One thing that happens when you make a blog is that you also make friends? And then sometimes you Tom Sawyer those friends into writing guest posts for you. Sweet Machine is in the house today answering a question about body acceptance inside a relationship.
Dear Captain Awkward,
So’s I got a question, which looks like this:
I live with my nice girlfriend, and we are two fat ladies. Heavy Betties, if you prefer. We are both on the fat-positive train, but it turns out that this becomes more complicated. We both gained a reasonable amount of weight in the last year-ish, which for me, just kind of is what it is. I was in grad school, and I like to eat. I have some lingering wishes/hopes that I might lose that 25 pounds, and also if I don’t, I won’t miss out on my life because of it. I just bought a bikini this summer, which I’ve never in my life had before. Really I just wore it around the house a few times, to practice staring at myself half-naked, because I think it’s kind of unacceptable for me to be grossed out by my body. And also, sometimes I am, and right now I’m just going for “can look at myself in all states of naked and feel, at least, neutral.”
My girlfriend has a stronger history of body-hate, and has done a little dance with anorexia in the past, and these days I think is genuinely a size-positive ally, but has articulated really clearly that she can’t do that for herself, just now. And she is trying to make headway by buying clothes that fit that suit her (androgynous) gender expression, but that is proving difficult, and just generally I think feels shitty about her weight gain, and I’m not sure how to respectfully engage around that.
And this is the other thing: we are both healthy, active people. I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy for anybody to go chasing the body they used to have down the rabbit hole of raw foodism or triathlons or whatever. Also, I’m not interested in hating on other people’s bodies, and what they choose to do with them; and also for myself I really find it important to motivate and structure how I eat and how I move in what feels good, and not pin it onto some inaccurate and impossible idea of only one kind of body being healthy.
So, given that this is what we are working with, and we are two people who are living together and doing the nasty with each other and sharing food and life responsibilities and all this other business. I really just feel like, there is gigantic magentic pull on both of us toward the direction of “God we are so gross we should definitely lose fifty pounds like right now” which I am invested in both of us resisting. But it is sneaky, and compelling, and it shows up in us in different ways.
Dear Captain Awkward, how do you resist the sneaky riptide called “You’re so fat” that wants to pull me and my generally happy functional relationship under the waves? How do we separate our own tricky body narratives, and support each other’s ambivalence, and just generally hang out with each other for this hard thing called making peace with your body?
Thanks much Captain Awkwardpants.
Desperately Seeking Solutions
Dear Desperately Seeking Solutions,
Sweet Machine here.
Before I start tackling your tricky and kind of heartbreaking questions, let me just make a list of the things I straight up agree with in your letter:
· You won’t miss out on your life if you don’t ever lose those x pounds, where x equals 25 and also any other number.
· It is legit difficult to find clothes that fit fat ladies, perhaps especially for your partner’s androgynous style. Fat bodies come in all shapes and fat persons come in all styles, but the makers of plus-size clothing tend not to acknowledge that, like, ever.
· It is not emotionally healthy to chase “the body you used to have”—for one thing, it is the same body you have now, unless you are Robocop, in which case I think I cannot speak to your body image with any confidence.
· There is, indeed, a Giant Magnet called Culture that pulls you toward self-loathing and weight loss. That magnet pulls on you every time you see an ad, an actress, or an obesity epidemic OOGA BOOGA news report. There are billions of dollars to be made from your self-loathing, and shaking off the weight (GET IT) of all that money is a continual, wearying struggle, as you know. But you are doing it, and I commend you.
There’s a lot going on in your description of your relationships with your awesome girlfriend and your awesome body. I feel like you are asking two questions, but one is secret. In my academic field (literary criticism), sometimes we talk about finding the question behind the question—like, you start by asking “Why on earth does Astrophil say that weird fucking line ‘But ah, Desire still cries, give me some food’? The hell?” but once you start digging, you actually are asking “Does fulfilling desire satisfy that desire, or does it create a need more ambitious and ravenous than the initial desire?” And then you have a conference paper.
