Sunday, November 2, 2014

sometimes it's okay to read the comments

Yesterday, as I was walking home from a fabulous brunch with a friend, I noticed how loose my shorts were, how strong my legs are, how tall I was walking, and that I wasn't out of breath. I have been in Jamaica for 6 weeks now and part of my transit from home to work is walking at least 15-20 minutes on either end of the day.

I often walk more when I have places to see, things to do, and (apparently) crêpes to work off. It may not be a lot of activity to some people, but it's a hell of a lot more movement than my body was getting at home. I also eat more fruits and vegetables here because on a volunteer's stipend eating local and in season is not only a nutrition choice but also an economic necessity.

That's me in the middle at age 14 automatically hiding my
stomach when a boy I was crushing on was nearby, never
mind the threat of a camera. 
As has been my reality since I was about 12 years of age, I think about my weight, my body shape and where those are in comparison to where they have been and where they could be a lot more of the time than I should. But I don't have a set regimen to change that and - PLEASE HEAR THIS! - I do not want one.

I eat foods I love, that I can access, and that I can afford. Often that is fresh watermelon from a vendor on the street corner, and equally often it's peanut M&Ms. In order to avoid possible gluten-poisoning, I mostly ask for salads as my side instead of a starch, though a couple rounds of fried bammy with scotch bonnet hot sauce never go amiss. I have dessert if something looks like it'll work for me, though that's rarely the case. But I am not intentionally depriving myself of anything. My eating is healthier than at home, but could still be much cleaner. I'm good with that.

The change in routine and food availability means that clothes I brought assuming they'd fit once I'd been here a while now fit, and clothes like the aforementioned shorts are getting noticeably loose - as in "does that woman have a butt at all - how do her pants stay up?" loose. In light of all that and the body-positive way I was feeling as I walked home yesterday, imagine my surprise when I got to my apartment complex gate, said hello to our security guard (and I use that term VERY loosely) only to have her reply:

"You look like you've put on weight since you got here."


I don't believe she was being rude. There's a vast cultural difference here from both the Canadian standard of beauty and the Canadian taboo of commenting on people's bodies - even the bodies of total strangers. Jamaican women of my age and younger celebrate their bodies and walk with confidence. Even if they have a poochy belly or flabby arms they wear much more body-conscious clothing than most Canadian women do, and for the most part they do it looking composed and confident, not trashy. It's inspiring.

I have had comments on my legs, my shoulders, and definitely my body in general. I've been told I look very strong, called 'champion' and a whole lot of things I - thankfully - couldn't understand. I've also been told I look - at least in my face - like Natalie from Facts of Life. I've had a co-worker comment on how much sugar I eat, point out how much fat is in cashews, and ask if I eat buttered popcorn flavoured rice cakes because they are fat free (no, I eat them because they are buttered popcorn flavoured, gluten free, available here, delicious and a great carrier for cheese!).

I believe that in her world the guard's statement was an observation, not an insult. But I carried it the rest of the day. I could take my shorts off without undoing the fly, but despite evidence to the contrary I still carried her comment all day.

In the meantime, I posted pictures on Facebook of my trip to Ocho Rios last weekend, including this one of me in a bikini at Dunn's River Falls. I have never worn a bikini before; I have worn a bikini top with board shorts, but only once very briefly and only in an 'audience restricted' area. This was me, for 4 and a half hours, with potentially hundreds of strangers seeing and assessing me, just as I was seeing and assessing them.

That's not what this picture shows. This picture is of me
  • having an absolute blast doing one of my favourite things - namely playing in water
  • fulfilling a promise to myself to be daring
  • wearing what I wanted to wear because I wanted to wear it
  • not letting decades-old doubts stop me
  • having the most fun I've had yet in Jamaica
  • feeling great about myself and my life.
The problem is, when I posted the photo to Facebook I added a caption that referenced not the joy in my face but something about not being the fattest woman I'd seen in a bikini that day. I discounted my own joy and freedom after the fact. I squandered the power of that moment. The comments that followed have varied from "if a country can cure body image Jamaica is it" (maybe, maybe not - see paragraph 4) to "you look great" to "who cares how you look, you're clearing having fun" and a recommendation for great looking suits for 'curvy girls.' 

The truth is, I am not curvy. I am overweight. At what I consider my ideal weight I have very few curves, a long 'athletic' profile (broad shoulders, narrow hips, a straightish waist) and basically no butt at all. When people include me in discussions about this dance class or that new store for 'curvy women' I want to tell them, "I'm not curvy; I'm overweight." As a euphemism for fat, curvy fails.

I am not obese. I am overweight. I can shop in any store I want to and buy 'regular size' clothes (well, not pants that are long enough, but that's a problem I like having). And I am overweight. When I am again at my goal weight, the body mass index will still consider me overweight. And at some point today I had a eureka moment and realised that my percent body fat is a fluid and inaccurate measure of who I am. That realisation has somehow released a lot of very old angst for me. 

I don't know exactly how much I weigh right now, but I know how differently my clothes fit. I know how different my legs look. I know I have definition in places I didn't know definition was missing. I also know that I have weighed up to approximately 30 pounds more, and down to approximately 30 pounds less in the past 4 years.

I know that - and I'm not going to pretend this isn't a consideration - there were men interested in me at every point along that spectrum and I still hated my body. I know that at either end of that spectrum I wanted to hide my stomach. I know that because of an auto-immune disorder sometimes my bloated belly will not reflect my overall health no matter what size I wear. I know that no matter how many sit ups or crunches or burpees I did (if I was someone who did sit ups and crunches and burpees) I would always have a stomach with multiple scars, poorly reattached muscles on one side, and a road map of stretch marks.

But most of all, I know that having a rich, full life of adventure, not being stopped by what else is going on around me, smiling, laughing and jumping in with abandon when opportunity knocks, and valuing more essential things about myself  is sexier than lady abs could ever hope to be. 'Big ups,' as they say, to every single person who helped to get me here.

PS: If you think I want diet and exercise tips, please re-read the post. You couldn't be more wrong.


  1. Thank you for keeping your comments gender neutral; guys, at least this guy, has grappled with this too.

  2. It's really interesting to me that the two comments on this post are from guys (whom I admire and respect). In our culture I think body issue stuff is near universal and no respecter of gender, size, shape, etc. Thank you both for commenting. :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...