Today, ten people told me I am beautiful. They were not referring to my personality, but to my body. My 57-year-old, plus-size, battered, resilient, brilliant body.
I am in Soweto, South Africa, where Bigger is Beautiful and Aged is Revered. Today I facilitated a workshop for 40 women living in the townships. I wore a dress that my dear friend Lindi (with whom I am staying) had specially made for me. It is of the traditional type favoured by women in this community; a beautiful African print on strong cotton fabric. The design is elaborate. It is like nothing I have ever worn before; nothing I would have considered for myself. It is tight around my hips, and shows my lumps and bumps. In the UK it would not be considered flattering on me. Here, I am told again and again, it enhances my beautiful shape.
Here I have come to understand, and even sometimess believe, that my shape is beautiful. It is a subject considered worthy of discussion among my sisters in the neighbourhoods that welcome me. I am repeatedly told, approvingly, “you have the body of an African woman”; and I do. I look around me, at the gorgeous, glorious women who have opened their hearts and homes and community to this stranger from a different world, and I recognise myself. There is a rich diversity of body-types, but mine is much more prevalent here. Here I experience a kind of belonging that affirms me as a woman.
I have been unhappy with my body for as long as I can remember. I was a chubby child, and undiagnosed dyspraxia made me clumsy. I couldn’t do the handstands and cartwheels that my friends perfected; couldn’t join in the shared skipping games that came effortlessly to them. Team sports were a nightmare. Always last to be chosen for a team (a ritual of torture for the overweight and uncoordinated that I’m horrified still goes on in some schools today), the abuse I experienced from my peers left scars that still smart fifty years on, and destroyed any concept of sport as a pleasurable activity for me.
I don’t remember a time I didn’t think of myself as “fat”. My weight has generally fluctuated and never gone above a certain point (at five feet three inches I average around 13.5 stone/190 pounds. At my heaviest, 10 years ago, I was 16 stone/224 pounds). I am aware that many others are more adversely affected by their size than I, but this does little to minimise my self-recrimination, and I know I am far from alone in this.
An emotional overeater who did not enjoy exercise, I “knew” I was ugly by the time I was eight years old. I believed my father died that year because I was not lovable enough to stay for, and a big part of that “unlovable”, I reasoned, was my horrible body.
Approaching 60, I don’t feel ugly. I like my face, and wear my wrinkles with happy affection. I don’t use make-up or colour my thick hair (resolutely brown with increasingly silver highlights, which I love).
But, like most of the women I know (no matter what their size or shape) my body still causes me dissatisfaction on pretty much a daily basis; and this is something I need to change. I have wasted far too many of my 57 years in 57 shades of shame.
Shame started early with “Bad Catholic”, which soon morphed into a more generic “Bad Child”. My learning differences contributed “Something Wrong with Me” and “Misfit”. Glasses, poor teeth and a heavier-than-average frame soon equalled “Fat and Ugly”. Then my father’s early death on top of the low self-esteem and bullying I was already experiencing confirmed I was worthy only of abandonment.
Following decades of therapy and personal development, the adult me no longer believes I deserve to be abandoned. But there is still a wounded little girl within who recoils at threatened or perceived rejection; who needs to hide all signs of imperfection. It is she who flinches at the reflection in the mirror, who yearns to be slim, and therefore lovable.
I love her now, that brave, resilient little one, although I certainly haven’t in the past. I love the honest vulnerability she brings to my life, the endless opportunities for learning and understanding. I am proud of her, and protective. I love bringing her to South Africa. Here, she doesn’t feel rejected. Here she can bask in the certain knowledge that she is loved.
The variation in cultural values is an extraordinary thing. When I stepped onto my transfer aircraft in Paris three days ago I was Fat. When I stepped off 10 hours later, I was Beautiful. It shows how ludicrous the “rules” of appearance are. And yet their power is phenomenal. It is estimated that approximately 4 million people in the UK and up to 30 million in the USA are suffering from eating disorders. This is likely to be an under-estimation as many do not disclose their condition or seek help. It is sad to note that statistics for eating disorders are rising steeply in South Africa with the continued Westernisation of this eclectic country.
Born in London in 1960, I grew up in an environment in which, increasingly, Skinny was the holy grail. In the decade of Women’s Liberation, the waif-thin Twiggy was the feminine ideal; an ironic paradox. Now, the ideal seems to be changing. My youngest daughter, who is slim and beautiful, bemoans the fact that she did not inherit my big bum and boobs. That same big bum and boobs that I have consistently wished away while longing for a body just like hers!
Celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and the Kardashians have helped pave the way to this new standard, although there is still a long way to go. The concept of an “ideal body shape” is damagingly exclusive whatever that ideal might be. But suddenly I find myself with a body that could be considered OK even in my homeland if I invested in a gym routine and (even) more self-disciplined diet.
Here in Soweto there is no “if”, no mere “OK”. Here my body is celebrated as it is, and that little girl inside me is consumed with wonder and relief. Apart from with my husband (whose healing influence in my life over the past decade has been inestimable) this is the closest I’ve come to unconditional love and, yes, it is everything it’s cracked up to be.
I will return to the UK in three weeks, and body-image is something I want to focus on more in the work I do with women. I have recently read several books and articles that address issues of insidious societal shaming on the grounds of size, and begun to learn more about the Fat Acceptance Movement, and overlapping Body Love Movement. I am excited by the thought-provoking nature of this new avenue of exploration, and my own willingness to finally open up and stop denying the facts of my lifelong body distress.
My body-related literary interludes have included “Shrill”, a moving, fascinating, often hilarious book about lived experience by the enigmatic Lindy West, whose blog is also very worthy of investigation. Recent aircraft reading was the novel “Dumplin”, which follows the journey of a group of teenage “misfits” led by self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean, as they prepare for a Texas beauty pageant. I probably would have given up on it had I not been trapped on an overnight journey and unable to sleep, but I’m glad I didn’t. Dumplin is set to become a movie which could challenge social attitudes, especially among the young people who need it most. I hope it will live up to its potential.
In Soweto this week, I have noticed a marked difference in what I want to eat, with no cravings for unhealthy foods, rather for fresh fruit and vegetables and simple, clean, delicious vegan meals. My required portion sizes are more moderate than when I’m at home. This is not my first realisation, (neither is it rocket science) that feeling ashamed of my body compels me to eat in a way that does not serve it, or me, in order to numb the habitual shame that pulses through me. This happens not because I am actively bullied, as I was in childhood, but because I have internalised that early trauma, and my culture’s attitude towards the way I look is a continual drip-feed of bullying.
I like feeling beautiful, just as I am. I like feeling accepted, appreciated and “seen”. I like feeling I belong, in a community of people that knows about discrimination and lifts its insidious weight from me as soon as I arrive among them. Without that weight I feel light, even though I am still heavy. It is my intent to be able to bring this experience home with me and share it with others who will also benefit.
We all deserve to love our bodies and ourselves, to live without shame and to celebrate ourselves as beautiful because, without exception, we all are.
(PS – Six weeks after returning to the UK, and “normality”, I came across this blog which is extremely relevant to the experience and thoughts explored above. Thank you Fran Hayden and The Independent!)