Wednesday, July 25, 2012

That Old Friend, Shame

(Warning: this is a long post, and it has no pictures.)

Today,  I read something that brought me right back to my teen years in a way few things can.  I say “few things can” because I have spent a lot of emotional and intellectual energy repressing this part of my life.  I don’t like to think about it, because even after all this time, and even though I have come to love and respect myself in a way I couldn’t then, a few things still have unmitigated power to reduce me.

I should clarify: by “teen years” I specifically mean the years that I was 12 and 13.  Mostly, I mean the year I was 12, aka 6th grade, but I dealt with a lot of emotional fallout the next year, too.  Specifically, I mean my suicide attempt when I was 13.  (This is a big bomb to drop in a throwaway sentence, but believe me when I say that it is a separate story, which bears mentioning here because it is a part of my emotional landscape.  Everything has a context, and this is a part of mine.)

Here is the piece I read, for anyone who is interested:

The author primarily talks about the awful psychological effects of racism, and the experience of being categorized a racial “other.”  Especially the experience for a kid or teenager.  Of course, I am white, so I have never been forced to go through this.  But I understood and empathized with everything she said; I kept thinking “god, I know what you mean.”  Why?  Because when I was a teenager, I was overweight.  Still am, in fact.

I don’t like to talk about it.  I don’t think it’s anybody else’s business.  And I’m not done being ashamed about it.  I’ve known other fat girls (and fat men and fat women and fat anything) who own it, but that will never be me.  I can, on occasion, be totally comfortable with my body--but I never totally banish that last layer of shame.

It was at its worst when I was 12, which is kind of funny now, because looking back, I know that I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.  But shame isn’t about truth.  It’s about perception and emotion.  And, oh boy, it’s about paranoia.  That Iago voice in your head telling you that you will never be good enough, that no one will ever love you.  Shame is the thing that answers that voice when you find something about yourself that, you think, proves Iago right.

I have one perfect moment of shame that will forever be tattooed on the walls of my head.  One time, in sixth grade, I walked to the front of a classroom to turn in my homework, and I heard the two boys who sat behind me giggling together.  I don’t remember if I asked my friend what they were talking about, or if she told me spontaneously, but I do remember exactly what she told me they’d said.  One had turned to the other and said, “Look at the fat in her butt jiggling when she walks.  Jiggle, jiggle.”  The other laughed, extensively.

Wait, let me backtrack--at first, I did not remember EXACTLY what they’d said.  I remembered the words “butt” and “jiggling.”  I’d forgotten the word “fat,” until I thought it over again.  I’d suppressed the word.  And then I remembered.  The weapon of the word “fat.”  The word I have obsessively avoided for most of my life.  The word that can make me feel like I am somehow worse than everyone else.  Somehow less than nothing.

Like I said before, I will never be a fat girl who owns it.  I will never be someone who names her blog “A Fabulous Fat Girl Takes Manhattan!”*  I love the woman who does that, but I will never be her.  I don’t have her courage.

*(Ahem--as far as I know, this is not a real blog, but one I invented on the spot.  If it is a real blog, I promise I did not mean to step on any intellectual property toes.)

I ended up “telling” on those boys.  And, like these things often do, it ended up biting me in the ass.  I informed a counselor, who checked the story with the several students who’d heard them.  The boys were pulled into an office for a scolding, and the worse offender was sent home for the day.  Somehow, this resulted in the following rumor: “Sara got [Boy 1] suspended for five days because she’s a bitch!”

A--Not true.  Kid was back the next day, yet the rumor persisted for weeks.  As in, random people came up to me weeks later and asked, “Aren’t you the one who got [Boy 1] suspended?”

B--Really?  I got him suspended with, what, the power of my mind?  I get that we were all 12, but did NONE of these kids think, for even a second, that you can’t actually just decide to get someone suspended and then do it?  Did NO ONE say “okay, but, actually, what was the reason they gave for suspending him? Because ‘Sara said so’ is not a real thing?  Guys?”  Apparently not, because for weeks after, I was plagued by dirty looks from every single one of his popular friends.  And an occasional audible muttering of “bitch” from Boy 2.

Of course, I was immune to that by then.  I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes and bought even more black clothes.  But deep down, I felt deeply, violently threatened.

