As someone who’s always been considered of average weight and benefits from size privilege, I have always been perceived to be healthy. Like most people, I could write a list of ways my body doesn’t conform to a certain ideal – but let’s face it, I am temporarily abled in most aspects of my life, and sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve it because I have less than healthy habits.
From a very young age it was the way that I looked, not how healthy I was, that was unintentionally reinforced. As a kid I participated in lots of upper-middle class things: sports, after-school activities, swimming and trampoline with the neighborhood kids. I was active enough. But as I got older, this wasn’t the case. As a “typical girl” who wasn’t one of the athletes, I felt intimidated and was usually left out if I tried to participate in gym. As girls, we had enough to worry about anyway…as long as you looked okay, it wasn’t the norm to care about fitness. Sure you could never be thin enough, light-skinned enough (societally), tan-skinned enough (culturally), have hair that was straight and glossy enough, breasts that were properly pushed up enough, skin that was clear enough, clothes that were tight enough, and the list goes on. But these things were superficial – health wasn’t on my mind, nor was was a deliberate lifestyle. Health was an accident. Health was a privilege.
As someone who took thin for granted, I still understood the imperative to remain thin. Things can be positively reinforced just as much as they can be negatively reinforced. Whenever we gathered for family functions, my Nana would put her hand over my stomach and sigh, “oh, you girls are so thin!”. I was eleven. I hadn’t gone through the development al stage yet that increased my percentage of body fat (you know, the one that prepares your body to nourish eggs.)
These things stay with us. My sister, on the other hand, was the star athlete in high school. She captained three varsity teams, won countless awards, and would work all season just to beat her own record. To me, it was about social acceptability; I had a good group of friends, didn’t get picked on, and considered myself of average attractiveness to
the opposite sex other genders people I was attracted to. Thin was a mentality, not a physical condition (much less an intentional condition). Sure I fought my parents about junk food and computer games, but I wasn’t surrounded by constant reminders that I needed to be healthy. I was surrounded by constant reminders that I needed to “look” healthy…and I guess that whatever that means, I looked it. For my sister exercise made her feel good; it held her to a personal standard. I saw that first-hand, but I didn’t make the connection that it was necessary. In my mind, only “fat people” had to worry about stuff like that [oh how I cringe just to admit those words now].
My take-away lesson from the media, my family, and my peers was that people who were “overweight” were the unhealthy ones. I looked okay, so I had nothing to worry about. I had a friend who was a larger size than me; she also ate very carefully, had a good fitness routine, and made an effort to learn about health and nutrition. She took much better care of her body than I, who came home and watched tv while shoveling in what I’m sure were hundreds of calories. But it was her who always heard hurtful words; who was told “you shouldn’t be eating that”; who felt defensive in her own home. She learned to value stupid things like numbers – looked forward to the day that she could trade her hard-earned fitness points in for social acceptance, like exchanging tickets for a prize at Chuck E. Cheese. She was healthy in all normal senses of the word, but it wasn’t about that.
I am older now, and if I hadn’t discovered an interest in cooking I don’t know where I’d be. I don’t have a regular exercise routine – sure I’m on my feet all day, but I otherwise lead a rather sedentary lifestyle. I am constantly anxious over the fact that I neglect the body that I love, but I somehow can’t motivate myself to do it. Why? Because I “look okay”, and that is my internal standard. I don’t show up to family functions and get told “you look so happy!” No. I get told “you look great!” or other supposedly kind, presumptuous, uninvited comments on my body. I have allowed others’ valuing of my social status over my own life to determine the way that I treat myself. That is my standard. And I’m sitting here, right now, taking a good hard look at myself, thinking this is unacceptable. And I’m ending it NOW.
From now on, I pledge to take loving care of my body regardless of the reasons other people may value it. I am my own person and I have the ability and the agency to make decisions about my body. I have an obligation to myself to work through all these bullshit expectations I have been imprinted with and take care of myself. Because no one else is going to do it for me. And damn right I am worth it. .