Love At Every Size: Healthy, Happy, and at Home in Your Body
Written By: Jen Ponton
On my body love journey, I liken the first 24 years of my life to living in the Matrix–asleep in a pod of delusion, self-loathing, and eternal punishment of a body that refused to conform to societal standards. By 6, I had become a “soft” child. By 9, I was rolier and polier. My mom encouraged me to Jazzercise with her, which was just magical ‘80s fun until, at 11–peak adolescent terror–I realized the reason for her encouragement. My body was getting bigger, no matter how many baby carrots she fed me or how many Jazzercise classes I took. I could feel the anxiety radiating off of my perpetually-svelte mother. My dad would pull my hair in front of my cheeks before a big school dance to “thin my face.” They wanted so much to protect me from the slings and arrows of others–but as I internalized that body shame, I became my own worst enemy.
While I was never diagnosed with an ED, I recklessly engaged in punitive, disordered patterns. I would decide to stop eating until my stomach felt like a collapsing star. Then would begin The Great Binge, the primal destruction of a latchkey kid who was alone for hours. That was my first self-imposed “diet,” though I’d already been well-groomed–our cabinets sported SnackWells fat-free treats, diet Pepsi, and a lifetime ban on Hostess delicacies. I was ravenous. I was disgusted. I wanted to eat everything and nothing. Even as an active kid, dancing and Jazzercising like a madwoman, I continued to grow into borderline plus-sizes. When my breasts grew past the Victoria’s Secret size range, my search for a prom dress became torture–and even the women’s periwinkle gown that I chose (in tears, on the floor in Macy’s) pressed my ample muffins into pancakes.
As miserable as I was, I was living a life I had never dreamed of as a lonely outcast child. I had friends, I was doing well in school, I was performing and competing every weekend. I found it impossible to sustain my self-abuse, so I learned to work with my body. I bought a larger, homemade prom dress on eBay, I found bras that could contain my multitudes, and I was spending time with guys who looked at me sideways if I didn’t eat–so I did. For the first time in my life, I was feeling acceptance–from others as well as myself.
My body settled when I was 18. I was healthy, happy, thriving, and in love. But in the background, triggers lurked everywhere. I was enrolled in a theatre program rife with thin, fit actors picking apart their bodies, shrieking over carbs. If they think they’re disgusting, my mind whispered, just imagine what they think of you. Obesity was the new political buzzword, and suddenly every news segment and political platform became about waging war with bodies like mine. Genetic back problems had just begun for me, and I was feeling too soft, too big, and too incapable far too soon. When a diet guru came to speak at my campus, I was primed to sneak into the back of the auditorium. I’d even skipped out on madrigal chorus, one of the best parts of my week. Anxious for a miracle, I took in everything he said. I read his e-book, which preached that I should eat only raw produce forever. “You think you know hunger?” he challenged. “You will understand true hunger when you change your life.”
He was right. For 4 months, I turned into a raw vegan (previous classification: normal college student, liberal servings of late-night pizza and chicken tenders). I immediately dropped several sizes, and I was hungry all the time–but this was like no hunger I’d ever experienced. What was once a gurgling discomfort, like a car’s gas light coming on, became a roaring, lunatic monster–like a tire blow-out on the highway. I’m doing so well at punishing myself, I thought. I’m definitely gonna get thinner now. But instead, my slightly-smaller body decided it was pretty comfortable exactly where it was. I was beside myself. My boyfriend was worried about me. You’re changing, he said. I think this is affecting you. I decided I needed to go harder–so I began doing high-impact aerobics twice a day. I would jump and pant and for 2 hours daily, leaving my knees so sore that I could barely walk the next day. Once again, I was at an impasse: keep trying to be thinner, or live your life. I was exhausted and in so much pain. My boyfriend begged me to start eating like a normal 19-year-old again, and I did. I immediately felt better–happier, healthier, sated, and sane. I also immediately put on the weight I lost along with a little more. I don’t find you sexy anymore, said my boyfriend.
When he broke up with me, my disordered brain relished the fact that my ragged grief left me unable to eat. I would buy a Naked Juice here or there to keep from passing out, but that puritanical sense of deprivation was its own sick reward. When I started dating the man who would become my husband, he would watch me push my food around the plate, demurring. You’re zaftig, he said. It means juicy–think of it like a plum. You’re a juicy plum.
I ate more. I enjoyed more. I was learning to judge myself–and other bodies–less. It was good timing, because I was about to go into the field of professional acting, where my new sense of self would be challenged again and again. And it was. I was asked to lose weight for a role. I was told that I couldn’t get work unless I went down to “TV fat.” And our glorious new first lady, Michelle Obama, whom I love for literally everything else she did and exemplified, decided to make her political platform about obesity–which once again triggered the blue blazes out of me.
Desperate to keep myself from another cycle of self-abuse, I landed in the virtual safehouse that truly saved me: The Fat-O-Sphere. A blog ring full of brilliant individuals, mostly women of size (many of whom have become prolific, well-known writers in the intervening years), the FOS was like my Body Love Library. After a day of work, I’d come home to pore through archives upon archives of Health at Every Size, Disordered Eating, Dysmorphia, Body Politics, Fat Activism, Intuitive Eating, and every origin story under the sun. For the first time, I reclaimed my most dreaded descriptor: fat. I learned to love that word as I took on a veritable Master’s degree in Kate Harding, Marianne Kirby, Melissa McEwan, the glorious photojournalism of Substantia Jones and the Adipositivity Project, and so many more. I learned to honor my cravings, joyful movement, and–most fun–exploring fashion and rewriting the rules for how large bodies can dress and visually express themselves. This makeshift education gave me confidence and a community. I connected with and befriended so many other people of size who were incredible role models, and who continue to show me just how fabulous we can be, despite the unpopularity of our size.
That community and foundational education not only supported me as my body got bigger, but also–perhaps even more challengingly–when it got smaller. I’m now celebrating 10 years of living a HAES-principled life. In that time, I’ve gone up some sizes–and and come back down. In the old construct of my mind, this journey would be incredibly triggering and unhealthy for me. It would fling me back into patterns that I never want to enact again. Conversely, it has helped me breathe through these changes, labeling these ups and downs as neither good nor bad. It’s helped me continue to listen to what my body wants, and ignore the scale. It’s helped me neutralize others’ well-meaning feedback when they comment on my body. It’s helped me make decisions based on my real health and wellness (i.e. my very real gluten intolerance) versus what is praised or demonized in our diet-overlord culture. HAES saved my life in 2008, and it continues to do so every day that I spend in my body.
In this political climate, we spend a lot of time talking about what particular activism is the most intersectional, the most representative of humanism across the board. I contend that the principles of HAES–the Constitution of my beloved Fat-O-Sphere–are the perfect representation of humanistic values. They argue: No matter how much your body is dismissed, devalued, or turned into a grotesque funhouse mirror for puritanical agendas, we respect and honor and value you. Copy, paste. Women, black folks, people of color, LGBTQ folks, indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, refugees, the differently abled. They are all worthy.
I finally know that I am, too. I hope you know the same.
About the Author: Jen Ponton is an actress, writer, producer, and body love activist who works for size inclusivity within the entertainment industry. Her work includes Orange is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock, and an upcoming series for AMC, premiering in 2018. You can find her at jenponton.com, or follow her @jenponton on Instagram and Twitter.