This is a story of a young woman in her twenties, knowing she was powerful, glorious, radiant, sick and suicidal. She was fat, the fattest among her ceremonial colleagues. But she was powerful, physically and otherwise, and she knew it.
And this is a story of a femme woman in her forties, no longer physically powerful, except in her ability to move a much bigger body—think of the strength it takes! Her still wearing glitter (typo: clitter!) and lots more makeup and glorying in radiance and magic, and yet struggling more and more beneath the never-benign discussions of weight and weight loss that happen around her.
And her praying for her worth and dignity and health-writ-large, no longer suicidal, but perhaps more often gently questioning whether she has lost the right to worth, to dignity. And yet simultaneously working to develop shame-resilience, love, and the absolute conviction in her own radiance and glory, those things that she hangs onto, tooth and nail, demanding that they not be dimmed.
This piece comes from having read an article called “If You’re Right About Your Fat Friend’s Health?” and from a Facebook thread that ensued. And from the private messages I received from people who were too afraid to put their words out where other people I could see them. “I love you, and I struggle…” “I love you, but…”
The Power of Unselfconsciousness
The Power of Community
I jumped up on the tabletop Stone of the North Altar, sitting cross-legged and topless in the July heat, near the center of the ring of Standing Stones, directing people as they moved through the blocking for ceremony coming later that day. I had a script in my hands, showed people their marks, helped their practice projection, poise, position, and most of all reminding them by the seriousness of the task, what it was we were doing together. What it was we would do.
The ritual—the thinking, writing, preparing, directing, organizing, and finally offering ritual—these were what kept body, heart, and soul together for so many years.
I swam (typo: swan! Yet another blog post on that one!) naked with everyone else—why not? Bodies were bodies, after all, and each of us had one. I climbed down the rocks, carefully, granted more carefully than some of my smaller friends, but I made it down the rocks to the waters of Hemlock Hole or into my preferred, more private, somehow more sacred-to-me deepening in the river, Stoneledge Hole.
(I preferred Stoneledge in part, almost certainly, because I swam there, still naked as a jaybird—not that jays are naked, mind you—in January, and nearly got hypothermia.)
I lay on the Sideling Hill Creek’s banks with the marks lovers had left on my body. With suckerbite marks and pink lash marks and a handprint or two, I am sure. I lay in the sun and there was little more than a bit of envious or curious teasing.
Sometimes I lay on that pebbled beach with a new tattoo, covered from the sun. It wouldn’t do to put it into the water, but I couldn’t stay away from that holy place. Still, no sun for new tattoos, and good sunscreen for years thereafter, at least until they were healed enough to swim with.
I was in my mid-twenties, I was camping every other weekend, taking lover after lover, building ceremony and participating in other people’s ceremonies, celebrating Full and Dark moons, observing community and traditions holidays.
This muscular religion was the center of my life.
Are Bodies Just Bodies?
Bodies were bodies. I was fat, but not so fat that I was in the way, at least not mostly. My knees hurt, but not so much I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I was living big chunks of my life in a place where my body was strong and I was even admired for my willingness to go topless, run naked under the oaks, and claim on the pin on my bag, “Why do you I assume I’d rather be thin?”
Eventually, I took that pin off my bag, because while I didn’t wish to be thin, I surely wished not to hurt so much. I surely had become again that people were “reading” my body in ways they hadn’t in years, not since I was a teenager, those times when fat is one of the surest ways to make you an overt target for shaming.
Eventually, the rocks at Hemlock Hole were dragged away by the river and new stones put in year and year again. I don’t know what the set-up is now; I haven’t been there in nearly nine years. My heart twists to write it, even now.
My heart twists out of missing the places, the Circles—Stone, Bardic, and Fire—the swimming holes, the longer walk from the trailer to the Soggy Bottom part of camp. But there are other things.
There is my primary relationship, my marriage, has become the center of my life. There is my moving into Fellowship within Unitarian Universalist ordained ministry. There are so many changes.
And there is knowing that if I were there, there is so much less I could do. There’d be no hopping up onto anything.
Even by the time of my third-degree initiation, my knees were already protesting regularly and forcefully, keeping me from doing as I once would have did. I remember my knee hitching nearly giving out as I walked down to the water’s edge to preside at others’ shared initiation.
Injury after injury to my knees and not daring to go to physical therapy for fear of the most awful lectures I could imagine. And always getting bigger.
I mean, I hadn’t been to a non-psychiatrist doctor in years; I didn’t dare. I went to a gynecological appointment, only to discover that my nurse practitioner had had weight loss surgery and was considered a model practitioner for fat patients. She was kind. She called me, “fluffy.”
Fat people have worse health outcomes in part because we are terrified to go to the doctor, you know. I went in for a sinus infection, and had the BMI wheel brought out. It only went to 30 then. There was no point in showing it to me.
