My friend Lauren has been dealing with abdominal pain for the past few months.
She changed her diet and followed the advice of her doctors. She thought it might be getting better until the pain was so bad that she ended up in urgent care. Since then, she’s been dealing with a series of doctors and invasive procedures to try to figure out what’s going on and how to fix it.
Around the same time that Lauren was dealing with the never-ending upset tummy, I got sick.
I work as a kindergarten teacher, so a cold is more or less expected every few months. But this time, what started off as a cold turned into bronchitis.
This wasn’t fun, but our bodies are remarkable.
I might have thought I was dying one night, but that didn’t last long, and I started getting better soon enough.
Lauren and I have been talking about all of this— not necessarily our illnesses, though that’s certainly part of the conversation. We weren’t even really talking about doctors or healthcare, though we both have plenty of sharp critiques at the ready.
Rather, we were stuck on how to give our bodies the rest they need to heal.
It’s been hard for us to give our bodies the rest that they need because it’s hard for us to listen to our bodies and accept and respect our bodies’ limits.
To most — and even to me when I think about it — it’s obvious: We should rest to let our bodies deal with illness.
Kick back and start marathoning Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. Maybe take a bath or shower to get out some of the snot stuck in your sinuses, but don’t bother changing out of pajamas.
For both Lauren and me, it’s been hard.
We’re both fat, queer women with a shared history of men telling us what to do with our bodies, often in a medicalized context. (We share a particular distaste for men telling us what to do with our bodies, and that’s a lot of what happens when we go to the doctor.)
In our conversations, I began to realize that we women and fat people (and in particular, fat women) are told that we cannot trust out bodies, that we can never reach our limits. If we were really pushing ourselves too hard, we wouldn’t be so fat, right?
This is a bunch of bullshit.
And it’s damaging bullshit at that.
This is how I’ve been trying to deal with illness, rest, and bodily limits. N.B.As with everything regarding bodies, your mileage may vary.
1. Listen to Your Body
I have to listen to my body.
This is not as simple as listening to a Top 40 pop song and dancing around my room in my underwear. It’s even harder than listening to that foreign language instruction CD and answering the workbook questions.
Listening to my body is about building a long, trusting relationship. (And for the record, dancing around in underwear has certainly been part of this process.)
As a fat person and as a woman, I have been told that my body is gross, disgusting, ugly, and untrustworthy.
My periods, my body hair, my facial hair, my double chin, my stretch marks, my saggy boobs, my cellulite, my laugh lines, my thighs that rub together, my overhanging belly: If nearly every aspect of my body is “wrong,” then why should I trust it? How can I trust something so deviant?
I trust my body because it’s worthy of trust.
When I listen to my body, it tells me things.
I know people who took copious notes about what they ate and how they felt about things to remind themselves that their bodies are sending out regular feedback for the things we do with and to them. That, frankly, sounds like hell. I have never engaged in anything rigidly systematic to note my reactions to the things I do to and with my body, but perhaps I will at some point. You never know.
Right now, I have regular check-ins with my body.
If I find myself not knowing what to do — maybe it’s lunch time, and I don’t know if I’m hungry or what I want to eat, or maybe I’m bored on a Thursday evening after work — I try to check in.
I sometimes think I have to treat my body like a toddler: Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Angry? Do I need a hug? Do I need a timeout? What am I feeling and what can I do to satiate any needs?
I’ve noticed patterns over time, and I let those patterns inform future decisions.
Even if I’m not that hungry at lunch at work, I know I should at least eat a little something and have snacks ready for later in the afternoon.
It seems small and really obvious, and a lot of listening to my body is like that.
The hard part for me isn’t making sure that I have an afternoon snack. It’s thinking that I deserve it and prioritizing myself enough to make sure that happens.
It can also take time to learn how to interpret these signals.
After I stopped “dieting” (intentionally starving myself), I remember that it took me over a year to consistently know when I was hungry.
