The Sleeping Enemy
by Sally E. Smith

No matter how much you think you've come to accept yourself, there will be moments where a single comment can make you doubt everything. The enemy within may be sleeping most of the time, but he won't let you forget.

By the time we discover the size acceptance movement, most of us have struggled for years with many of the issues surrounding self-acceptance. For fat women, the issues include loathing bodies that society says are disgusting and undesirable, blaming ourselves for the rampant discrimination and social stigma we face, participating in relationships with family, friends, and lovers that are unsupportive and negating, and internalizing stereotypes that say we're lazy, out of control, stupid, and worthless. For FAs, the issues include shame at being attracted to women who society says are unattractive, having at some point unfulfilling relationships with average-size women, feeling pressure from family and friends to conform to the preferences of mainstream society, feeling isolated and alone, and believing stereotypes that men who are attracted to fat women are perverted, losers, and psychologically damaged.

Self-acceptance is an evolutionary process, one that lasts a lifetime (or longer, depending on your belief system). If we think of self-acceptance as a continuum, with one end being self-hate and loathing and the other end self-love and affirmation, each of us enters the size acceptance movement at a different spot on the continuum of self-acceptance. Hopefully, with enough information, and introspection, over time we move along the continuum forward total self-acceptance and love.

Those of us who have been involved in the size acceptance movement for awhile, and who have worked on our own issues about our size or our preferences can look back and see the progress we made on our journey. As fat women, perhaps we have moved from avoiding health care because of a history of being abused by the medical profession, to getting regular checkups armed with pamphlets and accompanied by a friend who acts as our advocate. Perhaps we've gotten even further, and are able to leave the friend and pamphlets at home, comfortable with facing health care professionals alone. As FAs, maybe you've gone from receiving your issues of Dimensions under a pseudonym at a post office box, and instead have it delivered to you at home. Or perhaps you've progressed even further along the continuum, and your friends and family members aren't surprised to see Dimensions laying around your house because you explained your preference to them and they understand, or at least accept it.

Each of us should pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on how far we've come in our journey toward self-acceptance. After all, it's not easy to make any progress at all when we're constantly bombarded by societal messages and pressures from the diet industry to remain self-loathing. Even if we're brand new to the movement and this is our first issue of Dimensions, we should acknowledge that it's a big step to even entertain the notion that, as fat women, we can be attractive, or as FAs, we can admit our preference and subscribe to a magazine that celebrates it.

But even as we're acknowledging the steps we've taken and how far we've come, it's important to also recognize that each of us has further to go in order to thoroughly accept and love our fat selves or our FA selves. For those of us who have been around awhile, it's tempting to have a public persona that we've "been there, done that" and have dealt with all the issues there are to deal with when you're fat or when you're an FA. It's easy to overstate the case if you're in a position to talk to the media, and to convey that you're fully self-accepting. Or to buy into it when newcomers to the movement look at old timers as role models, thinking they're invincible.

I'm here to say it ain't so. One of the myths of the size acceptance movement is that there's an and to this process of self-acceptance. In talking to friends and colleagues, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, I've found that there is a lot more internalized oppression among the so-called fat-liberated than I would have believed. In many ways, this was freeing for me, in that I not only felt that I wasn't the only one, but in that I didn't feel as much pressure to be the "perfect fat person" with no issues about my weight.

In her research, Dr. Cheri Erdman, author of Nothing to Lose and Live Large!, found that the process of self-acceptance is more like a spiral than a straight line. We can think we've passed a certain point, only to have to face it again at some point in our lives.

Looking at self-acceptance as a spiral was really helpful to me when I was pregnant, I'd thought I'd worked really hard to work through my weight-related issues. Prior to coming into the size acceptance movement, my "fat and ugly days" accounted for about five days out of every week. Now, they occur about once a year, or in bad years, once every six months. The rest of the time, I not only accept my fatness, but see it as an integral part of what defines me as a person. Likewise, I don't only put up with my body, but find it quite attractive and sexy.

But when I was pregnant, my body changed. The rolls and bulges I'd come to appreciate shifted, my body shape began to change, and I found myself not liking the changes at all. I had to process my feelings for about a week before I could get to a place where I could once again accept and love my body. During that week, I realized that I had come full circle I hadn't worked through all of my issues about my body; I'd only accepted the body I had. I started thinking, what if I gained or lost 100 pounds, would I still like my body? If I can't accept changes in my body shape, am I truly accepting of other people's shapes and sizes?

Likewise, I thought I'd worked really hard on trusting my body. I'd climbed rocks in New Zealand, tested my stamina working 18 hours a day at NAAFA conferences, and got routine medical care. Soon after I found out I was pregnant, I got a book called A Child is Born, which features pictures of embryos and fetuses in utero. I found I couldn't look at the book and read about the baby that was forming inside my body week by week, because I discovered that I didn't trust my body to put the baby's eye on his face instead of on his toe. I had a profound feeling that my body was rotten inside, and that there was no way it could ever produce a healthy baby. As hard as I tried to work through this issue during pregnancy, I never truly believed my body could be trusted. I have really internalized my parents message to me that I was okay but my body was unacceptable. Even now, with a healthy one-year old boy, there's a part of me that thinks it was just a fluke and I could never chance getting pregnant again.

In talking to folks and looking at my own experience, I realize that fat oppression is like a sleeping enemy. It seems that just when you think you've dealt with a size-related issue and put it behind you, it rears its ugly head and looks you in the eye, challenging you to get past it once again.

A fat friend of mine who won't let a stranger's negative glance or comment go unanswered, and who has been known to challenge people to make a weight-related remark, recently told me that she's still working through issues about going grocery shopping. She can't bring herself to buy both ice cream and candy on the same trip because she's afraid the checkout clerk will make a comment to her about her food. For her, working through the fear is like peeling back another layer of an onion, freeing herself from oppression she internalized as a child when her parents monitored everything she ate.

An FA acquaintance faces his own sleeping enemy. This is a man who got out of a marriage to a thin woman, who embraced his FA sexuality, who has no qualms about being affectionate to a fat woman in public, and who has been a vocal advocate within the size acceptance movement. Yet he has told me that he puts size-related material out of sight of his co-workers because he doesn't want to have to explain himself to them. Because he's thin, he can "pass" when he's feeling too vulnerable to expose his preference. He's told me that he's worked through so many issues as an FA, but that this behavior lets him know that he still has work to do.

It only makes sense that our process of self-acceptance, either as a fat woman or an FA, is virtually never-ending. All of our lives, we've been bombarded by family, peer, and societal messages that tell us we are wrong and we don't fit in. Even as we are in the process of liberating ourselves from internalized oppression, we're fighting against the tide of daily weight loss ads and news stories, media stereotypes, discrimination, and a culture that has no place for our size or our preference. We may think we've slain the enemy, but inevitably we later discover that he was just taking a snooze.

But whether you think of the process of self-acceptance as a continuum, a spiral, or layers of an onion, the important thing is that we're on the journey, and that we have each other to illuminate the path when we've lost our way. ß



Musings