Seeing Ourselves Through Humour and Heartache
When I thought of the name for my publication, Reflective Stance, I thought not only about the importance of professional reflection, but also an actual physical reflection. This is why I chose the following images for my homepage:
I draw a connection between these two types of reflections because what we see is a product of our thinking. How we see ourselves is the product of how our loved ones see us, society sees us and the messages we receive around who we are and our worth.
Body shaming. This is something that I know intimately and regardless of the size I am, there is never an end to it. I have been bigger than I am and I have been smaller than I am but what is always consistent is the fact that no matter what size I am, there is always something that isn’t enough and at the same time, too much.
One of the ways I have found to combat this feeling of inadequacy is to make self-depricating jokes. I have done it for as long as I can remember. It is like a reflex that I do without thinking. I have been told that it makes people uncomfortable when I do it. I have been told that people don’t see me as I see myself. I am always uncomfortable. I am always aware of my body. I am always certain that everyone else is aware of it too — either thinking that I look bigger or my clothes aren’t flattering or judging what I eat, how I walk, when I workout. When I fail or experience rejection, I am certain it is because of my appearance.
So I joke. I make people laugh at my expense. When they are laughing and I have made the joke, everything else goes quiet. I learned this trick early on when I was in university. I was invited to share a poetry piece I had written in a huge auditorium and I was so scared that I was shaking and the podium started to shake too. I made a self-depricating joke and everyone laughed and I was able to move on with a quiet mind. No more reflecting but rather, being in the present moment.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a meeting with a group of principals in my district who have arts programs in their schools. The question came up around students who have been diagnosed with anorexia in dance programs who have brought in doctor’s notes indicating that they can’t participate in the physical aspects of the program. One principal had dealt with this and shared protocol with the others. While explaining what they should do, she shared a story about a particular student and the concerns other parents had expressed. As she told the story, she turned to me and said, “She is too thin to dance…” in role as the parent expressing concern, and I happened to be sitting beside her. Rather than listen and allow her to continue her story, I stepped in and said, “Oh my goodness! Thank you! No one has ever said that to me! I have been working really hard on that!” and everyone, including the Superintendent in the room, laughed. There was no remorse on my part. I am sure no one gave it a thought afterwards but in the moment, it was really funny.
On the way home from work I called my kids to say hello and I told my daughter, Rachel, what had happened and she told me a similar situation came up for her. She is a drama major and was in the midst of practicing a scene. The line her partner said to her was, “Maybe if you ate more, you would be able to study better!” and Rachel stopped the scene and said, “Ummmm…Does this make sense? Should we change that line or recast the scene?” Rachel and I laughed at our jokes and the parallels between them. Neither one of us felt badly about them and thought they were funny but then I think about comments made to me like…
“You should stop putting down yourself…”
“No one sees you like this…”
“Your insecurities don’t need to be shared with everyone…”
“There is a disconnect between how you see yourself and talk about yourself and how others see you.”
“Don’t share so much of yourself with others.”
“You call yourself Fat Amy?” “Ya. so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back…”
And yet, I don’t know how to stop it. Is it really that bad or is it simply others’ discomfort I have to manage? Rebel Wilson’s character, Fat Amy, in Pitch Perfect embodies this for me.The character embraces that narrative — I am who I am and I know you’re thinking it anyway so let’s just put it all out there.
The Body Image Project
Years ago, I was part of an amazing project with the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario called the Body Image Project. I was a writer and trainer for them and had the incredible opportunity to write and work with a colleague, Helen. It was one of those opportunities you come across in your life that changes who you are and how you think. We worked with The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), to inform our understanding through research.
I have searched YouTube for years trying to find the clip of her saying the poem and I found this. I have the poem on VHS and need to digitize it somehow…My Reflection, by Rachelle Marsan, the poem read by Jemeni for ETFO’s Body Image Project.
Our role in the project was to write units that integrated body image into the Ontario Curriculum across subject areas. One of the components of the kit was a video that could be used to support learning. That was when I was first introduced to Jemeni, a poet and spoken word artist. In the video, she read this poem…My Reflection. There was something in the way she looked at the camera. I felt like she was looking right into me. She tilted her head to the side and gave me this compassionate look that told me she totally understood me, my struggles and insecurities but that all of that was okay and I was not alone.
