Not Fat Not Thin: The Murky Middle Ground of the Body Image Issue

I have been writing this blog for a while now and I still find it interesting that when discussing body image the focus tends to swing from one polarity to the other, obesity to being too thin. When I looked it over I found that most of the articles and stories I post deal with being over weight, weight loss, or the images of women in advertising being too thin and not setting a realistic or healthy body image for females both young and old. It started to bother me, why is it always about the extremes? Why is the middle ground so murky especially when the majority of us fall into that category?

When you are neither fat nor thin, but somewhere comfortable in the middle as far as societies standards are concerned you reside in what I call Body Middle-Earth. However being neither/nor does not exempt you from the same feelings of inadequacies that women on the extreme sides of the subject have. I live in this Body Middle-Earth. To people looking at me I am certain that they might never suspect that I don’t like my body, or at the very least have issues with parts of it. It takes me back to when I first started the blog I did a pre-screening of sorts to friends and co-workers. Upon viewing the “About Me” video in the introduction one person commented, “I found myself re-watching the video to see to see those gorgeous pictures of you, which I don’t think is your point” Where I was flattered that they found them “beautiful”, The pictures were of me dancing the voice over spoke of my feelings of displeasure with my body and the contradiction housed within it. My legs went up, I could jump, and I had power. My body has always complied with my demands but I just never liked what it looked like doing it.” I thought the juxtaposition was the point- Often people think that we look good, but we hate the way we look!

I understood the note, but I chose to leave the video the way it was mainly because the t’ruth of the matter is that you don’t have to appear broken to feel broken, damaged, or inadequate…the evidence is not always visible to the naked eye.  Somehow we can understand a person having body issues if they are a “misfit” (to heavy, short, dark, light, lips too big, breast to small etc.) because they clearly stand outside of the social aesthetic,but if a person is okay (looking) if they are average-or above then it gets harder to imagine that they too might harbor insecurities. Very few of us look like the models in magazines. We are all inundated with those images, it is conceivable that we all (regardless of what we look like) are affected by them, the inhabitants of Body Middle Earth as well, we too should be able to enter into the conversation, it’s not about competition but recognition.
Why is there no space, no acknowledgement and little compassion for those who don’t necessarily look the way they feel? Can’t pretty people feel ugly, can’t thin people feel fat, and can’t successful people feel like failures?  Well of course they can, and they do but people just get annoyed when they talk about it publicly, and if they do they are seldom met with empathy, but they are treated like they are fishing for a complement or worse, as if they are trying to make other people feel bad about themselves (We all know those types of people) when all they really wanted was to share be heard, and supported.
A while ago I had an exchange yoga studio dressing room a month or so after I started the blog that illustrated my point:

It was after class, and we were all waiting to shower so it was a cornucopia of naked bodies of all shapes and sizes in the room. I was having a discussion with my friend Myrna about how I needed to reign myself I because I was starting to plump up again. It was a personal/private conversation we were having in public (we have all done it) A women interjected saying “your crazy, you have a beautiful body, if you think you’re fat what am I?” I was incensed! First of all no one was talking to her, and second of all NO ONE WAS TALKING TO HER! Now, where I wanted to say that to her, I chose to use it as a teaching moment, “Look,” I said trying to temper my tone,

“The way I feel about my body has nothing to do with the way I feel about yours. The way you feel about your body is a personal thing.”

Where I completely understood where she was coming from, (I have felt the same way myself when friends who are thinner than myself say that they are fat) but I was irritated by the fact that somehow I with my “beautiful” body was not allowed to feel a certain way, and I was definitely not allowed to verbally say it in mixed body company. Living in Body Middle-Earth can be quite isolating. We all have our own internal barometer for the way we feel, and the way we like to feel in our bodies, and that is not for anyone else to judge. It is not to be negated it is not a comparative conversation; it’s a personal one.

There was a similar situation that transpired between the Editor in Chief of Dance Magazine Wendy Perron and myself. She had assigned me my second article on body image. My concept was to talk to dancers about how they felt about their bodies and what were some of their issues. My idea was to interview Wendy Whelan of New York City Ballet because her body is a constant topic of conversation in the dance world as she is extremely skinny. I wanted to know how she felt about her body. I also wanted to talk to American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland (the now it girl) who is not only a ballerina of color but she is curvy as well, I knew there was a story there.  Sadly Perron informed me that Whelan had been featured too often in the magazine and she doubted that ABT would let me talk to Copeland especially about her body. Body talk in the dance world is like Wikileaks!

