Photo Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
In her third blog for the iVillage blog series CelebVillage, multiplatinum-selling singer Alanis Morissette writes about the double-edged "butter knife" about weight perception and issues in America.
Not much upsets me quite like someone making a declarative and derogatory comment about someone’s weight when they themselves have never struggled with an eating disorder.
To so offhandedly and dismissively reduce someone’s challenging journey to a quip about them needing to eat less hamburgers -- or even the opposite, that they “should eat a sandwich” -- completely overlooks the deeper and subtler complexities at hand (or at heart and mouth in this case). At the very least it ignores the epidemic that is a society obsessed with a rail-thin aesthetic, where once achieved, derides that very same goal as being sickly and dangerous. What’s a well-meaning perfectionistic girl to do?
If ever there were a double-edged butter knife, this would be it. We of the Hollywood standard-affected variety (read: sadly, the world) work tooth, nail and treadmill to adhere to this number (measuring tape, scale and otherwise) that hovers directly below any that would allow for a cupcake here and there, and when we do, we confusingly elicit either concerned looks of admonishment or compliments on “how fantastic we look.” I remember being at my most thin one day, feeling like I could barely drag my lethargic body around, only to be met with the most compliments I had ever received.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America is derided for its obesity levels, while also being a country that is obsessed with skinniness. This all-or-nothing approach is endemic to our Western society. Equally, and perhaps more abrasively, when someone inside the struggle with food tips the scales high above the average Hollywood red-carpet star, comments are thrown out about how indulgent and undisciplined they are.
There’s one thing I know from the inside, and it’s that you will never meet a more willful, disciplined, motivated and nutrient-well-read person than someone who is in the throes of disordered eating! The idea that people with food addictions are undisciplined is yet another gross misperception among many. You will rarely meet someone who has a higher capacity for restraint than someone who is struggling with the pain or fear that symptomatically affects weight.
To derisively discuss fat without discussing our feelings and traumas and our sense of disconnection from our souls, ourselves, and each other, is focusing on the effect and not the cause. This oversight perpetuates the self-abuse that fuels this and many other disorders and addictions.
The relationship to food cannot singularly be addressed through a steely structure-by-diets-and-food-plans alone, or a slap on the wrist. Our addressing why we might turn to food beyond sustenance reasons is part of the multi-layered aspects of being human. Some of them include:
Our emotional worlds: There are often traumas and abuses/neglect that are begging to be healed. Fat can be a way to protect ourselves and survive, a way to control something in a world where everything feels out of control, and a way to stave off profound fear of feeling our feelings. I often find anxiety, fear, boredom, disappointment, loneliness, excitement and grief to be the top feelings food can attempt to prevent.
Our social worlds: We live in a society that specifically discourages the feeling of these feelings. So, we are left to come up with ways to contain our feelings at best, obliterate them at worst. We get crafty in how to squash these feelings, and, food is as good a way to do it as any. There are people who say the societal conditioning and standard is harder for women, but so many men have food challenges that I am hesitant to say it is solely a woman’s plight. And then there’s our critical comparisons to standards that imply that if we fall short of the stick-figure-six-pack-abs template of our times, we are fat pigs. (Zoiks.)
And then there’s the physiological component: Glycemic dips and spikes, depression, hormones, hunger and personal-rhythm-around-food appetite mistrust (interestingly, taught to us from a very early age unwittingly by well-intentioned finish-that-food-on-your-plate-minded parents). There’s thyroid considerations, genetic predispositions, illness, injury and the physical addiction to the additives in the standard American diet. Food can also serve as a comfort that is not afforded us through touch.
So often rather than someone’s weight gain being seen as symptomatic of something, they are automatically labeled “fat” or “disgusting.” Not only is this painfully reductionistic, it misses altogether what could be the antidote and healing balm to this epidemic and only further isolates those involved into a very lonely world of being misunderstood and ostracized.
Fatism is an ‘ism’ like any other, but our culture turns a blind eye toward that particular version of separatism. Perhaps it is our fear of our own frailties and humanity that makes us want to turn the other gaunt cheek away from the fat we see. If we move away from it, we don’t have to look at these complexities within ourselves. Perhaps it’s easier to label a fat person with qualities we don’t like in ourselves than to want to find out more about what their vulnerabilities are and what makes them tick.
I believe an antidote to this and many other pains of the world might be two things: the cultivation of our natural impulse to be curious, to look deeper, straight into the subtleties of what might be going on (in this case, with our relationships to food and fat and exercise. And fostering the brave and bold move of counterintuitively turning toward that which horrifies us, as a way of reducing its hold on us.
I think the effect of applying these two qualities would reveal what I really believe we are as American people at our cores: a compassionate, brave and generous people.
See, my fraught relationship with food and fat has always been a cloaked invitation into a more profound kindness to myself (one I have so often ignored). Being kind toward my fragility in the face of a monolithic message of perfectionism and intolerance has not been an easy path -- nor, I’m ashamed to say, a consistent one. Writing about it helps.
Fat, unlike other more secretive disorders and addictions, is expressed and exposed on the outside for all to see. That being what it is, we’d do well to see “unwanted weight” as that-which-has-yet-to-be-investigated, rather than as a stamp of our confirmed inadequacies.
So for the love of being part of this larger conversation around addressing the pop-culture-sanctioned-fatism, next time we see someone who is yo-yo dieting and has a tortured relationship with food and their body, rather than make fun of them, I beseech us all to pause and offer a little curiosity for what lurks underneath, and, if appropriate, maybe even move toward it.
Maybe this kindness can slowly make those of us in the heavier-than-Twiggy group feel less alone, less relegated, less abandoned. And perhaps then we can, ever so gently, start to accept (and even love) these deeper and more fragile parts in ourselves that are being repressed and expressed through our bodies and food. And in so doing, deliver us back to the wholeness, essential unique expression, and weight we were born to be.