By: Sarah Martindale
A year ago I was housebound. Not because I was physically disabled, or critically ill; I was afraid. I was afraid of people in the street, on the bus, in my home, at work, everywhere. My one wish was to be invisible and to remain that way forever.
I had reached a point where my anxiety had become so crippling that the only way I would leave home was after it was dark, because people can’t see you when it’s dark.
I didn’t want people to see me because I was convinced that when anyone looked at me, it was because I was fat. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of my head; watching my wide behind jiggling as I walked, looking at my visible belly outline, scrutinizing the way my stomach rests on my thighs when I sit.
I truly believed that everyone, everywhere was looking at me and making the assumption that because I was fat I must also be ugly, lazy, greedy, dirty and unworthy of love. This belief consumed me and it caused more damage than I ever realized.
A dear friend of mine told me about the Fat Acceptance movement, she explained that she felt more sexy and beautiful at her biggest size than she ever had before. I thought she was insane. I didn’t understand how she could look at herself, being that big, and see anything but fat staring back at her. Of course, I felt this way because when I looked in a mirror, all I ever saw was fat staring back at me.
I began to explore the idea further, reading fatshion blogs and immersing myself in the culture of ‘big is beautiful too’ and the more I read and the more I saw photos of fat people wearing awesome clothes with smiles on their faces, the more ‘normal’ I felt. Eventually I reached a point where I would not notice a person was fat anymore. Then the realization hit me, I did not think a single one of these other fatties was ugly, lazy, greedy or unworthy of love – I needed to stop applying those labels to myself.
I started small, when looking in the mirror I made a conscious effort to look at myself as a whole. I no longer allowed myself to fixate on the way my belly sticks out when seen in profile, or how big my arms look. I challenged myself to wear clothes I would have shied away from in the past; sleeveless tops, fitted clothes, shorter skirts even bodycon! Not only did wearing clothes that actually fit me make me feel amazing, people I knew started asking if I had lost weight.
Then I did something entirely out of my comfort zone – I entered Miss Plus Size International, a plus size beauty pageant. It was easy enough to enter it, I just had to email a couple of photos along with an explanation of why I was entering. I have absolutely no idea what I wrote. I did not, for one second, think anything would come of it.
Within a couple of months I got an email, I had been shortlisted and was invited to attend a day of interviews with the judges, along with 400 other girls from the thousand who applied. After some hesitation, I went to London, met the judges and my fellow hopeful contestants, thought I’d made a terrible mess of it and went home feeling sad and disheartened.
A fortnight later, the list of 30 finalists was posted online.
I was on the list.
Eight months on, I am six weeks away from the final of the competition with quite a lot of preparation still to complete, but I will be there, holding my head high with my fellow contestants and showing everyone that being big and feeling beautiful are not mutually exclusive.
In the eleven months since I applied for MPSI, I have learned a lot about Fat Acceptance and Body Confidence from a fat perspective. I have been pleased to find more content daily and now have several books on the subject. I thought we, as a society, were working towards a more enlightened time where we are aware of the fat myths and know that fat does not equal unhealthy.
Then I heard about Fat Shaming Week. I am not going to share the tweets I read, and continue to see posted, by a small group of men from a vile website with an aim of ‘keeping men masculine and women feminine’. Their leader, ‘Roosh V’ has a blog which reads like a catalogue of sexual assault confessions, describing how he ‘isolates’ women on nights out to lure them into bed with him, and rues not giving them an ‘insurance shot’ when they won’t sleep with him. I’m serious.
This small group of small men, hiding behind anonymous Twitter accounts, took to the social network to spread their vitriol and hate because they believe ‘shaming works.’
Here’s the thing though, it doesn’t.
Negative reinforcement is never a solution if you want long term change, which apparently these guys do, but I guess they were too busy getting angry behind their keyboards to read even the basics of psychology. Oh well.
