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On Becoming Visible: The Perpetually Unfinished Post

I’m on a bit of hiatus from my weight loss endeavours, holding relatively steady at a loss of about 69 lbs since June, 2007. A slow and steady loss. I’m 21 lbs away from my ultimate goal. It has been quite the journey over the past couple of years.

For my entire adult life, I have identified as a feminist, even before I was really clear on what was meant by this. I was quite the activist in the 80’s, ramping up a few local movements in the Niagara Region where I was living, serving on the board of a rape crisis centre, being part of a large coalition that founded the Women’s Studies programme at Brock University, being a T.A./lecturer there in the first three years the programme ran.

There are many schools of feminist thought. I disagree with some and wholly embrace others. At this stage of the game, feminism has served to instruct me on the myriad of intersecting systems that I live within, am bounded by. None of them – from the economic/monetary system and its weaknesses that are now becoming clearer to our food production and delivery mechanisms to the values used within business to interact with either the labour force or the environment to the very rules, most unspoken, that guide our interpersonal communications – none of these systems were influenced in any meaningful way by women, or by people with the deep cellular knowledge that women and men are equal but different creatures on this earth. We swim, all of us, men and women, in a world designed from the perspective of those who hold the most power in our society – white, straight men. Those who thrive within these structures, male or female, are those who can best adapt to these systems.

As A.W. Schaef says, and I am paraphrasing, the white male system is not reality. It is just a system. Once you can identify it all around you, you can see that it isn’t reality at all. After you have your “a-ha!” moment, you can step outside it and observe. And, to an extent, protect yourself and, if you are clever, you can be more conscious of maneuvering in and out of the system and being less damaged by it.

In a way, by revealing the systems we operate in, feminism helped me to understand form and content. So has music. Mozart could write a kick-ass concerto, yet it is still a concerto. The form is intact. He rocked the form. The 20th century saw revolutions of new form as blues and jazz musicians punched holes in pre-existing structures to create brand new ones, on the fly. Phillip Glass comes along and says “fuck the form” and writes whatever sounds good to him. When you can see, touch, feel and deeply experience the “form” as a separate construct, as “not a given” but a choice, you can choose to operate within it, partially within it or to exit it altogether.

Another more pertinent example has to do with the ongoing, fascinating and irritating discussion of “butch/femme” as identities within lesbian and queer circles.  Notions of maleness and femaleness, the “rules” which govern these as forms of existence, do not originate with the women who live their particular slant out, or are at least conscious of this gender dichotomy as they go about making their choices about how they present to the world. We didn’t create gender constructs – a society that is governed by the male gaze did. So, once you understand you are being asked to play a game that erases your natural identity and replaces it with a version acceptable to the male gaze, you can decide whether to play along and ruffle fewer feathers, to rebel and scream bloody murder at being shoe-horned into someone else’s definition of your gender … or make up your own gender twisting game. (Gender twisters have more fun, in my experience … but I digress …)

Power – or as feminists are more comfortable stating, “empowerment” – exists in understanding the form, the rules, and thus understanding that one has choices about how to relate to the form.

Choice. Choices. Options. As I look back on so many years of thinking about all of this, I can see that feminism has programmed me to build my own life, according to my own rules, and to seek to always operate from a position in which I have the greatest number of choices. I can choose to play along. I can choose to rebel within the context of any given situation. I can reject entire frameworks and circumstances and re-create new ones that are more life-giving. Ultimately, I think this is what our feminist foremothers had in mind.

Parallel to being a feminist for my entire adult life, I have also always been large-ish. Each year, I’d add a few more pounds. Mostly, this didn’t bother me much. I felt healthy and reasonably fit. Aside from my weight, I’ve never much cared for what I look like, thinking I was rather odd-looking and knowing that there was not much I could really do about that. Besides, as an out lesbian feminist hanging out with mostly other out lesbian feminists, we all were so much above the white patriarchal rules that equate physical appearance with having value. Pshaw. Beauty emmanates from within and rises above any notion of physical self, right?

Along came a series of events, including some weight-triggered health issues experienced by a member of my immediate family, that made me look very closely and carefully at my choices around my particular physical form. Changes needed to be made, and I am the only one able to affect them. And so it began.

I need to state here that, as of June 2007, I also strongly disliked how I looked. My external “heavy set” presentation to the world did not reflect my internal sense of self. There was a disconnect.

I used the support of an excellent commercially available system which I’m not willing to promote here but will happily chat to anyone about if you’d like to contact me privately. The weight started to come off as soon as I made some significant changes to portion sizes, upped my fruits and vegetables and eliminated vast quantities of carbs. I realize now that I’m actually in a life-long struggle with carbs.

As the weight came off, it became easier for me to be more active, and to be more motivated about being active. In 2008, I started to do some strength training.

Right around the half-way point, almost exactly at the loss of 35 lbs., I became visible to others in a way I’d not experienced before. Men, and women, were suddenly more interested in engaging in conversation, flirting and otherwise noting my presence. I found, and continue to find, this fascinating, flattering, and disturbing. With almost every drop in weight – and I do tend to drop five pounds at a time, and then plateau – the ratio of visibility has risen.

