The Privilege to Exercise: Body Shaming, Southern Misogyny, and a Fat Girl Fitness Journey

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Perhaps I should begin this entry by saying that I’ve received wonderful support from most of my virtual community.  Thank you to everyone who’s cheered me on, whether we know each other in person or have connected through social media. It means a great deal to me.  I don’t think my parents really understand what the problem is or why I’m doing what I’m doing, so I’ll take their silence on the matter as a blessing.  Sometimes, communication is a terrible thing, especially with the people to whom you’re most closely related.

 

Look with Your Special Eyes

For the past three weeks, I’ve taken an aggressive approach to my own health and well-being.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, I’m out of shape.  I’ve always been heavy, a “big girl,” and I probably always will be.  fullsizerenderYou can’t exercise away your skeletal structure, and who would want to if you could? That being said, since I returned to the Deep South, my bad eating habits have returned.  I jumped back into an environment that isn’t healthy for me, mentally or physically.

People here have always struggled to see me for what I am–a woman.  Even shortly after I came back, at my lowest weight and most feminine, I was often called “sir” or “he.” I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which causes me to grow hair on my face.  When coupled with my large frame and strong features, this secondary sex characteristic seems to be all people see.  Strangely enough, it’s only ever been a problem here.  In this place and this culture.

 

Using the Blunt End

Speaking of culture, let’s talk about misogyny and male privilege, two prominent features of Deep South tradition.  If you come from this region but have no clue what I’m talking about, please go and educate yourself.  If you’re not from here and have no clue what I’m talking about–well, you’re about to find out, aren’t you?

The gender standard for women here is as pervasive as it is invisible, which is to say, almost entirely.  You tend to see it more clearly when things like the bathroom debate come up.  Please notice that the issue many people seem to have with transgender people using the “wrong” restroom is largely connected to male-to-female (MTF) transexual and transgender individuals.  There’s an entire lecture series on the psychological underpinnings of this specific discomfort, and I won’t go into that here.

Suffice it to say that this is misogyny.  First, because “women folk” need to be protected from men, who can’t keep it in their pants, even when they’re wearing a skirt or a tasteful sweater set(or simply and legitimately identify as women, not men.)  Second, because it presumes to identify a threat which has never been a threat in actuality–transgender individuals assaulting unsuspecting cysgender individuals in bathrooms–and neatly glosses over the actual threat, which is males assuming they have the right to touch or violate a woman’s body without suffering any social consequences. fullsizerender-copy

In short, rape, sexual assault, and violent battery are just “boys being boys.”  This is called male privilege, for those of you who are uncertain.  And the question you should be asking yourself right now, aside from, “How is that a thing?” is “What does this have to do with body shaming or fat women or anything indicated in the title?”  The more passive form of this embedded male privilege is that women are expected to conform to certain static stereotypes.  These stereotypes align with masculine approval and sexually attractive behaviors, which are, at their foundation, crafted to perpetuate male dominance. This system is rigorously policed by both men and women. My experiences with this male privilege, body shaming, and misogyny are directly connected with the fact that I violate these static gender norms associated with Southern Femininity simply because I’m alive.  Being rather forthright and extroverted doesn’t help.

 

Body Shaming Begins at Home

I didn’t begin to understand it until recently, but once I began, there was no turning back.  I realized that I’d been body shamed by my parents my entire life, but had taken it for granted.  I’d internalized these constant critiques as measures of my worth as a human being, rather than seeing them for what they are–manifestations of a maladaptive cultural system.

Of course, my parents would be clueless if I tried to explain this to them.  They would claim innocence–they only wanted me to look my best, to feel pretty, to not bring ridicule upon myself in public.  But their constant commentary was always at odds with any positive intentions.  They shamed everything about me, and yet I’m still somehow expected to believe that? I couldn’t wear a sleeveless garment for years, because I was hyperaware of how my upper arms looked in it.

I assumed that because I had hair on my face, I was a monster.  It was the only thing anyone ever saw.  In this south, this is correct.  Most people see it and assume that I’m either a gay male or some sort of what they would no doubt consider a perversion.  But elsewhere, I never had this problem.

I was shamed for my size, for taking any pleasure in the food I ate, for eating what and when I wanted to eat.  This led to a compulsive secret eating fetish and that of binge eating–a problem I would struggle with for years.  If I was shamed for being fat, it only ever made it worse, because eating was the only way I knew how to comfort myself.

