Body Image

Cognitive dissonance is a helluva bitch

19 September, 2010

I need to write this. Not for my regular supportive and wonderful readers, but for people who probably won’t even read my blog. That’s ok. I just need to write this and put it somewhere public. [Warning: There is an animated gif a few paragraphs down.]

This past few weeks I’ve talked to quite a few people about the assumption that those involved with fat activism and acceptance are already “there”. Let me state for the record that there is no “there”. There is no promised land with fields of fairy floss, oceans of Coke made with high fructose corn syrup and no atmosphere of boundless self esteem. You are never going to be awarded a bulletproof vest that protects you from the nasty things other people say about you or the messages that encourage self-loathing transmitted through magazines and television and ricocheted off people you talk to every day. I know I’m painting a pretty disappointing picture here, but stay with me. What fat activism can teach you is the skills to question these messages, and an increased sense of autonomy; it can also show you community and beauty and it can help you put aside personal practices that only serve to make you feel bad about yourself. But yep, it’s really bloody hard.

When people are introduced to radical concepts like fat acceptance, it makes sense that they will experience a fracturing of what they know to be true. This is cognitive dissonance. All your life you’ve absorbed photos of the conventional standards of beauty and spent a long time comparing your personal body to some generalised normative and acceptable body. This body is white, thin, young and able bodied. You might measure where you don’t meet that norm and you carry those “personal failings” around with you; you might also measure yourself against other women and criticise yourself and them equally, participating in a competition with no actual winner. At the same time you might be beginning to understand how this kind of activity serves to oppress you (and other people) while being confused about how to apply this knowledge to your own life.

Like Spilt Milk writes, “Acceptance is not giving up“. It’s easy to understand how it might feel that way, especially when you’ve been working hard to meet normative ideals and participate in the dominant discourse (by accepting and engaging in weight reducing activities as a normal thing). But let me tell you internets, I have experienced first hand how hard it is to challenge those ideals and question the dominant discourse. I have seen other people struggle with it in a quest to come to a place of peace, and it certainly doesn’t look like giving up to me.

Collage of magazines like Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Girlfriend etc with thin, young, able bodied white women on the covers.

Unfortunately though in this process of disputing what has been learnt over a whole lifetime, I’ve also witnessed (and cooperated in) some really unproductive and often aggressive behaviour. I understand it, and want to tell you something: it hurts. I have a feeling that lots of people assume that activists like me have made it, that we’re impervious to abuse and criticism about our personal bodies and our politics. It’s not true. I’m a human being, a fat and disabled woman being, and my learnings have been like most people’s. I still struggle with saying “FAT” out loud, even if I write it in capslock and wear it around my neck but I’m passionate about this social justice issue because I don’t want to struggle with saying a three letter word, and I don’t want to be discriminated against based on my weight. My politics are personal, because I have lived a life where I have been taught to fear the taking up of space outside the normative ideal. Because I do take up space outside the normative ideal, and not just because I’m fat.

This body image stuff doesn’t just affect those of us who are fatter. It affects all of us. The reason why people advocate for fat acceptance is because fat people are significantly disadvantaged and discriminated against in our society. We are robbed of our individual health under the BMI, and our individuality when we are called “The Obese”. It’s assumed that fat people are only fat due to over-consumption without taking into account intersectionality of class, race and ability issues. We aren’t represented in the media (well, everything EXCEPT OUR HEADS). Even clothes to cover our bodies are scarcer and more expensive, and those bodies are used as caricature for negative personality traits: lazy, ugly, smelly, undisciplined, etc etc. So that’s why this is a significant social justice issue because we have some serious power imbalance crap going on, but it can’t be denied that healthy body image is a right for every human being. Our western culture is working against every human being when we do not challenge assumptions like “thin = healthy, sexy, acceptable”.

Animated gif of black and white Photo Booth photos of me putting on mascara and making faces.

