I used to be beautiful.*
When I was in high school I had cheekbones that could cut paper, waist-length red hair, and I was about 110 pounds soaking wet. I dressed like a hippie lunatic by way of a 19th century orphanage–barefoot, with flowers in my hair and long flowing skirts with waistcoats and bustles stuck on my jeans. People used to stare at me. I was in theatre and I played the pretty parts: I could be the princess, the ingenue, Juliet, Anne.
In my head, I’m still that girl.
But the fact is, I’m not. Because I’m fat. I’m dieting now because I’m sick of being fat, sick of feeling like I want to show people pictures of the person I used to be because she’s better, she’s so pretty, you could love her, you could believe she was worthy of love. I’m tired of being careful of which pictures of me end up online, tired of being afraid to be videotaped or even meet people because I feel such shame about my body. But I know, of course, that in all likelihood I will fail at this in some fashion, gain anything I lose back or give up somehow–I’ve lost significant amounts of weight before, I know how it goes. It’s a lifelong struggle, especially in this culture. I’ll certainly never be that buck-ten girl with those cheekbones again. Still, I have to try, because I can’t stand how much psychic real estate is taken up with feeling like shit about how I look, (but I don’t really look that way, see, because I’m really that 17 year old gamine, on the inside, if you squint) comparing myself to other bodies, deciding preemptively that I’m beneath normal people’s notice.
I’ve been reading a great blog called Fat Nutritionist, and she posted about beauty, struggling with what that even meant. I was particularly struck by this passage (the whole post is intensely worth reading):
I made the conscious decision, when I started this website, that I would use an attractive picture of myself on the front page. Because being fat in this world is already a black mark against me, I knew I would have to tap some of the status that my false beauty can afford to partially make up for that. I knew my writing would be more likely to be read, and people would be more interested in hearing me out, perhaps even giving me media coverage, if they thought I were beautiful.
This is a terribly true thing. I’m not saying that writers are successful because they are physically attractive, but it’s insane not to think it’s a factor. There are certain SFF authors people absolutely drool over, and you know, they do pretty well, and their heart-throb status sure doesn’t hurt. It won’t do the work of a good book for you, but if your attractiveness can be used in publicity it will be, and this goes quadruple for women writers. In our culture, beautiful people have stories worth listening to, and if you’re not beautiful you’re supposed to fake it as best you can, or at least hide it. I used to be so careful about the photos I used–until Facebook and photo tagging made that an irrelevant effort. It’s tough not to know I’m fat these days. On the other hand, I still have a certain amount of "pretty privilege"–I have symmetrical features, long shiny hair, clear skin, a lot of other markers of beauty in our culture. I am firmly in the "she has such a pretty face, too bad she’s so fat" camp. I am intensely aware of that in-between space I occupy, how that shit you’re born with or you’re not affects so much of social interactions, romantic interactions, professional interactions. Beauty is the devil’s lubricant–it makes thing move more smoothly but it’s laced with cayenne and cyanide, yo. And god, the push back I get when I dress like I have any right to display my body–I cannot even tell you how many times my love of low-cut shirts has been commented on for no reason whatsoever, in condescending and prudish tones on panels, as though at a science fiction convention where people are dressed as tentacle monsters I have seriously transgressed by showing the tops of my breasts.
I mean, I perform with some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And I go to conventions where there’s these shiny, sparkly girls who dance and laugh and look amazing in everything they wear, and I just feel like a freaking WERE-MANATEE around them. Like a literal monster. I am the odd one out, the ugly sister, the dark girl in the shadows who can tell a mean story but you wouldn’t want to fuck her. And yet I know that most of the women I know, even the sparkly shiny ones? Feel the same way.
The trick to all the beauty shit is that you can’t win. That’s the whole point.
(And god, it goes so deep with me that when dealing with issues of gender performance I can’t even consider how I interface my own body, my gender, because in my heart I’m sure only pretty people get to play with gender and queerness and be embraced for it. And that is a terrible thing to think–but there is truth in it, too, in marginalized communities. The beautiful elfin androgyne is almost always revered in a way that the butch lumberjack-sized girl is not.)
So what do you do? What do I do? Feel like shit forever, I guess is the answer. Some people can maintain societally acceptable levels of thinness while eating whatever they want. Some people can stop drinking Coke and lose 20 pounds. I’m not one of them. Neither am I in the Fat Acceptance movement, though. Because I can’t freaking accept myself. I hate dieting because it just means I’m thinking even more about what a disgusting pig I am, and how I let myself get this far, about how long it will take before I can look at myself in the mirror without shame. More real estate. I want to write that triumphant blog entry where I talk about how I lost the weight and things are awesome now but the fact is I’ve been dealing with this shit for ten years and I’ve never written that post. (The last time I found my body acceptable I wasn’t blogging yet.) I’m dead in the middle of it; I haven’t come out stronger and wiser and most importantly thinner. But I look at my friends who are on the other side, who’ve lost weight, and I think they are better people than me. I have an ex who lost a lot of weight after we broke up and even though she is one of my least favorite people on earth, I still think: she’s better than me because she’s thinner than me.
In our culture, fat is a failure condition. I feel that intensely. Like no matter what I’ve done it doesn’t out-weigh the weigh-in.
And I want to not think that shit. I want to kick it and be better than that shit. I know these thoughts are awful and unworthy. I want to just live in my body and feel strong and be happy. I don’t want to think of life as some kind of constant beauty pageant where I am always Miss Failure 20whatever. But I’m not there yet. I can’t do it yet. I hate myself too much. Maybe I’ll get there. I hope so. I do know that having once been beautiful I am constantly haunted by this idea of what I’m supposed to look like that will just never happen again. (I mean, I was anemic and malnourished but I was so pretty! And god, I will never forgive my ex-in-laws for coming down on me like a sack of hammers and making me feel like garbage and parking me in front of Herbalife scammers for years for getting fat, when "getting fat" meant I weighed 140 pounds. What I wouldn’t give to be as "fat" now as I was then!) I’m 31. I’m not an ingenue anymore and don’t want to be. But in my head that girl is the only part of me that’s any good.
I have to say that reading Fat Nutritionist is hopeful for me. I like how she thinks and talks, though in my heart I think I have to do crazy things to my body to even make it lose 10 pounds, I can’t just decide I can intuit what I eat. But I figure if I don’t talk about this ugly crap then I just stay the fat girl hiding behind a picture of a skinny girl, and I don’t want that. It’s a mask that wears, well, thin.
*Please, when you comment, don’t feel the need to tell me that I’m still beautiful. That’s not the point of this post and I feel like it’s kind of an obligatory call and response in the grrl blogosphere: I’m not pretty/yes you are! Beauty is a terrible, tenuous, volatile, intoxicating, poisonous thing, and it is currency, and it is traded online like stock. I’m not holding out my hand for spare change, or making a public offering. I feel like my whole self image can be summed up by saying: I used to be beautiful.*
It’s the asterisk that’s the entire rest of my life from 18 onward, and how fucked up is that?