The minute I started thinking about writing this, I first thought, Oh, okay, writing about weight and body issues and race and heritage…geez, feeling soooooo 1995 here, haven’t I done this before in a zine or something? And then I thought: Kat, you just turned 38, shouldn’t you be over talking out this topic now? And then I thought, Do people really want to read about this kind of stuff? And isn’t this too personal? So talking about this particular constellation of topics — family, bodies, emotions — sets off a lot of resistance in me, and that might make my thoughts on it choppy and uncomfortable to read. There’s no beautiful lyricism here, no calm serenity or wisdom that I usually go for, no well-constructed sentences. There’s a lot of bitter rawness and anger, more than I usually express publicly. But in a way, I felt writing this could be of service to someone else, as well as in me expressing it. So that is my intention, and may you read this and extract some kind of solidarity, understanding or compassion from it.
You know I have been riding horses a lot lately, and it is the best thing. Horses are big creatures; they are massive, beautifully streamlined living machines of muscles, sinew, tendon, and ligaments. They are born to run. They’re incredibly strong, able to pull massive carts and carriages; modern horses are descended from draft horses and warhorses of old. Carrying an average adult woman is not hard for a horse. They can canter beautifully carrying hundreds of pounds of person on their back with no problem.
So you can imagine how happy I was feeling when I stopped by my parents’ house after my riding lesson on Sunday. I had had an awesome time: I rode a trickier, speedier, more headstrong horse, Mister, and had him at a steady, fast trot by the end. We were jamming together, hitting that sweet spot where we listened to and anticipated one another really nicely. It was like meditating, but fast, focused, quicksilver meditation — I was both peaceful and very, very amped.
I pulled into my parents’ driveway, and my dad was working in the yard. He asked how my lesson went, and I chatted happily about how well I did, how great I was feeling, how much I was progressing. And then my dad kind of laughed and joked, “Wow, that sounds great. You mean the horse didn’t complain about how fat and heavy you are?”
I hope you understand me when I tell you, just like that — the feeling of light and happiness just drained out of me, and I was left feel ugly, angry and as misshapen as a troll.
Here are some things I know intellectually: I am not fat. I am very healthy, and I work out regularly and eat well much of the time. I don’t smoke. I wear a French size 38 or a U.S. size 4-6, sometimes an 8 depending on the style and brand. I’m not the skinniest girl on the block, and I never was, but I have never had a doctor tell me I need to lose weight. In fact, most of them note my good cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure. When I had a complimentary personal training lesson at my gym, the trainer noted I have a lot more muscle and strength than the average woman. This is a photo of me in my pajamas in the morning:
See? Not skinny, not fat. I am really sort of just fine. More importantly, most of the time I feel pretty strong, vital and healthy, and I put in mindfulness and effort to feel this way.
Here are some things you should know about my emotional history with my family: my parents have always commented on my weight and my body from a young age. I have grown up with my body being dissected and discussed as an object with potential aesthetic and sexual value since early adolescence. I have been told by my parents that I shouldn’t have an extra bite of ice cream or steak or potato chips because it will make me fat. I’ve been told my stomach’s too big, my waist is too wide, my upper arms too large, my butt is too big. My parents often teased me and called me “chubby” and “fat” when I was going through puberty and then adolescence. They thought they were being cute, perhaps. But inside, I was always torn up over it. I was smart and clever, but that wasn’t enough: I wanted to be beautiful, because being beautiful got you treasured, appreciated and cherished, and I knew I wasn’t beautiful. I remember standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror when I was 12, punching myself repeatedly in the stomach because I hated that it stuck out. I felt such agony and self-loathing at a young age.
Maybe I felt this most intensely is because I come from a family of sisters, and compared to them, I am the largest. I have three sisters, and we all have different body types: there’s a tall, lanky one, an hourglass one, a skinny beanpole one. I am the biggest, most muscular one, the one with the most athletic build. I’m the one that gets pulled in whenever a heavy box needs moving, because I’m the strongest one who can do it. I’m the only one who ever really excelled at sports and physical activity in my family, because I have the sheer strength, endurance and coordination to be good at them. I’m also the one who got the most body-policing in my family.
