by Christina Fisanick, Ph.D.
I remember when I first heard the lyrics of Ed Sheeran’s smash pop hit, “The Shape of You.” I rarely listen to Top 40 these days, but I overheard it at a coffee shop one afternoon. The beat caught my attention and the words struck me deeply, especially the chorus:
I’m in love with the shape of you
We push and pull like a magnet do
Although my heart is falling too
I’m in love with your body
Although the English professor in me was forced to ignore that second line, I thought intently about what it would mean to have someone say and truly mean, “I’m in love with the shape of of you.” I had already been saying that to myself for years, but even though I have been told that many times in my life by others, I have never been able to believe that the person saying it was sincere.
I mean, no one really loves a woman with a small waist, big hips, and thick thighs, right? I mean, it is a stereotype, isn’t it? Or, just a fetish. The vast majority of men did not agree with Sir Mix-a-Lot, and I knew it. In fact, when I mentioned that men often complimented my body, I was by a former lover, “Those guys just have low self-esteem. They can’t get hot girls.”
And if you are thinking, “Did she say her LOVER said that?” Yes, that is what I wrote. His mission, for reasons that remain unclear, was to tear me down, but he did not stop with my body. He kept going with my mind, my habits, my abilities to be a friend, and so on. I possessed no quality that was beyond his reproach. That is why he is my former lover.
Years of that kind of verbal berating and later physical neglect coupled with societal messages about fat bodies have challenged my slowly-erected skillset. In fact, sometimes when I was in my late 20s, I was lucky to be able to peer out from under my own covers in the morning.
Through decades of intense work building self-esteem, practicing body love, and healing psychological wounds, I did become a confident, outgoing woman who feels comfortable taking up her own space. There are, of course, moments of self-doubt, especially when harassed by fat-phobic men. (Like a month or so ago when I hustled across the street just as the walk light went off to a chorus of three men in their 40s singing the Oompa-Loompa song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) But I have spent the better part of the last eight years or so (late 30s to early 40s) embracing my body as it is.
- I wear a bathing suit at the pool (and I go often).
- I do public speaking.
- I enjoy meeting strangers.
- I have no fear of walking into a crowded room alone.
I am who I am, right?
Well, sort of.
Inherently, like most fat women in this time, I accept myself DESPITE my body. I learned to love my body EVEN THOUGH it is not considered attractive in mainstream American culture. I treasure who I am BECAUSE I know that illnesses such as chronic depression, PTSD, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), thyroid disorder, and Binge Eating Disorder (BED) limit my body’s ability to conform to this expected norm. (Not to mention genetics and child bearing and being in my 40s and all of the other things that impact body size, shape, abilities, and so on.)
In other words, by the time I heard Ed Sheeran crooning about this svelte woman he met in a bar, I was only half in. That is, I loved the shape of me because I HAD to. Learning to love and accept my body is essential to my recovery from Binge Eating Disorder. As my therapist has always said, “Overcoming body dissatisfaction is almost always the hardest piece of the recovery puzzle for people with eating disorders.”
And then, something happened. Actually, two somethings happened.
One night I was out with friends when a handsome man approached our table. He made some small talk with the three of us, and then started chatting only with me. Eventually, he asked me to dance, explaining that he loved my shape. At first I thought, “Oh yeah, another one of those guys who thinks he can just pick the lamest animal in the herd for easy sex.” But, before I could say no and tell him I was married, he said, “I watched you when you walked in. Such confidence. I just want to put my hands around your slim waist and on your big hips. You’re gorgeous.” The sincerity in his eyes took me aback. I realized that he wasn’t just saying what he thought I wanted to hear, but that he truly liked my body.
I told him I was married, and he went away disappointed. And I went home that night questioning everything I had believed for decades. There are men who truly love women shaped like me. They haven’t, for whatever reason, come to believe that round butts and thunder thighs are disgusting or equal to an early death from disease.
Days later, though, those old thoughts came trooping back in my mind, and I brushed off this encounter as an anomaly. I was especially deflated when I realized that loving yourself was more important than what anyone else thought. That my body has value and purpose outside of the male gaze.
And then, about two weeks later I was walking in the park and ran into a man I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We had met at a coffee shop in the city where we were both living at the time. We talked for hours that day about subjects as diverse as Paul Revere’s last ride and coal mining and growing up poor. We were both just months away from moving out of the city and in new relationships, so we parted ways without exchanging numbers or promising to get together again.
Now, all those years later, he was in my town on business. What a surprise for both of us! We sat on a bench and caught up. His divorce, my son. His career, my books. Eventually, though, we started talking about the day we met, and before long, he confessed that he had wanted to ask me out. I was flattered, of course. And then he said, “It was your shape. I mean, I loved your outgoing personality. I loved how easy it was to talk to you. I wanted to tell you my whole life story. But I also wanted to know what it felt like to curl up next to your round hips and thighs. I have thought about that many times over the last ten years.”
He was immediately embarrassed, or so I guessed from his stammer and blushing cheeks. I said, “Thank you for saying that.” And I really meant it. Then, I changed the subject. Before too long it was time for me to go to work and for him to leave town. Of course, we didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t promise to see each other again, but I walked away for the second time in a month with my notion about the attractiveness of my body—and the bodies of other fat women—turned inside out.
If these men could desire my body, not because I have a good personality or a pretty face, but as it truly is—round, thick, strong, weighty—then why couldn’t I?
I realized that it was about time I was done settling. My body IS beautiful, not because I have a beautiful soul or a lovely heart or a caring attitude, but because it IS. And that some men—and women—might prefer a thinner body or a less shapely silhouette, but there ARE people out there who lust for bodies like mine, not because it occupies that porn-site fetish category BBW. Not because I am smart as hell and successful in my career, but because of the shape of me.