Dear Fieldpoppy: As a good feminist, what do I do with my body shame?

Dear Fieldpoppy:  My body is changing and I am struggling to be ok with it. I am a body positive person but every time I look in the mirror I gawp at my expanding middle and feel like a failure as a woman. HELP.

Dear Fieldpoppy:  The old friend I hooked up with last night told me I’d gotten thicker but ‘in a good way’. And yet I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Help!

Oh precious darlings, I want to wrap you in a cosy Turkish towel and thank you for saying out loud the thing that so many of us feel but hoard in silent shame.  Body positivity is a shifting, elusive thing, so much simpler in theory than in actual physical life.   I’m sure there are people – assigned-female-at-birth type people – who can look at their own bodies, every day, with unmixed pleasure – but I have yet to meet any of them in the flesh. 

This is a big topic, so settle in. And let me start with a story. When I was in Uganda in December, one of the people I’ve known for 15 years jumped off a motorbike to greet me, hugged me and said with great warmth and approval, Auntie!  You have gained!

It always takes me a while to let that settle for the loving, appreciative observation it is.  The origins are important of course – in Uganda, poverty, deprivation and illness are so prevalent that meaty curves are a sign of getting through life without too much trial.  But it’s the openness, really, that grabs me in the gut – the way bodies are a such an easy subject of comment.  Aunt, you are fat like me!  Aunt, what do you notice about Brendah?  Of course I notice she is larger – but that’s not a thing we say out loud!  And when I say, She seems so happy, they correct me.  No!  She is so fat! 

Here’s the thing, duckies. Most of us notice changes in size, up or down, in ourselves and others. We notice aging, and strain, and stiffness, and skin eruptions, and wrinkles. We are engaged in deep, intimate dialogues with our bodies every day, and we observe ourselves — sometimes with neutrality or pleasure, and sometimes with distress. And we observe others. But when we do the work to understand the harm of limited cultural expectations of body size, shape, ability, youth, flawless skin, especially for female-presenting type people, we train ourselves not to say anything about what we see in other people. In our culture, when someone comments on your body, it feels like a profound violation of the social contract – they are saying out loud the thing that we hide close to our hearts, that we hope – profoundly, with shame – that they won’t notice. That’s not really body acceptance, is it?

There’s a question that’s been teasing at my little brain for a long time now:  when you’re a body positive person, what do you do with the feelings you have about your own body when they’re not so positive?  And how do we reconcile the strange loop of body acceptance, understanding that individual size is a complex amalgam of social environment, food availability, mental health, genetics, metabolics, culture, etc — not a matter of individual will – and yet feel discomfort in our own bodies? We feel shame about our bodies – weight, wrinkles, physical limitations, the awful skin flare ups of my auto-inflammatory condition – and then, being good feminists, we feel shame about feeling shame.

But we’re embodied beings.  We move through time and space and intimacy and desire and sadness and hope and life with our bodies.  We’re not just a brain in an irrelevant meat casing – we’re biological beings, spiritual selves who feel and breathe and exhale into a biological system with the earth, with nature, and with other beings.  We need to fully inhabit our bodies, and I’m not sure our silence about our feelings about our bodies changing is a good thing.  Fat positivity is a good thing, body positivity is a good and absolutely necessary thing – but I think the way we currently talk about it is incomplete.  It’s a complex thing to be at peace with our bodies, and we need to be able to talk about it without shame, without silence.

We need better ways to think about discomfort with our bodies, ways to reflect on how to accept what is there, and how to engage with what we want to change. We need ways to talk about it that don’t invoke diet culture, that don’t make us hate ourselves, that don’t lead to simple assumptions that thin = good or weight loss = healthy (or easy!) or visible aging = bad.  We need to be able to feel loving and accepting about unchosen changes. And we need to find ways to lovingly recognize when we want to change something about food or movement or health because it’s limiting us or hurting us in some way – a recognition that comes from what your own body is doing, not an external measurement or comparison.  Or throwaway comment from someone you hooked up with.

For me – and this is something I’m still working out, a lifelong practice – for me, this starts with presence.  Not with looking in the mirror, or thinking about the fit of my pants, or letting someone else’s voice (cultural or a random hookup) overpower the actual experience of my body.  It starts with sitting quietly, in a kind of meditative pose, and paying attention to actual physical sensations.  Can I sit cross-legged without strain?  Do I feel uncomfortably full?  Am I digesting my food in a way that feels like good flow, not sluggish?  What feels easeful, and what feels grounded, and what feels at odds?

