Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning essay in Guernica on the power of women who take up space is an important read for people of any size. Midway through the piece, she describes what happens to self-perception when you live in a world where there’s little representation of your physical self, and what representation there is is mocking or shaming.
Every day, I look for myself in other women’s bodies. This is what happens when you never see yourself in television shows or catalogues or movies—you get hungry. In passersby, I seek out a faithful replica of my own full chest: my plastic-bag stomach pooched over jeans, my milk-carton hips, and my face with its peach-pit cheekbones set in coffee grounds. In this way, I see myself in pieces, mostly, and have to assemble my body in my mind.
It isn’t like my mother and the woman buying the peppers; I’m not disgusted or afraid. I just want to know what I look like to other people. And every so often, I get to see all of those pieces together, and it feels like the reverberations after an orgasm—a low, deep satisfaction.
The beautiful fat woman is across from me on the subway platform, chewing on her nail. She’s trying on really nice shoes in the same store where I am trying on really nice shoes. She’s catching her reflection in a window in the hatched streets of our shared city, and I can’t stop looking at her. Does she resemble me, or do I just hope that because she’s so beautiful? Does that make me vain, or stupid? Why does seeing a woman who might actually look like me make me want to sit down on the pavement and cry?
One day, about 12 weeks after blowing up my whole life and moving my family to what seemed like a very hostile environment, my son and I decided we would go to the cinema and see The Great Gatsby to cheer ourselves up and feel less homesick. We did what we sometimes did at home — skipped dinner to have popcorn for dinner instead. Already flummoxed by having to preorder our tickets for assigned seats on a Dutch website (none of these were cinema-hurdles back home where you’d just walk up and buy a ticket), we arrived at the cinema. We bought the largest popcorn (which is in fact a product they sold — we didn’t bring our own trash barrel and ask to have it filled) and settled in to enjoy our treat. I felt a tap on my shoulder, which was strange since I knew a total of three people in the entire country. I spun around, startled, and the Dutch man sitting behind me said, “Are you going to eat all of that? I see why you are so fat.”
I discovered I couldn’t dance when I was ten years old. My parents had signed me up for a ballet course in Toronto with a dour, shriveled Romanian teacher, chosen no doubt because of our shared totalitarian traumas. In her class I felt uncoordinated, impossibly gawky. My clearest memory is of trying to accomplish a gentle downward sweep of the hand. My teacher performed the movement. As I attempted to imitate her, she said, over and over, “but do it gracefully!” I could not figure out how to do it gracefully. I could not even see the difference between her gesture and mine. I came to the logical conclusion: I was terminally ungraceful. In fact, I couldn’t dance at all.
I quit ballet. I did have to dance again when I took part in the yearly audition held by a local school for the arts. I was terrible at acting and drawing too, but the dance test was my Waterloo. A teacher demonstrated a complicated choreography at the front of the room while we waited patiently in rows. Then he gave us a cue, and as if by magic, all of the other children repeated the combination perfectly. I, on the other hand, was a mess of arms and legs and confused desperation. I managed with twisted precision to be always facing in the opposite direction from the other kids, stumbling into them dangerously.
My inability to dance became a matter of faith, something I believed in unquestioningly for the next two decades. But I did so with pride and stubbornness. Everything about ballet felt wrong to me: all that Pepto-Bismol pink, ribbons and tulle, polished princesses executing their steps in martial unison, tight little buns behind tight little faces. Ballet represented hard beauty, ungenerous towards human flaws or quirks. It was a tyranny of perfection.
The idea that we have an authentic self — a set of innate personality traits, desires, emotional and intellectual dispositions unique to us — emerged in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to move away from religion as a means of making sense of the world. Instead, they claimed that the purpose of life was to be true to an essential nature that defined who we are.
In the 21st century, the notion of the authentic self has solidified into common sense, with the routine demands to “be yourself” or to “be real.” This is partly a response to the perceived breakdown of collective structures that traditionally gave life meaning: religion, local community, extended family ties. The late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called this state of affairs “liquid modernity” — a description of how reliable anchors of group identity have given way to fluidity, insecurity, and individualism. The makeover offers an apparent solution to these social and cultural transformations. It encourages us to look inwards, to the very fabric of the self for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.
Paradoxically, the logic of the makeover positions the external body as the site upon which inner authenticity is to be displayed — right before the market steps in to help us achieve this self-realization. Of course, there’s nothing magnanimous about the self-confidence sold to us in the form of a bottle of shampoo, a new dress, or a subscription to a gym.
Sara Benincasa’s essay “Why Am I So Fat?” was one of our top five reads last week, and with good reason — it was honest and cutting in all the right ways. It was brash and unapologetic and funny as hell (and also suggests that perhaps Fader was slightly premature in declaring, earlier this year, that “fat shaming is dead”).
It was also problematic, and many fat women applauded the piece while also wishing it had pushed harder and skirted some problematic tropes. Luckily, many other writers, scholars, and activists have also been publishing wonderful pieces on fatphobia: their experiences, the cultural and institutional ways it is entrenched, and more. They might not have gone viral, but their voices are important — and just as honest, cutting, brash, and funny.