Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Body Police: How I Unwittingly Escaped the Body Cops

Body 911!

This kerfuffle at This Recording piece about body policing stood out to me, not because it said much new, but because of the response to it. It's one of the "skinny people aren't exempt from nasty comments about their bodies" pieces out there—a point well taken. What doesn't go over well is when the author of the piece claims that "Few nice, everyday folks would approach an overweight stranger and tell them to go on a diet." While most quit-talking-about-our-bodies attention yesterday was directed toward The Sartorialist (where 1,106 people commented on his preference for only mentioning his subjects' body size when they're not bone-thin), there was enough harrumphing from the always-awesome Kate Harding for me to take note.

So we're agreed that we shouldn't be surveilling and policing other people's bodies, right? But that because our culture attaches so much to women's bodies, there's little way to escape it, right?

Yet for years, I did escape it. For a chunk of my twenties, I inhabited a size zone that, on my medium frame, made me look a little more than medium. I was a few pounds overweight by the BMI scale (and yes, I know BMI is faulty, but I have the kind of body that it was designed for--when I'm moderately active and eating my nutritionist-approved meal plan, I'm squarely in the middle of the "healthy" zone) but didn't have trouble finding clothes at mainstream stores that fit me. Basically, I had about the body of the average American woman. And nobody said a word about my body. Ever. Nobody called me curvy, or average, or normal. Or voluptuous, or fat, or stocky, or plump, or soft, or sturdy, or thick, or anything. I wasn't hiding my body: I didn't flaunt my figure, but neither was I dressing in paper bags. When shopping for clothes, I went into a store, found things I liked, tried them on, and bought them or didn't. In "body talk" with friends, nobody commented on my figure. It was a non-issue, I thought.

Around age 30, I lost a lot of weight for a variety of reasons—I stay away from numbers and sizes here, but as a frame of reference, I lost nearly 20% of my body weight. I didn't look emaciated or anything near it—the #1 word people used to describe my body at that time was "healthy." (The writer whose piece prompted this entry was frequently suspected of having an eating disorder; only one person ever inquired about my mental health in that regard.) Healthy, then trim, and slender, and lean. And cute, and little, and, yes, skinny.

That is: In dropping three dress sizes, I also lost my protection against body policing—a protection I didn't realize I'd had.

Sure, some of this came from friends and coworkers, who had a point of comparison and were commenting on my body as "little" compared to what it had been. (And note that I was well within the "healthy" BMI range even at my lowest weight, and looked it.) I didn't mind that—they were trying to be supportive in what our culture frames as some great, noble battle against fat. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, most people were refreshingly sensitive about how to frame their compliments so as not to put me on the spot or imply that I hadn't looked fine before.

What surprised me was the reaction from strangers. Shopkeepers suddenly started guessing my dress size, almost making a game out of it at times. Some criticized my body in ways they hadn't before; my figure was "fantastic...but you've really got to have a flat belly for this dress." People I'd just met made quick assessments of and references to my body in cocktail conversation: "Oh, you wouldn't understand, you're thin," or commenting on my food. People I was meeting for the first time made assumptions about my character: I was "disciplined," or had "willpower," or exercised "control." Most often, I was simply "good." I was "lucky." I rarely got the kind of "I hate you" thing you hear about sometimes—I wonder if it's my friendliness or the fact that I wasn't super-slim that protected me from that particular form of policing—but on occasion, it did float my way.

At my heavier weight, it was understood that even if I wasn't fat, I was at a size where people assumed I probably wanted to lose weight. And because weight is a sensitive issue, this unspoken weight-loss dictum was off-limits for discussion. I'm certain that it would have been different had I been unabashedly fat, as many a tale from fat women illustrates. (Dances With Fat always dissects these in a delightfully tart manner.) But because my body was nearly the exact proportions of the average American woman, it was like I was in a sort of DMZ of body policing: Too small for CDC-approved admonishments about my food intake, too big to make a game out of guessing my dress size, I skated through most of my twenties unaware of how freely people comment on one another's bodies.

Now, there may have been other reasons for the spike in body policing I experienced when I lost weight. Maybe it's because people picked up on the hungry discomfort I felt at my lowest weight and were either trying to reassure me that it was "worth it" or exacerbate it for their own weird-food-issues reasons. Maybe I carried myself differently. Maybe my fleshier body lent me an air of "fuck your fascist body standards" confidence that people didn't want to mess with. Maybe I blocked out negative (or positive) comments I got when heavier. Maybe I clinged to the body policing I received at my lightest, for even when there was an undercutting tone to them, the fact was, I had wanted to lose weight, and such comments were validating. Maybe even now that I've settled into a weight that's between my highest and lowest and that feels natural to me—and now that most of the body policing comments have dwindled—I'm still filtering the comments I received in order to remove whatever body-image issues I have and make them about "culture" and "society" instead of my relationship with my body.

