The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
MESSY: Body Positivity Means Telling The Whole Truth And Finally Putting Myself First
In this essay accompanied with concept-collage images, Negesti Kaudo reflects on what body positivity means to her, on whether she is ready to reclaim the word “fat”, and how she used art as a medium to understanding her relationship to and perception of her own body.
By Negesti Kaudo
Essays about my body are difficult to write. It feels like I don’t do my body enough justice by spilling my insecurities all over the page. But also, it feels like I do her too much justice by ignoring her existence and giving her space to breathe. I am always trying to be objective. Even right now, I’d rather be doing anything else than discussing my body with you, than using my body to convince you that body positivity is everything.
When I think of body positivity, I think of Instagram: plus-sized and disabled people radiating confidence through portrait photography and garnering thousands of “likes” with each post. Which is great, but I can’t do that—I won’t do that. Instagram is shady. I’ve scoured the comments of plus-size women’s posts and seen the trolls commenting about how disgusting and unhealthy they think these bodies are, as well as the men fetishizing them for their size. So, I wonder how body positivity exists outside of Instagram and for people like me, who know all their Instagram followers and only interact with a small percentage of them.
I believe, more than anything, body positivity is about truth. And it’s hard for fat women and other people with fat bodies to embrace and publicize that truth because it’s hard for society to believe it. If enough people disregard your truth, you start believing the lie. The lie is that I’m unhappy, unhealthy, lazy, hypersexual, and desperate. Their truth: I’m fat. Overweight. Obese. Too short to be this big. Too smart to be so confident about being this big. Too much. But I’ve always been the fat girl. From my knee getting stuck in the grate of my crib to eating popcorn naked in bed last night. There’s nothing new about it. The only thing that’s changed is that here I am, calling myself the fat girl, hoping my non-fat friends don’t start doing the same (seriously, don’t do it, don’t call me fat).
Once, another fat girl called me fat in a public space, and I tried to chuckle away the fact that every single person in the room had begun staring at my jumpsuit, the one I’d thought was really cute until she said, “It’s so hard to find cute fat clothes.” Hearing the word “fat” said aloud makes me cringe, puts me on the defensive. I have not reclaimed that word fully for it to escape from my mouth with confidence. Instead, it is awkward, trying to be cooler than it truly is, trying to belong to me.
FAT. There are other words and terms, I prefer none of them. THICK. BIG. BIGGER. OBESE. OVERWEIGHT. BBW. HEAVYSET. BIG GIRL.
In these moments, I lose my name. I am only a body. Bodies, like objects, are meant to be enjoyed, if not by its inhabitant than by another. Some bodies exist to be plundered. There is my body—
I’m not sure how she exists for others
—plundered, chased, exoticized, ignored, seen, objectified, loved, questioned, judged, disliked, dismantled, exposed, and forgiven, even when I have not apologized.
I am more concerned about making other people more comfortable in the same space as me than I am in my own body.
On the outside, I am unbothered and confident, but on the inside I consider every possible thought that goes through someone else’s mind. Already, as a Black woman, I police myself in many ways: I avoid anger in public, I nod and smile when my name is pronounced incorrectly, I allow men to be wrong, I bite my tongue and act weaker or less smart than I really am to boost superiors and men around me, I police my body to make other people comfortable. I tug at my clothing, shifting it into place to appear taller, thinner; to hide my body. I worry if my face is too fat for my makeup. I watch myself in the mirror while working out, so I can glance around and see who else is watching my body tremble with each exercise. I dance near the safety of my table and friends, staying in my personal bubble. I buy clothes that are too big. I am more concerned about making other people more comfortable in the same space as me than I am in my own body.
But I’m no longer sorry if my body makes you uncomfortable. What if I told you that I spent enough time hating myself for being fat, that I eventually forced myself to love it? Being fat has been negative in the minds of other people, including people I love, and for a very long time I believed that my body was bad, shameful, unlovable. Of course, we are trained from a young age to believe that being fat is bad and that the word “fat” is an insult, and it’s hard to reclaim a word that no one wants to acknowledge or redefine in a positive way. Fatphobia is everywhere. Many times, my own friends have been openly fatphobic in front of me and I shrink away from the discussion, wondering if they think the same things about me when I’m not around, or I find myself defending strangers against their fatphobic comments in public as an act of solidarity. And I hope that they’ll read into my shock: if you are so disgusted by their fatness, how do you feel about mine? Some questions are never answered.
When people want to hurt me, it is always that I am fat, first. It stings a little, but often I wonder if people who attack my size don’t consider that I’ve been swallowing fat jokes and insults my entire life. Like, you think I don’t know that I’m fat? You think that I don’t have a destructive relationship with food, bordering on obsessive, as I read the nutritional information on everything, give up sugar, eat sugar again, eat more protein, eat less altogether, drink more caffeine, drink only water. You think I haven’t imagined slicing my body up to look how you want me to? And still, you remind me that I’m fat. You glance at my body, pay close attention to my clothing, watch me eat and drink, but I exist. There’s no other option for me, and I refuse to be forced into hiding or shame because other people don’t like the way I look.