And I got the message.  I had developed breasts and hips a little too early, and as someone with hips might be, I wasn’t stick-skinny.  And that gave boys the right to sexually harass me.  And if I had the gall to challenge that right, I was a bitch, and their friends would make sure I knew it.

I got the message, but every day, I do my best to ignore it.  I think, on the feminist side, I succeed.  I get in shout-you-down fights with men twice my size or age, and I don’t back down.  I paste feminist links on facebook, and I tell anyone who will listen that I will never be a housewife, and that women need to be paid the same as men or we don’t get to call ourselves civilized anymore.  I define myself however I damn well please, and I ignore anyone who tries to tell me what to do.  (Except my mother, but she mostly just tells me to do my share of the dishes and to follow my dreams.)  And I never, ever let anyone walk me to my car, because I will not live my life in fear.

But I don’t succeed in every way I could.  Despite my ardent feminist fire, I let myself hate my body.  I hear those boys giggling in my memory and it tears me down.  I see anyone look at me sideways and it tears me down.  For years and years and years, I wore the baggiest clothes possible because I just wanted my body to disappear completely.  I didn’t want anyone to have the faintest clue what it looked like.  And I succeeded there--I looked way fucking worse than I should have.

I’ve spent much of the past year dealing with my body.  I started dieting and exercising.  The exercise was wonderful--I ran a mile for the first time in a decade.  Apart from the day I got into college, it was my proudest moment ever.  And it made me feel good about my body, which was new.  I felt powerful.  I had crazy new leg muscles, and I could do that weird crow yoga pose that had once seemed literally impossible (in spite of the fact that I watched other people do it.)  These were good things.

The diet has been less wonderful.  Far more effective, of course--exercise makes you feel great, but you won’t lose weight if you end up eating what you burned.  But as effective as it is, dieting isn’t the best thing for mental health.  I’ve lost a whole crap ton of weight, but not always in the best ways.

I had a friend once who said, “Sometimes the best feeling in the world is going to bed with your stomach growling.  It’s like you’ve won.”

I know two things about that: it’s one of the most fucked-up things I’ve ever heard, and it’s completely fucking true.

Exercise made me feel physically powerful.  But dieting made me feel powerful in another way.  I felt like I had so much control.  The need to eat is second only to the need to breathe, so if you can control that, then you are completely your own master.  Or, at least, that’s how it feels.

And, in a way, it feels like you’re meeting the challenge.  And, somehow, throwing it in the challenger’s face.  You CAN be that beautiful woman on the TV/magazine/billboard ad.  Because you can decide not to eat, and that will MAKE you that woman.  So fuck everybody!

It’s fucked up.  It’s massively fucked up.  It’s wrong and it’s harmful, and NOBODY should ever want anybody to feel that way.  We shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies.  We should be ashamed of the forces that make us ashamed.

We should be ashamed of a culture that allowed two boys to get to sixth grade without ever telling them they could not talk about another human being like that, and we should be fucking ashamed of making a 12-year-old girl feel like their dipshit idiocy was on her.

But the truth is, we aren’t.  We keep on making fat jokes.  We keep on making fat jokes about PEOPLE WHO AREN’T FAT.  We talk about women’s bodies like somehow it’s our business.  Like somehow they fucking OWE it to us never to age, never to gain weight, never to have “frumpy” hair.  And if anyone tries to call us on it, we claim long and loud that they’re “asking for it.”

“She’s the one who’s fat, so she’s asking for it.”

“She decided to become a celebrity, so she’s asking for it.”

“She wanted to run for President, so she’s asking for it.”

Over a year ago, an 11-year-old was gang-raped in an abandoned house in a small town.  People spent weeks after that proclaiming that she had been “asking for it.”  An 11-year-old.  Up against more than a dozen adult men.  And the people who didn’t blame the girl?  Blamed her mother.

Her mother.  Not her father, or both parents.  Not the people who heard noises and did nothing.  Not the more than a dozen ADULT MEN WHO RAPED A CHILD, ONE AFTER ANOTHER.  Her mother.  Or the girl herself.

Here’s what it is: I am a feminist, and I am ashamed of my body.  I am angry and self-serving and I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks about me, but I am ashamed of my body.  I am an adult, and self-sufficient, and white, and privileged, and confident, and I have never been raped.  But I am so, so ashamed of my body.

I can only imagine how everyone else feels.

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