Partly due to my longtime struggle with binge eating disorder (BED), my body weight has visibly fluctuated ever since I was a teenager. The added or subtracted pounds function as physical proof that my eating habits aren't always stable, and I've noticed that people tend to think it's kosher to say anything they want about the differences my body goes through. Friends, teachers, parents, and coworkers have always seemed comfortable commenting on my recent weight gain or loss. It seems to come naturally to them, like mentioning how much they like the shoes I'm wearing.
It's been even worse these past few years since I started teaching yoga, as if my entry into the fitness world gives others the right to chat about the size of my waistline. Sometimes, comments about my body take the form of casual conversation. Other times, they're sharp remarks that border on rude. All of it is nothing short of body policing disguised as compliments.
Quite frankly, I'm fed up with it, and I'm worried that the consequences will catch up with me, and with women everywhere. Our whole society polices the way our bodies look and move, and it's taking a serious toll on our health. Studies have shown that women who are constantly body-shamed suffer from more health complications than those who aren't. They wrestle with more profound depressive symptoms and higher chances of getting infections.
I thought long and hard about this one night, with a joint in my hand and my best friend on the phone. We talked about how annoying body policing is, and how it makes the fight to love ourselves as we currently are even harder. While we were chatting, I had a delirious idea that sounded genius at the time: What if I actually recorded all the ways people police our bodies on a daily basis?
I planned to be on my toes for the next week and totally prepared for whatever comments came my way. According to Urban Dictionary, body policing can be defined as, "The informal practice of policing one's physical appearance because it does not conform to social norms, or is not deemed appropriate for a particular setting." I kept in mind that not all body policing is wrapped in criticism or negativity — there are times when it's cloaked in a cheap coat of flattery, and I had every intention to record those incidences as well.
I pulled out a little notebook to carry around with me, which was more for jotting down my immediate emotional reactions than it was for recording details. I didn't give myself any rules about how to respond to the body policing, but I did kick off this experiment with a promise that I would at least keep my cool in the face of danger.
Days 1 & 2
I strategically chose to embark on this adventure at a time when I had just gained some noticeable weight. I'd just spent a couple weeks in Seoul, trying out every Korean dish known to mankind without exercising at all, so although I didn't know how many pounds I gained (I literally have not stepped on a scale that wasn't in a doctor's office in over six years), I did know that I was having a lot of trouble fitting into anything in my closet that didn't have an elastic waist.
I jumped on Facebook after breakfast and saw that a friend of mine from college had just commented on my profile picture, which was taken several months before. He wrote, "Skinny Gina! Lookin' GOOD!"
Skinny Gina?! Who the f*ck is Skinny Gina? I thought to myself. I didn't care if he was telling me I looked good. In fact, reading that was a reassurance that I didn't look good now, having gained some weight. I got nauseous, and I suddenly felt like diving into a tub of gelato. I grabbed the closest thing, a bag of potato chips. So there's no doubt about it: Having my body judged by random men via cyberspace definitely triggers my BED.
The next morning, that guy's Facebook comment was still on my mind. I kept seeing the word "GOOD!" in my head in all caps. At the gym, at my desk, and even in the car, it hovered over me and I couldn't shake it. I didn't think it made much sense to reply to his comment and instruct him to never call me "Skinny" anything again, so I wrote all my angry retorts that weren't appropriate for social media in my journal and did a few self-love exercises I learned years ago in therapy. I went to sleep feeling OK at best, but a little shaken.
I dragged myself to the yoga studio where I was teaching a morning class and plopped my things down behind the front desk. I was still a little hungover from the social media slap in the face, but I tried to stay energetic. There were over 40 people in the room, which made it a lively, enjoyable 90 minutes of stretching and sweating. I wrapped up class feeling way better than the day before.
As all the students were filing out, high from their own endorphin rush, I stood in the lobby to answer any questions they might have, as is custom. Two women walked by with huge smiles. One of them pointed to the gold pair of yoga leggings I was wearing and said, "Those are so cute!" I returned her grin and thanked her.
"Look at her figure, though. She can wear stuff like that," her friend said.
"Yeah, seriously," the first woman replied. "Your legs are amazing. You're not, like, small, but you look, like, strong." It all ended abruptly because there was a student on their heels who needed to chat about an injury she had been dealing with, a topic that actually deserved my attention.