I like the experience of being “seen”. It makes life a bit easier in some ways.  It feeds my confidence which adds more positive energy to the mix. I certainly like the changes that strength training has created although I can’t say that I’m particularly enamoured of the activity itself. I like feeling strong and healthy – I think this projects something out to the world beyond simply that my body is smaller and a different shape now. I adore how my cardio levels have improved to the extent that I don’t feel like I’m coughing up a lung every time I come off a hard shift at hockey. I seem to be skating a bit faster, as anyone would if they were stronger with fewer pounds to heft about.

This experience of being “seen” is a mixed bag, though. It makes me angry that men who work in the same office as me now stop by my desk to chat, for no reason in particular. I was never acknowledged before in this way, at all. Women who had never taken the time to chat me up before actually make the effort now.  If I may cut to the chase, our Western, male-programmed view takes for granted that “smaller, fitter” means “hotter” … yet, this has always been something I’ve questioned and very consciously rebelled against.  Surely, our collective programming around responding to a particular “form” and making assessments about “content” from it is simply learned behaviour and not that ingrained.

And herein lies the real kicker. This experience has taught me that my own deep internal programming matches that of the men and women now taking the time to acknowledge me. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think I look “better” now. I can’t tell you how conflicted this makes me when I consider this issue, and how it takes the punch out of me being really truly angry with anyone for chatting me up. It happens early on, this programming, and it runs deep.

Perhaps part of what people are “reading” differently is that the disconnect I experienced before – the outer self not reflecting who I felt I actually was – has been addressed. This body feels more “me”, and perhaps that is what people are responding to, more of a sense of wholeness. Apparently, the revised “me” also has much longer hair … and that requires a blog entry all of its own.

I see that I actually started writing this post in the first week of March 09. And here I am, about to hit submit in mid-May 09. There is so much more to say on this issue … and I hope you will join me in the conversation.

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3 comments to “On Becoming Visible: The Perpetually Unfinished Post”

  1. This is a really thoughtful, rich, good post. I’ve had a lot of the same experiences — the irritating paradox of also liking yourself better smaller, fitter, stronger and feeling annoyed that it seemed to take “so little” to be visible in a way we all long to be.

    I have a parallel experience with hair colour. The first time I coloured my hair strawberry blonde (rather than its natural rodent hue), boys who typically paid no attention to me were suddenly flirtatious. Odd, I thought. How stupid. Then when I started colouring my hair a particular kind of red — the red that some people, when squinting, think is natural, I get attention on the street from strangers. It’s… disconcerting. Because it’s not like I have a self-narrative about being a head-turner.

    However, what I really want to comment on is your claim that the gender twisters have more fun. I’ve had the most fun since I’ve embraced my femmy-ness whole-heartedly ;-).

  2. Interesting post. Lots to think about. Here are some random experiences of my own.

    There is a very high end store in Florida that I have visited twice. The first time, I was greeted pleasantly, offered assistance if I needed it, and left to browse on my own. The second time was ten years later and 80 pounds heavier. This time I was followed, closely. The only conclusions I could come to were a) fat women are not rich, and don’t belong is stores like that; and b) fat women steal, and need to be closely watched.

    I agree that we are ‘hard-wired’ to believe what our society has taught us about what is attractive. Feeling more attractive with my recent weight loss, I interpret other people’s looks differently. For example, as I was walking through a shopping centre the other day, I noticed a man sitting on a bench. He was looking at me. And as I walked past him, he kept his gaze on me. I smiled, and in my head, I said, “Looking good, huh?” (That’s a Bette Midler line.)

    A similar thing happened a couple of years ago, when I was at my fattest. I was aware a man was looking at me in a mall. I walked quickly past, in anger, and in my head, I said “Fuck You”.

  3. Cate … I think your embracing of femmy-ness is its own kind of gender twisting. 🙂

    Miriam … I like how you say that we “interpret” looks that people give. I’m always surprised, and a bit chastened, at how wrong my interpretations can be of what people are actually thinking. I confront this with my students all the time. There was a student this past term who sat in the back of my class, leaning back in his chair, and looking for all the world like he didn’t give a damn about the course. Then, he would get up and give these kick-ass, well-researched, slightly edgy, presentations that, with just a bit of polish, would totally rock almost any board room. I was pretty sure he hated coming to my class, given his body language and general demeanor. About two-thirds of the way through the course, I told him how awesome I thought his presentations were, and that he just needed to smile more and knock a few of the sharp edges off. He stared at me for the longest time and eventually said, “Really?” After that, I started to get what I call “fan mail” from him, occasional e-mail questions about course work, wrapped up in “I love this course” language. I got two final bits of “fan mail” after the course was done and the grades posted. Turns out he was getting a lot out of the course … and, if I’m piecing things together correctly, he spent the first part of the course thinking I didn’t like his work. Students have trouble separating “like/dislike” (their emotional needs) from “here is how you can do this better” (what they are actually in class for). Once I acknowledged his awesomeness, he could correctly interpret my corrective tips. Before then, neither of us were correctly interpreting the other.

    This exact scenario plays out multiple times, each semester. I should do a better job of remembering it earlier. 🙂

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