So I came up with an alternative in Maurya Kerr, of LINES Ballet.  Maury is a gazelle-like beauty and had been a Poster Girl for much of her career but I knew that she was recovering from hip surgery and I thought that process might make a great angle. When I ran this by Perron her response was “Was she ever fat?” I was bit perplexed and informed her that perhaps we were talking about two distinctly different articles. Once again the idea of “body issues” and the visible “flaw” was the expectation, the people in the middle were once again going to go unaddressed. I was not interested in doing the typical article about misfits, the people who clearly don’t fit into the standard: the flat of foot, tight of hamstring, or turned in. I wanted to highlight the fact that regardless of what you look like (whether it is the preferred aesthetic or not) you can still have issues with your body. This is not a criticism of Wendy Perron it’s just the way that we tend to think about the issue. When we discussed our divergent concepts she thought the angle was important enough to go with.  Ironically when I interviewed Kerr for the piece she spoke quite candidly about her battle with eating disorders. Although she was very thin, she had breasts and in the ballet world of flat chested dancers her breasts made her feel “big”, subsequently she stopped eating in an effort to look like the other girls. The article, Learn to Love your Body (not my title) was published in the October 2009 issue.

When discussing the topic with my friend and former student Erika Hand (she too is tall and of average size) she shared that often she felt “dismissed” when talking about her body issues with women, hence feels that isolation, and invalidated. Often the dismissal will come in the form of people saying “You’re crazy” or “There is nothing wrong with you” that may well be true but it doesn’t make you feel acknowledged or heard.  What it does is make you feel sorry for sharing such intimate, and sensitive feelings. Just because people think that you “shouldn’t” feel a certain way doesn’t mean that you don’t, and it doesn’t mean that your feelings are less valid. In short, often it’s hurtful.

The middle body ground is murky and filled with such subtlety that it is hard to define, defend or discuss. If you live in this grey zone you may find yourself on the outside of both sides of the issue. It’s like the Occupy Wall Street movement, in reality it’s not purely the 1% versus the 99%, there is probably 20% of the people who are middle class, they may not be “down and out” but the disproportionate distribution of wealth affects them as well.  Now imagine if that 20% were not allowed to add their voices to the protest just as passionately as those who are more greatly effected, would they change it to 1% vs. the 69%? I don’t think so. The Body issue discussion in my opinion is no different. I always say,

“If you have a body, the chances are, you have some issues”

they may not be to the degree of some other people but they are yours, they are real and they deserve to be acknowledged and addressed equally.
Theresa Ruth Howard

4 thoughts on “Not Fat Not Thin: The Murky Middle Ground of the Body Image Issue”

  1. As a fellow Ailey dancer in the PPAS program I understand that no one is ever satisfied with what they are given. I know even though I way be considered “skinny” by some I personally don’t feel that way all the time. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and think how come I may not look like some of these amazing, dancers of this age? Then I have to think again and realize I was born to look this way. I have a broad back with a larger rib cage which gives more of a widened look, but I can’t help that because I know I was born into a more of an athletic family background. After reading this it really made me realize that I am who I am and I can’t change it. God gave me what I have and I can’t change it, so why should I? I just have to learn to love what I have and I already am.
    Thanks it really made me feel better about what I have, and to not worry so much about what others have.

  2. I’m also a student in the PPas/Ailey program and Alexis so true!! I feel the same way and you’re right, everybody is made in their own special way that God made them. I just want to thank you Ms.Howard so much for this really helpful blog. I fust finished watching pt.1 of the interview you gave Linda Celeste Sims and about to watch pt.2. Totally inspirational. Thank You <3

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. I know exactly what it feels like to be an inhabitant of Body Middle Earth. I’ve constantly been told that I’m “not fat and not skinny, just the right size”. I’m 17, but unusually curvy and well-developed for my age, though still toned and quite muscular. I’ve been struggling with my body image for the past few years, but whenever I tell anyone that I’d die to be a size 0, their first response is “But you’re just the right size”. Your body image posts have really helped me and I find them very uplifting.

  4. Provocative article with some good points to consider. I do though have a hard time agreeing with what you say. I’m not disputing the legitimacy of your argument. I’m just not sure how to respond to the dissatisfaction of a Body in Middle earth. Perhaps you can provide some guidance on how to do so beyond “Well, why do you feel that way,” which sounds patronizing; or simply nodding and listening which is too open for misinterpretation.

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