Mirrors--gotta love 'em, gotta hate 'em. They're great because they show us what we look like. They're also terrible because they show us what we look like. In my last blog post, I talked about how we are like onions--we have many layers of identity that represent many versions of our self. In our society, how we look is a superficial, yet important layer of our identity. What clothes we wear, how we do our hair, what color our skin is, how much we weigh--these all effect how we feel and how people interact with us.
Today I would like to introduce you all to romance author K. L. Montgomery. Like me, she has a lot of layers of the onion. Wife. Mother. Author. Social media guru. Teacher. Friend. Self-professed fat girl. Survivor. Queen of the Testosterone Empire (meaning that she has lived in a house full of boys for most of her life). Librarian. Drama queen. And much, much more. But Montgomery has spent much of her life as a plus-sized woman, and now speaks out passionately about body positivity and acceptance.
Montgomery began gaining weight at age 8. Her mother was mortified. When Montgomery turned 10, her mother took her to the doctor to find out what could be done to solve this problem. This trip to the doctor resulted in Montgomery's first ever diet.
Montgomery's attention to her weight continued as she got older, and in junior high, her mother bribed her to work out. Between the summers of 9th and 10th grade, Montgomery starved herself and exercised over three hours a day. At the end of the summer, she returned to school having lost 40 pounds.
"I can't tell you how many times I nearly passed out from starvation during that period of my life. My mother never said ANYTHING. When she had to buy me new clothes (I went from a size 13/14 down to a 7/8), she went from body-shaming me to slut-shaming me. I just couldn't win."
When Montgomery went to college, she gained some more weight, and so handed down some of her clothes to her sister. Seeing those clothes on her sister's svelte cheerleader body made Montgomery realize how thin she had really been in high school, despite the fact that she always considered herself the fattest girl on the swim team. In reality, she had looked and weighed about the same as the other girls.
Montgomery has faced other challenges in her life as a result of being plus-sized as well--for example, her romantic life. She has had a range of experiences with men, from her husband struggling with his own weight issues, to men who secretly want to hook up with her but wouldn't date her publicly, to men who were attracted to plus-sized women but who didn't think she was plus-sized enough. BBW (big beautiful women) can be considered a fetish, too, and she was never comfortable being fetishized.
Doctors over the years have forced her to take numerous tests, trying so hard to find something wrong with her. She says,
"They test me for diabetes and thyroid issues all the time, but all of my bloodwork continues to come back perfect. My blood pressure is 120/80. I can swim a mile. I try to get 10K steps a day... I'm a vegetarian and I watch what I eat.
"It really pisses me off when fat-shamers say they are concerned about my health. Bullshit. My health is none of their business. Last I checked, my health is between myself and my doctor.
"And even if it was their business, guess what! Even unhealthy people are worthy! They are worthy of respect, kindness, and love. As are people of all races, ethnicities, religions, orientations and backgrounds."
And then of course there are the bullies. We all know people can be jerks. And Montgomery points out that sizeism is so rampant because it's so visible--it's hard to hide how much you weigh. She has experienced the difficulty of being treated differently because of her weight, and not just from strangers--from her own mother. Montgomery is 5' 6" and over the course of her life has weighed anywhere from 135 pounds to 275. She struggled with wanting to weigh less, finding fashionable clothes, and getting insulted by others.
So she speaks out. She talks about body positivity and acceptance. She writes books with plus-sized characters. She shares her own experiences and listens to the experiences of others.
Montgomery has experienced many different responses to the body positive movement. Many claim that it's unhealthy to be fat, or that it's wrong to glorify obesity. Some people truly believe that fat people are sick and lazy, and that they don't deserve to be treated like normal people. But there are just as many people out there (or more!) who support the body positive movement. Montgomery has received support from men and women who have struggled with their weight. She says,
"I can't tell you how many reviewers said they relate to Claire Sterling in Fat Girl. And I think that solidarity and sense of community is growing because of books like Fat Girl, because of celebrities who have spoken out about fat- and body-shaming (Lady Gaga most recently, but also Amy Schumer, Jennifer Lawrence, and others come to mind), and brave 'ordinary' people who share their photos and stories on social media."
Montgomery believes that one important parts of the movement is to reclaim the word, "fat." "People hate the word 'fat,'" she said. "It's a big pet peeve of mine when I say I'm fat and friends retort, 'No you're not! Don't say that!' At 275 pounds, I think I can safely call myself fat!" In Montgomery's novel, Fat Girl, the main character Claire talks about how the word "fat" is just a label. Sometimes it's the most accurate label, in fact--just like "skinny," "thin," "tall," or "short." And yet it is still avoided entirely or used as a slur as often as it's used as a descriptor.
"I felt it was important to write about these issues. Not just because it's cathartic for me, but because women need to hear and see alternatives to fat-shaming. Seeing Claire transform from a depressed, eating-disordered woman to one who accepts herself AS IS, not because she lost a lot of weight finally, but because she finally realized she is worthy no matter what her weight, is a lesson everyone needs to learn."
Montgomery's experiences with weight gain and loss over the years have significantly impacted her writing. She writes plus-sized heroines because, "I get tired of reading about tiny, petite, pixie-like female characters all the time. Fat girls can be sexy too!" And she's right. Plus-sized women have boyfriends and husbands and friends. They have jobs and hobbies and interests. They face challenges and struggles; experience joy and achieve goals.
This sentiment is shared by many women and men. The community that supports plus-sized individuals is growing, and a solidarity is building. There are more and more plus-sized role models for women and girls who demonstrate that they are happy and comfortable with who they are.
Montgomery's experiences have made her stronger and more empathetic too. She quoted the old adage, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," and explained that, "Battling my weight and the demons of my eating disorder, not to mention the ridicule of my family and others, has made me a stronger person. I feel like I have more empathy as well because I know what it feels like to be bullied and disrespected."
We all have our own demons, and these demons affect who we are and the choices we make, just like any other layer of our onion. But as we come to terms with the challenges we face, and accept them as a part of who we are, then not only can we transform our attitudes and beliefs, but we also grow the ability to connect with others who share in the same struggles.
I asked Montgomery what advice she would give to women out there of any size or shape. She says:
"Hating yourself or feeling ashamed of yourself does far more harm than good. The worse you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to make bad decisions, such as to overeat or to be sedentary. Life is too short to tell yourself "I'll be happy when I lose the weight." NO! Be happy now. Tomorrow is never guaranteed! My hope for all women is that they learn how to love themselves at any size and to surround themselves with people who love them no matter what their size.