What does movement feel like – can I move my body in the ways I want to move it?  Can I still do that yoga pose I loved so much last year?  If I’m running or walking or lifting things, what does that actually feel like?  Not, can I run a kilometre in the same time I ran it 20 years ago or even last year – what does my body feel like running that kilometre?  Can I walk or ride the length of time I want to?  To get me the places I want to go, the things I want to see?  Do I feel growing strength in how long I can hold a yoga pose, swing a kettle bell?  Do I feel that IN me, without comparing myself to some other person’s kettle bell, movement, plank hold?

And most important, for me — what does my body feel like when I’m eating?  Am I putting food in my mouth to nourish myself, or am I stuffing tortilla chips or haribo in mindlessly, because I’m trying to squash some sensation or stress or emotion? 

Can I move my body through the world with spatial awareness?  Am I tripping over things, blocking people’s way?  Or am I in flow with the space around me?

Am I breathing? 

In this exploration, acceptance is about filling your trickster little brain with your strength, your resilience, appreciation for what your body can do, the feel of your feet on the ground, the gift of breathing. Rewiring those ol’ neural pathways from “my pants don’t fit, I suck” to “fuck my thighs are strong.” From “I’m so slow” to “I’m so grateful my body is working.” Not grudging acceptance because you feel you must as a good feminist, or acceptance because your changes are within certain external parameters. But whole new ways of talking to ourselves in a more generative way.

Find the love for yourself and hold on

And — if you find things in this exploration that you want to change, be more at ease with, I don’t think there’s shame in wanting to change them. But be in deep reflection with what that reason really is. Think about what it means if the reason is that you perceive people to treat you better when you’re a different size, or because you have a notion that X is an “acceptable” size and Y is not, or because you see someone else lifting something much heavier and feel lesser in comparison. If that’s the reason, your dance of change isn’t likely to make you feel better for long.

But if it’s out of mindfulness, ease, agility, strength? To eat with mindfulness to nourish your body and be grateful for the privilege of healthy food? To get stronger to be able to hike or ride to the places you want to go, to lift heavy things because it makes you feel like a superhero? To run faster because your mind and spirit clear and soar, to go deeper into the yoga poses that ease your body and spirit? There’s more to be found there than running away from something that makes you feel bad.

This is even true – and I know this is blasphemy in the body positive world – for people who make the thoughtful, mindful choices to incorporate medical interventions for weight loss to ease joints or prepare for surgery or tackle a flaring condition. Good, body positive feminists make these choices, but then feel like they have to hide it, instead of exploring the complexities of why they make them.

For me, body positivity is about doing these things because you are experiencing and loving and caring for your body and spirit from the inside out, not through a number on a scale, size of your pants, pressure from an internalized ideal. We are complex, and body positivity is complex, and we need to be able to talk about it.

Thank you for voicing your shame, dear hearts.  The more we talk about it, the more we open up the horrible, amazing beauty of being a human in this paradoxical world.  Sending your sweet bodies light and love.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is pictured here with her wildly imperfect body doing a miraculous thing in a miraculous place.

9 thoughts on “Dear Fieldpoppy: As a good feminist, what do I do with my body shame?

  1. Thank you aunty Cate. Such a great write up. Like you said , i think its important that we don’t let society put standards to what a perfect body or an imperfect one is ,but us listening to our bodies having the ability to do things we need them to do!

  2. Great post, Cate. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we just did away with Shame? I don’t think it’s a requirement of being a feminist. xo

    1. I agree, Nicole–and the complexity is “getting rid” of shame feels like shaming shame. How do we welcome it so much that it transforms into something else? The alchemy of belonging.

      1. Ahh – shaming shame. We need to stop shaming ourselves for our socialization, our thoughts. But, also for our shame for those feeling.
        What I often find interesting is I am so in awe of people who seem wholly comfortable with their being, whatever that is. But, seem to be unable to achieve it myself. If it’s so appealing why the resistance to do what is necessary to be so comfortable.

  3. Cate–i love this whole pice. And when you describe your body as “wildly imperfect” my mind automatically thought– = perfect.

  4. Thanks for broadening the conversation and making space for some complicated issues. Where I run into a brick wall–when thinking about intentional weight loss of various sorts–is that it doesn’t matter what you reasons are. They can be ‘bad’ reasons, like fitting into last year’s jeans, or ‘good’ reasons like losing weight to control blood pressure. It’s still damn near impossible to lose weight long term. I think the bloggers here who identify as fat know that. For us, I think putting that aside and moving on and doing the hard work to care for the bodies we have is the thing that matters most. In a weird way I think those of us who have always been on the larger side of normal have an easier time with age related weight gain too. We’ve dealt with body shame and normative thinness for a lot longer. I love your story about reaction to weight gain when in Uganda, by the way. It makes me laugh and smile and I wish we could all be so matter of fact.

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