Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The F Word

It gets used a lot. We've all said it. Some of us sparingly, some with carefree ease. It gets shouted across streets, across rooms, casually thrown into conversation to make a point, sometimes in jest and sometimes out of spite. Other times it's just a plain old description.


There, I said it. Shocked? Probably not. It's not a swear word; it's not even technically a descriptor for something inherently bad. Why then (and please pardon the pun) does it carry so much weight?

Lately I posted something on my Instagram about being a 'fat girl running'. It was just a comedic tag line to go with a comedic photo, and it was an accurate description - I am fat, and I was going running. One person immediately responded: 'you're not fat!'. Oh really? Tell that to my BMI. They then went on to list all the 'nice' things I was, presumably as a counter-measure to the F-word I had deployed. I assured them I considered it possible to be all those things as well as fat; the two states (niceness and fatness) were not mutually exclusive. They seemed to get my point and the whole exchange was really very amicable, but it highlighted something to me that I had been increasingly aware of for a while - the very obvious fact that for most people, 'fat' is a dirty word, and means a hell of a lot more than just what the dictionary will tell you.

This won't be news to anyone reading this, so I won't patronise you with definitions from said dictionary, but I'm starting at what we know: that words are capable of taking on meaning and emphasis way beyond their original purpose. Moral weight is applied; social norms are considered; much can be implied in the context of use. When I was in primary school I learned that fat was a storage method for extra energy, used by our bodies to help keep us warm, and often accumulated just before a growth spurt and puberty. I might have learnt that it wasn't healthy to have too much fat, but I can't remember that part being emphasised, to be honest. I never worried about whether I was or would become fat, I just knew what fat was. It was only when I heard others discussing fat as a thing to get rid of, to be ashamed of, and began to compare myself to the girls and women around me, that any kind of moral meaning appeared for fat. Older sisters of friends would pinch at their bellies in apparent disgust, swap diet tips, describe food as 'naughty', and call other girls fat in a tone that implied fat meant all sorts of other, worse things. Even as a pre-teen I was starting to learn the F-word and why I should so obviously fear it.

There are other, older blog posts I've published about my own body image struggles - weight loss, weight gain, self acceptance, all those sorts of things - so I don't want to go into that as much here. What I'm really interested in right now is the anatomy of fat as a term - why it has this power, whether it should, and how people are addressing it. So right off the bat, here are all the meanings I've seen ascribed to the term 'fat', and what they imply by extension.

Fat means...

Lazy (you can't be bothered to lose weight to be thin, thin equalling normalcy).
Dirty (if you can't be bothered to lose weight you're not looking after your body, therefore you can't be bothered to wash and you probably sweat more because you're fat).
Stupid (clever people would know that being fat was bad).
Slutty (you're not conventionally attractive so obviously you'd say yes to anyone).
Poor (you can't afford healthy food or a gym and you don't get good jobs when you're fat).
Unattractive (because only thin is attractive, to all people everywhere).
Unhealthy (fat people are only fat because they clearly don't exercise).

These are just the ones I've observed personally enough times to convince me it's a widespread mode of thought and not just a few people using the F-word this way. I think it's fair to say that of this bunch, the only one which a lot of people would argue was justifiable is the health argument; we live in a health-conscious society and the responsibility to maintain our health for the good of our families and society, so we don't become a burden on the health services, has been a strong feature in public discussion for some decades. I would argue this is a wider issue than fat, although fat plays a part, and that unless someone is medically qualified and familiar with a person's medical state, they probably shouldn't be making that call. Often concern for health seems a thinly-veiled excuse to call someone out on the unacceptability of their fatness, regardless of the degree of fat, whether it's under that person's control, or the fact that plenty of health problems are not fat-related and occur in non-fat people, or cannot be externally diagnosed. Fat is a factor in health: that's a fact. But it's not the only one.

When you've got all these assumptions to contend with, no wonder fat has become a dirty word. Why would anyone want to be fat, or identify as fat, when that's what people take it to mean?

Something that has interested me along this vein lately is the terminology used by body-positive activists, the plus-size clothing and model industry, and others involved in the broader discussion of bodies in the media. The vast majority of these are women, not because the issue doesn't apply to men or because they are excluded, but simply because women's bodies are so much more politicised in society than men's are; women are told so much more what they should or shouldn't look like. The ideal is always before us, and the ideal in the Western world is not fat. Interestingly, those groups and industries which are involved in promoting body acceptance regardless of size, or providing clothing for fat people, are often still shying away from the word 'fat'. The most popular alternative term is 'curvy'; it's innocuous, it can be applied to any woman, any human for that matter, but 'curvy' has become a loaded term as well. For some, it sums up the epitome of hourglass, full-figured yet still attractive womanhood, a code for 'acceptable fat', implying that some kinds of fat are ok, but others aren't. For others, it embraces all degrees of the female body, but shies away from the negative connotations of fat. Recently the hashtag 'curvy' was removed by Instagram due to a vast number of pornographic images which had been uploaded using the term, but was re-instated after widespread outcry that this was an example of punishing women for the appropriation of their word by others who had sexualised it. It wasn't just the loss of a word that was the issue - it was the fact that this word represented an entire community, a mindset, a collective attitude toward the female body that thousands of people felt was positive and necessary. 'Fat' has probably never had that kind of power.

