This kerfuffle at This Recording piece about body policing stood out to me, not because it said much new, but because of the response to it. It's one of the "skinny people aren't exempt from nasty comments about their bodies" pieces out there—a point well taken. What doesn't go over well is when the author of the piece claims that "Few nice, everyday folks would approach an overweight stranger and tell them to go on a diet." While most quit-talking-about-our-bodies attention yesterday was directed toward The Sartorialist (where 1,106 people commented on his preference for only mentioning his subjects' body size when they're not bone-thin), there was enough harrumphing from the always-awesome Kate Harding for me to take note.
So we're agreed that we shouldn't be surveilling and policing other people's bodies, right? But that because our culture attaches so much to women's bodies, there's little way to escape it, right?
Yet for years, I did escape it. For a chunk of my twenties, I inhabited a size zone that, on my medium frame, made me look a little more than medium. I was a few pounds overweight by the BMI scale (and yes, I know BMI is faulty, but I have the kind of body that it was designed for--when I'm moderately active and eating my nutritionist-approved meal plan, I'm squarely in the middle of the "healthy" zone) but didn't have trouble finding clothes at mainstream stores that fit me. Basically, I had about the body of the average American woman. And nobody said a word about my body. Ever. Nobody called me curvy, or average, or normal. Or voluptuous, or fat, or stocky, or plump, or soft, or sturdy, or thick, or anything. I wasn't hiding my body: I didn't flaunt my figure, but neither was I dressing in paper bags. When shopping for clothes, I went into a store, found things I liked, tried them on, and bought them or didn't. In "body talk" with friends, nobody commented on my figure. It was a non-issue, I thought.
Around age 30, I lost a lot of weight for a variety of reasons—I stay away from numbers and sizes here, but as a frame of reference, I lost nearly 20% of my body weight. I didn't look emaciated or anything near it—the #1 word people used to describe my body at that time was "healthy." (The writer whose piece prompted this entry was frequently suspected of having an eating disorder; only one person ever inquired about my mental health in that regard.) Healthy, then trim, and slender, and lean. And cute, and little, and, yes, skinny.
That is: In dropping three dress sizes, I also lost my protection against body policing—a protection I didn't realize I'd had.
Sure, some of this came from friends and coworkers, who had a point of comparison and were commenting on my body as "little" compared to what it had been. (And note that I was well within the "healthy" BMI range even at my lowest weight, and looked it.) I didn't mind that—they were trying to be supportive in what our culture frames as some great, noble battle against fat. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, most people were refreshingly sensitive about how to frame their compliments so as not to put me on the spot or imply that I hadn't looked fine before.
What surprised me was the reaction from strangers. Shopkeepers suddenly started guessing my dress size, almost making a game out of it at times. Some criticized my body in ways they hadn't before; my figure was "fantastic...but you've really got to have a flat belly for this dress." People I'd just met made quick assessments of and references to my body in cocktail conversation: "Oh, you wouldn't understand, you're thin," or commenting on my food. People I was meeting for the first time made assumptions about my character: I was "disciplined," or had "willpower," or exercised "control." Most often, I was simply "good." I was "lucky." I rarely got the kind of "I hate you" thing you hear about sometimes—I wonder if it's my friendliness or the fact that I wasn't super-slim that protected me from that particular form of policing—but on occasion, it did float my way.
At my heavier weight, it was understood that even if I wasn't fat, I was at a size where people assumed I probably wanted to lose weight. And because weight is a sensitive issue, this unspoken weight-loss dictum was off-limits for discussion. I'm certain that it would have been different had I been unabashedly fat, as many a tale from fat women illustrates. (Dances With Fat always dissects these in a delightfully tart manner.) But because my body was nearly the exact proportions of the average American woman, it was like I was in a sort of DMZ of body policing: Too small for CDC-approved admonishments about my food intake, too big to make a game out of guessing my dress size, I skated through most of my twenties unaware of how freely people comment on one another's bodies.
Now, there may have been other reasons for the spike in body policing I experienced when I lost weight. Maybe it's because people picked up on the hungry discomfort I felt at my lowest weight and were either trying to reassure me that it was "worth it" or exacerbate it for their own weird-food-issues reasons. Maybe I carried myself differently. Maybe my fleshier body lent me an air of "fuck your fascist body standards" confidence that people didn't want to mess with. Maybe I blocked out negative (or positive) comments I got when heavier. Maybe I clinged to the body policing I received at my lightest, for even when there was an undercutting tone to them, the fact was, I had wanted to lose weight, and such comments were validating. Maybe even now that I've settled into a weight that's between my highest and lowest and that feels natural to me—and now that most of the body policing comments have dwindled—I'm still filtering the comments I received in order to remove whatever body-image issues I have and make them about "culture" and "society" instead of my relationship with my body.
I hesitate to draw grand conclusions from this. First of all, I'm guessing that there are plenty of average-American-woman-bodied women who've heard all too much from others about their figures. Second, I've argued here plenty that if you're a woman, your appearance becomes a comments free-for-all. (And I'm certain that I wasn't actually exempt from body policing at my heavier weight; I was just free from the vocalization of it.) But what I'm gleaning from my experience is that while women's faces and figures are forever targets, we attach highly specific meaning to specific shapes and sizes, and we make assumptions about people's personalities and histories based on this one piece of evidence alone. It's not a spectrum of positive assumptions assigned to thin people and negative assumptions assigned to fat people, nor is there a neat flipside-rhetoric working in which we champion fat people while demonizing the thin. Our attitudes toward the bodies of others are only as complex as our attitudes toward our own.