Throughout my teenage years I had all the usual hangups, worrying that I was fat or oddly shaped. I wasn’t, I was a size 12-14 with great proportions – I look back at photos and think my body looked amazing, and that I was foolish for not appreciating how little trouble my body gave me then, but hindsight is 20:20. Four unhappy years at university down the line and I’m somewhere between size 14 and 18 depending where I shop, and the shape of my body has changed, probably forever. This is a story with a somewhat happy ending (although it’s not really over of course – instead of an ending we’ll call it an ongoing), but first I’m going to take a tour of the main issues I’ve had with my body over the years.
When I first put on weight I was distraught, not particularly at being bigger, but at the irreparable changes my body had gone through – the long, red, angry looking stretch marks that snaked their way up my belly, right at the front, making me embarrassed to be naked even around long term partners and saddened that I’d probably never wear a bikini or certain types of clothes again. Aged 14 I developed long horizontal stretch marks across my back, it looked like I had been whipped, but they’re faded now except in certain lights and I never really cared that much about something I couldn’t see anyway. While the stretch marks elsewhere on my body felt like a natural part of growing, these stomach scars felt like some kind of awful punishment – for being greedy, for being lazy, for being unhappy, for being stupid enough to let them grow in the first place – every kind of self critical thought you can imagine. Weight can be lost and gained and lost again, but stretch marks are forever.
I felt like I’d blown my only chance to have a good body while I was young, before life and age and babies. I felt I could accept those processes of life as normal, but my body felt abnormal. No matter what size and shape my body is in the future, those marks will be there. They aren’t forever in the way that I convinced myself they were though – over time I’ve continued to put on weight and they have continued to spread, but the marks that bothered me so much before are now silver or white, and the new ones are slowly losing their redness too. I find, for some bizarre magical reason that I’ll never understand, that they seem a whole lot less visible and less prominent when I’m aroused – I don’t question it, I just allow it to boost my confidence. And the way I feel about them is that I am just not as bothered by them as I used to be. I’m not totally okay with them, I still sometimes cover them up when I’m otherwise naked and I’m lightyears off being comfortable enough to wear a bikini, but instead of feeling like my life is over because of them, I’m confident that they will change, concern me less, and that I can cope with them in a way I couldn’t before.
My boobs are big, round, sensitive, squishy, they slightly sag but are easily pushed front and centre. They can get uncomfortable and sore from lugging them around all day, the skin on my nipples breaks easily, and I have chronic lower back problems that I doubt will go away, but nevertheless I like them as they are. The size of my chest has resulted in a lot of attention, mostly negative and unwanted. People make comments in the street, stare, talk endlessly about it as though it’s a topic I should find interesting, act like I couldn’t possibly know my own bra size, make presumptions about me. The one that bothers me the most is that people presume there’s something ‘obvious’ about you if you have big boobs. Like the size of a body part that you’ve never chosen or determined means you’re easy, stupid, not worth the bother, not very interesting. Sometimes people refer to me as “Boobs”, like there’s no other noteworthy qualities about me. Often my family imply that I should cover them up more, I don’t see the point. Aside from the fact that I pick clothes based on liking them and not how much of my boobs they cover, I don’t get any less comments about the size of them if I wear something high necked, and I’m not going to wear clothes I don’t like just to please other people.
I started taking the pill when I was 16, put on weight and had stressful mood swings, so I stopped taking it. When I was 20 I got the contraceptive implant, which coincided with a bad relationship (more on that later), but it also increased my weight, I bled every single day, and the impact it had on my mood was huge, so I had it taken out after three months. I think it’s awful that we expect women to bear the burden of contraception – especially because in the process we have to make our bodies a test site for a bunch of different hormones and their various side effects that can affect our mental and physical wellbeing. I stopped using hormonal contraception because it was upsetting me, and condoms are great anyway. However, I’ve recently decided to go back on the pill, trying a different kind, because my periods are so bad. Testing the pill is a horrible, trying process of weighing up side effects and benefits – at the moment, the benefits for me outweigh the worries. I wish I didn’t have to make those choices, but I do, so hopefully I can find the right thing for me. At the moment, this uncertainty about what unpredictable changes my body might go through is my biggest source of body worries.
I want to talk about how I’m more accepting of my body now than ever before, but first I’ll need to explain how I reached the peak of hating my body last year.
I’d been in a relationship with a guy for nearly a year when I found porn on his computer. It wasn’t the kind of porn where people have sex, it was the kind of porn where very large women eat food while naked or semi-naked on camera, for men to masturbate over. After finding videos on his desktop, I looked at his internet history and found that not only did he watch videos, he joined pay-to-view porn sites, wrote on forums for ‘bbws’ and ‘feeders’, joined dating sites for men to meet large women where he pretended to be single, and even met up with one woman for drinks. It wasn’t just a sexual preference, it was a fetish. Any confidence I had flew straight out the window, for my body and my mental health.
