Taboo Week: Fat bodies, uneven skin, and the courage to disrupt
The number of more positive articles on fat bodies is finally starting to increase, in the wake of the popularity of ‘plus size’ (ugh I hate that term) models like Ashley Graham, Audrey Ritchie and Tess Holliday. It seems like culture (and capitalism) has finally accepted that we’re getting bigger, and that there’s a lot of fat and thick babes out there demanding better clothes and more representation. Whereas 20 years ago, when I was 22 years old and a size 24, the only place you saw fat women was in the Evans catalogue, you can now find lots of accounts and pages on social media that are dedicated to non-skinny bodies.
However it’s not all groundbreaking stuff. The bodies most represented are still disproportionately white, flawless, smooth, young, and able-bodied like Ashley Graham, and Audrey Ritchie who is a woman of colour – thick and juicy but taut smooth skin, no ripples or marks.
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I’ve yet to see a body like mine reflected back at me. I’m size 16/18 pear shape and 5’11”, meaning I am generally regarded as a ‘small fat’, and as such I do see some representation of my size, such as Graham, Nadia Aboulhosn and Isabel Hendrix. It has meant SO much to me seeing these women confidently rocking shorts and crop tops, whilst looking a bit like me.
What’s different about my body though, is my skin and fat texture, and the smoothness of my flesh. I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome type 3, a disorder which causes the connective tissues in my body to be defective (such as collagen), causing a long list of issues, but from a looks point of view the result is that my skin structure is different, causing it to have reduced strength and stiffness. What this means in practice is that when I put on or lose any weight, my skin only stretches to a degree before splits somewhat, leaving stretch marks. When I lose weight, instead of springing back, my skin instead remains stretched out and hangs. In addition, my my fat isn’t firm and squishy, it’s more like rice pudding which moves around under the skin.
So the surface of my skin is rippled and marked in a variety of whites and pinks. I have ‘bingo wings’ that go unrivalled, I have sag lines on my thighs, my stomach can be grabbed in two handfuls and played with like dough, my thighs are entirely rippled with poorly-contained fat, and mis-shapen by parcels of cellulite. Yes I am 42, but age has not exacerbated this. I first discovered stretch marks on my thighs aged 12 – big sharp angry red things, like fault lines along my flesh after an earthquake. A few years later they emerged on my hourglass hips, and before my teens ended, on my stomach. Undiagnosed PCOS meant I put on around 40lb/18kg over one summer when I was 18, and my body turned into that of a 40 year old woman who’d been through 5 pregnancies (as I perceived it). I shopped in Evans, my only option in 1994, and felt dowdy and non-sexual to others. I became invisible.
Fast forward to 4 years ago when I left my 10-year relationship and decided to slut around for a while, age 38. I was horny as hell and determined to live the promiscuous period usually experienced during youth, but which I had instead spent depressed and in chronic pain, in dowdy clothes. I was now size 16, had a wardrobe of clothes I mostly liked, and was full of feminist and fat body politics. I stopped trying to shrink myself and tried to rock my fierce queer femme lqqks – carefully selected clothes which skimmed over the lumpy bits with hemlines and sleeves that stopped at just the right places. I was terrified of my actual body being seen. Fat was now more accepted, especially in queer circles – politically at least, although it was notable that most people selected slim sex and romantic partners – but I didn’t ever see ripples, stretch marks, sags, or folds. So although I had some sex, I tried to keep some clothes on, and most of the lights off. Instead of surrendering to the moment, I found myself monitoring facial expressions and energy to see if I could spot disgust or disappointment, and trying to place my body so that flaws would be less likely to be noticed. How sad is that?
There’s a subtle difference between simply being fat/overweight, and having marked and uneven skin – you can have the hope/intention that you will lose weight, there’s some element of control even if perceived, but there’s no erasing stretch marks or improving skin elasticity. You’re stuck with it forever, and with age it’ll only get worse. Your body is forever ugly, inferior and unfuckable in the eyes of the mainstream. Lack of representation sends a very clear message: it’s not that we don’t know you exist, we just rather you didn’t – your body is defective, you look disgusting, therefore you’re undesirable. Not only is this unfair, body policing, and pandering to the normative white male gaze, it’s also ableist.
