By Amanda, Fattitude Intern
Growing up, the American media pushed an armful of role models onto me. Society dangled Barbie, Disney princesses, and Miss America contestants above me as proper figures to imitate. Unsurprisingly, at five years old, I already felt deficient because of my body.
My body had an overall kidney bean shape: my belly curved forward sharply. I used to drum on my stomach, in hopes that it would flatten out.
Over two decades later, I still find myself insecure about my stomach.
I have, however, discovered better role models. One stands out in particular.
She played the cello. She read restaurant reviews for public radio. She owned a successful local business. She created fine art. She taught classes. She wrote cookbooks. She hosted fabulous gatherings. She gave liberally to charities. She had gobs of friends. She led a tribal belly dance troupe. In fact, she kept her arms lifted and her wrists soft while she walked, as if she were always dancing. She smiled a lot, and it was infectious.
I never heard anyone call her fat. No one ever would, since “fat” has such a negative connotation, and EVERYONE loved her. A former coworker of mine captured her perfectly: “She had this gift for making every person feel like the only person in the room. She made you feel as though you were special to her, even if you had just met.” As a result, she had over 1,000 Facebook friends and a loyal following, myself included.
I worked at her business for over a year while in school. I became instantly enamored with her persona. How could a tattooed woman be taken seriously as a businesswoman, or a fat woman embody sensuality before an audience? I chalked it up to some kind of fairy magic. I longed to have that innate confidence.
Pining to become a protégé, I sampled her belly dancing classes. It wasn’t soon after I started that I began compulsively skipping classes, though. Watching myself attempt belly rolls in a tank top and tight yoga pants triggered harsh internal criticism of my body. The mirrors mocked me, or so I thought.
I stopped belly dancing. I told myself that I’d start again once I dropped a few (or 20) pounds. When that didn’t happen, I decided that belly dancing wasn’t “for me,” as a woman having been plagued with body insecurities my whole life.
Many months later, I heard my idol’s voice drifting through my radio in my car. I turned it up. I liked to listen to her restaurant reviews, even though I wouldn’t allow myself to eat any of the decadent dishes she recommended.
Then it happened.
She admitted over the airwaves that she had once suffered from bulimia. Her voice dragged across that word like a finger furtively scooping out a hair from bowl of food. In those four notes there was darkness, disgust, and the sourness of a painful past.
A second later, her voice was happy and bright again. The word had disappeared, untraceable like a black cloud flashing across the moon.
I switched off the car, stunned. I cried.
It’s strange how healing it can be to hear a testament of someone’s pain when it aligns with yours. It makes you feel less isolated.
I pondered why our battles for positive body image expressed themselves so differently. It was pretty obvious: Whereas I had been sitting life out on the benches – weaving away from opportunities that caused my old wounds to ache – she had charged into her pain and vulnerability and desire. She often did so for an audience.
I started to realize that we don’t need role models that tell us how we need to change; we need role models to remind us that we’re okay just as we are.
With that kernel of truth, my whole narrative of self flew apart. Struggling with poor body image did not bar me from living the life I dreamed about: My idol was living proof of that.
I had witnessed others flaunting their “flaws” and found it easy to find them charming for it. I needed more than that. I required undeniable proof that I could do so, too. I needed to allot myself the same license to love my body fiercely.
That’s what Tanya showed me, just by being her curvy, bubbly self. She packed her life with joy and savored each mouthful unapologetically. Her self-acceptance and values made her a rebel and a goddess. Her honesty empowered me to strive to do the same for myself, despite my self-destructive past.
I wish I could tell her that and more (like that I improved with my zills, but the latter would be a lie.)
Knowing my feelings about her lifestyle would NOT have made any difference to how she lived, though – that fact being precisely why I will forever exalt her in loving memory as my muse!
*This blog post is the opinion of a particular Fattitude intern – and does not necessarily reflect the position of Fattitude, Inc.