, get rid of my immoral fat and gain bodily health.
8 months later, I was still bleeding. I’d only had a week or so of respite here and there, but by now I was broken. I gave up and saw a gynecologist for the first time at the age of 23. I was given birth control I didn’t want to take (yay false information!*) and had blood work and a trans-vaginal ultrasound scheduled.
During my follow-up visit, I learned that I was anemic, but my blood sugar was fine and my uterine lining was fine. Believing that all was well, I stood to leave. She mentioned off-handedly, “Oh, you do have some poly-cystic ovaries.” I stopped dead in my tracks, turning to stare at her. “You mean I have PCOS?” She grimmaced slightly and nodded, acted like she might say something, then stopped herself. “You’re not planning on having children anytime soon, are you?” she asked briskly, not meeting my gaze. I shook my head mutely, my heart falling all the way through the floor. “Well, just continue with your birth control, and come see me when you want to start a family so we can see if that’s a possibility for you.”
I began researching on my own, determined to learn more about this syndrome that I had. I learned that difficulty losing weight was a main symptom. Painful periods, heavy periods, weren’t uncommon either. Facial hair wasn’t uncommon as well, and in my mind’s eye I flashed back to discovering dark hair on my upper lip in fifth grade and panicking, shaving it off, only to be horrified that it seemed to be darker and thicker as it grew back. My entire life seemed to make sense the more I learned about PCOS. Things I thought were normal were actually symptoms that something was wrong. I wasn’t a wimp after all. I was actually sick.
And yet when I took to the internet to write about my struggle anonymously, a stranger told me that if I just got up off the couch and put the Cheetos down, I could lose some weight and stop being so disgusting. Despite recognizing his cruelty and knowing his words to be untrue, I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
Shortly thereafter, I moved away and switched jobs, then lost insurance altogether. Panicked, I realized my days of birth control were numbered. Once the hormones my body so desperately needed were no longer being supplied, my reproductive tract went berserk. The first year, I had only 3 periods, spread throughout the year. I began keeping a stash of pregnancy tests, terrified that somehow I’d wind up pregnant. The second year — last year, 2014 — I bled for 9 months straight.
At first, I was simply resigned. “I’ve done this before. I can do it again.”
But then my weekends began looking like me sitting on a toilet for extended periods of time rather than endure the sensation of sitting in the equivalent of a diaper overflowing with my own bloody body tissue. I grew weak, emotional, unable to function normally. Suicidal. Again.* My job performance began to suffer from both the physical and mental illness, putting me in a constant state of panic to prove myself lest I lose my job.
Then one day at work, in the course of 30 minutes, I lost…a lot of blood. A lot of blood. I estimate it was about the amount of blood a menstruating person might lose throughout an entire day of heavy flow. In 30 minutes. By this time, I’d begun constructing what I called Super Pads: two overnight pads placed back to back and reinforced at the crotch with liners. I had overflowed all of those pads, soaking through my underwear and jeans. And it was still coming.
My lips were so pale I couldn’t see them in the mirror. I was so pale I looked gray rather than white. I was shaking uncontrollably, barely able to stand, walk, or talk. I took my boss aside — the moment he set eyes on me, he knew something was terribly wrong. I explained what had happened, what was happening, unable to control my weak and trembling body or the tears falling unbidden from my eyes. He tried to convince me to let him rush me to the hospital. Still lacking insurance, still lacking a flexible budget, I declined, insisting that all I needed was rest. My partner came to pick me up, as I was unable to drive. And my boss had to literally physically support me as I gathered my belongings and walked down the stairs and out the door to my partner’s waiting car. I was far too weak to make it alone.
When I got home, I didn’t even have the energy to sob as I otherwise might have done. Instead, I laid in bed and wondered silently to myself why my body hated me so fucking much.
I’ve written a lot about depression and anxiety and how they’ve affected my life.* I’ve written about the strategies I use to try to take care of myself.* I’ve even written about learning to accept my body’s fatness and sexual features,* and how feminism is a great answer to dealing with social injustice* and the effect it has on a person.*
But I’ve only recently begun unpacking my own feelings about my body. Only recently realized that fat acceptance and sexual freedom were only parts of body positivity, not the whole.
I still have to deal with the feelings of betrayal when I’m unable to go on adventures without planning an entire day afterwards for physical recovery. The revulsion I feel as I shave my face regularly, mixed with the anger at how much those 2 years of lack of access to treatment for my PCOS have fucked over my body. The exhaustion that comes with constantly fighting JerkBrain and losing way more than I win. The humiliation of clothes shopping as a fat woman. The terror of going out to eat with my coworkers or even some friends — if I go and get something they’ll judge me for, or if I don’t go and earn judgment that way too. Trying to sing along with songs on the radio only to find that I can’t hit the notes the way I used to be able to.
And yet I also have to remind myself that it’s a process. Body positivity encompasses so many things, and it’s hard to unpack the bullshit taught from on high both secularly and religiously.
I’m receiving treatment for my PCOS now. I have an IUD that provides the hormones my body can’t create for itself, and I take metformin for my blood sugar. (Turns out leaving PCOS untreated for as long as I did can make a body pre-diabetic. Who knew.)
I’m being treated for a host of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which are definitely improving my quality of life
I have medication for my chronic migraines, anxiety, and depression.
Doctors are working to diagnose me with fibromyalgia, or whatever else my chronic pain might be, and in the meantime I have daily medication to manage the pain.
Some days, I absolutely rock at self-care. Some days, I don’t hurt as badly and I’m able to function. It’s easy to accept myself on those days, to like my body on those days.
But some days, I look in the mirror and want to scream. Some days getting out of bed without screaming in pain takes so much effort that it’s all I can do to catch my breath. Some days I still want to give up on everything. Some days I’m still overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal about my body, feelings of hatred for it, feelings of moral decay and failure for being unable to attain society’s label of a Good Body.
But you know something?
The body I have is a Good Body. No matter what anyone says or thinks, even on days when I can’t quite believe it myself.
It’s the only body I will ever have. Its shape, abilities, size, and other physical attributes absolutely do not decide my worth as a human being nor my ethics or morals. The hatred I’ve been taught to have for it is what’s immoral. The system that shames women, particularly fat women, particularly fat opinionated women, is what’s immoral. My existence? Nah. My existence in this particular body has no bearing on my morality.
And it’s important that we work together to affirm that about ourselves and about others. It’s important that we work together to make sure every body at every intersection of every oppressive system in our society is valued, accepted, celebrated, cared about and provided for. We have got to celebrate the bodies that society tells us aren’t okay. It’s important to fight against fatphobia. It’s important to believe and insist that #BlackLivesMatter. It’s important to work to eradicate ableist language and idioms from our vocabulary. It’s important to fight against classism. It’s important to fight against the continuing colonization of Native lands. It’s important to fight against the propagation of racial stereotypes that center whiteness as rightness.
Body positivity isn’t just a nice thought to make people feel warm and fuzzy. It’s a movement that requires us to acknowledge one another, to love one another, to support one another, and to fight against the system that tells us that anyone is unworthy of basic consideration, acceptance, or respect. Morality isn’t determined by how we look and what our bodies are capable of doing. It’s determined by how we treat others.
All bodies are Good Bodies.