I was so used to the feeling of hunger that I forgot that it was a useful and important thing my body was trying to tell me. Even now it’s sometimes still hard to recognize that feeling.
This doesn’t mean that I’m not listening to my body or that I’m doing anything wrong. It just means that it’s can be a hard skill to learn.
And that’s okay.
2. Accept and Respect the Limits of Your Body
We readily accept certain bodily limits.
I am never going to walk through walls, teleport, or even breathe underwater.
On an even more mundane level, I’m 5-foot-even, and no one expects that to change (except maybe some shrinking when I get really old — not that fat people live for very long, but let’s pretend).
With my height, I have to make certain accommodations in my life: I buy a step-stool for every new apartment, and I’ve gotten very good at asking tall strangers to help me reach the box of cereal on the top shelf.
These are not difficult for me in part because it’s not that hard to be a short woman. We generally accept that some women are going to be short, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
There is, however, something very wrong – on a societal level – with being fat, so it’s a lot harder to accept that some bodies may never be thin or able to achieve certain fitness markers.
Very serious professional doctors in crisp white lab coats have told me that I couldn’t possibly hurt myself through exercise. “Fatties don’t exercise enough! That’s why they’re fat!” they seem to argue.
But it’s more than just doctors.
Infomercial gurus, strangers on the Internet, and even my friends and family have told me that I need to do push myself harder.
No matter how diligent I was with my diet, I needed to do more. No matter how much I was exercising, I needed to do more. No matter how much I was doing, I needed to do more. So long as I was fat, I was not at my limits. I was supposed to get thin before I reached those limits.
Except that’s not what happens.
Some people will get thin (though they’re also likely to get fat again). Some people will still be fat.
In any case, we all have limits. Our bodies can only handle so much strain, stress, weight, and pressure.
Even though I’m not trying to lose weight, remembering that my body has limits is difficult. When those limits are changing because I’m sick or still regaining strength after being sick, it’s hard to believe them.
Hard as it is, I’m working to accept these limits.
I do this by telling myself that my body has intrinsic worth. When I’m unwilling to give myself the rest it needs when it’s healing, it’s not because I’m afraid that I’m weak or ill. It’s hard for me to accept these limits because that means that my body is no longer acceptable.
I’m already fat, but at least I was able to walk up that hill quickly. What happens when I can do longer do that? Am I still worthy? Worthy of what?
We reward people, especially fat people, for eating “healthy” (and I love eating healthy, but it’s so hard to find out of season — frozen healthy just isn’t the same) and exercising and otherwise displaying their fitness.
When I find myself reaching my limits sooner than I’m used to, it’s hard to accept them. It’s hard to accept them because I’ve been told that I don’t have limits.
It’s hard to accept decreased ability within a system that values bodies that move faster and for longer periods of time.
But all bodies have limits. And this, too, is okay.
I deserve to exist.
My body is valid.
I think it to myself or say it quietly under my breath like a prayer.
I say it sharply coupled with a “fuck you” at strangers snickering at me on the bus or on the Internet.
On really difficult days when I think my body is a worthless sack of shit (there are those days; there are rough days in any relationship), I force myself to admit that I’m worthy.
I stand in front of the mirror and look at my body and say it aloud until I believe it.
I’m just on the other side of this cold, but Lauren is still dealing with doctors and clinics.
Feeling back at full strength is really welcome, but I know that this state isn’t permanent.
Our bodies are not static. They will change, and eventually I’ll get hurt or sick again.
Sure, it’s not fun, but it happens.
The work of accepting our bodies when they’re changing and ill is difficult, but that’s an important part of accepting our bodies. If fat acceptance has taught me anything, it’s that all bodies are valid. And that includes my fat body when I’m ill, even if it’s hard for me to really believe it.
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Jenn Leyva is Fat, Smart, and Pretty. When she was 16, her dad told her that he’d buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a radical fatass living in Seoul.