I was in the locker room at the Y a few weeks ago. After showering I draped my towel across my front to walk a few steps to go into the sauna, leaving my back-side exposed. Bodies are naked all the time in the locker room and I’m casual about nudity, so it was no big deal. It’s a busy place and I barely noticed the mom with her young daughter crossing behind me. Until I heard the small voice:
“Look at her big butt.”
I felt the familiar sense of something deflating inside me, while a dose of shame and self-consciousness misted my face . The mom and I glanced at each other uncomfortably, and then I looked away as I addressed the girl (who was 4 or 5 years old). I tried to sound neutral. “Yes, bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and some people have big butts.”
The mom hurriedly enthused: “Isn’t she beautiful? All bodies are beautiful!” We were both covering our embarrassment, and then she rushed them towards the shower while I turned to enter the sauna. I sat on my towel in the dark hot room, feeling the after-effects of that moment. It was hardly a new experience for me.
I do indeed have a big butt. My gluteus is especially maximus at this weight I’m at now, but ever since puberty, no matter how little or much I weighed throughout my life, my ass has always been prominent. And the world has never let me forget it.
I’ve been teased about it, pointed at, shouted at out car windows, and yes, little kids sometimes blurt out comments. It’s not much fun. My reaction has usually been a combination of freezing up in fear or cringing, followed by shame and humiliation. The message I’ve taken on is: something is wrong with me, with my body. I shouldn’t be this way. I need to change it to be okay.
The worst parts are definitely the shame and humiliation, and the self-criticism and judgment I’ve heaped on myself over the years. Sometimes I just try to forget that I have a body, go into a numb-zone about it, but then a comment will remind me again. That other people see it. That it isn’t “normal.”
I can remember so many times looking at my body in one of those 3-way fitting room mirrors while clothes shopping. I’d despair at my tree-trunk dimpled jello thighs, my massive pale round ass, my jiggly stomach, all my lumps and bumps. I look horrible, I’d think. My body is ugly. Then would come the resolve to lose weight (again), to become acceptable, to make it work for good this time. (We all know the statistics of how that goes for 95% of the dieting population: people repeatedly putting in lots of effort only to regain, over and over again. That is a blog post for another time.)
But, my friends, things have been changing for me about this lately. I still have this same body, this… tremendous tush, prodigious derriere, colossal bum, monumental rump, epic arse. Yet my feelings about it have been shifting.
Despite the messages of diet culture telling us we need to be thin and lose weight, there are also more recent cultural messages espousing self-love and body-positivity. But how do you start loving your body when you’ve been inundated by a constant stream of Impossible Beauty Standards every day of your life? I’ve seen reports that say 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting. It’s not hard to believe.
My body is far outside those beauty standards. My persistent weight loss attempts have eventually failed and left me struggling with a crazy-making eating disorder. It seems like Doomsday. How could someone like me ever feel good about her body?
It’s been a slow process. Part of it involves becoming aware of diet culture and its many facets in our society, and rejecting a lot of the BS we’ve been fed. I’ve learned a lot about Health at Every Size principles and practices. I’ve worked at rejecting our culture’s narrow Impossible Beauty Standards and learning to be inclusive of bodies of all sizes, shapes, shades, and abilities. I try to find clothes I love, instead of clothes that just happen to fit. I strive to eat in a way that’s mindful and comfortable for my body. I exercise because it helps my body and mind feel good.
And then there’s Lizzo.
In case you live under a rock, Lizzo is a 31-year-old American singer-songwriter/rapper who’s been getting a lot of attention after her super-successful album Cuz I Love You. She is talented, confident and outspokenly body-positive. We have a special affection for Lizzo here in Minnesota; after growing up in Houston, she moved to Minneapolis and started her recording career here. I was lucky enough to get to see her in concert in 2017. (Photos here are from that show.)
And Lizzo is fat. It’s too bad that that detail is remarkable, but in our culture, it is. She’s a fabulous musician and performer and is getting much acclaim for that, but part of the attention focused on her is because she is fat and unapologetically “flaunting” her body, her sexiness, her confidence, her self-love and her joy of movement in ways that are unconventional for fat bodies in our culture. The standard operating procedure for fat people calls us to be apologetic about our body, to hide, to despise our fat, to admit we need to change. Not Lizzo.
Let ‘Em Say
In response to criticism, she says on Instagram:
“I’m a really solid, grounded person, and I know that I’m shocking because you’ve never seen — in a long time — a body like mine doing whatever it wants to do and dressing the way that it dresses and moving the way that it moves.”
Lizzo’s body is big like mine; it is fat in similar ways to mine. I watch her videos, see her moving and dancing and flirting, see the fun and sexy outfits she wears, see her bare thighs out there, plump and jiggly, like mine. She is glowing and gorgeous. Watching her, it occurred to me one day: there is no reason for her to be ashamed. Or for me.
Feeling Good as Hell
I was especially thrilled to see Lizzo’s performance at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). For part of it, she was wearing a canary yellow body suit with her thighs bare, dancing in front of a giant inflatable model of her ass. A company in Minnesota created if for her; it was 12-feet-high and 25-feet-wide. Watch the video here!
Wow, I thought. I’ve been ashamed of my butt my whole life, and here she is celebrating hers. Calling attention to it. Exaggerating it even, in a fun way. Wow-wow-wow!
Bodies do indeed come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no reason for me to feel bad about a part of mine, just because of a human-made beauty standard. We all know how subjective that is. In Mauritania, for instance, my body would be prized because of their love of large women.
[And for those of you who are now shouting, “but Health! What about Health?,” please check out Dr. Lindo Bacon’s informative Health at Every Size videos here. ]
So, after many decades, I am learning to make peace with my butt. Body Acceptance work can be slow, especially since we’re fighting against a steady stream of images and messages that tell us how to look. It feels revolutionary and rebellious to appreciate my ass.
I’ll finish with a Lizzo quote from NBC News:
“I don’t think that loving yourself is a choice. I think that it’s a decision that has to be made for survival; it was in my case. Loving myself was the result of answering two things: Do you want to live? ‘Cause this is who you’re gonna be for the rest of your life. Or are you gonna just have a life of emptiness, self-hatred and self-loathing? And I chose to live, so I had to accept myself.”
I choose too. Thanks, Lizzo, and congrats on your well-deserved Grammy win tonight!
[Lizzo photos by Bob Alberti, from the March, 31, 2017 concert at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, St. Paul.]