I have inhabited the space of plus-sized women for many years now.
The woman who raised me is a plus-sized beauty. I have observed the confusing beauty of her. She is graceful. She is tough. And she, the plus-sized woman, will make any thin scrawny individual appear as though he or she is just taking up space. I am always preaching acceptance and compassion of all body types. I habitually tell any woman (no matter what size they are) if I admire a blouse, dress, hairstyle, or ensemble that is a knockout.
I even follow Gavin Queen, a wonderfully kind man who I call my brother. His feature on the BBC documentary, The Naked Truth, allowed me confront my own issues with not feeling “manly” enough or fit enough. Gavin made it okay to acknowledge that even a straight, married man could struggle with body image problems. I believed that if he could love his body and his wife, I had hope.
But let us go back to this complimenting ladies thing.
My efforts to shower awesome females with encouragement often evoked skeptical expressions, upturned faces, and sometimes enmity and hatred. Most women I compliment seem to not know how to take a genuine compliment. I don’t know why. But dresses are never pretty enough. They are just ” this outfit I’ve had for years”. The hair is never “done” enough. Hair is another thing black women cannot accept enough praise about.
Although I’ve spent two-thirds of my life being shamed for wanting compliments from people about anything I wear, say, and or think. I (according to them) can never understand what it’s like for a person ( namely a Woman) to look in the mirror and not feel pretty.
Maybe, many Louisiana women are just under a major amount of pressure. I get it. I know you wear many hats. You’re the soccer mom, the faith leader, the musician, the PTA planner. You’re godmother, provider, businessperson, teacher, cook, boss, therapist, funeral director, and travel agent. Your life is constant teetering between sensuality, nurture, responsibility, leadership, and sacrifice. And that is difficult. You are told by us MEN that you must always look put together.
Being around that aesthetic did nothing but frighten me. Where is the slot for the man who doesn’t need you to be superwoman…. or self conscious about how bloated you feel.
I knew those issues were unique to my mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, daughters.
I was more concerned that people would find out that I was just pretending to have my image problems together, because being honest wasn’t working so great.
School (elementary, middle and high) forced me to manufacture confidence about myself. That adrenaline-peppered confidence, was really fear about appearing to be “other”. My father didn’t want me to be a chump. It was enough to be smart and well-read. I had to be HARD and TOUGH… even though my muscles and limbs were not like that. So I had to feign bravery even if I felt like a clump of dirt tilled into the ground.
I wanted to be ignored about my body because of my unchangeable Cerebral Palsy. I couldn’t pretend to fit into the cliques my school had. And the “otherness” I felt had always been there. And because I could not obscure my condition, I was noticed. People routinely stuck their feet out in front of me just so I’d lose my balance.
And my balance is a very nimble thing. My limbs work to form this delicate cocoon of space. I move within that space. My body was an instrument and as scrawny as I was, I either needed to use it lest make things worse for myself.
Rubber bands were flung into my eyes. I was a light-weight. My scrawny body was not athletic. I wasn’t physically strong. I didn’t believe I was. This was all in my head given the number of involuntary falls I’d have when my feet either missed the floor or failed at sensing the bend in the path ahead of me.
I hated physical education. I did not care for sports. And no one understood why I wasn’t the typical man’s man who could run to the safety of football, basketball, wrestling, and volleyball. “You’re a guy aren’t you” was the continued criticism I received from confused, ignorant people. Men and women alike frowned at my lack of perceived masculinity. Nerd was a bad thing. HARD and rough was the thing to be.
And then I’d soak in all the stories from those around me who obsessed about their feet, hair, jean sizes, blouses, tops, shoes, jerseys, sneakers, etc.
And I’d think: You, for all your complaints about your weight, don’t have to obsesses like I do. From your prospective, you’re trying to be smaller or heavier to fit some self-made expectation of bravery. Maybe, you’re trying to get into your favorite dress again. But I was permanently terrified when my orthopedic told a 12-year-old me: Don’t gain much more weight. Your body is only equipped to support so much weight on your joints.
And while I got made fun of for NEVER being brawny, lashed out at for not being a HUSKY football sized person…
I was holding my breath and stress eating through my teen years… because the women in my life were convinced that I was starving to death.
So I was always skating in between weight classes!
I danced in and out of the boundary between not appearing anorexic and not adding extra stress to joints, arms, and legs that don’t really like me all the time.
Men who have sports as a bedrock are fitting a weight-class. And the weight-class is their gift. Once a team is made, they immediately get a family, a community, a set of guidelines.
But my size seemed to isolate me. Even plus-sized women eventually find other women that they can share their pain, joy, and shame with. I HAD NO PERSON LIKE THIS. For years, there was no one.
Lizzo, Kelly Clarkson, and Ariana Grande have audiences. They have people who are not isolated by their artistry. These women are different… with different stories and sizes but they are not “ISOLATED”. Better yet, none of these woman have Cerebral Palsy.
I have a decent body and it’s not in terrible shape. But I didn’t believe that for several years. And I ate way too much food hoping that I’d change how it looked so that I’d fit some mold. I was WRONG to do that. But when your self-esteem is low and you’re only a buck 50… no one thinks you’ll stress eat. Because “you’re so thin”.
I have never had the constant feedback of being noticed for “my beauty as a person”. Things like my smile, my jokes, or my personality are things no one talks about at length. People just say: ______, you so crazy. Then, I accept their statement and then play “devil’s advocate” to decode what they actually meant.
