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Fatness and Positive Self-Perception

by Tina Coggins

Copyright © 1998-2006 Tina Coggins

"What is the difference between being a Big Beautiful Woman and feeling like one?"

I was asked that question a couple of years ago by a friend for an online interview.

My answer is: the evolution of self-perception. To me, that's the difference.

Beauty is such a subjective thing, but we're taught to value the opinions of the world more than those of ourselves when it comes to our own beauty. What the lesson really should be is that what we think about ourselves is infinitely more important than what the world at large thinks.

In the world of Size-Acceptance, "BBW" is an acronym for Big Beautiful Woman, which is basically a euphemism for "fat." Of course, not all big women are beautiful simply because of their size -- just as thin women are not all automatically beautiful because of their thinness. This, of course, is not addressing all too prevalent social expectations that every woman should be as beautiful as possible, in order to please her male counterparts. This is sexist, heteronormative thinking that only keeps the status quo humming along. No, what I'm talking about is what each woman thinks about herself and her own body, since I am far less concerned about what the world around me thinks of my worthiness based upon numbers on a scale or whether I have symmetrical features or not. I think it is one thing to call oneself a BBW because it's the common shorthand in some circles, and another thing to use it due to the fact that the woman is ashamed to just use the word 'Fat' -- maybe because she is ashamed to be fat.

Like so many other fat people, I had a childhood full of teasing, disapproval, and diets. Such messages, when growing up, only serve to undermine whatever tenuous confidence an adolescent might have. Sometimes, it prevents the person, even as an adult, from ever seeing whatever beauty is before them in the mirror. We all know that outer beauty is not the only important thing about a person, but for someone who has had a lifetime of put-downs and teasing about their looks, seeing beauty for the first time can be a revelation, and for me, once I saw myself differently I was able to stop fixating on my perceived ugliness. Incidentally, this problem of a warped body image is not exclusive to fat women, but is common to women, in general.

None of us is at our best every day. Some days I just feel big; other days I feel beautiful, too. Once one gets past a negative, warped, self-perception, so much of it is about attitude and effort. When I have put on my favorite outfit (a Chinese-Red dress from Morocco), and my hair is beautiful and shiny; my make-up is done -- or not, as I don't always wear it -- I feel like a hot babe. But other times, even when I'm just hanging around in my favorite nightgown, I can look in the mirror and see beauty there -- no bra, no makeup, hair not done. Doesn't matter. We don't need artifices to be beautiful, and we shouldn't feel the need to use them in order to be beautiful, either. To me, makeup and dressing up to go out on the town is just a fun thing I do for myself, but the beauty is there whether I'm painting the town red or not. I'm talking about feeling, inside and out, like a big, beautiful woman. Like a gorgeous fat woman. Most people aren't used to thinking in those terms; to the rest of society 'fat' and 'gorgeous' seem to be mutually exclusive. They're not.

Years ago, no matter how dressed to the nines I was, I almost never felt like a hot babe. I've always been an artist, but even as a portrait artist, it never would have occurred to me to draw a fat woman. Now, I've drawn several (including some nudes of myself -- that's progress, believe me). Times change, and so can we.

We will feel about ourselves what we let ourselves feel. For better or for worse. What are we receptive to? The negative messages we have come to depend on for so long that we expect them and are surprised when they don't come? Or new messages; the ones we program for ourselves as we take responsibility for our own self-perception?

We do this by letting ourselves feel worthy of compliments, positive attention, and sexy smiles directed our way; by meeting the person's eyes and saying, "Thank you," to compliments, or just by smiling back instead of negating our own existence by turning away.

How about smiling at ourselves in the mirror because DAMN, that woman in the mirror looks fine. Yes, she's fat -- very fat, even. And she has cellulite and stretch marks (all of these things, to some, are beauty marks), and even may be sagging here and there. Such is life.

Try to flip a little switch in the brain and look through new eyes. The roundness of her hips, like a ripe pear, is beautiful. Her round stomach, large and perhaps pendulous looks like it's just begging to be stroked and rubbed. How comfortable it would be to lay a head upon such a pillow. Her legs have shapely curves everywhere. Here's something way too many people need to realize: Thin beauty is not the only valid kind of beauty. Apply, lather, rinse and repeat.

