Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Fat Shaming, Victim Blaming, and How Disability Twitter Made Me Feel Like a Superhero

(Update: It turns out that my weight gain was caused by a medical problem that nearly killed me in May, 2020. You can read about it here. Since then, I've lost a lot of weight. I mention this because it underlines my point: A person's weight tells you nothing about her lifestyle or health.)

When Beau first saw me in this dress, his jaw dropped with admiration. When I first saw the photos of myself in this dress, I cried. Beau thought I looked sexy. I thought I looked disgusting

The effects of aging and disability on my body continue to lower my self-esteem, no matter how many feminist speeches I give myself. In this post, I've decided to be really honest about how I feel about the way I look. I suspect you will be shocked.

But here's the thing: I'm also going to tell you about an encounter I had with the worst, fat-shaming, victim-blaming ableist I've ever met. She was beautiful on the outside - and poison on the inside. The encounter helped me to remember that my character is so much more important than my appearance. And when I turned to Disability Twitter for comfort, I got so much beautiful support and comfort, that I saw myself, my inner self, more clearly. You guys made me feel like a superhero!

This post is about all that.
Dress: Dex; Sunglasses: Aldo; Shoes: Wonders; Onyx pendant: bespoke; Gold chain, Avon necklace, earrings, pinkie ring, bangle: vintage
Part of what I try to do with this blog is help women break down all the crap we're taught about our bodies, the crap that makes us feel ashamed of our very beings. You, me, the woman beside you, have lived all our lives with the trauma, yes trauma, of the constant cultural judgments of our bodies. With this blog, I am trying to increase your body positivity, and mine. 

To this end, I usually try not to tell you just how I feel about my body, not really. And, if I do, I temper it with argument against feeling that way. But not today. Today I have a different aim in mind.

The schism between what I was trying to look like, and what I actually looked like? Huge. I was trying to look like a late 70s, sun drenched woman, because, before the dress even arrived, it made me think of the 1970s ...

... into the early 1980s. 

Photo by Guy Bourdin
The ubiquitous tomato red ...

... the stripes, the cut: all said 1970s, loud and clear. 

As a result, I tried to reflect that time in my poses and locations. I drew on my memory of typical, fashion shoots of the period I was emulating.

Think of the California polaroids of Jerry Hall.

Gia Carangi
Think over exposed photos. Think scowls. Think underweight. Think the suggestion of vulnerability ...

... or overt danger - to the woman, the girl, really, being photographed.

Why I wanted to emulate such photos is an open question. The girls were about a third my age, some underage, when these photos were taken. 

Photo by Helmet Newton
The much older, male photographers contorted these girls' young bodies until they looked more like plastic objects than like flesh and blood humans. 

And let's not kid ourselves: Many of these photographers felt free to sexually prey upon the models, either through coercion, or outright sexual assault. They still do.

Gia Carangi
Many adults provided the girls with drugs and alcohol; it made them more pliable. (I'm told by those in "the biz" that nothing has changed.) 

The supermodel, Gia Carangi, began modelling at 17, and was only 18 during this photo shoot, when she was also posed nude against a wire fence. I don't know what you see in this photo, but I see the sexualization of danger, depravity, and victimization. This is especially so when I see it in the context of what I know about Carangi's life - and death. 

Carangi and an older man at Studio 54.
Though she was underage, she was regularly admitted into the most popular, New York Clubs, where cocaine was virtually as common as water. Who let her into these clubs? Who gave her the cocaine?Who profited? 

Gia became addicted to heroin, and her modelling gigs began to dry up. Eventually, she had to prostitute herself to survive. She died of AIDS in 1986. She was 26. 

Her story may be extreme, but it's not as extreme as we'd like to believe. In the early 90s, a friend of mine got a modelling contract and was sent to Paris to build her career. When a photographer tried to sexually assault her, she punched him. Her career ended before it began. His did not.

And it can get far worse than that - still. Skip ahead to 2:00 and watch from there for some harrowing stories of teen models sexually victimized by everyone around them.

