18 September 2012

Chewing the Fat

Editor's Note: The following is expanded from a recent, personal email exchange that triggered some specifying thought on my part. I've left it in direct-address form because it's a personal subject, and I believe it will resonate with many more people than I may even have in mind.

You're not fat.

The trouble with the word "fat" is that it inevitably implies certain things about lifestyle, be it laziness, genetic permanence, social status or what-have-you. It's self-limiting, even when said with loving kindness. So, while some may insist it's just bluntly accurate, to my mind the word is way too laden with bias and implication (not to mention far too unspecific) to be of much use as a description. Heck: it's not even a description - it's a state of being, reducing a person to just the actual, biological element: fat.

I have seen things (I have seen such things!!!) in Italy that have convinced me that the difference between a hot person and an ugly one has way more to do with carriage and knowing yourself than it does with fitting a so-called standard of beauty. My personal adviser in all things Italian used to tell me this - that the Italians just knew how to carry themselves - and I assumed he was simply enamored of them in general (and so he is). But once I went there myself, I saw what he meant.

The old, the infirm, the pre-adolescent - nearly everyone there seemed to look me straight in the eye, and present themselves with a complete lack of shame. Even when we say "lack of shame" here in the U.S. of A., we're implying shamelessness. As in - that's a bad thing. Why do we value shame {ahemPuritans} {ahem1950s} {ahemFEARBASEDOBEDIENCE}? Shame is very ugly and insidious. It's a message too many of us carry around and broadcast: Do not give me what I want; I am unworthy; anything good I receive is a miracle. Ugh. Presenting it as a virtue is one efficacied-up thing about this country, for sure.

The Italians (generalizing here, I realize, but:) The Italians somehow learn to work what they've got, to believe that there are people who will want what they've got, and perhaps they'll never find those people if they don't put it out there all the time. Not showily, and not with tremendous effort - just as a way of being. You don't walk into a room. You WALK INTO a room. A public square isn't something to be gotten across. It's someplace YOU are CROSSING.

We way-Westerners reduce this to saying that sex appeal is about confidence, but that doesn't cover it. A) It's not just confidence, but a larger perspective, and B) it's not only sex appeal! That's just what we put on it! It's bearing, man. It's your moment-to-moment engagement and communication with the world at large.

This is a radical idea for me, in spite of what people who've only known me in my adult life may assume. Sure, maybe a positive attitude and outgoing approach should be easier for me, with my hair/weight/sex/uality. But it isn't. And it isn't easy in part because I can still feel my 14-year-old belly folding around my jeans waist, or rubbing against my gym shirt during "running" the mile, as though it was this morning. The abject shame of that lives, one of those insidious ideas that once imagined can't be entirely eradicated. Should I just get over myself? Yes. Sure I should. I'd love to. And in some moments, I do, and those are awesome moments.

Perhaps the idea would seem less radical, or my feelings would be less inextricably entwined, if it was only the angst of my youth that gave me my perspective. Maybe if it had only been that elementary-aged kid following me as I walked home from high school, daring me to respond by laying every fatness adjective across my soft back that he could think of, maybe if the bullying was all, then I could embrace this release of shame after all. But I also have a mother, who has struggled with herself over her weight her entire life. Who, in photos from her youth was certainly somewhat full-figured, but also beautiful. Who sacrificed her body utterly for the sake of bringing me and my sister into the world, and never gave up trying to "improve" that body afterward through senseless diets. Who detached from her body, and its sensations and responses, so thoroughly that she was amazed in middle age to discover that it had some important information to communicate with her brain about her mood, and her health, and her overall being.

Now too I have watched my wife throw her body on the circumstance of motherhood, watched it transform itself and be wrenched about by doctors, watch it knitting itself back together and watch her work at accepting where it is, where she wants it to be, and where it may not be able to go. I see much more work and will, not to mention intelligence, go into those transformations than ever I was capable of in my small struggles. And I see the grief endured by both women that I love more than almost any other, as the rest of the world casually maligns them, assuming a standard imposed on it by wish fulfillment and power fantasies. People will call them by this word, "fat." I see this, and I see my baby daughter, and I want so much to be so different. Right away, right now.

Maybe we'll all just move to Italy once our lease is up. Ci vediamo!

Found here, which is just...wow.
So, where does that leave you and I, in our wonderings about body image and making sexy duck faces in Facebook photos? I take all that baggage and the stunning Mediterranean example, and just try to present myself with a little pride, while keeping my self-perception as accurate as possible. That's not the same thing as our "Italian" ideal, but it's the closest I can come so far. When we were in our circus days, training regularly, I used to comfort myself with regard to my physique with the mantra, "It's not about how you look, but what you can do." As I've gotten older, that's no less true, but frustrating at times - because age, dang it, makes me have to work harder to be able to do the same things.

So my suggestion is that you boost what you already occasionally do, depending on circumstances - take an unapologetic approach to presenting yourself to people day-to-day. In fact, I think that's the concerning part for me - hearing you fret over anyone else's perception. Try to let go of your concern about how some one person preconceives your physique. Own it. Focus on your attributes positively, sans B.S. You can't do a thing about what this or any person likes. Like yourself.

Sometimes that's about losing some weight or gaining some strength, so you feel good. But it's always about how you feel, and perceive yourself.

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