In her book “Unbearable Weight”, Susan Bordo suggests that women who have been stripped of their voices by society use their bodies to say what they’re kept from saying. Women’s voices are silenced so regularly that they often feel like they are never heard, but their bodies cannot be ignored, so they literally embody their voices. Women are told so often that their bodies are an expression of who they are and what they value that they begin to believe that their bodies actually represent them. So the body becomes the means of communication between the woman and the world.
I remember tearing up when I read this because I understood on a soul level what she was saying. In my constant quest to be thin I had been using my body to make a statement. It wasn’t just about being physically thin, it was about what being thin said about me. The thinness of my body would communicate to the world that I was disciplined and hardworking, that I was superior, that I was worthy and valuable. The angles of my jutting bones and the hardness of my muscles would communicate that I was tough, strong, and independent. Through making my body the right shape I would communicate to the world that I was the right things, that I believed the right things, thus transcending judgement.
As I gained weight in recovery, I remember standing in front of the mirror one day thinking that my stomach looked soft. That I looked too round, too curvy. I began to wonder why I had such an aversion to softness, roundness. My mind immediately went to all the cultural programming I was beginning to be able to identify thanks to the feminist literature I was reading. I thought about being surrounded by “ideal bodies” in the media. I thought about the “beauty myth” as Naomi Wolf calls it, which demanded that I adhere to the mercurial beauty rules society had developed. I thought about the diet industry and weight loss culture in which women are trapped. I knew that all these things contributed to my judgement of my soft, round body, but I also knew that there was a deeper level to my aversion.
It dawned on me that my hatred for being “soft” was not about my body at all; it was about being vulnerable. I thought about how hard I’d worked to make my body tough, strong, and angular, and I realized that what I’d actually wanted was to be emotionally tough and strong. I wanted to be invincible. I wanted to be emotionally untouchable. I was sculpting my body to be armor against vulnerability and judgement.
As I gained weight I was unable to see my new curves as sensual or beautiful. I was only able to see my armor giving way to to vulnerability. I was afraid of what the softness of my body was communicating to the world. Was it saying that I was no longer tough or strong? Was it saying that I was lazy and undisciplined? Was it saying that I was unworthy? Was it saying that I didn’t care about myself or my appearance? Was it saying that I didn’t care what others thought? Was I taking up too much space? Being larger seemed to say a lot more about me than being thin did, at least in my own mind.
For years I have been allowing my body to speak for me. I have been trying to communicate with the world about who I am and what I believe through the shape of my body. More importantly I have believed that the world get its messages about who I am and what I value from my body instead of from my voice. The truth is that I have a voice I am learning to use. I don’t need my body to tell you about me anymore. Let me tell you about me.