Photo by Helmet Newton
Recently, I've met three young women who have worked as models, the youngest 17, and the oldest 23. All of three of them are very tall, and very very thin. All three were told to lose weight. (Happily, in this case, they all said, "Hell no!" and gave up modelling before it destroyed them.)

Jerry Hall with fashion photographer, David Bailey
I have heard, over and over again, that cocaine and cigarettes flow freely in modelling circles: they help keep a girl slim. They also keep her emotionally off-balance, and I can't help but assume that many in "the biz" like them that way: it makes the girls easier to control, and exploit.

Remember, then, and now, models are often in their early teens. Brooke Shields was 14 when she did her first Vogue cover. Think about that. Fourteen! Think about yourself at this age, or your children, or your grandchildren.

Now watch the 15 year old Brooke Shields in this 1980 advertisement for Calvin Klein Jeans, whose slogan, uttered by the young Shields, was, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins."

Tell me something is not horribly horribly wrong here.

Think things have changed? This is the model, Giselle Norman, at 16. This fall, at the ripe old age of 18, Vogue named her as one of the top models of 2019.

This is Liz Kennedy at 15, when she was "discovered" in 2014. "Where and how - and by whom?" I find myself asking. By her high school librarian? 

She's now 20. I wonder how much weight she's been asked to lose now that puberty has taken its "toll" on the angular, not-yet-grown figure that first led to her "discovery."

Don't doubt it. It happens. A lot. If these beautiful, slim, abled, young women can feel this badly about their bodies, how am I supposed to be immune?

Why on earth was I trying to emulate all this when Beau and I took these photos!? Because I am not immune to the constant, brutal bombardment of misogynist images of female beauty. Neither are you. It's impossible! 

This is what I should have thought about when I compared myself to the photos I'd had in my mind when Beau took these photos of me. 

Instead, I hated myself. 

Whatever droopy eyed ...

Jerry Hall
... tomato red, parted lip, underweight look I was trying to pull off ...

... I failed. The fault, I thought, was with me, not a culture that venerates female adolescence and emaciation above maturity and accomplishment. 

Even now, when I look at this photo, I can't believe I'm sharing it with you. It's too disgusting. I'm too disgusting.

I was ashamed. This is why I cried.

It's true, that there are few parts of my body that I don't hate. My thighs, for example, are okay. There are even things about my body that I like. My belly, for example, is very firm.

But that's not what this post is about. I don't want to give you a pep talk about how all bodies are beautiful - because who fucking cares if we're beautiful or not?

I want to admit to you the depth of my self-loathing, the trauma of it - because I know you can relate. I want you to understand why I cried when I saw these photos of myself - because I know you can relate.

The truth? I hate my body. I am disgusted by virtually every part of it. 

I hate how big my arms have had to become as they take on all the jobs that my back can no longer manage. I hate the cellulite on my triceps. You can see it when the light hits at just the wrong angle. I think it's repulsive.

I hate the fat in my armpits, and how I'm getting little skin tags where that fat rubs against my ribs. 

Even as I'm telling you that I hate my body, I'm excited to show you this amazing, carnelian and gold ring I got for a song at a thrift store. Wait till you see it in the sun. And the little gold, and coral earrings that I also found at the same store are pretty great too.
I hate that my neck is becoming rough, and is threatening to grow skin tags as well. I hate that my very pale skin is, and has always been, prone to getting red and blotchy, especially when I'm emotional, but sometimes for no reason at all. I hate that, as I get older, this same skin is even more prone to scarring than it once was.

I hate my flabby chin. Has my chin disappeared into my neck, or have I developed an extra chin or two? Either way, I feel like my face is sagging into my chin, and I hate it. 

I hate how round my face has become, like I'm a toddler again.

I hate how my extra fat and muscle make my shoulders look so big and unfeminine, my neck has virtually disappeared.

I hate that I can no longer see my once elegant collar bones.

I hate the little spider veins on my chin that make it look red, no matter what I do. And now they're developing around my nose too. I hate that. 

I hate that my upper eyelids are falling lower and lower, so the lower ones are disappearing. I hate the weird, little skin things - plaque? - on my eyelids.