I grew up really angry and rebellious in part because of this, feeling like I got a raw deal. My feminism comes from a visceral, emotional place because of my family history. I intimately understand what it is like to be objectified, to be reduced in value and visibility because your body doesn’t conform to an ideal. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle I didn’t develop a full-blown eating disorder, but there’s definitely times in my life when my eating habits were fucked up. I spent a week on diet pills once when I was 15 or 16, throwing them away once I realized how utterly fucked it all was.
Of course, this is also complicated by the fact that my family is Asian, and it’s been my experience from talking with other Asian-American women that Asian parents often talk to their daughters this way: this constant niggling about bodies, this policing of food and weight. I knew this was a cultural thing, but I really never quite understood it in a visceral, immediate way until I went to Thailand as an adult. Everywhere around me — at restaurants overhearing conversations at the other tables, watching other families, listening to some of my uncles talk about women — women’s bodies and beauty are policed, dissected, evaluated, judged. It’s endemic to the patriarchal nature of those cultures, where women aren’t valued for their accomplishments, their intellectual labor, their artistic or ethical contributions, their spirit or soul, or anything else but their beauty and conformation to traditional feminine roles.
I could go off on an academic/intellectual tangent here — and maybe the past I would have — but I’ll suffice it to say that it made my parents’ lens understandable, for they grew up in a world where women’s bodies were fodder. So I took it less personally, most of the time. I understood. Understanding has a limit, though — one of my uncles, for instance, liked pointing out how fat I was, calling me the “fat American” the first time I met him. I hope you don’t judge me too badly when I say that when he passed away a few years ago, I didn’t feel much grief, just a blankness where any emotion should be. I barely knew him, and to him I was a body to evaluate and judge as lacking.
But, you know, you grow up, and it gets better. I was lucky on a lot of levels. I had a sharp enough intellect to dissect the intersections of race, sexism and patriarchy happening in my life. I found a community of feminists and other progressive spirits, and sharing experiences like these helped. On an emotional level, I began appreciating my body’s strengths and how it could be a source of pleasure. And though it may not be proper to admit, I fell in love with extraordinary people. Some of those relationships were very flawed and even fucked-up, but in terms of physicality and sexuality, I felt appreciated and even cherished in a very whole, loving, sometimes even tender way in all of them — and that made me feel powerful. It wasn’t the only thing that healed me, but it was a key component.
Even now, as I get older, I honestly and truly feel like my relationship to my body is at its healthiest. Exercise has a lot to do with it — not the mindless working-out to fit into clothes, but pushing myself to run a faster mile, savoring the pleasure of feeling gazelle-like and Artemisian when I’m running on a nature trail or by the river, feeling that ache of hard work, the rush of endorphins. I take pleasure in seeing the muscles of my legs define themselves as I walk. I love to feel my muscles stretch and relax in twisting yoga poses. I love the more intimate understanding I have in terms of the relationship between food, bodies and energy, observing how eating one thing affects me this way or that way.
Now, my physicality is a source of pleasure, power and strength for the most part. For me, it’s foundational in feeling sovereign in my life and my self. Sovereignty is a big idea for me lately — it’s a lofty term, semi-royal perhaps, but I like how it connotes a steadfast power and ownership of self. When you are sovereign, you know how powerful you are, and how your words and actions impact the world, how instrumental you are in shaping your experience and relationships — and you see that responsibility as an opportunity, not a burden. You own it. And for me, loving, accepting, appreciating and honoring your body and all its pleasures and capabilities — from sex to wellness — is a powerful way to access that sovereignty.
