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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Learning to See the Avoided Fat Body

Me now.
In the last few months, I’ve been staring at myself in the mirror. That’s an old behavior. What is new is that I now look at all of my body, instead of the few inches of which I’m not ashamed.
I don’t remember when I stopped looking at my body, or if I ever even started. Like many women—especially fat women (or those afraid of being fat)—I’ve long judged and avoided my body, and considered it (and myself) ugly. I long ago learned to look selectively. Even as a skinny kid, I would only look at my face (and just the parts of it, like my eyes and cheekbones, which I considered less ugly) and avoid the rest. I lived from the neck up long before I’d ever heard that phrase.
Being a survivor of sexual abuse was a part of it, certainly; I rejected my body because it had not protected me in my time of need (and had betrayed me, too. Long deprived, I always hungered for any kind of physical contact). A therapist once assigned me the task of looking at seven-year-old girls, the age of the first sexual abuse I remember. “You’ll see how small little girls are,” she said, “and so helpless.” She was right, of course. (Even years afterwards, I’d still turn away and cry whenever I’d just glance at one of those small faces atop a set of tiny limbs.)
For decades—the skinny ones and the fat—I didn’t know what my body looked like because I didn’t look; I was afraid to look, and I was ashamed to look. I wore poorly-fitting and shapeless clothes to camouflage what I did not want to see. I ordered clothes by mail for convenience and to avoid the visibility (and potential shame) of shopping in public. The idea that I could wear clothes to highlight or accentuate my body was an unknown concept. Of course I preferred to make love in the dark, and struggled to accept the slow caress, the lingering, tender gaze.
Exhibit A: Shapeless clothes (2010)
For the last several months, however, I’ve been using mirrors, cameras, and a tape measure to learn myself, a kind of training in seeing. It is as if I am seeing myself for the first time, seeing what I actually look like, compared to the image I carry around in my head. I also now know that I've spent years seeing myself from outside, as one viewed. I am learning how to see myself and my world from behind my own eyes.
One of the benefits of this training is that I can now tell when I’m doing a “perfect parts” self-gaze, versus simply seeing my body. Also, I no longer measure my appearance based on others’ attention because I now have my own base of knowledge. I know, too, that there is a difference between how my body feels to me and how it looks. Because of my increased muscle tone, for example, I feel (and am) sleeker. I am still carrying excess fat, however, so am still bulgy around my stomach, upper thighs, and butt. 
I can’t (yet) say that I love my body, but I am becoming familiar with it, have learned to see it, and do so with diminishing shame.

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