And I got bigger and bigger. And Jonathan blessed my knees in particular during my ordination in 2015, as I sat where others would have stood. I laughed with everyone else, and grieved, and hated and loved them all together.
There’s some story in between here…the pulmonary emboli I had had when I cracked and blocked myself, body, heart, and soul, that year of 2013-14, but that’s for another time. The cellulitis I got the next year and the way my leg is still jacked up.
Health Care That’s Health Care
Finally, I found and went to a glorious primary health care provider. Kim is powerful and loving and smart and knowledgeable and committed to health at every size and (I am not making this up!) Pagan. And it was she who convinced me to go to a physical therapist. And to a mental health care practitioner.
So I did. And they too are kind and good (and even know what Health at Every Size can mean) and I told the physio straight away, “Look, I know my life would be simpler in some ways and my knees much happier if I were smaller, but I’m not. Is there anything I can do anyway?” And she said sure, yes, of course, let’s do it!And she told me that it can take five times as long to gain strength compared to the time it took to lose it. She told me that yes, I have arthritis in my knees. She explained ice and heat.
When I climb stairs, I look like Mo and Jonathan climbing like spiders up a cliff wall sometime before 2001, but I make it up the stairs now, step over step, panting at the end. I used to always have to go one at a time, you know, grasping the railing for dear life.
It’s progress. And it’s so slow I could scream. I do holler sometimes.
And my back hurts. And walking helps lower back pain like nothing else. But I get out of breath and turn red and pant and have to stop at the top. I tell myself—and who knows, it could be true!—that the emboli and the scarring they left have not helped. That my knee injuries, left unaddressed for decades, not even by ice, would be there no matter how big or small I was. Maybe true.
What Is Our Business?
Understand this, and understand it for lots of fat activists: Know that I I know my life would be easier were I smaller. You don’t have to tell me.
And understand this: I know most of you have opinions about my weight, my dearest friends, comrades, and students, and they are none of your business to share and none of my business to worry about.
But we do.
I know it would be easier because children wouldn’t point and stare and say, “You’re SO FAT,” while we were trapped in an elevator together. I know it would be easier because I could get from place to place more quickly, without a can. I know it would be easier because people wouldn’t question my right to have the disability placard that now hangs from the mirror of my car.
I know and that. AND I know other things are true too. I know that pulpits in old churches are not important than my ability to get to them to preach. I know that stairs, what that glorious disability activist of blessed memory called, “the violence of your stairs,” needn’t be there, needn’t block my way to the Episcopal cathedral I’d love to attend regularly.
But the voices, almost as compelling as the ones I used to hear that demanded my death and called me a coward for insisting on living, their cousins still talk. They say that there is fault, blame, culpability, disgust, and that I, as fat as I have become, and as unable as I am now to do what I used to do have earned the revulsion of my peers and of their well-trained progeny.
That is a lie.
Maya Angelou wrote, “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
I tell you the tale, and perhaps it is a complaint. I suspect the poet would find it so. But I tell you the tale as I try to change my thinking about it and as I try to regain and so to change some of the strength of my body.
Do I tell you that I might absolve myself from the worst sin of our culture, that of gluttonous consumption? Do I tell you because I know, I know that some of you want to love to sinner and hate the sin?
Do I tell you so you’ll understand the complexity of knowing that I am limited and that I have no less worth or dignity than any other person?
And why should I have to tell you that? Some of you are reading, thinking, Yes, and…Yes, and so have I felt…Yes, and I know…” and some of you are still thinking, “Yes, but why didn’t you…?”
It doesn’t matter in the end. If things were different, they’d be different.
Love yourselves, fiercely, but not just yourselves. Love yourselves because you are worth loving. And love yourselves to love others, but not only others. Love others because they have dignity and infinite value. And because in loving others, you will see yourself and your own beauty reflected a thousand times.
(image from Be Nourished, see link below)
Finally, listen to these questions quietly, from Hilary and Dana at Be Nourished:
“Might this conversation be different if we hadn’t been taught to enter into it through the door of weight loss or health? What if we entered through the door of inequity, fatphobia and intersectionality?” (This is the most important question in my mind right now, but let them continue…)
“What if we started from love? Where would we be now?
Would we be freer? Would we feel “healthier”? Would we trust ourselves?
What if we just all aimed for being pro-truth? What if we let the illusion die?
What if letting go of “losing it” created the space and freedom to study any other thing in the world (including yourself) with as much energy as has been devoted to your weight?
Could we free everyone?
Could we make acceptance unconditional?
Could we learn to trust bodies?
Would you hear your appetites?
Would you know your hungers?
Could your eyes look with love?
Could we let go of body blame?
Might we actually heal?”