Words by: Rahim Thawer (he/him) @ladyativan
Just be confident in who you are. Fitness is a personal journey. You need to practice self-love if you expect anyone else to love you.
All of these statements are true and yet none of them are particularly helpful.
The pandemic lockdowns were painful for most of us and we needed to self-soothe in a number of ways. The one percent of us who have truly leaned into body-positivity might have been okay. The rest of us probably felt like ‘positivity imposters’ when we struggled with not being in control of the way our bodies changed as our opportunities for physical activity disappeared and take-out and wine became a nightly ritual. And then the first Pride season came around. I expected my seasonal body-related anxiety to set in at the beginning of June 2020. But it didn’t. I was disappointed that there was no Pride to look forward to but overall I was feeling pretty good. It begged the question: was my Summer SAD diagnosis actually about the elusive Pride Body?
What is fatphobia?
We live in a fatphobic world. Just like racism, misogyny, ableism, and homophobia, fatphobia isn’t merely about negative attitudes towards a group of people. It’s a system designed to marginalize fat bodies, create constant reminders of the ways they’re not desired, and keep people desperate to buy into a service or product that will rescue them from this terrible state of being. This is probably why so many of us have credit card debt: being able to participate in capitalism is the easiest way to feel like we’re acceptable humans because the serotonin release and promise of social acceptance distracts us from the realities of being marginalized.
Just about everyone struggles with fatphobia regardless of how they show up in the world.
And, as much as we need to work through our traumas, it’s super important to be mindful whom you try to process this with. If you’re a fat person or someone that struggles with disordered eating, you likely don’t want to be around people who make you feel worse about yourself. Consider some strategies to shut down diet talk. If you struggle with body image and need a safe space to talk (so like everyone), first acknowledge whether or not you benefit from thin privilege. Locating yourself in a context of identity power allows you to be honest about your struggles while also being accountable for the privilege (defined as unearned social advantages) you experience.
Pride in Fatphobia
Gay men are obsessed with their bodies. But we’re not superficial narcissists, I assure you. The gym and body culture in our communities is deeply rooted in shame and, what’s worse, is that it’s folded into envy, which is a heavily sanctioned conversation topic. If we understand shame as an all-encompassing sense of inferiority, we can quickly appreciate that gay men likely experience shame early on in their lives.
We anticipate rejection from the people whom we’re most reliant on and then we fear what will happen when we disappoint them by being different, deficient, or deviant.
Navigating the world with the seeds of shame already planted, the constant grow lights for this toxic plant are the normative boys who don’t have to censor, monitor, or contain their flamboyant expression; instead, they weave in and out of social situations with ease. For gay men, witnessing this brings us to the four-way intersection of shame, envy, grief, and anxiety.
Our focus on bodies may very well be the repressed wish to properly “be a man” and because body sculpting and thinness are (erroneously) equated with good health, our gym memberships facilitate a safe context for the expression of masculinity that we weren’t allowed to claim at an earlier time in our lives. In psychodynamic theory, this defense is called compromise formation.
Have you seen The Normal Heart, Bohemian Rhapsody, Philadelphia, United in Anger, or How to Survive a Plague? Any of these films quickly demonstrate that the advanced stages of AIDS came with a visible indication of illness–muscle wasting in particular. Another reason gay men may be preoccupied with our bodies could be that the first two decades of the epidemic left an imprint on our psyches about how to ensure we don’t look physically ill to avoid being outcast.
In my therapy practice, the most common way my patients come to understand their body focus is the underlying expectation that a different (or “better”) body will bring them closer to new people: friends, lovers, long term partners.
The irony is that the energy that goes into feeling bad about yourself or restricting eating behavior can make it harder to meaningfully connect with others.
The pandemic taught me a number of lessons. One of them is that it’s imperative that I replace my guilt with gratitude when it comes to food. Yes, I gained some weight and I didn’t always feel good about it. But how lucky am I that I continued to move through nearly three years of a global crisis while being able to keep myself well-fed? Of course, gratitude doesn’t magically appear when you consider relinquishing guilt. You first need to grieve the body you once had (or never will have), and the attention you had access to (or once assumed would be within reach). In a fatphobic world, you will lose some cache and it takes time to acclimate to that reality.
At a time when pandemic restrictions have all been lifted and there’s an expectation for us to simply re-enter the world, we may very well be questioning how we understand or identify with our bodies. Don’t hesitate to simply get better fitting clothes and merely be curious about of any shifts you experience in physical and sexual spaces.
My biggest pandemic lesson was that I’ve spent over a decade celebrating my queerness in spaces that offer conditional love and only partial liberation.
I should’ve realized that the first time joked that MDMA was an access need for gay parties. Reflecting on the pandemic, the lockdowns were painful stretches of time where I grieved normalcy, community spaces, dancing, and sensual touch. But I also grieved all the time I’ve lost in my life being preoccupied with bills and diets. My post-pandemic pledge is to divest from people and spaces that find pride in the self-loathing of their bodies.
Rahim Thawer (he/him) is the owner at Affective Consulting & Psychotherapy Services. He’s a clinical social worker and has been working in queer and trans communities for 15 years. Rahim is also a clinical supervisor, curriculum developer, EDI trainer, lecturer, vodcast host, and writer. You can follow him at LadyAtivan.com
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