Thin and Fit are separate things.
Heads up, this content is 15 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

I have a friend who’s bigger than me. He’s in his fifties and has big arms, big legs, and a convex belly that’s soft to curl up against.  It’s Sunday today, so he’ll probably be running 12 miles this afternoon — he’s training for the Alcatraz Triathlon. This would probably concern me (they built that prison on that island so people would DIE if they tried to escape and swim away!!), except that he’s already done it twice.

I have another friend who’s petite, thin, and beautiful. Her arms, legs, and belly are small and firm, and they look like they came straight off an airbrushed magazine cover.   She’s in her thirties, and she will probably be thin and gorgeous her entire life.  She never ever exercises, and she eats whatever she wants.

The idea that body size and body fitness are separate things is a fairly new concept for me.  I grew up thinking that big meant bad (lazy, unhealthy, ugly) and small meant good (active, healthy, beautiful). Unfortunately, at 5’10” with a large bone structure, it didn’t really matter how much I exercised, I was always going to be big.

My mother and I spent a long time being at odds with each other on this subject (we’re now on neutral, mutually-respectful territory, and I should mention she’ll probably read this post — hi Mom!).  She, too, was conditioned by experiences and culture to equate big with bad and small with good,  and she passed some of that on to me.  More than that, though, she believed that exercising makes you happier (it does), and hoped to heal some of my adolescent depression by encouraging me to go to the gym.  Her intentions were in the right place, but when paired with the “big = bad” philosophy, this encouragement just poked more holes in my self-esteem. She was saying, “I want you to love yourself more,” and I heard, “You’re not good enough the way you are.”

I probably don’t have to explain how any attempt to express, “You should go to a gym,” can easily come out wrong.  But it’s worth mentioning that even her attempts at positive reinforcement were thwarted by the screwed up body image culture.  I heard any compliment about my body (“You’ve gotten skinnier!”) as “What you weigh is very important to me.” This further reinforced the big = bad, small = good problem, and reminded me that I’ll always be big. You can’t win at a game with broken rules.

Moving to San Francisco and meeting phenomenal people like Debbie Notkin and Laurie Toby Edison (who put out a beautiful book of artsy nude photos of fat women called Women En Large, and who also write the body image activist blog, Body Impolitic) changed a lot for me. They explained to me that our cultural aversion to large bodies is severely disproportionate to our interest in being healthy, and that a lot of the time the two are completely unrelated.  Debbie and Laurie’s work also helped me unlock another part of my brain that had been shamed into hibernation: I find confident, curvy women hot! Even further?  Big men are hot, too.

(Sidenote: also in my social travelings, I met a gorgeous, curvy, and wonderfully articulate therapist and belly dancer who wrote this incredible piece about why we don’t want to hear about your diet. It sums up a lot around the myths and facts surrounding body image, and names some useful resources. Please read it.)

Armed with some new communication skills, I finally talked to my mother about our patterns and made a request: since making physical compliments are a gut reaction for her, I asked her to replace anything she wanted to say about my body with, “You look healthy.”  It was a compromise (I now hear “You look healthy” as “I wanna talk about your weight but I’m trying to respect your boundaries,” which is only moderately better).  Over the last few years, this seems to have helped her change her focus around me, and we can now talk openly about how we’re both working to take care of ourselves.

Something really interesting happens when you clear away an immediate problem: you find things underneath it that you didn’t know were related. I discovered that some of my shame around being big was actually a fear of taking up space and having a voice.  This was also related to my mom — being bigger than her actually made me physically intimidating to her in a way, and her body language expressed a quiet and subtle discomfort about it, which I absorbed.  This was also something we could talk about eventually, and once it was visible it was a lot easier to heal.  When I finally rearranged my self-image to include more confidence and leadership (see also: breaking gender boundaries), my size felt a whole lot more comfortable.

All these thoughts are coming up for me now because someone I met at SXSW (Derek Siversthank you!) recommended I take a look at the work of Stacy Bias.  I was stunned by her bio — it so clearly sums up the way I’ve been trying to view our culture:

Stacy is a queer activist and a fat activist, though lately she prefers the term “Anti-Shame Advocate.”

At the heart of Stacy’s activism is the idea that all beings are worthy of love, from self and others, and that shame is a sinister and lucrative tool employed to ensure a steady stream of faithful and desperate consumers.

Stacy believes that fitness and fatness are not mutually exclusive. Further, Stacy believes that fitness is not the sole measure of worth for an individual and that all individuals, regardless of fitness level, are entitled to equal access to medical care and basic human rights.

It is Stacy’s ultimate goal to empower individuals of all sizes towards greater self-love, whatever that looks like for them; to explore the seedy underbelly of consumer culture and the holes it digs in our self-esteem each day in efforts to turn us against one another and, ultimately, sell us product; to humanize one another, TO one another, in an effort to bring compassion, a greater understanding for the vast diversity of our human race, and to encourage and support bridge-building over the many intersections of multiple “isms” because racism, sexism, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are all related issues. We stand to learn so much from one another if we begin to communicate our stories and release our shame and judgment.