I hate that I have a circular patch under one eye that seems to be ageing faster than the rest of me, a little dark, wrinkle spot.

I hate that my teeth are yellower now, and even a little translucent at the tips. 

I hate that I have a little fold forming in my earlobes. It shows most of all if I wear dangling earrings, no matter how light they are. I hate that.

I hate that my curls are no longer uniform, so I have to keep my hair shorter, and that can lead to frizz. 

I hate that my hair is thinner now. 

I hate that the kind on my hands is now dry and crinkly ...

... like my grandmother's were. 

Check out the amazing detail of the filigree on the inside of this ring.
I hate that my hands are pudgy, and my fingers are now so fat that I can't wear "regular" sized rings. 

I love the "cage of light" created as the sun passes through the Carnelian.
I hate that I've had to get a lot of my rings sized up.

I hate that my hands are so fat that many "standard" size bangles and bracelets are almost too small for me to wear now.

Yes, I know the onyx pendant is amazing. I designed it as a memorial pendant to my beloved cat, Bobby, who died at 21.
I hate the dry creases in my decolletage, formed by years of jogging in the sun ...

... and more years of holding the weight of my increasingly heavy breasts. 

I hate the droop of my breasts. 

I hate that, without a bra, they now rest on the fat roundness of my ever-expanding belly. 

I hate how huge my belly is. 

I hate how thick I look from the side. I hate that my belly sticks out further than my breasts do. 

I hate that what's left of my waist is disappearing and I'll soon be square.

I hate that my mons pubis was once a hard pubic bone, but is now more like a mound of fat, visible if I wear "body con" clothing. (No, I'm not going to show you that!)

I hate that my butt, once high, round, and firm, is now sagging, ripply, and dimply. 

I hate that my skin is no longer universally soft and smooth. 

I hate that I'm getting a weird redness on my calves ...

... that looks like a burn but isn't. I hate that I get little red, round, eczema patches in random places on my body.

I could go on. I did not present you with an exhaustive list of the things I hate about my body. 

Yes, I can hear myself. I can hear how unbelievably cruel I am to myself, itemizing every tiny part of my body as if I'm a jigsaw puzzle - or a commodity - and not a living, breathing, feeling, dreaming human being. I would be horrified to hear anyone else talk about herself this way. But there it is: honesty about how I feel.

We have not even gotten into the indignities of disability which are many: the roiling guts, the migraines ... 

... the chronic, cruel back pain ...

... the exaggerated lumbar arch that facilitated it all ...

And the constant, constant criticism, judgement, and blame from ableds, as if my body belongs to them, as if my disabled body is theirs to judge.

And that brings me to my tale, my tale of a truly nasty woman, the most ableist piece of ... you know, I've ever met. Listening to her judge another disabled woman's body - the way I judge my own disabled body - brought me to a stronger realization of something so very important: 

WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE DOESN'T MATTER! Let that sink in. Feel the freedom of it. Feel the relief!

What matters is who and what you are on the inside. What's in your heart? That's all that matters.

So I'm sitting in my local cafe, writing, as I do when my body permits. My mobility scooter is to one side of me, and my two canes are to the other side, so it's obvious that I'm disabled. 

In walks a very beautiful, very fit, white woman, no more than 28. She is everything we women are told we should be: slim, smooth skinned, smooth haired, firm, toned, blond, white, young, able-bodied, stylish. I can't tell, but I assume she even has blue eyes. She is wearing tiny white shorts and a tiny halter top. 

The only other person in the cafe, a man, devours her with his eyes. He's a lot older than I am, and I'm 48.

She sits near me and, it being a slow day in the cafe, we find ourselves chatting a little from time to time. Since it's obvious to me that she's into fitness, we chat a bit about exercise, weight lifting and such, which were passions of mine before I was disabled.

Mostly, though, I write, and we're both silent.