And yet, it is just a word. It is just the state of having stored energy attached to your body, possibly in larger amounts than biologically necessary. It isn't a descriptor for all that a person is; it doesn't have to mean more than exactly what it is. And it doesn't have to be taboo. To take back the F-word and strip it of its negative power is simply the work of deconstructing the myths around it, challenging the assumptions, and not being afraid to call a spade a spade. To question meaning and social constructs is a healthy part of our personal development but also, in my view, a crucial action in a society which is still image-obsessed and fraught with emotional and physical dangers for those growing up into it.

I am fat, in that I have fat on me, approximately two stone more than a BMI chart tells me I should. I am fat, and I carry this fat with me, and it contributes to a shape I have learned to love and will continue to love whether it loses fat or gains it, because this is my body and I will live in it for the rest of my life, whatever size it happens to be. I am fat, and I do exercise and eat healthily most of the time, even if my physical appearance doesn't indicate it in the expected and accepted way. I am fat, and I do not believe that this makes me, or anyone else, less valuable as a person.

Monday, 7 September 2015

So Long Sweet Summer

The days of bare legs and sunshine clothes are drawing to a close, as golden leaves and bonfire smoke are hot on their trail, carrying the promise of crunchiness underfoot and visible breath clouds on crisp mornings, in which I can pretend to be a dragon blowing puffs into the sky. I've held on to the dregs of 'beach season', when I only went to the beach once and that was in the rain, but now I'm ready to surrender to slippers, scarves and raking the garden, trying not to stumble into dew-decorated spiders' webs and hoping to goodness none of the spiders get inside my house. It's a vain hope of course; they always do.

Here is my bright yellow summer swan-song, shod in flimsy dampened suede, twirling away the rest of my summer dreams into autumn realities. In the twilight space between seasons the skies are capricious, and the garden teetering between lush and dank depending on the gifts they bestow. I don't venture onto the lawn barefoot anymore, and suspect that just as it's dry enough to be mown it will cease its growth spurt anyway, as if the onset of Autumn slows nature down. In reality it can seem the briefest season, easily blinked away between late summer warmth and early winter frosts - a season of hurried fire-coloured flurries, insistent winds that tug at reluctant branches, sudden sunsets and bright blue dawns.

While nature prepares to power down, shedding summer finery and drawing us into dreams of festivities now not so far off, I'm still getting into gear for the onward push. I've spent the summer planning and learning, growing, not an overnight shoot but a season-long slow burn that's pressed through the cracks in my experience. Leaving behind the summer is like leaving a training camp, hardened by testing and a little sore, but keen for the next assignment.

Autumn to me is like a Phoenix, blazing into flame knowing full well that a glorious rise from the ashes is just around the corner in Spring's swift bud. Autumn takes the year's cycle out in magnificent style, bold and effusive, unapologetically strong. Its winds may seem destructive, but Autumn understands that the cycle demands sacrifice: that nothing new can be created without the old making way for it. It works not on decimation but on renewal, as year on year old coats are shed and fresh life reaches higher, further than before. Autumn proudly shows its colours, fierce yet stately, and of a rare day quiet and still, inviting wonder. And, in its shining crown, Autumn brings the harvest.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

People in Need of Love

Here we go then: me and my laptop and my befuddled brain, typing out whatever occurs to me and hoping to goodness it makes some sense to someone. Because if there's anything I've learned this week/month/year, or rather re-learned, it's that I haven't got the answers. I really wish I did. Sometimes I probably act like I do. But I have to be honest - as much as I want to be of significance in this world and do something or things that are worthy and useful and giving, I frankly haven't got a clue how. All I know is that I see needs that I want to fulfil, and I along with the rest of humanity just have to do the best I can to do so. If I can be brave enough; if I can stop being selfish.

My title for this blog is sappy, I know, but there's a reason for that - it's the best summation of humanity and my approach to life that I can possibly come up with. I firmly believe that is exactly what we all are: people in need of love, and not just the romantic kind. I mean filial, brother-to-brother, sister-to-sister even when we are not family, even when we are separated by national or cultural boundaries. I mean parental, in the care and guidance given by a mother, a father, someone who fulfils that role and protects. I mean agape love, love at its ultimate, the love that is willing to sacrifice whatever it must for the best of others.

