July 10, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Stacie Worrel
Narrative tension pulses through Jennifer Renee Blevins’s essay collection, Limited by Body Habitus: An American Fat Story. How can a nonfat person write about fat in a fat-shaming society, when even her (fat) family members have told her that fat is wrong? Blevins started interrogating societal perceptions of fat after her father’s catastrophic gastric bypass surgery in 2010. Piecing together doctor’s notes about her father’s medical history with personal stories about her own struggle with body image, Blevins examines how fatness is pathologized by the American medical community. “I am afraid to write about fat,” Blevins says in the preface. “I worry that I’ll piss off skinny people who believe that fat is inherently unhealthy and fat people who believe that fat is never unhealthy.”
I, too, am afraid to write about fat. Like Blevins, I have spent my life policing the fat on my own body while trying to accept the fat on other bodies. In my first year of college, I lost fifteen pounds. Everyone talks about the “freshman fifteen” as weight gained, but it can also be weight lost. I no longer had parents around to buy me groceries and encourage me to eat. When I went home for Thanksgiving Break, my mom said I looked skinny. It was a compliment.
I will always remember the first time a random person called me “petite.” He was a student I tutored. One day when I wasn’t working, he described me to another tutor because he couldn’t remember my name. He called me “the petite girl with glasses.” A thrill shot through me when the other tutor told me the story. Petite. That word had never been applied to me, but I liked it.
In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins relates her experience being seen as skinny for the first time. Relatives and random coworkers notice her eight-month transformation from size twelve to size two. Blevins is “applauded for taking up less space” and learns that her “old size twelve body was monstrous and unwieldy.” The problem with all of the compliments and attention given to someone who loses weight is that it makes us feel like we must have been “monstrous and unwieldy” before the weight loss. We are constantly afraid of becoming “monstrous and unwieldy” again. We eat less, exercise more, and do whatever else it takes to maintain a low number on the scale.
A fat-phobic society encourages skinny people to fear getting fat while telling fat people to hate themselves. In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins looks to her mother as an early fat-shaming influence. When Blevins was six years old, her mother told her that she should want to look more like a skinny girl named Elizabeth. Blevins’ mother continued to criticize her daughter’s weight and physical appearance over the course of her life. Blevins comes to realize that her mother’s criticism was “a form of self-criticism” because “I was supposed to be the better version of her—the one who had the brother and father she didn’t, the one who got to live the life full of achievements and thinness that she had not.”
I am lucky enough to have a mother who never criticizes me for being fat, although she does praise me for being skinny. My mom is one of those people who thinks she is bigger than she is. She is always going on a new diet or trying a new workout routine to lose weight, but she’s always been thin. Watching my mom struggle to lose weight when she already takes up so little space helped me realize that we can’t trust how we see ourselves. We see ourselves the way we have been taught to see ourselves in a fat-shaming society. When we look in mirrors, we look for fat.
Blevins’s book encourages readers to recognize socially-trained impulses and move past them. “Decades of conditioning” tell Blevins to see fat people as repulsive, but her father’s gastric bypass surgery helps her realize that a fat person is “someone living in a world that wasn’t built for them—a world that, in fact, actively seeks to annihilate them.” Blevins’s book outlines how American society tries to “annihilate” fat bodies at the cost of people’s health and well-being. Blevins’s book is important to read at a time when even the medical community continues to see fatness as inherently unhealthy, putting lives at risk to make people skinnier.
Stacie Worrel is a creative writing PhD student at Ohio University. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and Quarter After Eight.