Content Notice for Body Image & Eating Disorders
Once upon a time, society told me that my worth began and ended with my body. More precisely, I, like everyone else in my context, had been born into a society where other people thought that a designated-female person’s body held the beginning, the end, and everything in between when it came to her value.
I grew up in a particular version of Purity Culture where more was less in terms of how much of your body you revealed; the more you covered your body, the better of a person you were assumed to be. Women and girls were judged by the fit of their dresses, the opacity of their leggings and tights, the arch of their brows, the polish on their fingernails. Their faces were scanned for traces of makeup and religious teachers consulted about the Sharia legality of brown eyeliner on brown skin. A secret point system existed that was used to assess the merit of female human beings and decide how they were to be treated: Avoided, Befriended, Befriended Closely, Befriended Closely Enough to Ask for Marriage to a Male Relative.
In the broader context of society, the point system was more obvious, the scale by which my value assessed more literal. My awareness that less was more began with playground bullies, some of whom were relatives, and was later confirmed by doctors and other medical professionals. Before that, my higher-percentile height and weight were considered assets, signs that I was growing up healthy and strong and fast. At some point, the numbers began to weigh my value down, what once indicated success mutating into an a sign of failure. “Big girl” went from being a compliment to a slur practically overnight.
Since even starving myself didn’t make me skinny, I threw in hard with the former More is Less system. Covering myself up as much as I could without invoking the ire of certain relatives who didn’t want me covering my face had the added bonus of shielding my fat body from the world. When I wore bike shorts and a t-shirt, my list of defining characteristics had “fat” placed squarely at the top. Swathed in an ankle-length skirt (no slits, of course), baggy tunic, and carefully-draped headscarf, I primarily looked “Muslim.” “foreign,” or “conservative.” Fat only entered the equation with the more cruel of the bullies and at the doctor’s office (or, in the case of one particularly odd office, the dentist. To this day, I have no idea why that dentist insisted on weighing us).
Freeing myself from the nebulous point system that is the Muslim Purity Culture with which I grew up was fairly easy once I left Islam. Without religious belief bolstering the claims that led me to cover up, I no longer had any such reasons to do so. In the 15 or so years between starting to wear hijab and unwrapping my body for exposure, I’d forgotten just how much people’s judgement of female-appearing types relies on size. It all came back with the taunts of “fat”, and worse, the micro-aggressive passing-over and erasure of me by people on matters that had nothing to do with my body size and/or their particular sexual aesthetic tastes.
Total freedom from fatphobia has yet to come for me, and I expect it will never happen. Yet, despite the best efforts of society and its more body-policing members, I have come a long way in terms of my internalized fatphobia. My implicit response to my body is no longer to recoil with disgust. I don’t automatically grow suspicious of anyone who expresses non-platonic interest in me and don’t always assume that they are mocking me or have some other ugly ulterior motive. When someone who is more conventionally attractive than I am flirts with me, I am no longer wholly unable to recognize it. I think I look nice when I make an effort with my appearance rather than feel I owe society makeup and nice clothes to compensate for the amount of adipose tissue under those fashionable layers. At my bravest and most confident, I wear crop tops and other clothing items considered verboten for people whose stomachs aren’t wholly flat.
Less is no longer more for me. I don’t judge myself based on either the straightforward or the more complex appearance-based point system into which I was born. I know that, though it is part of who I am, I am not exclusively my appearance.