Health at YOUR size

Unlearning Mom’s Lessons

scale with truthWhen 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.

red roses


*Names have been changed

Comments on: "Unlearning Mom’s Lessons" (6)

  1. Chrisitine said:

    Yes. I had a similar reaction when I saw the book Women En Large way back in 1990. Seeing through the conditioned response to beauty, and realizing how much beauty is all around us that we filter out. One of the models looked like my sister, and it blew my mind. Why would you want to unsee beauty? Glad I found your blog. I want a fat-friendly personal trainer who won’t focus on weight loss, feels like a mythical quest. Since I am in the Bay Area I do have some hope it might happen.
    Oh, and I also grew up in a household with 3 adults and 5 kids and one bathroom, with a Mom who was mostly fat and always dieting, and who had gallbladder surgery when she was pregnant with me! Wait, are you me?!
    Write on!

  2. I have been thinking about a career change to become a personal trainer. I at about a size 20 though and I am slightly nervous about how it would go for me. Do you work out of your own facility or find your own clients, or do you work for someone else (like a gym?) How do you like the actual work? Are your colleagues respectful about your size or are they judgmental?

    • I work independently now, and I go to my clients’ homes. All my clients are larger women. For awhile though, I worked in a very nice size-inclusive men’s gym. (I was about a Size 22 at the time, hella bigger now.) It was great fun working with those guys. The only issues they seemed to have were gender rather than size related, so it took longer to get them to listen to me. Once the regulars got used to me though, they would take my advice. Word of mouth helped — one particularly obstinate gentleman didn’t see the point of using the Bosu trainer and other kinds of balance/stability training, even though his winter sport of choice was skiing. But come springtime, he told me that after doing the exercises I gave him, he went an entire winter without once falling down on the slopes! That guy was my best commercial.

      My advice to you would be: Don’t be afraid to go fo it! Experiment with different kinds of activities, and pick the ones you love. Go from there. Check out The Body Positive Fitness Alliance on Facebook too.

  3. So I signed up for information from ACE, but every email they send me talks about fighting the obesity epidemic. Is ACSM more size-agnostic? It seems like they have a much stronger pitch if they talked about all the people who have high blood pressure, metabolic disease or high cholesterol (a presumably much larger number of people) than just those who are obese.

    • There is going to be an unavoidable focus on weight loss in personal trainer school no matter what course of study you pursue. ACSM is probably less fatphobic but it’s also heavier on the science. As in, it was a two-year college-level program that included anatomy & physiology, kinesiology, exercise science and nutrition (with all the weight-loss focus you probably imagine goes with that). But that’s what you gotta do to get your certification — then you can do what you want.

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