It started with a conversation about Serena Williams.
“I don’t really understand what you posted on Facebook,” he tells me.
“What do you mean?” I ask. To me it’s so self-evident. Serena is awesome. Her attitude about her body is awesome. The way she deals with shamers & haters is awesome. Lots of awesome. But he didn’t know anything about the media slams and Internet trolls (he’s cute and naïve that way). He was flabbergasted that anyone could look at Serena and think she was anything but beautiful. “Like Wonder Woman beautiful” were his exact words. And this is where the conversation got tricky.
The reality was, we weren’t exactly having the same conversation. He wanted me to explain how people could look at pictures of Serena and think she was fat or un-attractive. I wanted him to understand that the purpose of my post was that the conversation shouldn’t be what she looks like. This is a world-class athlete. A woman who has redefined the sport. She doesn’t just win Grand Slams, she wins “Serena Slams!” Why do people think they get to have an opinion about her looks?
After a while of back and forth he gets to , “Do you think you’re fat?” Oh boy!
We’ve been dating for almost a year and that one question underlines how badly I’ve failed both as a body-advocate and as a girlfriend. So far I have been completely unsuccessful in articulating to him the following:
- When I define myself as fat, it isn’t body-dysmorphia, it is self-empowerment and self-love.
- How others define me isn’t as important as how I define myself.
- Fat isn’t a derogatory term unless you let it be.
I’m really glad I found someone who sees me as beautiful and sexy. I want him to desire me and get “hot and bothered” when I walk in the room. Telling me I turn him on is a compliment. Telling me I’m sexy is a compliment. However, when he tells me I’m not fat, it isn’t a compliment. It undermines my self-identity in a way that is difficult for me to verbalize. (Although I’ve tried to here, here, and here.) It makes me feel like he isn’t seeing me.
I can be beautiful and brunette. I can be beautiful and blue-eyed. Why can’t I be beautiful and fat? And, for that matter, why do I even have to be beautiful. Personally, I’d rather be called smart, strong, or kind than be called beautiful.
Early in our relationship I asked him not to compliment me on how I look but on what I do, but he could never really wrap his head around that concept. I tried giving examples. I can’t even tell you how excited I get when someone says, “I never thought about it that way before,” or “Because of you I understand something I never did before,’ or “I feel very special when I’m with you.” These are compliments.
As our discussion continued I realized that a big part of the disconnect comes from his own body-image issues and experiences. He wants and needs to be told he is sexy, and handsome, and desired. I wasn’t sure how to get him to understand so I held his stomach with both my hands and said, “I really love your belly. I love this part of you. And if this part gets bigger I will still love it. And if this part gets smaller I will still love it.”
Side Note: It has taken me several hours to write/edit this post. Writing about something so personal is very difficult. This isn’t my normal post about being empowered by running or how I feel about my food. I’ve edited and re-edited the words over and over, trying to get the right tone and be sure I’m saying what I mean. Even then, I’m sure I’m not getting it all “right.” This makes me think I need to forgive myself for not being able to communicate these feelings in a live-and-in-person conversation, where I can’t think about every word carefully, and delete the ones that don’t come out exactly right. Just wanted to add that in.