My Body: Judgement -or- Are Women Supposed to be Fat?


I’m okay if I can still see a shadow under each cheekbone. I try to ignore my neck, which though slender and relatively long, in this light, is clearly wrinkling. And attached to the top of my neck and the bottom of my chin is this bizarre chicken flap that pulls and strains when I move my head. It’s the sack that alternately fills with fatty tissue or loses it depending on five pounds in one direction or the other. I’m not sure which is better, the empty swaying sack (affectionately dubbed “the wattle[1]”) or the double chin.

The wrinkled neck gives way to what I think of as one of my best features: My protruding collarbone and flat chest, which give me the illusion of thinness. I highlight these with sloping, generous V-necks, even when I am out playing tennis. And this, of course, will be my downfall. I’ve seen what the sun does to sun-lovers’ exposed chests: They become a mass of deeply crevassed, wrinkled, loose-hanging flesh. Tanned, yes, but so what?

I always wanted the lower half of my body to mirror the upper half. Long, slender arms and thin, if a little bony, fingers. Flat chest, long neck, small head. Gazelle-like elegance.

But instead I got the hips and ass and thighs of a Neolithic Venus goddess, a child-birther (which is of absolutely no interest or use to me). My mom’s hips. Her gynecologist told her, “You were born to have babies.” And still, she got a spinal on every one. They had to reach in and yank us all out because her numbed lower half, the half born to breed, could not flex a muscle. That was what we did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Modern medicine and male doctors who know best can save YOU from the pain of labor! Pop out those pooches with time left to put dinner on the table.[2]

During the high-boot fashion craze a few years ago, I was trying some on in the cramped shoe department of T.J. Maxx. They wouldn’t zip up. Yeah, I got cankles. Thunder thighs. Saddle bags. And a butt that used to be bodacious but, let’s face it, has drooped a bit with middle age. I’m not sure how I ultimately figured this out. Maybe it was a dare, but yes, I have the honor of being able to cradle a water glass between my ass and the back of my thigh. It’s a great party trick. You should try it.

One thing I don’t mind is never having to worry about men staring at my barely A-cups. I have, though, caught them looking at my butt. Wow, you have to be really slack-jawed with drool forming at the corner of your mouth-oblivious to allow me to turn around and catch you before you look away. As in, “Um, my eyes are up here…way up here and on the other side of my body.”

Then I was told by my ex that every problem I had, from being a little tired to PMS to migraines had to do with those extra 10 pounds I carried around.

Body shaming, like most other shaming in my life, was brought to me at an early age courtesy of my family. My brother was particularly good at it, telling me that you could play connect the dots with my moles. Or that my chest looked like two mosquito bites.

One of my earliest memories is of wanting to play in the garden hose on a hot summer day with my two older brothers, and naively coming outside without a shirt. This was met with immediate objections and yells for “Mom!” to come make me put a shirt on. My mom explained that girls can’t do that, which of course, made no sense to me but I was forced to comply.

Some of my friends will say, “my God, woman, shut the hell up. You look fine!” But here’s the thing about Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s not rational. And it can result in destructive behaviors like anorexia and other eating disorders, themselves yet another source of shame. It can result in excessive exercise (to the point of injury), and self-mutilation (such as plastic surgery[3]).

Some people are blaming the mirror for our obsessive focus on how we look. I just learned that “Mirror Fasting” is a thing, in which people pledge not to look in the mirror for months on end. But the mirror isn’t entirely to blame. It’s the unattainable “ideal” of feminine beauty portrayed to us in movies, magazines, t.v. shows, and even the nightly news, combined with looking in the mirror at what is often far from the supposed “ideal.” Top models have, on average, a Body Mass Index of 16.3%. The World Health Organization says anything under 18.5% is underweight and malnourished. So then, in an annual national survey of teens, two out of three girls ages 14-15 say they want to lose weight. My god, I was a toothpick at that age…and I remember thinking I was fat. In fact, post-adolescence, I can’t remember not thinking that.

So I got lost down the rabbit hole of Internet research, and became fascinated with the images of American female beauty standards from each decade, starting in the 1910s. There were the extreme hourglass years in which some models look literally deformed, with generous breasts and hips and a waistline of about 18 inches. Then there were the Twiggy years of the ‘60s. Full body shots of Twiggy reveal an emaciated physique that reminds me of a skinny, knobby-kneed seven-year-old.

