Life in the panopticon

“A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” John Berger

No woman escapes this scrutiny, this policing of her appearance. Have you ever heard a man ask “Do I look okay?” before leaving the house? Neither of my husbands nor my son has asked me that. 

In my book I wrote of what it is like to be fat, to live every day under the scrutiny of others. No matter where I go or what I do, I am almost always surrounded by messages about the unacceptability of my body. The constant examination of the fat body by doctors, social workers and psychiatrists, teachers, lay people, comedians, journalists are in effect attempts to exert a societal discipline to make "docile bodies."  We fat people are meant to feel shame, to feel we are responsible for our weight. We internalize the judgements and endless indictments for our failure to have become slender, for being too lazy or hungry or weak to bring our wayward bodies under control. 

Every time I have hidden my eating from others, or felt too self conscious to eat in public something that I want, like dessert, or have avoided eating altogether, I have eaten the disgust others feel for my body. I eat their disgust and it becomes part of me. Every time I buy my clothes from designated retailers, ones who deign to carry clothing in my size and I accept that I should pay more for clothing generally of lower quality than is available in so-called normal stores, I am buying and wearing the revulsion designers of clothing feel for my folds of flesh and billowing hips and thighs. I worked at making myself be less self-conscious. I can use the word "fat" with ease.  I am able to talk about the assaults, large and small, to my dignity that I encounter every time I leave my house. I can do all of these things. But I can never escape the panopticon. 

So I remain in the panopticon, as do we all. But we, I can work toward having greater freedom. This means being willing to be all of who we are, to take up space, to embrace and enjoy the bodies we have, no matter the size. To direct our anger not at ourselves but at that which would have us be less, be docile, be compliant. 

In taking on actually doing the art project I have been writing about, I responded to a prompt in Effy Wild’s Journal 52 and the invitation to copy what she created, though of course with our own modifications. The prompt : Embodied. It was important to me to make the figure in my painting be round and full. And that she have a head, because fat women are usually shown as headless figures in news photos.(See Headless Fatties). I debated quite a bit about whether or not to post a photo of my finished project. Doing it was for me a learning experience. I successfully took on my resistance to painting and worked my way through the project, with the caring support of the FaceBook community attached to the course. In the end I am satisfied with the outcome even as I do not love it. I do not love it because the colors didn’t work as I wished so the color palette is not one I especially like. But I like her and to hide her after writing about the effort to create her would be to hide myself in a way. So here she is --


© Cheryl Fuller, 2018. All  rights reserved.