When I was a kid, our house had one bathroom. Three adults and five kids lived there, so as you can well imagine, that bathroom saw a lot of traffic. One day when I was about ten years old, I knocked, and my Mom was in there. “Come in,” she said.
It was just after her bath, and Mom was standing in front of the mirror combing her hair and using the other arm to hold a towel across her chest and belly. She hadn’t made me wait to come in; the towel was already covering her body when I knocked.
“Mom,” I asked, “Why are you covered up like that when you’re in the bathroom alone?”
“Because nobody wants to see this, not even me.”
Mom was a sturdy, strong, lovely, smart, funny, sometimes-fat, sometimes not-so-fat woman whose body had birthed five healthy children. There were stretch marks, varicose veins, moles, and even surgical scars (including a long, diagonal gallbladder surgery scar that she got while pregnant with me). But it was not the scars she was covering; it was simply the size of her body.
To Mom, fat was something to be hidden. She taught me from an early age that loose-fitting, dark-colored clothing was best, though I was granted the occasional bright print. When my friend Lizzie’s* Mom showed up at a school function in stretch polyester slacks and a horizontal-striped stretch polyester jersey (think typical 1970s Lane Bryant fashions), Mom pointed her out and said, “Look how those clothes make her rolls stick out.” Mom tut-tutted and called Mrs. Johnson a “jersey jerk.”
I liked Mrs. Johnson.* I thought she looked fine and that the green, white and blue stripes on her jersey were pretty, but I knew better than to argue the point with Mom.
I was a quick learner of Mom’s rules of fashion. In the fourth grade, on picture day, Mom gave me one of my sister’s sweaters to wear. It was a pretty turtleneck sweater, caramel colored, with three cables down the front. It would have been a perfect sweater for pictures, but I refused to wear it, convinced that it was clinging to my “rolls” and that people would look at me like my Mom had looked at Mrs. Johnson that day at the school. “YOU LOOK FINE!” Mom insisted, but she knew better than to argue the point with me. I was not leaving the house in that sweater. That day, I chose an older blouse that was more loose-fitting. It was worn, but still serviceable. At least no one would think I was a jersey jerk like Mrs. Johnson.
Fast-forward forty years: Is it any wonder that I have trouble looking at my own fat body in the mirror? I’ve spent most of my time fighting nature, torturing my body with yo-yo dieting, trying to conform to what our culture says is an acceptable size for a woman, and never getting there. For the longest time, a glance in the mirror was just another reminder that I was a failure.
I found size acceptance and HAES in my late forties, and finally began learning just how harmful intentional weight loss can be in the long run, and how weight stigma itself can damage our health. I embraced the principles of HAES, and became an advocate for size acceptance for everyone.
Everyone, that is, except myself. I still had trouble looking in the mirror and loving what I saw there.
Then one day, I stumbled upon photographer Substantia Jones’ site, The Adipositivity Project (link NSFW). If you haven’t visited the site, there are pages and pages of lovely photographs of mostly-naked fat women and a few naked men. My initial reaction was to click away, Mom’s voice echoing in my head: “Nobody wants to see that …” But then one day I returned, resolving to look more closely. I began to see the care with which each photo was composed. I began to see the beauty of the models. Page after page, I pored over every inch of every photo — the models’ curves, scars, and rolls. And they were lovely! (Even the rolls!) Finally, I began to see myself in these images, and only then did I begin to entertain the possibility that someone might look at me and see something beautiful. This is why I recommend visiting The Adipositivity Project for anyone who is struggling with self-acceptance.
Recently, TIME magazine released a mini-documentary about Substantia’s work, Fat, Naked & Unashamed: The Adipositivity Project by TIME Magazine (link may be NSFW depending on your employer). It shows some of the photographs from the project as well as interviews with the wonderful Substantia and one of her Adiposers, and I guarantee it will put a smile on your face.
If NSFW content is not your thing (and even if it is), you may wish to visit the Facebook group Beauty Diversity and Healthy Body Image. Curated by international size acceptance activist and counselor Fatima Parker, this group hosts a collection of gorgeous images of all sizes of women from a variety of cultures.
Thank you, Substantia Jones, and Fatima Parker, for creating spaces where we can be nurtured on the journey to self-acceptance. Through your work, you have given many of us what our mothers could not: the ability to see and accept ourselves as we are, without conditions or exceptions.
*Names have been changed