I am strong enough, now, to see the things they have written and shrug them off as the desperate cries for attention from insecure men that they are, but what about the members of the fat community who don’t yet possess that strength?
When discussing that week with friends I have heard a variety of responses, but the one which I found most concerning was a woman who said “This just confirms what I already knew society thought of me.” I was heartbroken for her and I knew that something had to be done.
I tweeted this:
Body Confidence Week began on October 14th and will end on October 20th. So far the hashtag has received close to 1,300 tweets and it will continue to gain momentum throughout the week, I am sure.
I started Body Confidence Week because I know the damage verbal abuse causes and the pain it will have inflicted. I wanted to respond to last week in a way that was positive and constructive. I wanted to show those of us who don’t feel quite so sure of ourselves that they are allowed to feel good about themselves. Self-hatred is incredibly harmful and I wanted to combat it in an interactive format. The hashtag was born.
Of course, Body Confidence Week couldn’t happen just with me. Hundreds of empowered men and women have joined in with the hashtag and shared why they are body confident. Bloggers have been writing daily posts to support the cause. People have been photographing themselves and sharing their images, all in the name of healthy body image, self-worth and high self-esteem.
Body Confidence Week is not about promoting a specific body type or, in fact, promoting bodies at all. It is about celebrating a healthy body image and giving society permission not to hate themselves.
Most people will know and understand that pain of looking in a mirror and feeling disgust at what you see. Think about how many times you see your reflection every day; in shop windows, cars, lifts – your reflection is everywhere. Now think about how many times we see that reflection and tell ourselves something negative about it. The sheer volume of negative reinforcement generated in day to day life is staggering, and that is just the negativity that comes from within! Add into that equation adverts, magazines, TV shows and the mass media in general, showing us a specific body type always, showing us airbrushed images of women who do not exist, offering a constant comparison to an ideal we could never attain. News articles about obesity always show decapitated fat bodies in their accompanying photographs, designed to dehumanize the fatty portrayed. Then you have the negativity that comes from other individuals, well-meaning parents who prod you in the stomach and remark that you are ‘filling out’, friends offering backhanded compliments – my favorite is ‘you have a lovely face’ – and then of course there are the out and out bullies, like the proponents of last week, who say things with the specific intention of degrading you and breaking you down.
It has been said this week that sizeism is the last acceptable ‘ism’. It is no longer acceptable to discriminate against a person for their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion – and rightly so. But somehow it remains absolutely ok for people to discriminate based on the way others look. So much so, that when I reported a fat shaming page on Facebook for hate speech, I got this response:
This is why we need Body Confidence Week. This is why we need to take a stand against negative reinforcement and unhealthy body image. This is why we need to shout from the rooftops that our bodies are our own and others are not invited to comment on them.
I started Body Confidence Week as a response to an attack on fat people, but that doesn’t mean it is only for fat people. Body Confidence Week is for everyone who has something to say on the subject. It is for everyone who is proud of the body they have and whether that be a fat body they have worked to accept, or a slim body they have worked to reduce, Body Confidence Week is for everyone. I strongly believe that as much as no one has a right to tell me whether or not I should lose weight or to comment on my size, I have no right to tell anyone else how they should look after their bodies. Your body is yours and no one else’s.
I have been on a long journey with my body and have finally reached a place where the word ‘fat’ does not cause me pain. It is an adjective, just like short or tall. I love my body because it is mine, it does everything I ask of it and rarely complains. It allows me to adorn it in the clothes I feel great in and it takes me everywhere I want to go. My body is an incredible tool and the most useful thing I’ll ever own. Whether it is fat or thin, short or tall, black or white, male or female, or anything else, it is mine and I love it.
This week has given me the opportunity to share my story with so many people and hopefully offers some credence to the possibility that things can change. If you are reading this and regularly feel the negative emotions I have described here, please think about what I have said, please read through the tweets on #BodyConfidenceWeek and try to allow yourself some acceptance. I am not saying you have to think your body is perfect – it’s not about perfection, it’s about love.