In my work over at Genderfork, I’ve been trying to help confront the shame people experience when they don’t fit traditional gender roles.  Body size self-esteem is a very related fight, as are many others. The beautiful thing is, these are fights that are won through compassion and communication… which, to me, means we have a chance.

So keep loving. Keep fighting. Keep talking.

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16 Responses to “Thin and Fit are separate things.”

  1. whittles Says:

    This is beautiful, hun. I’m really grateful that you’re sharing this kind of work.

  2. spacecadet31 Says:

    hey thankyou so much for this… it came at exactly the right time for me. I have been walking around the house all morning hating my body and feeling so low about what to do about it. This has made me feel much better.

  3. Mom Says:

    Hi Sarah,
    This is a beautiful post and I am proud of you. I do take responsibility for the words I used to try to help. I now know I made things worse. I want to thank you for teaching about those words and sharing your pain from those words with me and now with the world.

    You are brave and beautiful and I am proud that you are my daughter. Most of the time I cannot believe that this outspoken confident young woman somehow came from my womb; but I am delighted to see you heal,grow, and fly.

    Love you, Mom

  4. Liz/Eli Says:

    Amen, amen, a million times amen.
    [It was freaking awesome meeting you at the Austin meet-up, by the way.]

  5. Andy Says:

    Great post. It warms my heart whenever someone finds body/fat acceptance.

    I’d be happy to talk about my experiences with the intersections of fatness and gender, if you’re ever interested. Or maybe I should just throw it out on Genderfork? :)

  6. schmutzie Says:

    You are being featured on Five Star Friday!

  7. sarahdopp Says:

    Wow, thank you for telling me this story. Really interesting how similar they are…


  8. tiffanybbrown Says:

    I have the same battle with my mother, not just with weight, but appearance in general. I remember losing 30 lbs while in a depression — was back down to my jr. high weight. My mother oohed and ahhhed. Then I got less depressed and gained most of that weight back. My mother's reaction was a tactless, in-the-moment "Ooooh! You got fat!" She also said this to my even more tactless aunt. Her reaction was "Your mom said you blew up. I thought you would be bigger. You're not that big." (Um, thanks?)

    Mind you, I was never a petite child; at 10 or 11 my mom and I could share clothes. I finally told her that my body and appearance are off limits for discussion.

    This post is also right-on-time in another way, though. My current boyfriend has a belly. Seeing him naked and curling up next to him has lead me to expand my definition of what's sexy. His belly is soft and squishy and comfortable. But he's also trying to lose weight. Because of my own experience with family and body issues, I know how a well-intentioned, comment can be received. So I have this internal dialog where I want to encourage him, but I don't want him to think I don't love him as he is.

  9. Body Impolitic - Blog Archive - » Links, Links, Links - Laurie Toby Edison: Photographer Says:

    […] don’t usually blog it when people say nice things about us, but this is such a beautiful post about learning to love your body that I wanted to […]

  10. [body impolitic] Links, Links, Links Says:

    […] don’t usually blog it when people say nice things about us, but this is such a beautiful post about learning to love your body that I wanted to […]

  11. miriam Says:

    It's interesting to me that even in this post you twice say "thin and beautiful" or "thin and gorgeous," as if those naturally go together. Was that a conscious choice?

    When I was 12 I got in mild trouble for showing a neighbor-kid this picture (which was featured on the back page of a 1994 issue of Utne Reader) from Laurie Toby Edison's book . I guess the neighbor-kid didn't share my fascination, because she reported me to her mother. Looking back, I guess it was an early sign that I was queer, though it didn't occur to me at the time.

  12. Hollee Wells Says:

    Hey Sarah –
    I got to read this in full this morning (it's hard other times to read lengthy things about the subject, sometimes it's exchausting, sometimes it's okay, sometimes I just shouldn't do it)… sorry I didn't get a chance to read it before!
    I love this… and it's true. My mom was the same way… she even told me at one point, used the exact words "maybe if you lost weight people would like you better" – she doesn't think before she speaks, clearly. NO, MOM, people wouldn't start liking me better if I were somehow smaller than I have always been, but they started liking me better when I started liking myself a little bit. Cheesy but true. Also cheesy but true, if they can't look past what I look like, then they will never know who I am… and that's not by any means my loss.

  13. Hollee Wells Says:

    sorry got cut off… here's more…

    Furthermore, I told my mom, among other people, that I was going to do the Walk for Breast Cancer last October. It was 5 miles. She looked at me like I was crazy. She told me she'd donate if I actually finished it. She asked me if I really thought it was a good idea. She asked me how. I did finish it. I did not "train" for it, I did not walk my dogs more in anticipation, I just showed up the day of and walked 5 miles.
    I think the point of this is that before that day last October, I was convinced that I was not healthy, there is no way, I'm morbidly obese, every doctor all of my life has been telling me I'm not healthy. If I'm healthy enough to walk 5 miles, if I eat the way I'm supposed to, if I'm happy, I'm healthy enough.
    Good revelation, it's a daily struggle to have it, but I'm not letting it so far out of my reach ever again that I am sick the way I was, I've done enough damage, I have to be good enough the way I am. I can't, I wont.

  14. sarahdopp Says:

    Hollee, you are TRULY an inspiration to me, and I love you so much. Thank you.

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