Challenging societal practices that serve to make people feel bad about their bodies, practices that are reinforced by us all, is an important thing. It’s pretty easy to understand this in theory (if you are a decent and self aware person) but changing one’s own learnt practices is much more difficult. I get that it’s hard and that it can make you angry. I get that you can know a thing is bad while still participating in unproductive behaviours, I’m a human and I’ve done it and I will probably do it until I die; but it’s especially unhelpful to lash out against activists and accuse them of being the people who are confusing you when the discomfort you’re experiencing is cognitive dissonance. Knowing the learnt behaviours and practices you perform every day work against good self esteem and body image is a tough gig. When I cover my scarred and blemished skin with make up products I feel this fracture, but if I venture outside with naked skin my performance of femaleness will be called into question (and because I am fat the pressure to perform femininity is even higher!) so I continue a practice that upholds feminine normativity. I won’t deny the dissonance I experience, but I can’t be angry at Naomi Wolf for raising my consciousness.

So, while I understand anger that might be directed at me, please understand that it hurts me too. I want to support and discuss this issue, but it’s unfair to expect me to cop a bullet because I’m a public fat activist. I reserve the right to disengage from unproductive discussion, but I also have the right to withdraw from personal attacks and passive aggression. That’s not going to help me or you, and it’s pretty unfair to expect a fat woman to bear the brunt of further abuse.

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  • Zoe

    This is an important post for everyone – I just wish that the people who most need to read it, to understand what being an activist is like, will actually read it and understand it. I can dream.

    Some days I feel gutted at how much I perform my gender, and how invested I am in looking good (ie, the amount of money I spend on my hair). It’s not productive, so I just try to take a deep breath, remind myself that awareness is key and go forward with my held high.

    Thanks for writing and sharing.

  • Lilacsigil

    Would it be possible to put a warning before an animated gif? It’s a problem for me because of chronic vertigo. If I know there’s an animated gif coming, I’m fine, but seeing it without warning is not much fun.

  • Sorry about that, I have edited the post to include a warning.

  • Lilacsigil

    Thank you! It’s becoming more of a problem for me as more and more people use them – I really appreciate you taking the time to warn.

  • I don’t have the energy to write a long comment right now, so I’m going to cop out and say I agree completely with this.

  • Grace

    I love that you are so willing to make changes like that to help people. Thanks for being lovely. :)

  • I feel a bit embarrassed that I never knew about chronic vertigo and animated gifs! I don’t want to cause harm to anyone or make it harder for them to read my blog, so I totally want people to tell me if something I post causes problems.

  • I am just really tired of having to cop abuse lately… my voice is loud, and I have a bunch of other activists in my network (like you) but we are still a minority. When people accuse me of flooding their stream (like on twitter) with my radical notions I can’t take it personally, because it just means that their proximity to me and my words means that they’ve encountered paradigm shifting notions that WILL cause discomfort!

    The gender performativity stuff kind of screws with my head daily. I think talking about it is a pretty damned good start.

  • SUBMIT TO MY OPINIONATION.

  • Hear, hear! Of course you don’t have to put up with abuse, NO ONE SHOULD! I’m sad and angry on your behalf that somebody has felt they need to attack you personally because of your activism. You are an inspiration to me and I am so grateful that you write and show photos and stand up for what you belive!

  • *headdesk* spelling mistake!

  • This was a beautiful, well thought out and excellently written post. Thanks Natalie.

  • Thank you for your support. I really appreciate it, it’s hard to come by.

  • Thank you Caity, your words mean a lot.

  • You’ve talked to me a few times over the last few weeks about not being “there”. The “strong and powerful” public façade that is presumed of an activist is hard to keep up. I don’t think anyone stops struggling, even if you do feel comfortable most days.

    I’m proud of you. You do so much to help other people come to grips with this stuff, and especially me. I wouldn’t be the (mostly) self-accepting person that I am today without you. <3

  • Hi Natalie. I’ve been reading your blog and Twitter for a while, and I just wanted to thank you for your public honesty. I am not a fat person (the complete opposite, actually), and I think people like you do a wonderful job in helping others (including me) to understand that you’re not just ‘fat’ – you’re a person, and what you say, do, think and feel are all completely real. I really enjoy reading what you have to say, and appreciate that it must be a difficult thing for you to do.