On New Year’s Eve, I spent the whole night wondering if I should post a drunken bathroom selfie I took, where my crop top effectively exposed my stretch marked gut without any underboob and drunk me thought she looked fly as hell. In a crop top. With my belly out. There was a raw and unapologetic vibe to the picture, appropriate for New Year’s Eve. I’d snuck away from my friends and the music to pee, and after enough tequila and lemonade, my friend’s bathroom mirror was the perfect frame for a fat girl feeling herself a couple hours before midnight. I took seven sultry photos before eventually someone barged in to pee. It took me so long to decide to post it because I was concerned with what anyone would say, if they felt so pressed to comment. Who would make me regret posting this gratuitous picture of myself? But I looked fly as fuck, so I posted it. New year, bellies out. At 12:28 a.m. on January 1st, from the comfort of my bed, I finally posted the selfie with a caption that said: “A mirror pic where I was like okay belly we still cute *looking eyes/black girl shrug*.” I’m no Instagram influencer, but 64 people saw it. Only one person commented: “Incredible outfit.”
I learned to love my body by forcing myself to engage with it. I once avoided mirrors and scales. Later, I stood in the mirror for too long, until my body warped into a mass of flaws. I force my literal body into my work: writing, painting, creating, destroying. I have painted myself onto walls. I have photographed myself half-naked. I have morphed myself into feature-less silhouettes, become a vector file, an InDesign draft, a laser cut acrylic plate. I have viewed my body so objectively and criticized myself as an object separate from myself, that it makes sense I would begin to find my flaws interesting. The way my right shoulder is angled, while the other is not. The gap in my teeth. The moles and beauty marks. The uneven number of rolls. Have my thighs ever not touched? My small, but wide, feet. The ligament that snaps back and forth over my kneecap with a popping sound. My fucked up knees. My straight hips that lead to the fucked up knees. My flat butt. (I see those squats working though!) The constant frown: the way the corners of my lips point downward, always judging, always disappointed. I don’t aspire to be perfect.
My body positivity comes in the forms of selfies and art, fashion and makeup, workout classes and dance floors, swimming and teaching. I enjoy all these things in my fat, Black body, and have learned to become less concerned with what others think as I do them. For me, “body positivity” is all about being my truest self and surrounding myself with people who do the same. My best friends and I don’t all look alike or fit into that clique-y version of friendship. Some of my favorite people are like me: tough exterior and marshmallow insides. But the others expose that vulnerability to the world, which to me is very brave. And together we navigate the world awkwardly, confidently, experiencing the entire spectrum of emotions. We create spaces for ourselves instead of shrinking to fit into the spaces and roles others expect us to play.
I appreciate the normalcy, the highs and lows, because the truth is also messy, raw, ugly, and disordered, which makes it beautiful and authentic.
I’ve curated my Instagram and Twitter feeds to include more plus-sized and disabled people of color who share similar interests with me. I follow the plus-size clothing brands I shop at, along with some of their models and brand ambassadors. I follow the #goldenconfidence hashtag to see a more diverse (and accurate) representation of fat people navigating the world around us. I follow sex-positive people; I follow Planned Parenthood. Visual artists, make-up artists, tattoo hashtags and tattoo artists. I follow writers and bakers and foodies—and I believe that all these people (internet strangers and real-life friends) are body positive in their own ways. They are promoting their truths: this is my body, and this is how I enjoy it. They eat expensive food. They pay homage to their favorite childhood TV show by customizing a tattoo sleeve. They get annoyed with their pets. They brag about their children. They paint and collage. They grieve. They celebrate. They play LIFE. They pose on porches and staircases to take cheesy-yet-adorable family photos with their friends. They sweat. They make mistakes. They cry a little when they laugh. I appreciate the normalcy, the highs and lows, because the truth is also messy, raw, ugly, and disordered, which makes it beautiful and authentic.
So how do I remain body positive in the real world, without a hashtag, where I can encounter people uncomfortable with my presence every day?
Take a dozen selfies. Wear a crop top in public. Paint my body on the walls of a gallery space and force people to look. Wear a thong, maybe not. Eat more than 20g of sugar in a day. Drop off homemade sugar cookies for my trainer. Skip the gym. Buy a two-piece bathing suit. Watch “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” on the treadmill. Eat while watching “My 600-lb Life”. Eat while watching “Hoarders”. Binge-watch TLC, Bravo, and BBC. Make a recipe from the no-sugar cookbook. Improve a recipe from Pinterest. Run out of air from laughing too hard. Do a clay mask. Black tea with two Splendas. Tequila on the rocks with a lime. Dance with my eyes closed. Wear faux fur—flex in faux fur. Practice twerking in the kitchen. Send the video to my best friend. See if people shirk at the word “fat.” Scream. Paint my body. Post it on Instagram. Take a selfie in my towel. Save nudes for later. Delete my Tinder. Remember that someone loved me before, and someone will again. Put myself first. Eat a weed cupcake. Mix the José with Patrón. Sugar on the rim. Forget him when I’m on top. Put myself first. Red lipstick. No, black. Highlighter everywhere. Put myself first. Read my horoscope. Sing—loudly. Put myself first. Inhale through the nose. Put myself first. Exhale through the mouth. Put myself first. Put myself first. Put myself first.
Negesti Kaudo is an essayist, teacher and pop culture enthusiast based in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Nailed Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, NewCity Lit, IDK City, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays on blackness in public and private spaces. In her free time she cooks, binge-watches TV and sometimes tweets (@kaudonegesti).