The answer is always indefinite. So I interpreted these crazy declarations as: Harold, you’re weird. Not Harold, you’re funny or interesting.
When I am animated, I fear that people will see my wobbly body and mis-label my genuine excitement as yet another reason to ridicule and reject me.
So I don’t see how anyone assumed that I was always happy with my body. I always knew how to do that “Mr. America” fake smile because it’s the one non-disabled people expect… because they are uncomfortable with the idea that disabled people go through dark, bitter periods.
I’m just supposed to be the one who is your cheerleader. I can compliment everyone else’s beauty except my own. Women, men… EVERY one. You name it. I am often “the brave cheerleader”. I’ve done this because doing it was “being the bigger man”, being the noble supporter, embodying the graceful counselor.
I have nothing against women and their negative experiences surrounding sexual and emotional objectivity. In an odd way, I am much like these ladies. I have been objectified in different ways as as a man, surely. I do understand in part because I have been the caregiver for the ladies I love. I have shared funny stories. I have dried their tears. I have sometimes been the only person able to bear the mourning within their stories.
But the collective pain we both feel is what draws us together. If I look at television and stare at the ladies with hemiplegia or quadriplegia… the little women.
I stare in disbelief. I don’t think it’s funny that these women are being treated as “caricatures” of the Real Housewives by people without these conditions who just need to laugh. That’s my observation.
I’m hard-pressed to be entertained by the very spectacular fights the “little women” have. Instead, I feel like I want to hug them and be their therapist. I want to ask them if they know the others are watching their show to feel better about their “big-sized” fights.
When I heard Lizzo’s interview on NPR, I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s car on the way to Target. I was struggling to make connections with her struggle about her own body. I was wondering if because I’m a BLACK person from a Southern state I’m supposed to latch on to what I thought was more reinforcement of something foreign to me.
Perhaps, it’s that she’s interfaced with communities that I don’t know about. Maybe she’s experienced a life of setbacks that are reminiscent of Ms. Tiffany Haddish. While listening to her, I heard a resonant pain. This pain is common to many black women I know.
This pain is a deep need to simply tell the truth without worrying about how it is received. I felt concerned for the interviewer. I could understand the interviewers questions better than I handled Melissa Jefferson’s (Lizzo’s government name) answers.
Maybe it’s not meant for me to identify with the trauma of every man, woman, boy and girl. But I can be empathetic. I can power through the cognitive dissonance and accept that as Americans we are still in the midst of understanding the myths of what is sexy, healthy, or even reasonable. My Advanced Writing professor Dr. William Broussard warned me about cognitive dissonance. He told me that acknowledging cognitive dissonance and learning to deal fittingly with it, helps us as writers and scholars move past our prejudices. We acknowledge that to get past the noise of confusing ideas, we must be willing to dialogue in the midst of our emotional hangups.
I’m still lean as a bean pole. I no longer wish to be a beefy person, or a husky guy. I understand that for now that’s not a “regular size” for me. I actually admire anyone who loves his/ her or they (s) body type enough to celebrate it.
I have respect for the women who have inspired me to dream past the nervous “always feeling small” boy I was. I’m better…. but the advent of LIZZO is confusing.
Is there are line of demarcation between tasteful fashion and fashion that feels good? Is the boundary still being set by those “shadow people” who struggle to find the nerve to dress as a reflection of their feelings?
I’ve never been terribly great at dressing to advertise my chest, abs, and buttocks. I tried that when I was in my 20s. It was dismal failure. In the nearly 30 months since joining the library system, I tow a fine, accessible line between comfortable and semi-conservative. Having Cerebral Palsy is not placed in the same circle as feeling beautiful and confident.
Cerebral Palsy is that delicate, intimate thing that I could never make masculine on my own. It’s a first-tier existence that still feels more alien than athletic. Surely, there are disabled athletes that are brick fortresses of bodily vigor vying to use their engineered shoes and specialized appendages to be super-girl and super-man.
But what of the men and women like me that abide in truly customized disabled identities, the ones that aren’t as athletic but live inside wheelchairs alongside gently- used medical walking sticks, and reachy-picker-uppers?
We have a plus-size too… a big truck-sized weight called disability that we can’t always be-dazzle with a representative.
Because sometimes the one that is selected to represent “the disabled” isn’t completely like us. The “other” chosen to be us… is sometimes just another version of other: a square peg in a round hole.
They are “characters” paid to look like us… as if we truly are “portrayed” like them. And the actors cannot always get it right.
The closest actor I’ve seen in recent times that reminded me of myself was the deaf actor in “Baby Driver” CJ Jones is him.
CJ Jones is deaf. But his appearance on W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America allowed me to see a person that places his disability front and center and simultaneously respects himself and his craft as an artist. There is a regal and genteel quality about him I gravitated to. He’s not perfect. But he’s closer to what I see in my future. He inhabits a body that I see later on down the pike.
I started this conversation talking about bodies and body image. And I ended up discussing disability. This to state that maybe loving our bodies is about choosing to see ourselves as more than the outer body others see.
CJ Jones, sharing his story, helped me understand that I cannot value my own body if I cannot see my self as human, first.
We are all humans together in the world. Rather than the different things that make us “fatter, smaller, leaner, and bigger… the things that make us tribal…
We should engage the things that make us more alike. And I understand that’s hard. But that truth is the reason I write. Every story isn’t the same. But every story deserves to be told even if it takes time and patience to uncover that story’s purpose. There will be dissonance. And where there is dissonance… Ceilings can shatter and conversation can start anew.