A disabled woman, quite fat, probably in her late 60s, gets out of her truck outside, and, using two canes, struggles to walk into the cafe. She is clearly in a lot of pain

I watch her, feeling great compassion for her struggle. I catch her eye, in the way disabled people do with other disabled people, but she seems nervous, not sure why I'm looking at her. I gesture to my own two canes and say, "I understand." She still doesn't seem to quite get what I'm saying. Only later does it occur to me that she was worried people were judging her.

She gets her ground coffee, and struggles to go back to her truck. I watch her leave, feeling her pain because I know her pain. 

I notice that the young, fit woman in the cafe is watching her too. I assume that she too is feeling compassion. So I turn to her and say: "That poor woman. She's in so much pain. Disability ain't for sissies."

In a flash, Mean Girl reveals that there was no compassion in her. Instead, all that was is in her heart was: disdain, disgust, blame, and judgement.

Her: Don't you think she's doing things to make it worse?

Me: What? You know it's harder for her to walk to that counter and back here than it is to run a marathon. It's harder for me to walk half a block than it used to be for me to work out for 2.5 hours.

Her: But she's making it worse by eating poorly.

Me: How do you know?

Her: I can tell by looking at her.

Me: No. You can't. You're not a doctor. You can't see her x-rays. You can't see her blood tests. I eat very well, but I've gained weight since I became disabled because I can't move!

Her: No, I know. It's a cycle: She's in pain so she doesn't exercise, so she gains weight, so she's in more pain. She has to stop that.

Me: She can't stop her pain! I can't stop my pain.

Her: There are things she can change in her lifestyle.

Me: You don't know anything about her lifestyle. You can't see her pain, how she lives, how she eats, if she exercises...

Her: Yes I can. I can tell by looking. And I had a traumatic brain injury last year. I was disabled, and I'm better now, so she can do it too.

Me: But you could get better. Not everyone can.

Her: I worked really hard to get better! I couldn't exercise for eight whole months!!

Me: It's been 11 years for me. Not all disabilities are the same.

Her: I also have a friend whose sister has Cerebral Palsy, so I know. There are things you can do. Disability is psychological too.

Me: Knowing someone who is disabled is not the same as being disabled. You're not in her body. You don't know how she feels. You don't know anything about her psychology.

Her: I'm just saying it's not all in the body. Disability leads to inactivity, which leads to depression, which leads to more inactivity, and poor eating habits. 

Me: You're victim blaming.

Her: No, I'm not. She needs to eat better.

Me: You don't know that.

Her: Oh come on. You can just look at her and know.

Me: No you can't! Don't judge her.

Her: I'm not judging. I'm just saying that she's making it worse for herself.

Me: That's judging!

Her: No it's not. I just know. If you're obese ... [she scans my chubby, disabled, middle aged body, evaluates it, decides it's okay - barely] ... like morbidly obese, you have to change. I had a disability...

Me: No, you had an injury. That's not the same thing. Besides, every disability is different. Just because you were able to get better doesn't mean everyone can. You don't know anything about her lifestyle.

Her: Well you don't know either.

Me: Exactly! We don't know. It's none of our business!

Her: So I'm not allowed to have an opinion?

Me: Look, why don't we just shut the fuck up?

Her, aghast: Just because I'm having a conversation about disability?

Me: You're being a bitch.

Her, to the barista: She called me a bitch!

Barista, who knows me, stares at her, stony.

She tries again, wanting to get me kicked out: She called me a bitch!

The barista still refuses to respond to her.

She packs up and huffs out.

Barista, to me: That woman is a horrible horrible person.

Me: Thank you!

And I burst into tears: I was afraid you were going to kick me out because I called her a bitch.

Him: Never.

I ask him for a hug. He's abled, and has the sinewy, muscular, thin body of youth. And he knows fat-shaming, and victim-blaming when he hears it. Imagine: It's possible to have a heart.

He and I talk for a while about the way disabled people are treated, about prevalent attitudes about the disabled, especially the invisibly disabled. I manage to calm down - little.

Then, Mean Girl comes back!! She walks right up to me and says, in a small, mean voice: Can I talk to you for a sec? 

Bolstered by the barista's encouraging words, I don't hesitate: NO!

Her: But.

Me: Go away! Now!

Her: But.

Me: NO!