I indulge this highly nerdy digression not only to note that Sir Philip Sidney was asking questions about desire, hunger, sex, and love way back in 1591 and we haven’t necessarily figured it out yet, but also to say that I can’t help but read two levels of uncertainty in your letter. The first is the question you actually ask the Captain, namely, “How do we separate our own tricky body narratives, and support each other’s ambivalence, and just generally hang out with each other for this hard thing called making peace with your body?” The second—the question behind the question—is something like, “How can I deal with the fact that my girlfriend’s anxieties are adding more power to the Giant Magnet of Self-Loathing pulling on me?” Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be conflicted about your girlfriend’s current body image struggle: “My girlfriend has a stronger history of body-hate, and has done a little dance with anorexia in the past, and these days I think is genuinely a size-positive ally, but has articulated really clearly that she can’t do that for herself, just now.” Your prose is very charming, but it’s also contradictory: “done a little dance with anorexia,” though it seriously is making me picture Gene Kelly dancing with Kate Moss, is not the emotional truth of the matter. Your wonderful, awesome, fat ladyfriend is also a recovered anorexic, and that is some serious shit that is probably tied to why even though you want to think of her as size-positive, she actually can’t be, right now.
I’m not an expert in eating disorders, so of course I’m going to jump on the “probably you should both do therapy”—separately—bandwagon. EDs are mental illnesses, and I hope your girlfriend has some pro help with managing her post-recovery process. What I am sort of an expert in is how someone else’s language can fuck with your sense of reality. Everyone who has ever been fat has been on the receiving end of “God, I’m so gross—no no, you are great, you look fine at x pounds but I am disgusting” nonsense, and it sucks. That is one person’s cognitive dissonance being forcibly lodged in another person’s brain. It’s damaging, and it’s unfair. It makes the Magnet stronger.
Here’s what I think you need to do: I think you need to clarify your conversational boundaries with your girlfriend. YES I AM TOTALLY COPYING OFF THE CAPTAIN’S HOMEWORK. You don’t mention how you and your girlfriend are actually interacting—I’m not clear if this is something you discuss endlessly in circles, or if neither of you ever brings it up but it floats beneath lots of conversations, or if there’s food-morality talk going on that is indirect but makes you feel weird, or what. But I want you to remember that, even as your girlfriend is struggling, you don’t actually have to be all things to her, especially if doing so is harmful to you because of the cognitive dissonance parade (Grand Marshal: Mitt Romney). If talking about your girlfriend’s weight with her makes you feel horrible about yourself and derails your own self-acceptance, you have every right to tell her so, and to draw a boundary there. Please note: I do not mean that you should tell her she’s responsible for your feelings! First of all, that’s incorrect; secondly, that will likely make her feel worse about herself. What I mean, rather, is that you say something like, “I am so sorry that you are feeling bad about your weight gain, and I think you should talk to someone about that—but I don’t think that person can be me, because I’m working really hard on actively embracing my own body and having those conversations makes it much harder.” In my humble opinion, the greatest way you can help your partner feel good about her body is to make her feel good in her body, with sex and snuggles and compliments, and by not talking shit about anyone’s bodies, period. [Yes! Have more sex. The bodies of the people we love and lust for are, without exception, amazing and perfect. – Captain Awkward]
Fat acceptance is hard. Escaping the pull of that Giant Magnet is incredibly hard. There is a whole world out there that confirms your girlfriend’s point of view and denies yours. I think you’ve figured out already, though, that loathing that pernicious bullshit leads to a far healthier and far more enjoyable life than loathing yourself. You can’t force your girlfriend to get there with you, but you can show her how happy you are to be on the other side of the Magnet’s pull.
Love and baby donuts,
Edited To Add: Now with bonus pants explosions!
Edited to Add (again): Thanks, Hairpin, you read our minds.