It was only in March this year that I made the decision to not care anymore. I had bought my bestie a delicious black velvet jumpsuit with silver glitter through it, as they love that type of thing and I enjoy living vicariously through them, as their body is normatively ‘perfect’. I was lamenting my inability to wear such a garment, when they asked me ‘why not, didn’t they have it in your size?’ To which I replied ‘well yes but it’d look ridiculous on me with my weird shaped legs’. This provoked a long conversation where they really made me analyse my ideas about all the things I hated about my body shape and skin texture. Their confusion and sadness at the strength of my feeling and hatred about my own body snapped me out of it – this had to stop! When I got home I stood in front of the mirror and looked at my body, then I took some nudes and made myself look at them. I was pretty hot! I hatched a plan and ordered a selfie stick.
A few weeks later I did the unthinkable – put a photo on social media of me sitting in a chair wearing a t-shirt and knickers with bare thighs. This got a hugely positive response, and provoked Lori to ask me to write this piece. So a few weeks later I took some pics in my underwear and posted them on Facebook (see above).
Again they got a really good response, but I knew that they were kinda dishonest. Although un-retouched (and make-up free!), the pics are well-lit and I am stretched out, so they do conceal most of the saggy skin and lines. It still felt extremely vulnerable to me, and was a valuable step, but I knew the next step was to post less well-lit ones and confront people with the blemishes and bumps – and here we are! Sure I feel utterly terrified submitting this piece, and have spent ages agonising about which photos to attach – will people be disgusted by my body? Will people who know me judge me? But I know that’s patriarchy whispering in my ear, it’s the capitalist brainwashing which tells me I should be pleasing to the eye, I should join a gym, I should buy that special expensive skincare product to rub into the skin, which will somehow magically tighten it and remove the marks. Yeah, right.
There’s also positive aspects of having this type of skin; people with EDS are often thought to be a lot younger than we are as the skin on our faces is usually smooth and clear – people often think I’m a decade younger than I am – and lovers have described my skin as feeling ‘like satin’. These are not bad things to have!
This change of mindset has been a revelation. I find I strut down the street allowing my jelly to wobble, I stand taller, and address people more confidently. I always counted myself as a confident person but I see now that even recently I was unconsciously shrinking and concealing myself so that people didn’t examine my body too closely. I’ve mostly stopped covering up the ‘problem areas’ and as summer approaches I have issued myself a challenge to not be ashamed of my imperfections. It’ll be a long process but I’m gradually feeling better about my body and consider myself to be pretty hot, and I never thought that could happen.
I’m sure I’ll have periods again when I see my legs in the mirror and shudder, or choose to wear leggings under a shorter skirt, but I deserve to take up space, to show my body with all its characteristics. By concealing it I collude with oppressive ideas about what is suitable for public display, and by showing it I am disrupting them, but let’s be really clear about this – the pressure to conform is immense, and is policed. People on the street will comment sometimes, and not just gross men but some women too, as people will always find social disruption challenging, often without conscious awareness of why that is. I won’t always feel strong enough to show those parts of me, but that’s OK too – it’s not all or nothing. Confidence and the courage to disrupt are not binary, and having a bad day is never a failure, protecting ourselves when we feel vulnerable is never a failure.
My marks are signs of my struggle with medical conditions and chronic pain, and my existence showing them is evidence of my survival – that is to be celebrated. So please, if you have this type of body – due to a medical condition or not – don’t wait til you’re 42 to stop hating your body for something you can’t control. Own it! Talk to your friends, work with a fat-positive therapist, create an Instagram account and post pics, take up space, put your fierce self out there! If the mainstream media won’t represent us, we can utilise social media for that purpose. Representation of non-normative bodies is radical, feminist, necessary and beautiful – do it and enjoy!
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Lumin Heks is a 42 year old queer femme living in London UK, who is dedicated to disrupting oppressive normative narratives around difference, ways of relating, self perception and body image. A therapist and advocate for intimacy and radical vulnerability, they endeavour to promote better communication, emotional sharing, and empathy.
May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) awareness month, you can get more information on these disorders at www.ehlers-danlos.org