Now, years later, I actually know Jem. She works at a radio station with a very good friend of mine and this project is a distant memory for her but she lives her life with the confidence I crave. I love being around her and her energy. Everything I felt through the video is actually who she is in reality. She is feminist and a warrior who I admire greatly.
There were two lines in the poem, in particular that hit my heart. The first one, “I saw my reflection,/As I passed by the store”. There isn’t a reflective surface that I walk past that I don’t look into to see, in that moment, if I look okay or not. Years ago, I read a book that Oprah wrote with her trainer, Bob Greene, called, Make the Connection, and she talks about the exact same thing. She sees her reflection in a storefront window and is horrified by what she sees. She doesn’t even think it is her for a moment. This propels her to take the step to change her body which was certainly not the first or the last.
The second line was, “I saw it in the faucet/As I ran my bath”. The bathtub tap distorts our reflection and yet, it is always there, and the most unflattering view. It is impossible to look away, like Narcissus at his own reflection only it isn’t beauty we see in ours. I once worked with a woman at a store and every time she would walk past the full length mirror she would look at herself square on and put her hands on her hips and push them in. After she did that, she would turn to the side and try to flatten her tummy and her behind so she would be thinner from the side and front. I imagine what it would be like if we could actually sculpt ourselves until we were exactly what we wanted to be.
For me, my reflection changes. Since my surgery, every morning, I look to see how much my side is protruding. On some days it is flat again but on others it looks like I have a baby growing out of my side. I never know what makes one day different from the next but for me, it is an indication of health.
In our own minds and hearts we are something else. We are whole and complete. We aren’t less than, or too much for or cause discomfort. We just are the essence of our being and the physical doesn’t exist.
Your Fat Friend
One of my favourite bloggers on Medium is Your Fat Friend. (If you haven’t read her work, I HIGHLY recommend that you do! Here is her page.) She has such powerful writing and truly has inspired me to write this piece. I suppose if I used some name that wasn’t my own, it would be easier to write about this issue but I felt it was time to put it out there. A few weeks ago, I engaged in dialogue with her on her Twitter.She makes regular calls out to her followers to ask about their thinking on Twitter and through this, has created an amazing outlet, support network, and knowledge base on the shared experiences of her followers.
The first piece I ever read of hers was: What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane. This was reposted recently. At the end she writes: “… air travel is sadly familiar, a microcosm of what happens so often as a fat person. I am watched — and judged harshly — as I try — and fail — to fit into a space that was made for someone else. I am always too big, always too much, always unacceptable. I must make myself smaller and smaller, reducing and reducing endlessly, my stubborn body resisting at every turn. Still, I am never quite small enough to make anyone else comfortable.”
So I wonder about that. Is it about other people’s emotional and physical comfort or is it about mine? Do I make these jokes simply because I have internalized the criticism, judgement and view that others have of me or do I say these jokes because I want to own my own narrative?
It is impossible for me to know the difference.
What I know for sure is that when I read her writing, I understand completely what she writes about. When I share it on other social media platforms, I get emails, private messages and comments from my friends and followers thanking me for posting it.
I think it is about time that I wrote one of my own. It is hard for people who have not experienced this to understand. I get that everyone struggles with appearance and body image. I know that someone who I may look at and think she has the perfect figure, has days where she does not feel her best. The difference for fat people is, everyone sees their flaws. Everyone makes assumptions about their laziness, lack of will power, weakness, and general lack of self care…
Is this the narrative we choose to be complicit with?
Amy Schumer was recently on a tour and she starts with the story of her nearly nude photoand the response from the public about it which was invariably the “You’re so brave!” comment. She laughs and says that posing nude should not invoke the “You’re so brave!” response but it implies that there was something to brave about…clearly her body. Most people wouldn’t have the courage to show that body with all it’s flaws and no photoshop!
But why not?
Originally published on Medium on March 29, 2017.