Saturday, October 24, 2015

On numbers in books and body image

Warning: This post isn't really about books, but about my crazy mind.  Feel free to skip.  Also, there are some weight numbers quotes in here if you're sensitive to that.

I am upset.

I can't even come up with a coherent title for this post.  It's been growing inside me for a long time, a bit like a pearl grows inside a bivalve.  I wouldn't dream of saying that this post has pearl-like qualities!  However, it was caused by an irritant.  This irritant got into my brain and my heart and because it hurt, I started pouring feelings over it to try and dull the pain.  Feelings like shame and self-loathing.  Like worthlessness and melancholy.  I swathed this irritant in horrible, bilious emotions.  And now here it is: a gobbet of word vomit, reflecting the ugliness of my disordered mind.

Whenever an author includes a character's weight or numeric clothing size, I'm instantly put off.  It's entirely unnecessary.  Numbers don't create a complex character.  You should never shorthand someone into the "fat and nice" stereotype by giving a clothing size (which, if you have ever tried on clothing, which I suspect the vast majority of you have--barring perpetual nudists--you know varies wildly from one brand to the next.  It's even more fun when it varies within the brand!).  Or do the whole "I'm-too-skinny-and-gorgeous-but-I-don't-see-it" teen girl thing.  This one drives me mad.  Literally everyone else in the book knows that the girl is hot, but she's usually like, "Ooh, I hate being so bony.  I have to buy tiny pants.  Boys will never love meeeee."  Sizes and shapes are used to "other" characters, with the intent of rounding out their character or ... something like that.

And now you're like, "Hold up, lady.  Those are actual body types."  Ding ding ding!  Yes, yes they are, Virginia!  There are a multitude of body types, but the point is this: NONE OF THEM ARE WRONG.  You cannot have the "wrong" body.  I mean, unless you are a human who has been turned into an octopus with some sort of mad scientist's ray gun, in which case you are probably hallucinating and should get yourself to the hospital.  Bodies are bodies are bodies.  They are.  Just are.  They have nothing to do with a person's character.  And the numbers used to measure those bodies don't need to be bandied about in a narrative.

We need to write about people with all sorts of bodies.  People want to see themselves in literature.  But how do you think a fat guy feels when he's reading a book and a character with his weight is described as a lazy slob?  Or how do you think a girl who's genetically just going to be thin and small feels when she reads about how girls think that body type is "gross"?  Yeah, they're going to feel like crap.  Please do not use those numbers to "add character."


For people with disordered eating tendencies, eating disorders, or those in recover, it's generally a bad idea to talk about numbers.  I generally don't know what I weigh, because I know the numbers would send me back into throwing up my food and eating practically nothing to start with.  I freaked out (and am still freaking out, but more quietly, I suppose) because I took a medicine that made me gain weight, and there was nothing I could do about it.  So now my pants don't fit and I have to buy a bigger size.  Even though I know, intellectually, that the number is really meaningless, my illness tells me that it makes me worthless and lazy and powerless.

And yet, I feel healthier than I have for many years.  My back is finally cooperating.  My celiac is under control.  I can do pull-ups.  My quads are poppin'.  So what is it about the number?  It always comes back to numbers for me.  For other people, it's different things.

For the past few months, I've been overflowing with self-loathing and wrapping it around a number in my head--one that I feel is "ideal."  I'm not that number now, nor, really, should I be.  I've read about other readers feeling uncomfortable being the same weight as someone described as "obese" in a book.  I'm tired of it.  I'm so tired.

Oysters keep their pearls inside until someone hacks them open and pries them out.  I'm no oyster (also, I have a really unpleasant mollusk intolerance, so that just wouldn't work out) and I don't make lovely, rare things, and I'll tell you about what's been irking me.  It just takes something to kick me into gear.

I was at the gym this evening, and even though I had a book with me for my bike intervals, I grabbed a magazine instead.  It wasn't a good choice.  Health magazine, which is nice for the workout gear and utterly pants for everything else.  I try not to read "fitness" magazines, because they portray an unrealistic view of weight and health.  Tonight, though, I was tired and I wanted mindless brain junk food to distract me while the bike pretended I was climbing twelve hills (ugh interval training).  Everything was pretty fluffy, and I had a good laugh at Tracy Anderson's "workout," but then I started reading the cover celeb's interview.  It was Victoria Justice, about whom I know two things: 1) she was on a t.v. show on Nickelodeon and 2) I keep thinking she's Nina Dobrev.

Victoria was talking about her diagnosis with Hashimoto's, an autoimmune thyroid disorder, and how she took thyroid medication to regulate her hormones.  "At first, I was losing a lot of weight, then I went on tour and I started gaining weight, and it was the most I'd ever gained in my life. I was, like, 115 pounds. Then when I filmed a movie last summer, I actually went under 100 pounds. It was crazy, but things have leveled out, and I'm back to normal."

Mostly I just skim-read while I'm exercising, so I misread the first bit.  I thought she said "I was losing a lot of weight ... like 115 pounds," and I was like whoa, that's not possible.  Then I reread it and just felt angry.  And sad.  But mostly angry.  Seriously: "I was, like, 115 pounds" is the most you've ever weighed and it was some sort of Greek tragedy?  Then, cue the faux-concerned humblebrag about how much she lost.  Girl, I get it.  My weight ups and downs have been caused by hormones, too.  It's awesome that she talked about having Hashimoto's and being treated for it (although following a diet by a "Korean acupuncturist" doesn't seem super legit to me) and how it affected her body.  Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder at a young age is really scary.  I was 20 when I found out I had celiac.  I felt like I would be missing out on the rest of my life.  Such drama!  But she didn't have to give out numbers and seem so horrified that she ended up weighing (wait, get me my fainting couch) 115 pounds.

Thankfully, I had hit the interview portion as my intervals ended, but when I got off the bike I wanted to punch something.  If that's the worst thing that's happened to you, then you're really ... lucky?  Sheltered?  I don't know.

I realize that I am mentioning numbers here, but as illustrative quotes only.  I'd never talk about my own numbers, because it's nobody's business and also ... I don't really know them, for the sake of my sanity.

And just that one sentence in a short interview in a pretty brainless magazine had a huge impact on me.  I was angry, but I also immediately compared my weight to hers, her height to mine.  I caught the spiral before it became uncontrollable, and I funneled everything into writing.

I have a long way to go before I feel like my brain is close to healthy.  But every time I read something like this it's like when someone wet-coughs in your face and you get a horrid cold.  Wait, is that just me as a public librarian?  Anyway.  It was my poor decision to choose to read that, and I accept that.  I shouldn't have done something potentially triggering.  But when I pick up a book, I don't expect to see the main character's weight marching across the page.  I want a story, not a tabloid rundown of the character's body type.

So, I'm not quite sure how to end this.  So, um, the end.

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