Both of us identified as feminists and I couldn’t believe he would do something like that – to me, and to the women he was objectifying. I explained how upset I was, and told him my feminist objections to porn, to the fetishisation of types of female bodies for the sake of male gratification, and to the culture of ‘feeders’ – I don’t see much difference between a man encouraging a woman to diet because he finds it sexy, and a man encouraging a woman to eat lots of food because he finds it sexy. It’s controlling and manipulative and dangerous. Whatever size a woman is should be determined by her alone, not male fantasies. He apologised, said he understood and would stop.
I didn’t have the strength or the will to leave him despite how horrified I was, because it made me ill. I felt alone, confused, trapped, anxious, depressed, incredibly paranoid, and thinking about or looking at my body felt traumatic. I double questioned every thought I had. I thought, am I fat, and is that why he finds me attractive? Or am I not fat enough for him and he wishes I was more like the women in the porn? Both options were unpleasant, and made my body repulsive to me. I found going to the shops and being seen in public a struggle, I stopped wearing tight clothes, I became paranoid about what my friends were saying about me, I hardly masturbated and when I did it was joyless, I hated myself and felt alienated from everyone else. I can’t fully describe the levels on which it played with my perception of myself and other people, it’s not something it’s possible to entirely understand and explain, I just know that it scarred deep. When months down the line I found he hadn’t stopped doing it, I knew it was a losing battle and I left him. It took a while, but I came to realise it had never been about me or my body, but about his problems and his issues with control. I was able to finally recognise the way he treated me and the things he said to me as emotionally manipulative and abusive, and I’ve never looked back.
The first couple of times I had sex after that, I covered my body, but I don’t do that any more. I was still in poor health mentally, but the sense of relief and freedom was tangible and it really lifted a lot of the pressure I felt in my head about my shape. I’m sometimes still shocked at how easily I began to be able to look in the mirror, see my body as it is and not want to cry, previously an alien concept to me. It’s not that I wouldn’t like it to be different, I’d like to be slimmer, I’d like my belly not to hang the way it does, I’d like it if I could stop crying in changing rooms when I have to get the bigger sizes and the lights are so unflattering, I’d like a lot of things. But I feel able now to look in the mirror, see what I see, and get on with my day because there’s nothing immediate I can do to change it and it is what it is. There’s nothing wrong with what it is, and anyone who wanted me to change it wouldn’t be worth my time. When I’m focusing on improving my mental health, worrying about my body feels like a waste of energy.
Sometimes, things can pop up which trigger me and put me back in that headspace where nothing made sense anymore and my body felt like a cruel joke. When I see ‘real life’ magazines with stories about feeders on the cover, when I see the TV guide and it says they’re showing “Fat Girls and Feeders”, and sometimes when I see fatpositive blogs and images of large women’s bodies on sites like tumblr, I crumble. I don’t feel that way because of the women’s bodies – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and it pleases me when women of all sizes take ownership of their bodies and are positive about how they look – but because it reminds me of the men who abuse and fetishise large women for their own sexual pleasure, and how much damage one such man did to me.
But, time (and talking about it) heals some wounds, and I’ve come a long way from last summer when I hid in a tent and cried for hours after seeing a magazine article about feeders at a campsite. When the issue comes up, I can explain my experiences to people without wanting to melt into a puddle. And I have the wisdom of experience to know that I’m stronger than I gave myself credit for, and that what my body looks like is the least of my worries so long as I’m emotionally supported by the right kind of people, including myself. And since I’ve rediscovered masturbation, and the ability to appreciate how my own body looks and feels during it, I’ve had the best orgasms of my life. Some days I think I’m skinny, some days I think I’m fat – but importantly, most days, I don’t care. My body doesn’t haunt me the way it used to. I’ve experienced enough body changes now to know that things are never as permanent as they seem, and worries are never as important as they seem either. Of course there are times when I still berate myself for not looking a certain way, for not exercising or for what I eat, but I find those days are fewer and further between the better my mental health gets and the more accepting I am of my own feelings and experiences. A good counsellor, good friends and good sex mean the world to me right now.
Recently my best friends and I sent each other photos of our vaginas. It wasn’t sexual, we’re just generally nosy like that and like to compliment each other – we all have great fannies of course. It was a sincerely nice and funny bonding experience. Some people (particularly men) who have heard about it react fairly oddly, as if it’s the last thing in the world they would expect close friends to do. It makes me sad that most men, and a lot of women, are more likely to learn about genitals and sex through porn, with all its distortions, than through honest discussion and learning from friends. No one has helped me to appreciate and understand my body sexually more than my friends – from the friend who gave me my first orgasm, to the friends that tell me their experiences of types of sex I’ve yet to try, to the friends in primary 7 who taught me the function of the clitoris when we experimented with masturbation and reported our findings to each other. There’s no better way to learn about sex, about your body and about yourself, than to have friends that you trust and talk to and share experiences and thoughts with.