Just Being Open to the Possibility Is the Start
Sometimes, the genesis of this positivity is just being open to the possibility of being beautiful. For some fat women, the thought that they are beautiful is too much. But, if one can just be open to the possibility and look for some evidence that they might be beautiful -- and then not denying it when they find it, is the first step down the path to having a positive self-perception, in spite of being fat. Even very fat. This is basically how I changed the way I saw myself.

I determined that I hated feeling the way I did about my body, so I tried to change it. I knew that would take a change in self-perception, not diet -- because I'd tried that way too many times and I only gained more weight than I'd lost, and then felt even worse about myself.

I decided I would intentionally look for beauty within and without, and particularly without. And here's the clincher: when I found that evidence, I would not turn away from it and I would not deny it. This denial went hand-in-hand with my tendency to deflect compliments -- minimize them and put up the force field when they started heading my way. I've always had no problem giving compliments to others, but had no capacity to receive them myself -- meaning being able to receive them gracefully, as well as take those words to heart and really feel them. Both of these things were intertwined and both of these things I worked on.

Re-programming Oneself -- The Messages We Give Ourselves
Every day I stood naked in front of the mirror, trying to see myself objectively, and refusing to replay old tapes stored in my brain about how I was too fat, ugly, inadequate -- and the remarks that had been made about the way I looked by friends, school mates and even family. When I looked like this I was told I had "the body of an eighty year-old woman" by my mother. My father once referred to me as "the thing in the kitchen." I used to re-play these lovely little sound bites on a regular basis. I no longer do that, except occasionally, during those exceptionally bad PTSD times. Fortunately, those are rare. It can take a while to re-train yourself in all of these things, but it's possible to do. You just must remain committed and consistent.

I looked at my body holistically -- no parting-out; e.g.: this part is lovely, but that part is hideous. I am not a collection of parts; I am a whole woman, and while the world may consider my ass to be way too wide, that line from my waist to my hips is lovely, whether anyone else agrees or not.

I started seeking out art inspired by the fat figure -- and there's a lot of it! I studied it and really tried to see what the artist found beautiful in those forms, and then tried to apply that to myself and see how I might be drawn or painted.

After that, the next part of my process was drawing myself in the nude. Being an artist, and particularly having specialized in portraits and nudes in the past, this was something I felt capable of doing, but the experience was odd. First, just the mechanics of it is more awkward than drawing a model. But beyond that, I found I had a tendency to slim the parts of myself that I wished were slimmer in real life. I had to back up and draw what was really there, as faithfully as possible. Two results of that are here and here. I don't find either of the women in these images to be ugly (and in fact I sell prints of them and have had a number of customers buy them -- particularly "Aspire"). Realizing that was another somewhat enlightening moment. Other things came of this quest, too -- for instance, poetry.

Earlier in this article I talked about compliments. I should say here that part of my process was to hear the daily compliments my ex-husband gave me and to not let myself slough them off and treat them as if they were insignificant or untrue. I actually heard what he said and tried to see myself as he was seeing me.

You should know that none of these changes made an instantaneous difference. It took time. But what the heck, two or three years down the road, had I not done the work, I'd have still felt the same, crappy way about myself.

What are you comparing yourself to? Venus of Willendorf, the original symbol of all that women were hoped to be, sexually and fertility-wise? Or a Photoshop-enhanced, silicon infused woman who can't even live up to her own image in a magazine?

My intent here is not to slam thin women, for they are our sisters. My intent is to show that there are positive things about having some soft padding and that there is no shame in being fat except for the shame society tries to put on us. We do not have to accept it.

We are starting to see larger images in some magazines. Images that look more like us. Of course, we as women are still being objectified in many of these magazines. There is certainly enough to decry about that, but it is for another day. What I am talking about today is how we define our own physical beauty.

This evolution of thought is the difference between being a big, beautiful woman, and feeling like one.

One, perhaps, is one. The other is and knows it, down to the tips of her chubby little toes.

Art inspired by the fat female form -- just a few listings:

Fernando Botero

François Boucher

Adrian Ciobotaru

Jed Dougherty

Nigel Morgan

Joyce Ann Mudd

Peter Paul Rubens

Jennifer M. Saftler

Dari Walker

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