by Melissa Mazza
The art of photography has always fascinated me. I love that it enables us to freeze a moment in time and hold on to it forever. Blown out birthday candles, family vacations to the lake, cuddles with a beloved pet – all forever captured long after the moment has passed. But what intrigues me most is the photographers’ omnipotent authority to manipulate the composition and the story it tells, just by shifting the focus. A subtle change in angle or variation in flash has the power to completely change how the subject is seen.
Much like the photographer shifts her lens, a mental shift changed the canvas of my self-awareness, blocking out the shame and self-loathing of weight stigma, and introducing the beginnings of recovery and body acceptance. The culture and stigma I face remains the same, and my fat body is mostly the same, yet adjusting my focus has allowed me to see myself as a new work of art.
From the beginning, encountering weight stigma during my formative years wreaked havoc on my physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. Strangely, I can’t pinpoint my first experience with fat shame, it just seems to have been there all along, ingested through comments from relatives that I must have too many sweet teeth, from my pediatrician that I weighed too much and needed to stop gaining (as if it was something I could biologically control), and even from complete strangers that said I had such a pretty face but needed to lose that baby fat.
Within my first decade of life I recognized and internalized the message that my chubby little body was inherently bad, and it warranted my complete attention and depravation to fix it, if I wanted to live a happy and healthy life. I was systematically affronted with stereotypical assumptions about my body and behaviors, and told I was wrong. My innocence and intrinsic self love were stolen. My dreams and hopes pushed aside for fad diets and exercise contraptions I saw on TV.
I came to believe that I could not offer or achieve anything else in life until my physical form took up less space. I learned to hate the fat body that garnered negative attention. A body that introduced me before I spoke my name. With its scarlet letter “F”, it sold me out as unhealthy, lazy, gluttonous and lacking self-control. My fat body invited staring and bullying, jokes at my expense, unsolicited advice and shaming. Looking back, this was the perfect set-up for depression, disordered eating and low self-esteem, all of which I’ve suffered.
So, I was indoctrinated into toxic diet culture, which taught me that I needed to always be dieting. It taught me that losing weight was a set mathematical equation of consuming less and exercising more. It trained me to moralize food as good and bad. It directed me to dismiss my body’s natural cues for hunger. It coached me that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. It promised me that suffering was my pathway to victory. It threatened me that if I refused to comply, I would be a failure.
This segued into a painful and ongoing relationship with binge eating disorder. Late night binges, food restrictions, excessive exercise, compulsive negative thoughts about my body and weight; all part of an endless cycle of torment. And at the risk of oversimplifying a complicated journey, it was by grace that I found a guiding light in eating disorder treatment and the body acceptance movement.
I was introduced to the body acceptance movement via Fattitude the Movie — a groundbreaking documentary that exposes fat prejudice and offers an alternative way of thinking. By questioning the origins of my beliefs, opening myself to new information and following other fat activists and body positive media sources, I came to see I had been sold a lie about my body. From the very beginning, I was fine just as I was, and so are you. Bodies come in all shades, shapes and sizes and are all totally worthy of love, honor and respect. I’ve dedicated much time and energy in rebuilding the sacred bond with my body; relearning to love and care for it, and asking it for the same in return. I nourish it with food, move and strengthen it in ways that feel genuine and good, and take time for yoga and meditation.
My body is no longer the enemy I fight. Fat bodies are not a problem to be solved, but weight stigma is. We need to re-adjust the focus. We all want wellness, happiness and mental well-being for our young ones. Good self-esteem, positive tools to cope with stress, access to nutritious foods, a solid foundation of body acceptance and self-love in which to draw from when faced with peer pressure, stigmas and bullying. These are the resources our children need now, not condemnation, a diet or a scale. My wish is for all children to feel peace in their bodies; that not one more would walk down that path of self-hate and oppression.
Culture has not changed. I still notice the sideways glances and snickers, I still feel shame-laden stares trying to burrow into the back of my head when I’m in line at the ice cream stand, people still share unsolicited diet and exercise advice with me, and I still hear doctors blame my size for everything that has ever or will ever ail me. But the subtle change lies within me and my shift in focus. The vantage point has changed and the photograph tells a new story. I no longer allow weight stigma and body shame to fill the composition of life. I actively remind myself that body weight cannot define who I am and what I can accomplish. I no longer apologize for the size of my body and the space it takes up. I no longer kneel in submission to fad diets and weight loss gimmicks to seek the holy grail of thinness. I will not tell you that the process of self-love and body acceptance is easy or fast or ever truly completed. It takes time and often ebbs and flows from day to day. But I will tell you it is completely worthy of your energy. We are expending energy either loving our bodies or hating them. Why not choose love?
Melissa is a marketing and communications professional living in upstate New York, who graduated with honors from Marist College. She is also Fattitude the Movie‘s Communications and Social Media specialist, and is in recovery from binge eating disorder. Melissa has a compassionate desire to spread self-love, body positivity and fat acceptance.