Posted at 19:15 on 26 Aug 2010 by Pandora / Blake
As you'll have already gathered, I've put on weight lately, and I have mixed feelings about it. My weight has always fluctuated a lot - I have different jeans for different times of the month - but I've gone from a size 8-10 to a 12-14 in the last few months, and a lot of my clothes no longer fit. Now, I don't know a single woman in our culture who doesn't have issues with weight and food to some extent, or hasn't had at some point in their life, so I'm hardly a special snowflake. I find unpacking this stuff helpful and empowering, though, so bear with me while I do just that.
Trigger warning: I talk below about my history of food issues and disordered eating - please skip this post if mention of the above is going to hinder your own recovery.
Thing 1: For a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I had badly disordered eating, although I was never diagnosed with a disorder. It was a symptom of depression and anxiety; it started after my first attempt to quit self-harm; it was exacerbated by the stress of graduate education and the weird, petri-dish culture of my small university. I calorie-counted obsessively, careened through a self-destructive starve/binge cycle, and for 18 months or so I abused laxatives quite heavily (don't try that at home, kids - my digestive system has never been the same. Seriously unfun). These days I identify as "recovered" rather than "recovering", but I still have to be careful to avoid certain mental habits, and I'm not really capable of dieting or deliberately losing weight in a healthy way. I've steered my control impulses around food into healthier outlets: low-impact, sustainable food sourcing; interesting vegetarian and exotic cooking; planning elaborate meals and compulsively feeding everyone who ever enters my house.
Thing 2: These days, I'm an advocate of fat acceptance. This has arisen from my feminist and gender egalitarian politics, but although I believe fat is a gendered issue, our culture's fatphobia harms people of all genders. (Of course, it's not only women whose bodies are publically scrutinised and criticised - the whole penis size fetish in our culture is totally fucked up, for a start.) At the personal level, all my partners are heavier than me. I've always been attracted to strong, bulky men and strong, curvy women; these days I'm just less conflicted about it. (I used to be attracted to tiny, fragile women as well, but after three flings in a row with selfish, eating-disordered, manic pixie dream girls, I am so over that.)
Thing 3: My size is extremely dependent on my contraceptives. I take hormonal contraception because without it, I have very long, heavy, irregular periods, bad PMT, and bad skin. I suffered from acne from the age of 9, and as an adult, feeling spotty seriously knocks my self-esteem. The pill controls my bleeding and my moods, reduces my androgen levels and keeps my skin under control. Too much oestrogen and my depression, anxiety and moodswings go through the roof; too much progesterone and I get bad breakouts, loss of libido and emotional intensity. Oestrogen makes me gain weight, progesterone makes me lose it. So the balance I'm striking in my hormonal contraception is between all sorts of conflicting things, and my weight is not actually the most important of them. I'm fatter on my current pill than I would be without it, but I'm also happier, saner and more functional.
Thing 4: I still live in this society, I was still raised in it, and it's a lifetime's work to unpick that level of cultural brainwashing. I talk the talk of body positivity, but battling the impulse to slim down is a daily project for me. It weighs on my mind more than I'm happy with. (The mental hook that motivated me to finally start recovering from my fucked-up eating patterns was the realisation of quite how tedious a person I was. When you're malnourished you're incapable of thinking about anything other than food; calorie-counting is quite literally a full-time job. Shit, but I have better things to do with my brain and my time.) I don't like this stuff taking up valuable mental space and energy; and yet it's like a persistent weed, remarkably difficult to kill.
I'm used to battling down the fatphobic impulses that creep into my thinking when I inspect my rolls of fat, my flab and curves. That's second nature now. But I find myself pre-occupied with a whole host of other issues and irritations. Like clothes sizing.
See, a lot of the size small clothes that I've been valiantly squeezing into over the last couple of years officially now no longer fit. Not even a little bit. I still haven't decided what to do with them. Keep them as costumes for my spanking site, to lend to slimmer models? Keep them with the intention of letting them out or getting them adjusted? Keep them in case my weight randomly goes down at some point in the future, because they took me years to accumulate and good clothes are hard to come by? Or sell them, because their presence is a reminder of my weight gain, and every time I try something on that's too small, I feel bad about my size all over again? Sell them, because I can't afford a whole new wardrobe that makes me feel good without making some cash off the stuff I can't wear any more?
While I'm being indecisive, I'm collecting new clothes in bits and pieces, raiding sales and charity shops for things I can afford. It's reminded me all over again how CRAZY women's clothing sizes are. Here are my current measurements:
bust (fullest part): 93cm / 35"
waist (narrowest part): 74cm / 29"
hips (fullest part): 108cm / 42"
In Primark, I'm a size 8-10, which is just bizarre. In M&S, I'm a 10-14. In Debenhams, I'm a 14-18. In most ranges, I'm two sizes bigger on the hips and bum than I am on top. I never have any idea whether I'm a Small, Medium or Large. My boobs are too small for most dresses that fit over my hips. I can't buy clothes online any more, because the size guides are so wildly conflicting that I just don't want to risk it.
I spent four hours going up and down a big London high street in search of a new swimming costume. I wanted a plain black costume to swim in. Everywhere I looked had a billion bikinis, but only 1 or 2 two full-length suits. Those they had were either horrendously coloured or patterned, far too short for my long body (so that the top didn't even cover my nipples, in a few cases), with narrow shoulder straps that cut into my shoulders and would have made it very uncomfortable to actually swim, or "body shaping". WTF? Since when does a size 12 costume need to be fucking body shaping? This is a weird clothing trend that means "incredibly tight and uncomfortable" in the interests of squeezing your tummy into a more conventionally acceptable shape. Fuck that. I'm going swimming, not walking down a catwalk. I want to be free to use my body, not contorted and squeezed at the cost of my own flexibility and comfort. After trying ten or twelve different mainstream clothing chains I eventually found a size 14 costume that fitted in M&S, by which point I was thoroughly pissed off with the whole clothing industry.
Now, I look like a normal, healthy, pear-shaped weight. I'm bang in the middle of the "healthy BMI" (although as it happens I think BMI is total bullshit). I didn't have these problems when I was smaller; I could be reasonably certain a size 10 or Small would fit. Why has it suddenly got so much worse because I've gained a couple of inches?
So yeah. On the one hand, I have better things to think about and fret about than this shit. On the other, something is seriously broken in our culture in terms of how we think about female bodies and women's clothing, and the only way to deconstruct that is to talk about it. I find myself increasingly fascinated by the semantics of body size and how it relates to gender, sexuality, cultural expectation, the weird and subtle ways in which so many normal body shapes are penalised.
I want to close with some silly photos I took in the bath the other day.
I was fascinated by the way my view changed depending on how I was holding myself. Arch my back and my belly swells into view; push my hips and ribs forward and it disappeared under the water. My boobs are pretty small, but shot from the right angle they look enormous.
Modelling has always allowed me to disengage from the cultural baggage of body shape in this way - it's all about learning to manipulate the camera, which means learning that bodies are subjective, fluid, that people's perceptions can be easily changed. When you can make yourself look fat or thin on demand, it's much harder to take the whole issue particularly seriously.