 

That’s the Way Hegemony Goes

While I was living in Albuquerque for graduate school, I lost weight, stopped eating refined sugar, and began to build a sense of self confidence at odds with the environment in which I was raised.  That all came crashing down when I had to move back to the South for personal reasons.  At first, I thought I’d escaped, that I’d changed how I saw the world, so even if I encountered resistance or critique, it couldn’t touch me.  Boy was I wrong.

The terrible thing about being immersed in a culture is the same thing that can be so wonderful.  You are surrounded by images, ideas, and experiences that embody and give meaning to that particular cultural life way.  When it happens to be one that says women only look a certain way and anyone else is obviously an imposter, when it is a culture in which women take for granted that they will be body shamed about some part of their being, and so they begin to do it themselves, when it is a place that encourages a massive overconsumption that is at odds with a draconian physical feminine aesthetic–then you have a serious problem.

Up to this point, I’ve talked about male privilege, misogyny, body shaming, and a static concept of womanliness that has little or nothing to do with the reality of most women.  People who don’t have it directed at them rarely understand what I mean.  They assume I’m overreacting, seeing things that aren’t there–but I assure you, I’m simply seeing things that have always been there, but are invisible because they have been naturalized.

Something strange happens when you live within this naturalized matrix of concepts and customs.  You do it, too.  To others.  To yourself.  It’s only a recent point of note that women body shame each other.  Take that a step further–you can be sure that most of the women who engage in “catty” or unkind remarks about the physicality, style of dress or makeup, or lifestyle choices of other women have also internalized this behavior.  They have allowed themselves to be damaged and now body shame themselves as well.

 

Too Fat for Fitness

The last point I want to touch upon is one that I see from time to time.  As I said at the beginning, many of the people with whom I interact have been incredibly supportive of my fitness journey, whether they’re exclusively online acquaintances and friends, old work buddies, or former colleagues.  I thank them for that.  But I am neither blind nor deaf to the pervasive habit of many, who are thankfully no friends of mine, to shame people who are overweight.  This applies as much to men as it does to women, but the form of the venomous epithets is different.

Overweight people are critiqued for attempting to be active, which makes no fucking sense to me whatsoever.  They’re not allowed to dance, to walk, to run, to join aerobics classes or to hold gym memberships.  It’s almost as if the individuals who critique are insisting that these overweight people–objects of scorn and ridicule from many directions–are not allowed to take steps to remedy their health problems or really to show enthusiasm for being alive. Personally, I think that’s because we have formed a Gym Culture.  And fat people are hostile aliens to that culture.  The ridicule says,

“How dare they try to do what we do?  How dare they try to become us? 

Poor Sneeches without Stars upon Thars…

 

Since I don’t belong to a gym, favoring solo workouts that keep me outside as much as possible, I’ve been spared a great deal of this experience.  What I’ve experienced has come largely in the form of males of varying ages using what is purported to be a sign of sexual interest as ridicule and women who unquietly make disparaging remarks as I pass them.  Same shit.  Different decade.  Some things don’t change.  I don’t know any woman who’s actually flattered when a teenager hanging out of a truck window or a balding slob with a beer gut hoots and hollers at them as they pass.  Also, I distinctly recall graduating from high school almost two decades ago, and was unaware it was appropriate for grown women to behave like Mean Girls. If I laugh, it’s not because I think it’s funny.  It’s because I think they’re stupid and coarse.  And also a little bit sad.

 

Hey, I’m sorry if you were expecting something different from what you just read.  This is the first of many updates about my journey toward better health.  But I felt it was important to talk about the issues I did, because even when I attain a great level of fitness and health, I still won’t meet the standards of my culture.  While I have to resign myself to that and persevere, anyway, I think it should change.  The only way something so common and accepted that it becomes invisible can be changed is for it to be brought into the light and exposed.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Privilege to Exercise: Body Shaming, Southern Misogyny, and a Fat Girl Fitness Journey

  1. Excellent post, in so Many levels… I wish you good luck with the journey towards a healthier life… And by that I am Not making reference to weight whatsoever… But probably to Many Of the points you have highlighted above… I hear you… and keep in mind that the standards are too many… So you are Not alone, Erin. Love. Aquileana 🍒🌟

    1. Thank you for your words, dear Lady. I am moving forward, finding new and better ways to be myself, and working to become healthy in every regard. If my journey can help others in any way, I’ll be overjoyed. It’s never too late to begin caring for and about oneself. ❤️

  2. Good for you. Good for you for realising what is “normal” in some places and cultures and even families isn’t necessarily correct. As a big girl myself, I have come across the same well-intentioned cruelty from my family.

    Just believe in yourself and do what you need to do to make yourself healthier. That is all that matters.

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