Of course, I get derailed. Sometimes I’m like “Ugh!” when I try something on and it looks awkward in the dressing room. Sometimes I get derailed at a certain point in my menstrual cycle and I feel bloated and icky. And of course I got derailed by my dad’s joke, at least for a few hours. I felt that toxic flash of self-loathing and anger that so often characterized my teenage years. And this all triggered that spiral of shame, anger and sadness, a triple helix of grossness I hadn’t felt in a long time — one I’d kept at bay for some time, even now, when I’m going through a bit of a love-tumult and was trying to keep my center and equilibrium. Maybe the love-tumult made me more vulnerable, and maybe it made me hyper-sensitive — and I’m already a highly sensitive person to begin with. But I took my dad’s jibe hard, and it set off a contagion of doubt, misery and sadness. I went to bed that night feeling just icky.
Sometimes when you do a lot of “working on yourself” — ewww, I hate that term but there you go — you gather a lot of insights and tools, and it’s easy just to jump to them to stop feeling the pain. But I’ve been into this idea of just letting you have your emotions and feel them. If you feel sad, just sit there and be sad for a moment. If you feel angry, just be angry — punch a pillow, swear at the TV, write an angry letter and burn it, whatever. Let it rise, and then pass. Let it rise, and then pass again. It sounds good and enlightened, but it feels really awful sometimes, because who wants deep lingering patriarchal resentment, self-loathing and momentary flashes of depression in their life, even just for a few moments, minutes, or hours? These things are deeply uncomfortable and make people feel sad, and flawed, and defective. I don’t want to feel like my misshapen, deformed 14-year-old self again.
But I’m starting to see the importance in allowing yourself to experience your emotions in a safe, tender, respectful way, in a way that doesn’t harm yourself or others. Because repressing shit is bad, and often leads to emotions becoming unconscious behaviors, which are a lot harder to unravel. And in a weird way, it was strangely enlightening to return to my adolescent self again, to the young girl who hated her body and felt unloved and uncherished by the people who were supposed to help her feel that way. It made me appreciate how far I’d come though my own efforts and decisions — and helped me to realize, in my own small way, I can choose to feel that sense of sovereignty again, because I created it in the first place.
I went to bed that Sunday feeling completely shitty, but I woke up the next morning in an okay mood. I was alive. I had ten fingers and ten toes, and all my senses were operational. I had a whole day ahead of me.
And I made a choice to treat myself as kindly and gently as possible — kind of like if I was my own child, I suppose. I took the time to make myself a good breakfast. I went to the gym and did an easy bike ride, letting myself ready silly magazines instead of pushing myself. I worked on my latest novel and hit a good milestone that I celebrated with champagne. (I believe the key to a good writing practice is a glamorous reward system.)
And you know, I gained my equilibrium. I could have chided myself for over-reacting over what one could interpret as a poor attempt at humor on my dad’s part — but that would’ve been dishonest and inauthentic to my past self and my present emotion. But I don’t have to be enslaved to that pain, either — so I chose to move on, to forgive, to accept that my dad is the way he is, to love him anyway. I wish I could experience the feelings of acceptance and of being truly known that I long for in my relationship with my dad, but it just may not be in the cards for us. And that’s fine, because love and intimacy aren’t the same things, and he loves me in other ways and I’m alive to that. And he’s got his own shit to work through and make peace with, his own private disappointments and sorrows that no doubt color all his life, and that may never quite be resolved.
A long time ago, I was reading some Buddhist theology, some hardcore stuff about the illusion and experience of the self — real esoteric and out-there. I forget where I heard it, but I remember a monk talking about the “miasma” that we are as human beings: a bundle of thoughts, emotions, feelings, past experiences, and future desires, all constantly churning, reacting, coalescing and dissolving. I think a lot about that idea, especially now that I’m older and can see the way that our past colors the present, and how even the future we lean towards shapes our experience in the present.
We can be undone by something in the present that seems to echo of our pasts so easily. And there’s nothing wrong with that — it just means we’re human beings. It means we’ve done some living. It’s just another color to add to that miasma, and maybe by the end of my life, that miasma is less a tiny universe of chaos, and more of a gently flowing, ebbing harmony, in tune with something a lot larger than myself.
Tags: body image, Buddhism, fathers, feminism, patriarchy