Content Warning: Domestic Violence
Resource: National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Fat studies courses on college campuses remain rare, but as I have previously written, there are many benefits of taking such a course if one has the opportunity. I have witnessed this firsthand. Although these are not learning objectives for my fat studies and body politics class, by the end of the semester students often report: (1) their body image has improved considerably, and they're not just more appreciative of their bodies, but of all bodies; (2) they have ditched their scales, trackers, and fitness apps and are happier and less stressed for it; (3) they are disrupting negative fat talk and body-shaming discourses in their everyday lives, and engaging in fat activism in big and small ways; (4) they have cleaned up their social media feeds and are less likely to participate in body checking and comparison; and (5) they have started eating more intuitively and moving their bodies for enjoyment, not as punishment or as a means to some end. In sum, the majority of students are in a better place when it comes to their relationships with their bodies by the end of the course.
The benefits I listed above are common findings across the sixty plus students I have taught about fat studies, fat activism, and body liberation over the past two years. What has been striking to me, however, are some of the other less common but perhaps even more powerful changes students have acknowledged after completing the course. For example, one student wrote to me at the end of last spring to tell me that after taking the class, she had summoned the courage to end a physically abusive relationship. I have been thinking about her words ever since. Here’s why they resonated so deeply:
I was married once before when I was very young to someone we’ll call John Doe. I didn’t date John very long before we eloped. I was young; I thought I was in love; and, if I’m being totally honest, I figured he was as good a catch as I would probably get. I mean, as a fat womxn, the notion that "beggars can’t be choosers" was one of the messages that had been subtly and not-so-subtly implanted in my brain since about the tender age of nine. Not long after John and I were married, the abuse began and I was at a loss as to what to do about it. I grew up in a very religious and politically conservative, working-class household and was taught divorce was a sin (although, full disclosure, my mother has been married four times to date). I felt trapped and hopeless, and I was convinced I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it; another one of those messages I learned while growing up, a derivation of you reap what you sow.
At first, the abuse was mostly verbal and emotional, but that quickly escalated to an occasional shove here or there, and from that point on, things got more violent. John thought it was amusing to do things like get me in a car and drive recklessly down the highway to scare me. He would sit on the edge of our bed and threaten, “You have to go to sleep sometime.” He would warn me that if I told anyone about what was going on he would kill me and my family. Now, in classic abusive relationship fashion, these moments were always interspersed with others where he was kind and affectionate, moments where I’d think this isn’t so bad. He loves me. Things will get better. They never did.
Before my relationship with John, I am ashamed to admit I was one of those people who could never understand why anyone would stay in an abusive relationship. I stayed for several reasons. In addition to believing it was morally wrong at the time to get a divorce, I also couldn’t financially afford to leave and get a place on my own, and I feared for my safety and my family's safety if I left. Further, after being told for months that I was the cause of the abuse and that no one else would have me, I started to believe it. My weight, which went up during this period, was often used as fodder against me. John let me know he thought I was too fat; I needed to lose weight; and he (a thin person) could do better, but I (a fat womxn) could not - he was wrong, by the way.
When I give talks about my research in fat studies, I sometimes tell the story of when I first starting learning to hate my body. I always use the word “learn,” because, to be clear, none of us are born hating our bodies. For me, this happened around fourth grade. I have previously shared that one of the first messages I received about my body around this time was that if I did not lose some weight, I would never have a boyfriend. When those words were spoken by a very close family member, someone who I looked up to and depended on, in many ways it set the course for me for years to come. I came to see myself not as someone who was worthy or deserving of unconditional love and acceptance, but as a fat person who would have to hustle for those things and be happy with what I got.
So I settled for many years and in many ways, but one of the most hurtful ways I settled was when it came to relationships. I put up with a number of people in my life who were not worthy of my attention, friendship, or love. At the time, I did not believe I deserved any better. This was, of course, TOTAL BULLSHIT.
Fat grrl, and fat folx in general, let me be clear, you don’t deserve ANY of that. YOU DESERVE THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD. You deserve to have people in your life who appreciate you and love you for the amazing human that you are. You deserve a partner who thinks you hung the moon; as I’ve always told my daughters, anything less is unacceptable. You deserve fashion and a built environment that allows you to move through the world in ways that honor your body for the powerful instrument and gift that it is. You deserve to live your life without experiencing shame, guilt, or unsolicited comments about your body because, make no mistake, your body is nobody’s business but your own. If this is not a message you are receiving on a regular basis from the people in your inner circle, in addition to encouraging you to get a new inner circle, let me assure you that there are those of us out here who see you, value you, and support you! Don't settle for anything less than everything you deserve. As the fabulous Sonya Renee Taylor puts it, the body is not an apology.
Photo Credit: AllGo