I hesitate to draw grand conclusions from this. First of all, I'm guessing that there are plenty of average-American-woman-bodied women who've heard all too much from others about their figures. Second, I've argued here plenty that if you're a woman, your appearance becomes a comments free-for-all. (And I'm certain that I wasn't actually exempt from body policing at my heavier weight; I was just free from the vocalization of it.) But what I'm gleaning from my experience is that while women's faces and figures are forever targets, we attach highly specific meaning to specific shapes and sizes, and we make assumptions about people's personalities and histories based on this one piece of evidence alone. It's not a spectrum of positive assumptions assigned to thin people and negative assumptions assigned to fat people, nor is there a neat flipside-rhetoric working in which we champion fat people while demonizing the thin. Our attitudes toward the bodies of others are only as complex as our attitudes toward our own.


  1. I can totally relate to this.. but in the opposite way. sort of.

    Just a few years back i was like you at the average Americans size, no one hassled me to loose weight (except one not so nice family member). Friends never brought it up in conversation and when I shopped sometimes I just had to understand that things would not always be in my size.

    However, about 2 years ago I got sick and my thyroid stopped working. So in the past 2 years while I have been battling this issue, I have also gained 30+ pounds. No one still says anything. All my friends have seen this happen, and they know the reason - but they all fear I am overly sensitive about it and instead now i get more compliments then i did before. they are always wanting to make sure that I know I look ok and that they understand. IF we get on the subject of working out or gaining/loosing weight then they always seem be honest, agreeing with me that if I want to loose weight that it would be a good thing, but they dont pressure.

    Maybe I have a more unique situation. I do want to loose the weight, and now that my medications are leveling out I think it is a possability. I just think it is odd that it is such a hush hush thing. I am not saying I want the clerk at the store to say I am fat, I just think thatit should not be stigmatized.

  2. maybe that does not relate at all actually. so just take it as my story then. :)

  3. Interesting--I think that it's experiences like yours that the writer of the piece I referenced was talking about when she said that nobody told heavier people to go on a diet. And yet I've heard from plenty of women that strangers and friends alike DO say things to them. I wonder what the difference is? If you're still in the sort of "non-policing" zone, or if you're just in a more aware environment, or something else? Because it wasn't the comments from friends that weirded me out (and in your case presumably your peeps knew that you had a medical condition); it was the strangers.

    Were you in Norway when this happened? I wonder how much environment has to do with it.

  4. I found myself thinking as I read your post about word choices. Both my husband and I are tall and slender by cultural standards...but it is possible through the choice of words to put a judgmental spin on an observation. It's the difference between skinny and slender. Methinks some people simply aren't as careful in their word choices as they might be.

  5. I so groove on word choices! I even wonder about the word "skinny"--I mean, at one point even "thin" meant sort of sickly-looking, but now it's a positive thing. I think that some people use "skinny" in a positive way, but whether that's a reflection of the thin imperative or just a lack of care word choice, I'm not sure.

  6. Autumn, this is great. Really intriguing perspective on the codes we attach to certain body shapes/sizes and how those often get verbalized! Your final point is perfect. How do you feel about cross-posting or letting me post this as a guest contribution with links back on my site ( Most of our work is from more of a researcher perspective, so the first-person view would be great for a guest post. Let me know!

  7. @Autumn

    Well, I guess the back story is that I was in Norway when I was diagnosed. I was still in the States when I knew I had a problem, but did not have insurance - so when i noticed that i was gaining weight in I just worked out more and ate less. I also went to the health food store and chatted with a sweet older lady that was a wealth of knowledge and suggested a vitamin - i don't recall the name now, but I think it worked wonders. However, it is not a legal over the counter vitamin here since it can effect your natural hormones.

    When I got my Insurance card here in Norway (for free!), I was finally able to get a official diagnosis. But by that time I had long run out of my 'vitamin' and gained a good chunk of weight. I also think that since I was not working here my first 2 years, that sitting around at home was no benefit - even though I continued to work out.

    This is how i think i got this issue: When I was younger (10/11 years old), I was put on a diet. Which I think is where all these problems came from. At that age I was abit overweight, but I was going into my tween years and that seems to be natural to me. But it worried my family and i was put on a version of Atkins. So from around 11 till i was 16 I only ate meat, cheese and diet soda. Then I got tired of not eating the foods I wanted, and tried to eat regular food again - however my body did not know what it was anymore or how to use it. Then following few years I had many issues and there were many foods my body rejected.

    I think that depriving my body of a balanced diet while it was developing in those crucial years is where my thyroid issue comes from. I now refuse to let it keep me from eating certain foods, the only one I still have trouble with is sugar - very small amounts give me stomach cramps. I am working to have /eat a whole and balanced diet. And when the weight that I have gained drops of, it drops off. I am not going to go on a certain diet or stress over it.

  8. Lindsay: Thanks--It was such an interesting experience and I'm glad I got to share it. I'd be honored to cross-post or guest-contribute! E-mailing you right now.

    Fonda: That sounds like a struggle--but I'm so glad that you're just taking care of your body and not dieting or stressing over it. I can't imagine either of those things would be good for you, after all!

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