What does the image of a shrunken stick figure say to you? To me, it says weakness. Is this a subtle way of saying the ideal woman should be weak, has to be taken care of, can’t run away, and therefore is not a threat to men?

The truth is, women, with our inherent higher percentages of body fat, usually outlive men in extreme conditions (see Donner Party as Exhibit A). We are designed that way, so we have the capacity to carry little baby humans in our bellies. We have to be stronger. But instead of celebrating this life-giving strength and ability, it’s demonized, and we are left fighting a losing battle to remove the fat that is fucking supposed to be there in the first place! No wonder it’s so hard.

Luckily there are examples of strong women who are not the currently accepted physical “ideal,” and they are still embraced in the media. Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer come to mind, though a critique of their popularity could be that if you’re fat, you’d better be funny as hell.

So though I am still watching it, I am going to try and stop whining about it, and embrace those parts of my body that are big and strong. After all, a hard-hit tennis ball starts in the legs, does it not? That’s something I can use. I can even stroke my wattle as I ponder this essay. Helps me think. Even though I don’t want to have kids, I can still marvel at this superbly amazing thing that a woman’s body can do. And, that extra fat on the back of my thighs? That’s going to come in handy when the apocalypse hits (which, my bunker-building brother says, is any day now) because I just keep forgetting to stock up on canned food. So, you know, I think I’m OK.

[1] Wattle is one of those words that sounds about as appetizing as it looks, and so too are the words used to define it. My favorite is from Wikipedia, which says that wattle is “a fleshy caruncle hanging from various parts of the head or neck in several groups of birds and [middle-aged] mammals. A caruncle is defined as ‘a small, fleshy excrescence that is a normal part of an animal’s anatomy.’”… particularly if that animal is a slightly overweight, older adult with a genetic predisposition toward jowls (which, I’m not going to define, but you should know are something pigs have in addition to humans. Sadly, here, Google has a series of frowning human examples of jowls. Trust me, all frowning.)

[2] My mother was, in fact, in the process of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey on the day I was born. My grandmother later commented that it was the worst turkey my mom had ever made. Yes, helpful feedback in my family goes back generations.

[3] Did I just put boob jobs in the category of self-mutilation? Yes. Yes I did.

About temprafaye

I am a consultant grant writer who needs an outlet for creative writing. Not that grant writing can't be creative, and of course I love my work, but when funding is on the line, you have to follow the rules. So I am starting a blog...just like the millions of other people out there. Sorry.
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7 Responses to My Body: Judgement -or- Are Women Supposed to be Fat?

  1. John Donovan says:

    Besides the excellent writing, it is so funny! But I always thought you were so lucky cause you were tall. I understand every one has body issues but I was happy for you cause even when I weighed 105 I thought I was fat cause I was short and it showed so much more. Anyway, I loved the writing!

  2. Dolly Lamaze says:

    Oh friend. It’s really enlightening to read this dispatch from your inner voice. Of course, I see you as that person that looks fine. “Fine” as in “saucy, goodlooking, enviable” fine. But I know that the dysmorphism is endemic. Absolutely no female is exempt.
    It harms my revolutionary spirit that we have to spend so much time just reassuring ourselves that IT’S OKAY TO GO OUT IN THE WORLD WITH ALL OF OUR GLARING PHYSICAL DEFECTS. We can get there, but it’s the work of 40 years just to come to terms with the fact that we’re not That Woman–the woman that exists in airbrushed holographic perfection. Because that’s what this culture ultimately wants us to be; and if we’re not that, we’re not worth the space we take up (especially when we take up too much space).
    Women are taught to shun strength. Yet that is how we are, from the pixies to the Willendorfs–and the fact that the entire weight of this culture (of which we’re always trying to divest ourselves! Ew, weight!)–the entire program of western womanhood tells us to lessen ourselves…well, it stands to reason that without this shame we are truly terrifying.
    Let us embrace ourselves and our cofemales, in all our stubborn wattles and saddlebags; let us leave the shame of such things and continue with the critical work that woman are strong enough, and brave enough, and just fucking good enough, to do.
    By the way, I admire the shit out of you.

    • temprafaye says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Dolly! Well said and I completely agree. Without our shame, which we so helpfully heap on ourselves, we’d be terrifying. 😉

  3. Terry says:

    Tempra: Kudos to you for an article well-penned. I have forwarded it to several women friends. P.S. I would kill for your forehand. Muah!

  4. Pingback: “They Don’t Need to Know THAT, Do They?”: Tempra Board Talks Essays, Grants & Collaboration | The Haberdasher

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