It’s My Body. Period.
It happened yet again. A lovely, bright, charismatic young woman came to see me the other day for counselling about her relationship to food and her body. For someone’s first session I always get her story, of course. This woman started off by recounting that her issues with her weight began at age 12. I made a note of this as a point I wanted to return to. Engrossed, she carried on. When her narrative reached its natural conclusion, I began my active engagement. My first question: “I’m curious. How old were you when you got your first period?” “Twelve,” she answered. I was not surprised.
I was 13 when I got my period. It was January of Grade 8. I had started Grade 8 at 98 pounds. By the time I Grade 8 had ended, I was 136 pounds. Quite a change. Wait, wait! I know what you are thinking. With puberty, you gain weight. That is absolutely true. Curves, padding, breasts. All good for pregnancy. But for me it was something more than that. For most of the women who come to see me it is something more than that too. And we hate ourselves for it. Which begs the question: What is so wrong with a woman’s body?
I thought of this when I first heard of the work Dr. Vincent Felitti on childhood trauma (a substantive and respected body of scholarship that eventually led to the ACE – Adverse Childhood Experiences – Study), which actually developed out of his initial work with morbidly obese patients. Confused by these people’s seeming inability to lose weight, Felitti devised a nutrient enriched 400 calorie shake to be consumed once a day that would theoretically enable patients to healthily lose up to 300 pounds in a year. To this he added a emotional support element.
One of two problems consistently emerged in his patients during the program. For the first group, the shake-diet worked well. It worked too well, in fact. These people lost huge amounts of weight. Then, they would disappear, quit the program. And eventually they would put all the weight back on. For the second group, they didn’t lose that much weight. When pressed on this, they would admit that they had been eating on the side. They hadn’t wanted to leave the program as such though because they were enjoying the emotional support aspect. Felitti concluded that there must be a deeper issue at play.
So he went back to his patients to ask them about their weight history. Not about the circumstances that led to their weight gain this time, but about the first time they put on the weight that resulted in their obesity. He wanted to know what was going on for them in their life at that time. What they came to share over and over again was that this kind of weight loss was enormously threatening. The weight was coming off faster than they could handle it: their walls were crumbling. They spoke of a feeling that their weight was a necessary form of protection, a literal psychological armour. (Protection was so serious that one of his patients literally put on 37 pounds in three weeks, something, had he not seen for himself, he would have believed was physically impossible.) When Felitti dug deeper, he found some kind of trauma his patients had experienced in their childhood that typically centred around loss of a parent—through divorce or disappearance (less so through death as it could easily lead to some protective mythology). Most impactful was maternal abandonment.
The questions resonated for me: How old were you when you first started to gain the weight? What was going on for you at the time in your life? Were you needing some kind of protection? I wondered: Could getting my period have been experienced by me as a trauma?
I may not have been obese, but starting at 13 “weight as protection” absolutely rings true for me. In Grade 8, I constantly wore my ski jacket. I remember my French teacher Mr. Thompson teasing me about this whenever I entered his Block C classroom. Yes, my parents had divorced. But in retrospect, I see this as my first means of self-protection in my newly forming female body. Its companion was the weight.
These connections have left me with the bigger question: Could starting our period be an event, a social trauma, that makes some of us women feel as though we need to (emotionally or physically) protect ourselves through weight gain? (Maybe triggering an earlier trauma but a trauma nonetheless) In my case: yes. And in the case of so many of the women I work with: yes.
Even though we come into this world as little girls or little boys, I see us as kids, as neuter-neutral to some extent. Up until puberty, I mostly felt like Michelle. A human who happened to be female. Person first, gender second. But with the external development of breasts and curves, and the internal recognition of womanhood with the starting of my period, I felt like I became female first and Michelle second. Suddenly there was a great, disconcerting interest, opinion and investment in who I was supposed to be as a female that seemed to have very little to do with who I was as a person.
It is as though we are only vaguely aware of the whole discourse of gender that swirls around us as children, but that catalyzes with puberty. The seeds long planted but the sun and water missing. Like when you’ve heard a commercial your whole life and can even sing the jingle, but remain oblivious to its message. It is not until you need the product that the advertisement takes its force. In this case, the “advertisement” attaches to a nubile female body. With my period I was called on negotiate that identity. And I did not like it.
At its very worst, this is how I’ve experienced it: My body became some kind of public, “for men” property, claimed, even ranked overtly as such, where men see through me—interested only in the possibilities of my body for them. It is like my body can give men some kind of magical feeling and that who I am as a person is at best a challenge or inconvenience in that quest (And I am supposed to feel proud, flattered, lucky for this). The potential of that “happiness” trumps treating me with any respect or dignity. Commenting. Groping. Copping a feel. Stealing a kiss. (FYI, if you have to steal it, I didn’t want to give it) Staring at my breasts. Advances continuing after I’ve said no.
This is exactly what happened to me as I became a woman. There was too much attention, too much uncomfortable, unwarranted, uninvited attention on me (from real people and in the media). It was absolutely too much for a thirteen year old. I had to become a literal body guard. And all the while, I’ve been parented, socialized to be polite, accommodating, nice—making me afraid to say no. That sets anyone up for trauma of a whole other kind. So my body said no. By gaining weight I was having none of it. I was rejecting the situation and protecting myself. Even Dr. Felitti concludes that in many of his patients, desexing the self through weight gain is a powerful unconscious force.
But then the trauma shows up in other ways. Sometimes I’m not seen as a person because my body is too big, at the “wrong size” I’m written off. Other times, I feel just right in my body, about myself and as a person in the world. Then I have a dawning awareness that if I gained weight that put me outside the norm, the approval and esteem would evaporate. It leaves me feeling hatred toward this (tightly constrained) female body power (and because of it my body) because it negates me as a person.
Gaining weight gives me some space. (I do go back and forth) The food definitely gives comfort. But it is not the answer. It is not fail safe. No matter what size, some men still see my body as sexual possibility. And the space seems to be granted in exchange for a feeling of social and self-hatred in a fat-phobic society. At points I’ve been nagged to go on a diet or told how pretty I’d be if I lost weight.
I believe we blame our bodies instead of society because the task of seeing the oppression and protection for what it is and taking space in the world as female persons is overwhelming and dangerous. Some days it just seems easier to hate my body for not being the right size even though at a deeper level I realize it is avoiding that “right size” to protect me, allowing me to live with a little more freedom.
I know it makes me angry. Angry that I live in a world that mediates my worth as a woman through the size of my body. Angry that I live in a culture that looks at a female body through the lens of male entitlement. Angry that I live in a society where fat or weight gain is not considered as the result of the trauma, especially a collective trauma, that it often is. I am angry because women hating their bodies is their blaming themselves for this trauma. We are not getting that weight is one of the ways we say no to all of this. We need to change the world so that our girls are no longer put in that position. It makes me angry that we’re not having this conversation. Speaking this truth. Doing this work.
When a wonderful woman comes to see me, deep in shame and self-blame about her weight or her eating, immobilized by body-hatred, I want to scream: When are we going to start to see all of this as the trauma of living in an antifemale world and stop judging women for the fat we use to protect ourselves from it?