There are kinds of love in this world that are so often overlooked in pursuit of the emotional eros rush, or subdued for the simple fact that we've developed an awkwardness of expression that prevents us from engaging in anything that could cause us embarrassment. That compassion and care for our fellow-man is a kind of love that should be celebrated and freely expressed is buried under fear of offence, and the very real possibility of being made uncomfortable. Countless times I've kept my mouth firmly shut when I actually knew it was right to try and say something helpful, or check if someone was okay. Also numerous are the occasions on which a well-meaning word of encouragement from someone else has been rebuffed with the lie of 'I'm fine,' because I didn't know how to accept their kindness. The prospect of acknowledging need, and thereby weakness, has our hackles up.

As far as I see it, we've got a couple of problems, and the first is that we live in a society that doesn't tolerate what it perceives as weakness. This might seem contradictory, but please hear me out. Apart from being a child, is there any state of being that doesn't come in for ridicule and judgement from one significant party or another? Those who are less physically strong or able can be left out of sports and physical activities even in school; assumptions are made that they don't try hard enough, and those assumptions follow into adulthood. Those who struggle with academics, regardless of the teaching scenario, their personality type and best methods of learning etc, are labelled 'thick', 'stupid', 'a failure'. Those who carry extra weight, for whatever reason, are vilified for a lack of self control; assumptions are made that they are lazy. The young are dismissed for a lack of experience. The old are dismissed as out-of-date. Women are told they have equality with men but are discriminated against in work and society for having children, not having children, having a career as well, staying at home with kids, wearing certain clothes... Men are assumed to be bullish, brutish, unintelligent, incapable of doing more than one things at once, not a 'proper man' if they are short/unbearded/single/etc. We have labelled our differences as weaknesses, and frankly, there just is no safe ground - some sector of society will always be pulling down another. With this to contend with, is it any wonder we have learned to put up a front of 'I'm fine', and never admit we might be struggling and in need of help? Is it any wonder that we hesitate to offer help, in case we offend someone by implying that they can't cope? Is it any wonder that our best chance of securing love of any kind may seem to be altering the way we come across, our appearance or our personality?

The second problem is the barriers created by the categories we then file ourselves into in order to cope with this dog-eat-dog approach to life. I'm no psychologist and I have no provable theory on this, only my own observations to work with. I don't think it's necessarily a deliberate effort to distance ourselves from one another, just the organic response of many hurt people, or people trying to avoid hurt, that we distance ourselves from that which could hurt us. We want to be invulnerable; to show the haters that we've risen above their hate; to prove that nobody's opinion matters except our own. It's an understandable reaction, and sometimes a necessary one, but in the pursuit of strong individuality, is something of community lost? When I put myself where people can't hurt me, I also put myself where they can't love me, either. And when I detach from a filial perspective of humanity, I can detach from compassion, too.

The truth is that often I am so focused on my own life and on myself that I find it all too easy to overlook the needs of others, just like I ignore my own needs so that I don't have to open up and be vulnerable. I hate people knowing I can't handle something. I hate letting them see a weakness. But without acknowledging that weakness, after a while I can believe my own lie and start to act like I'm superior in some way, and this is what I find so dangerous, because to my mind a superiority complex breeds abuse of power. Gone is the understanding that we are all in this together, and in its place all sorts of uninformed judgements, finely nuanced and maybe never openly expressed, but influencing every action, and every choice not to act. When I let myself think I'm better, I lose my sense of place in humanity, and I fail to be of any use to anyone around me. I become a worse person. And I forget how to love.

I'm not saying all this because I'm trying to morally condemn society or individuals, or imply that my experience is the case for everyone. Like I said at the beginning, I really wish I had the answers but clearly I don't! I'm just hoping that my honest thoughts on this subject might be of interest to some people, and as always with anything I write, that it may spark some constructive discussion on the subject. Personally I don't think that mankind is capable of perfect expressions of love in and of itself; I believe we need some help, and that the best form of love is divinely modelled. Plenty of you will disagree with me on that, I'm sure, but that's what I see as truth. However, I also think that the potential for that perfect love lies within each one of us - the potential for thoughts and acts of respect, of genuine care, of compassion, of encouragement, and even of sacrifice. The acknowledgement of our shared humanity comes hand-in-hand with our responsibility to one another to attempt this love, even if we may fail. It is my sincere hope that I will learn to put this goal above that of my own comfort, realising that strength does not equal invulnerability, but the ability to overcome in spite of vulnerability.