Obviously, these women were not putting me down. They meant well. But let's break this down: First of all, don't look at or comment on my figure. I didn't ask you to. Secondly, are we seriously still stuck on this hackneyed belief that women should wear certain clothes according to their figures? Thirdly, the whole "strong not skinny" thing needs to be put to rest. It's a backhanded compliment that shows how uncomfortable people are with frankly saying that there are some parts of my body, like my thighs, that are bigger than average.
I returned home exhausted, not because this was the first time these things have been said to me, but rather because it was the first time I was intentionally mulling over them in my head. Part of me blamed myself and said, You opened the door for this when you started teaching yoga. People are going to look at and judge your body when you're in fitness. Maybe so, but just because I choose to teach a form of exercise, that doesn't give anyone the right to scrutinize my figure and decide which leggings suit my shape.
I had recently arrived at my parents' house for one more visit before flying back to Australia. I knew something juicy was about to transpire, since my parents have always been vocal about the shape my body is in. It comes from a place of caring, but it's a form of trolling all the same. Sure enough, on the second day, as we were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, my dad and I got into a stupid discussion about the healthy fats in coconut oil. We argued about their health benefits, and whether they contributed to weight gain.
He turned to me and said, "So what happened that made you put on that extra weight? You're, you know, thicker than the last time I saw you." I stood there frozen and tongue-tied.
"I mean, don't get me wrong, you look great at this weight and I actually think you look better this way than before, but you're just, you know, bigger," he said, tripping over his own words. I mumbled something incoherent to escape, then sulked off (to my childhood bedroom, no less, which added another bonus layer of humiliation). For a moment, I felt like I was in elementary school again, when my older cousins visited and told me I was going to "turn into a whale" if I kept eating. The same feelings of shame and guilt were present again, decades later as an adult.
The sting of what happened on Day 4 wasn't gone, so I acted out poorly when nighttime hit, as I tend to do when something is gnawing away at me. I binge ate. I flew through all the leftovers in the fridge, baked and ate a beetroot brownie cake, and fished out the old vanilla ice cream in the back of the freezer. I was doing everything I could to numb the voices that kept coming at me in all directions, telling me that my body would never be "slim" or "normal." The food coma I fell into was certainly comforting for a while — that is, until I woke up the next morning with a swollen tummy and a pounding headache.
I blew off some steam and tried to regain my composure by having an active morning. I worked out — in the same gold leggings that generated so much attention at the yoga studio — and made myself a special creamy cacao smoothie. Getting my heart rate pumping and fueling my body with fancy-sounding nutrients helped rejuvenate me, much to my delight.
On the final day of the experiment, I took myself out to celebrate the end of this emotionally-tiring experiment. I went to my favorite cafe, treated myself to a decadent lunch, and relished in some alone time. I hopped on social media again, this time totally prepared, and saw yet another comment on one of my yoga pictures. A girlfriend I met in South America couldn't help but make a remark about my recently developed "curves," as she called them. She also wrote, "those guns tho!" To be clear, I hadn't touched a set of weights in a very long time, so all I can do is assume that she confused newly added size with newly added muscles.
At this point, I was over it. I was done wasting my energy trying to sift through comments in order to decide which compliments were back-handed and which weren't. I shut down my computer, and sipped slowly on my chai latte. The voices began to fade away, slowly but surely.
I recently read Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein, co-creator and star of Portlandia and lead singer of Sleater-Kinney. She shared these lyrics from one of the songs she wrote: "A woman's pain / never private always seen / I want to close my eyes / I want to cut the wires / I want a day not made for you to see." At the end of the week, I revisited these lyrics over and over again in my mind, feeling them resonate in profound ways. I longed for a day not made for other people to see, to judge, to tell me what I should or shouldn't look like.
People who are disabled, queer, or plus size have faced a lot worse, and I would never chalk up my experience to theirs. However, having spent the whole week jotting down each and every moment of my own body policing has helped me gain even more compassion for all of them. It was a stern reminder that we need the body positive movement more than ever.
Honestly, I wanted to come out the other side of this week with tougher skin and brighter hope for the future of our society. As you can see, that didn't exactly happen. If anything, I was reminded of how cruel the world can be to women, and how quickly even the most innocent of compliments can take root in our minds and eat away at us. I fell into a binge eating rut from the anxiety comments about my body caused me; living proof that women's health does indeed suffer from the constant enforcement people try to put on our bodies — even when it's supposedly "positive" reinforcement.
Images: Gina Florio; GinaMFlorio/Instagram