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Every woman and girl knows what it is like to have their body judged by not just the people around them, but also by themselves. I distinctly remember being about seven or eight years old at my friend Amanda’s house playing dress-ups, when I thought to myself as I looked in the mirror, “Well at least I have skinny arms.” Women and girls, overtly and covertly teach each other how to judge and ridicule the bodies of others and their own bodies. Someone, somewhere gets to decide what ‘perfection’ for the female form is, and in my general experience, women are usually the last ones to be asked about this. So if your body does not meet the particular standards of female beauty at any given time, you will be blamed for it. Roxane Gay, like many women around the world, does not have the kind of body that follows the rules of society’s standards of feminine beauty. She is tall, fat, Haitian, tattooed, and queer. As society’s standards go, she is not doing too well in the ‘feminine’ beauty department. As much as I want to shout out a big “FUCK YOU” to these standards, and I am sure Gay would also like to do the same, to assume that we can escape, forget, or easily subvert these standards is also naive. As Gay points out, “Looks matter. Bodies matters.”
Women taking up space challenges traditional notions of masculinity and therefore patriarchal norms. As a fellow tall woman, I can relate to Gay’s discussions on her height, and how this made her a problem in society. To take up space, voluntarily or otherwise, is not supposed to be a female act. I wanted to be smaller and shorter for almost all my life. Sometimes I still wish I could shrink a few centimetres. I feel like this would uncomplicate my life exponentially. Women tend to be ‘too’ something. Either too tall, fat, short, brown, white, whatever… Self-loathing is destructive and yet all too easy for women and girls. The constant monitoring of female bodies, internally and externally, creates a collective fear in women. It reminds me of the self-policing Panopticon from Bentham. Our bodies are gaol cells that look out at other gaol cells and in the distance we see the news and media tower in the middle with tinted glass so we never know if we are really being watched. So we watch each other and police each others bodies out of fear and suspicion.
Gay touches on the body positive movement, which I agree with her as being an important movement for women and in particular fat women. Although as Gay points out, the idea that loving yourself will come easily to everyone and that loving yourself will solve everything is just not going to make everything wrong with the world suddenly stop. Part of the body positive movement should also be about realising that there are women and girls who do not love themselves and are not at the end of the journey where they feel confident in themselves. Some of these girls and women might never quite get there.
The lack of clothing for female bodies that do not fit societal norms is capitalist patriarchal irony at its best. Fatness and more specifically obesity is seen as a world wide epidemic. Everyone is either getting fat or is fat if you are to believe news articles. And yet, despite this growing market of fat women taking over the world there are still no clothes to fit these women. The market possibilities! When people look at me, they rarely think, “FAT!”. But I do gently get told, “Well, you are rather large aren’t you.” And, “You’re not really petite…” I cannot find pants to fit me in most stores. Heck, some pants won’t even go past my calf muscles let alone anything else. My shirts a XL to XXXL because I have broad shoulders. In case you were wondering, I also have the hips to match. Women who don’t tick the right boxes for right size are left out. Don’t even get me started on shoes.
As a tall woman, I’ve been called a man, a beast, an amazon (which I kinda like?), a troll, a fatso, a huge bitch, and a dyke as though lesbianism is an insult or has a height restriction…
The sensationalism around skinny bodies is worrying for many reasons. The most disturbing is the fact that eating disorders that do not follow the traditional narrative— pretty girl gets really skinny and everyone feels sad for her, because she should just learn to love herself, but we are also secretly morbidly fascinated with how small she has become—are ignored. If you binge and purge and put on weight and grow and grow, you must not really have an eating disorder, because they are supposed to make you thin. Gosh, that is just another thing some women cannot get right?! Everyone seems to be worried about female bodies and fat bodies, but only in a superficial way.
Roxane Gay’s story might not be an exact repeat of my story, or any other stories from women for that matter, but it does rhyme. And it is this rhyme scheme that makes Gay’s novel so powerful. Every woman has a story of her body. The silence around female bodies is unproductive and shame-inducing. I am so grateful for Gay’s memoir for this reason: she breaks so many social taboos to put herself out there for all to see and read and what an amazing thing she has done because of it.
Roxane Gay’s novel is outstanding and definitely my book of the year. If you haven’t read it yet, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? As always, share the reading love.