She shrugs in a sarcastic, smug way: Okay.

She struts off, happy in her conviction that she's a good person, and I am not. 

By now there are more people here, and they're staring at me, but I don't care. I'm in the right. Whatever Mean Girl had to say, even if she thought it was an apology, which I doubt, it was going to end right back where we were before: victim-blaming, fat-shaming, smug self-satisfaction, an absence of all empathy and human decency

The barista comes back to me and says, "If she comes back again, I'll kick her out."

Soon after, I wheel home on my mobility scooter, seething with rage and hurt and frustration, as I think about the world in which we disabled people live. I get home and rant to Beau. He's so angry, he wants to take action, find the woman, yell at her (something he never does), tell her what he thinks of her. 

Before dinner, I go on Twitter and simply say:

Just had the worst experience of ableism, fat shaming, and victim blaming in my life. I'm shaking. I'll write about it later but, for now, please, my disabled friends, words of comfort badly needed.

After dinner, I find that my Twitter feed is full of kind and supportive comments, and something I wasn't expecting at all: praise!

From Spookalie: You're beautiful. You're powerful. You're badly needed. And, most of all, you are loved so far beyond anything you imagine. Please, please don't let the jeers of few outweigh the cheers of so many more.

From kateandcrps: You are damn strong. I'm angry on your behalf at whoever did this. Fuck them. People like you make this #disabilitytwitter community what it is. I only know you from here and your blog, but I know you are bad-ass and amazing. Take care of yourself as much as you can now... That sounds horrific, already. Whatever they said/did, you do NOT deserve to be treated that way!! There are SO many people here who appreciate, value and support you and I'm proud to be one of them. Just point me in the right direction for punching!! And I'm so glad that having our wonderful community here helped even during the incident.

From JusticeDeliciou: Please know you’ve made a positive difference in my life just by encountering you on Twitter. I’ve learned a lot from you, and you’ve made me laugh and cry. I am very grateful for your presence here.

From IsItAbuse: YOU are fantastic - I am so happy that I made a comment on a post of yours because you're a joy to have in my circle! I will never understand people who can knowingly hurt others. You deserve better always. I can be a pretty good listener (even to yelling) - private message me or text or talk. Serious.


I hadn't even told people what had happened, and they were already supporting me because... well, maybe because they know me, know what's in my heart, regardless of how I look, and know that an attack on me is an attack on us all.

Then I wrote a long, Twitter thread, telling everyone what had happened. I didn't have to tell them I'd felt beaten down, because they already knew. Every disabled person knows, because we've all been through it: the blame, the disbelief, the judgement.

The support poured in. I was amazed by how much of the support continued to take the form of praise. How odd. Many people told me how brave I'd been. I hadn't felt brave. I'd just felt angry. I often feel ashamed of how much anger I carry, but I guess anger has its place, if it motivates me to speak up. 

I let myself bask in the praise, and be lifted up by it, because I badly needed it, though getting support from the barista had helped. Allies matter - a lot, so, before I go on, here are some things people said about that kind young man. 

From mary_pezzulo: You're right, she was a bitch. I admire you for keeping your cool in that horror, and good for the barista too! If I'm ever in your neck of the woods, I'll order a coffee and give a big tip.

From LuxMeaMondiAM: I’m glad the barista had your back!

From dampscribbler: I'm so glad he had your back.

What astonished me the most in people's support was how many of them thanked me for standing up to Mean Girl. I hadn't expected that at all. 

People said so many kind, encouraging things, I'll let them speak for themselves.

From SusanaDee: I just started following you! You rock!

From Celebgil86: You are a kick-ass advocate. I'm pretty sure I couldn't have managed half of that conversation without bursting into tears (I'm disabled, and, by the BMI [Body Mass Index] chart, I'm morbidly obese). Thanks for trying. Remember, conversations like that are often for the audience, not the jerk you're arguing with. If your standing up to her (poor choice of words, but you know what I mean) made someone in that cafe think differently about disability, or body issues, or feel better about themselves? That's a victory, even if nasty bitch hasn't changed. You're awesome. Thank you.