    Not that it can compare in ANY way at all, but I thought it might amuse you to know that as a ‘skinny’ person I’ve had some pretty ignorant comments from people as well (although I wouldn’t go so far as to call them hurtful, at least not in the same way that you describe). I guess unfortunately people just feel that it’s their right to make assumptions about others.

  • Love this post. You’re right: cognitive dissonance really burns! I’m sorry that you’ve felt the need to write this – you don’t deserve to be attacked, but I applaud your bravery in continuing to put yourself out there. Fighting the good fight and all that jazz. (I love a mixed metaphor or two!) Thank you for all that you do (and thanks for supporting me in what I do, too).

  • As if challenging the norms isn’t hard enough, you’re showing your pain too. You’re remarkable, and I’m so sorry you (and everyone else who cops it) have to be put through so much. FA is slowly changing my life, but more importantly, I know it’s going to change my children’s lives so much more. I’m really grateful to you and everyone shouting loudly and putting themselves out there.

  • Kelly

    I’m sorry you’ve incurred ire and personal attacks and other asshattery for your work. You know you are an inspiration and support and muse to so many people. You don’t owe any of them your sanity points or your energy, and please do self-care as best you’re able. But of course you’re saying such wonderful and amazing things and that’s very scary to other people.

    Re: your comment to Zoe an hour ago. Isn’t the point of twitter to decide who to follow? If people are complaining they can unfollow, or go directly shut the f**k up. Hee.

  • Kelly

    I re-read this and I’m even more stunned at it’s awesomeness. Particularly the second-to-last paragraph.

    Thank you.

  • *words of love and support*

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  • Bianca

    Natalie I just want to say thanks. Thanks for putting yourself out there and being such an inspiration. I love reading your blog and following you on twitter. Don’t let them get you down lady.

  • I really needed to read this right now – yesterday I got a pretty douchey trollish email in my inbox about how pointless and immature my blog is, and while I know that’s not true, it’s also helpful to know that other people struggle with putting on a strong front in dealing with this kind of thing.

    You have my complete support.

  • Agreed! If only it came with increased self-confidence, though….
    Whenever I hear someone say something fat-shaming, I take the time to take down whatever they’ve just said. Only I feel like a hypocrite because I’m known as “the one who went away for the summer and got really skinny”.

  • Smiri

    thanks, thanks, thanks, dearest Natalie, for your weblog!!!
    I’m new to this whole FA movement and you describe exactly what I feel: It is a struggle, and a really really hard one full of stupid discussions with the worst and most stubborn of all people: my old self-loathing, mediainfiltrated self that tells me nasty nasty things every day. I still feel the urge to justify myself just for being me, and it is so good to read your blog and see that I am not alone on this earth.
    Lots of love from the other side of the earth (namely, Germany),
    Miriam

  • This is a really great post.

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  • fenn

    This is not directly related to this post, but I want to say somewhere, to people: There is a weight-loss ad (Jenny Craig, maybe) featuring Jennifer Hudson. She is saying, over and over, “I can…” followed by things like, “…stand here and not suck in a thing.” She’s wearing something gold and sparkly. She’s got a new weave. She ends the commercial by singing, “I can, I can…” over and over.

    IT FUCKING PISSES ME OFF!

    She was beautiful and looked gorgeous and didn’t need to lose weight to improve her outward appearance. (I can’t speak for her health, but she did not appear dangerously obese to me…though I know even those medical “standards” are often wildly inaccurate.)

    I want her to do a commercial that says, “I can…” followed by things like, “…wear a size 14, 16, or 18 and still look ridiculously beautiful.”

    Maybe I will make my own and post it on Youtube.

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  • Frank

    I do not support fat people, I do not support scarily skinny people, I support normal and healthy people. No unhealthy extremes.

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  • Beclove22

    For every person that shames you for your work, there would be at least ten who are inspired by it. I don’t tell you enough how much your insights and words mean to me, you have helped so many people, including myself and I can’t imagine how shit this world would be like without people like you

    Thank you

  • Anonymous

    you are truly amazing, natalie.

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