Excerpt from Chapter 1:Life in the panopticon


Panopticon:

 1. An area where everything is visible.

 2. A circular prison with cells distributed around a central surveillance station; proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791.

3. A prison so constructed that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times, without being seen.

I am a fat woman. I have been fat since I was 5. As a young child, I used to hide from my uncle who would poke me and laugh and call me “Fatty” while singing "The Too Fat Polka”— how I hate that song.  Too many times my mother told me I was “as big as the side of a house”. From early on I felt the sting and shame of being too big, too much. The humiliation of being weighed in gym class. The blind date that told his friend, within my earshot, that I was a “dog”.  Knowing I was different and feeling shame for not being slender like other girls, like my mother. And being told too many times, “But you have such a pretty face” as if my body were an aesthetic crime.

An introvert, I am also shy, always a bit ill at ease in large groups or with strangers. Being fat only magnified that shyness. In my early thirties after years of dieting and battling against my weight, I tired of it all. I could not do one more diet, spend one more day obsessing about what I could and could not eat, one more night going to bed feeling an utter failure because I was hungry, because I was losing so slowly or not at all. Perpetually being on a diet meant that my days were filled with obsessing about what I could eat, what was forbidden, mentally calculating the calorie count of every food. And as I slept, dreaming of banquets I could never enjoy. There was only one thing left that I could do – the hard work to stop hating my body, to become able to look at and feel myself without cringing or eviscerating myself with insults and criticism. Simply put I had to give up the endless and fruitless effort to starve my wayward body into submission. The work I did to learn not to loathe my fat body enabled me to go places, to meet people without constantly worrying about how they saw me. I learned a cheery, warm, and pleasant persona for public spaces, because somewhere inside I believed that if I made myself pleasant and easy to be around then at least I could avoid hearing the negative judgments about my body. I was careful to dress nicely, to try to act like I felt pretty. And as long as I didn’t think about it, didn’t start looking at myself from outside myself, I believed in my own magical powers and I could be out and about and forget about the shame I wear in my flesh.  I learned to pull myself way inside my body, away from my skin, away from the surface where I could be hurt, and I could become this sparkling personality and be unaware of my physical self. I could be like the nymph Echo, a voice without a body. The price? Become a body condemned to echo what she hears but not speak her own experience. I could wrap myself in my invisibility cloak of charm and move through the world insulated from the judgments and scrutiny of others. In order to move around in the world, I had to protect myself this way or risk being crushed by the weight and sharpness of looks and judgments I encountered and the shame I pushed down inside. I had to maintain silence.

For almost all of my adult life, I have wanted desperately to find a reason for this fat I carry, some explanation that I could rest on. There had to be some reason that I have this body that everything around me tells me is wrong, is bad, is a mistake or mark of weakness and disease. At times I told myself it is all about biology and genetics, an inevitable outcome of being my father’s daughter, like his sisters and mother, all of them fat women who lived long lives. There is comfort in that explanation because if the reason for my fat is genetic, then it is not my fault any more than my eye color or height is my fault; it is just the way I was made.

Other times I would fall to the other side of the coin and believe the cause lay in my troubled relationship with my mother. I read Hilda Bruch, Marion Woodman, Geneen Roth, Kim Chernin and all those others who led me to believe that if I could just work my way through those issues, then everything would change and I would be normal, I would become thin and stay that way. So I talked and wrote endlessly about my mother and my relationship with her. I told the stories of my childhood with her so many times that they almost seemed no longer mine.

Then I read Fat is a Feminist Issue and once more it all became muddled, this time in feminist politics and the tyranny of the patriarchy. I began to consider again that maybe this fat body is my normal, maybe this is the body I am meant to have and that trying to make it smaller is to be in a constant state of war with myself. Without realising it, I became part of the fat acceptance movement. Identity politics gave me a new way to experience my self and my fat. I could think about this body, my fat body, being the right one for me. I could connect myself with a primal round earthy feminine, an earlier and more generous version of beauty and fertility and womanliness. If I did not press too hard nor look too deeply, I could see that. I dreamed of a fat woman with colored ribbons for hair who danced naked with delight in her own fleshy abundance. I painted her. There were even moments when I felt her.

© Cheryl Fuller, 2016. All  rights reserved.