From Amy_Claire_x : You are brave, you are beautiful, you are brilliant, and you are so loved and appreciated. Painful to watch or be targeted by. Takes courage to speak up.

From LizPrato: She is damaged. You are solid as fuck to say all that to her. And here are my cats:

From Victor_Asal: Very powerful and important thread. I am sorry people are like this.

From LeslieWalden6: I’m sorry. You are an amazing, talented, and compassionate person, and they’re not. Sending you a gentle hug. You’re resilient too!

From IndivCincy: Repeat as needed: You are not what the assholes of the world say you are, or act like you are. They're simply displaying how little they should matter.

From Busshitshow: You are perfect just the way you are. Strong, fierce, beautiful, brave, and kind.

From angela_holmes_: Love and hugs! Deep breathes! When people respond like that, it really tells us everything we need to know about them.

From PracadAmy: Your needs are valid and important. Ableists don’t get it. You deserve so much goodness!

From Lauralols: Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won, and all the fears you have overcome.

From mary_pezzulo: You're right, she was a bitch. I admire you for keeping your cool in that horror.

From EllroyJWhite: Sorry to hear this, hope you are okay. Some people judge everyone by THEIR standards... they need to walk a mile in another person's shoes, and then think about "judging."

From moniquedhooghe: I am so sorry and want to thank you for standing up against her.

From bluezombiesyl: Really sorry you went through that, but cheers to you for clapping back. She's a snide, self-righteous, and awful person with no identity beyond her physique. These people pretend they are responsible for their shape, and that it makes them virtuous, and superior. It's pathetic. There are so many factors, and bodies go wrong in so many spectacular ways generally out of our control. Amazing that she had one injury that resolved fairly quickly and easily, and knows one other disabled person, and is now apparently an expert on disability, as well as dieting and metabolism.

From LuxMeaMundiAM: Hey Charlotte. Well done for standing your ground, and standing up for this woman being talked about so callously! This is partly why I find venturing out so difficult: people and sickening judgments without knowing you or even saying two words to you... A lot of us feel self conscious enough and we already know how quick people are to judge, like the woman in this scenario. It’s really courageous you stood up to her. And I’m glad the barista had your back! You’ve definitely made her think twice in the future! I was the same [very fit] up until my back problem started. I used to work out every day, nothing less than six miles per day on a cross trainer, weights and  resistance training included. I had abs. Now I’m overweight by a lot, and people don’t seem to understand every factor that led to it.

From ToniHaastrup: I am sorry this happened to you. Some people are just... Anyway, I really admire you for having a conversation with her. Not sure I could have been generous like that. What a horror show of a human!

From chronicfab: Oh my fucking God, what an obnoxious asshole!! As soon as I read the part about her having a TBI [traumatic brain injury], I was like, "UUUUUGH, OMG, she's the WORST KIND of ableist - the ones who've 'overcome' some medical problem and are convinced everyone else can, too." I had a phys-ed teacher like that. I'm so sorry you had to deal with her ableist, fat-shaming bullshit, but it really sounds like you handled it like an absolute BOSS. I know that can't have been easy, and I'm immensely proud of you for it. You represented all of us and did so brilliantly! 

From FunkisHen: That sounds incredibly stressful and painful. I wish people would just listen and try to empathize instead of going on the offence. "I was disabled from a brain injury for a few months," and the token friends are not equal to living with disability for years and years. How do these people talk so much but never seem to understand what they say?

From dampscribbler: I'm sorry this undid you for a while. I really hope she learned something. Thank you for being a fighter.

From WriterDenise: This makes me so, SO angry. How dare someone make snap judgments like that? Thank you for speaking up. So much support for you!

By the time I'd read all this, I felt like a freaking superhero! It was pretty great.

And I resolved to take those photos that had made me cry, and turn them into something, turn them into a post of pride in who I am, not what I look like, because what I look like doesn't matter

And Mean Girl? What about her? All I can say is this: Never piss off a writer. Some day, your bad behaviour might just come back to bite you.

(I'm sharing this with Not Dead Yet Style.)