Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why Are You Fat?

“Angela, why are you fat?” the young girl asked me, as we swam in the rolling waves of the ocean, she, in her denim shorts, black t-shirt clinging to her body, weighing her down in the water, big, beautiful dark eyes and dark hair falling messily over her head, and I, in my purple one-piece swimsuit that shows more skin than I normally expose and details every curve of my silhouette. It is a question I have been asked more in the past 6 months than in the past 22 years of my life. It is a question I still don’t quite know how to answer.

I can channel my inner Lady Gaga and say, “Baby, I was born this way.”

I can go with a technical answer. “It’s in my genes. Every woman on my mom’s side of the family has this body type.”

I can use a pretty realistic answer. “I haven’t been as active in the Philippines as I was in the United States. When my diet consists primarily of rice, fatty meats, and salty sauces, and my body metabolizes that food at a slower rate than it used to, I end up with more of me in different places than I am used to.”

I can echo Emily’s comments when I shared the story with her. “I’m fat because someone decided that a math formula generates a number called BMI (body mass index) which allows our society to draw boundaries around persons and associates it with a shaming term.”

The reality is that my body type has been this way my entire life. I do not think I have ever used the word “fat” to describe myself, opting more for euphemisms like “curvy,” “voluptuous,” or “heavy.” My weight has been at the forefront of an internal battle for my self-esteem, self-image, and body image for my entire life even though I rarely speak those words aloud. Oftentimes this internal battle manifests itself externally in searches for romantic connections, as if someone else’s validation of this body would give me more reason to find myself worthy. Of course, any gratification generated by these experiences is short-lived and only surface deep, leaving a larger void behind.

 The reality of my body right now is that if I were to step on a scale, I would probably see the highest number that I have ever had associated with my weight. The reality of my life right now is that I have not looked into a full-length mirror in weeks. I have not stepped on a scale in months. I have decided to stop waging war against the pouches of fat that find themselves under my chin, on my arms, around my waistline, shaping my butt, and giving my thighs more jiggle. I have decided to stop trying to exercise feverishly to try to shed these pounds that have found home in my body. Instead, I use exercise to find peace of body and mind while strengthening my muscles, flexibility, and balance. I am concerned more by what my body can physically do rather than how much it can lift or how far it can run. I have decided to stop forcing my body to try to conform to Western beauty standards. Instead, my focus is to be healthy and strong, physically, emotionally, and mentally, rather than obsess over counting calories to cut pounds and inches.

Most days in the Philippines, this is much easier than it would be at home. Minutes before I found myself in the water with my innocent inquisitor, I came out of the comfort room wearing my purple swimsuit to stares and comments, “Wow!” “So sexy,” “Angela, you’re so gwapa!” I live in a small, rural town, where only a handful of people with white skin live. As far as I can tell, I am the only white woman in Kananga. To my community, I am beautiful. I am sexy. I am gwapa. I am also fat. These are simply factual statements, not meant to place any shame or judgment. My blue eyes, white skin, and narrow, pointed nose are desirable features to many in this place. (Interestingly enough, this is the first place I have traveled to that does not focus immediately on my red hair. Most times, I have to argue that yes, my hair is red, not brown or blonde.) I have never thought about the shape and size of noses so much before in my life, including when I was living in Jerusalem and trying, unsuccessfully, to understand the difference between a “Jewish nose” and an “Arab nose.”

As a culture, it is completely normal to stare at that which is different and to make comments on someone’s appearance. In fact, it is expected to make comments about someone’s physical appearance when you first see them. “You’re getting fat,” or “You’re looking slimmer” are commonplace phrases. Additionally, I am asked almost on a daily basis what the red spots on my face are from. Well, that’s called acne. Mosquito bites or stress have been my common explanations for why those spots are on my face. Even though it is simply a part of the culture, it still hurts when someone makes a joke about how I look two months pregnant or that I have the largest waistline in a group. I am not in a place mentally where I can disconnect the word and idea of “fat” from teasing chants in elementary school or rejections from potential partners throughout my life. But as most things, it is a work in progress.

Up until recently, I let these comments get under my skin. I felt irritated by those who said them to me. I could not love someone who brought up my deepest insecurities. Then I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, which has given much relevant food for thought at this point in the year. So much of this book centers on the idea of reverence. I tend to shy away from the word reverence because it reminds me of white-haired men and women shushing children and stopping them from running through the church. Her definition and use of the word has revived it for me, though, and gives me the language to describe much of this journey.
“By definition, [Paul Woodruff] says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self—something that is beyond human control or creation, that transcends full human understanding. God certainly meets those criteria, but so do birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, and wisdom.”
Her spiritual practice of Paying Attention involves showing reverence to every person, animal, thing, and part of Creation. It is acknowledging that we are at the center of our individual stories and journeys and at the periphery of the stories and journeys of others, but that those others are at the center of their own stories and journeys.

I had been thinking of this year as a time to learn how to be loved again. I live with a host family that cooks and cleans for me, rarely allowing me to do things for myself. When I visit other homes for meals or celebrations, I am never allowed to be full until I have had three helpings of rice, all of the dessert selections, and at least one glass of San Miguel beer or coconut wine, tuba, mixed with Pepsi Max. The running joke is that you haven’t really visited the Philippines unless you leave with an extra ten pounds on you as a souvenir. At times, this feels overbearing, and I resent someone else controlling what goes into my body. However, I now can say that I understand this as my community showing me reverence. They feed me until I am stuffed to show that they love and welcome me. They comment on my appearance to show that they are noticing me. They make a big deal out of me saying sige, ok in Visaya, because so many visitors do not care to learn the language. They show me reverence because they care about me. They love me. They welcome me into their homes, communities, and lives.

This concept of reverence embodies what I would call the difference between the YAV program and other volunteer or development programs. I have struggled with the thought that I am a voluntourist, someone coming to another part of the world to get personal gratification rather than doing any concrete, effective good for my community. The difference with YAV is that we acknowledge that we might not do any “good” to “improve” the lives of the people in our communities. What we can do is build relationships with those in our communities. That starts with showing reverence to everyone around us. If I cannot acknowledge my peripheral role in my neighbor’s story, then how can I truly build a deep relationship with my neighbor? If I box my community into a single monolithic story, then I am distancing myself from the messiness that is community and the real relationships that spread God’s love.

My community’s reverence toward me has allowed me to explore myself on a deeper level, to fully embrace my inner feminist. As I experiment, allowing my body to be completely natural, they still see me as beautiful and pretty, making more comments about the hair on my arms than on my legs. Even as it remains a tender subject, I am being conditioned to be both fat and sexy, as it should be.* I know that God is at work here, now, in this place. God uses each of us to work in each other’s lives to share the light and love with each other. By prying open closets where we hide our deepest insecurities, God gives us space to see them, to work through them, to show us that we are still loved and worthy, no matter what we think about our bodies, our minds, or ourselves. God still graces us with the peace and love that surpass all understanding. We simply have to open ourselves, to become vulnerable, so that we may share in the reverence.

*Although these comments can be considered objectification of my body, I understand that it is not the intention of most who utter them. For someone whose love language is words of affirmation, these comments are actually helping me to see and believe what those around me see and believe. We all know that who I am is more than what I look like, and I feel valued as a full, entire human being. There is a greater conversation to be had about objectification at a cultural level, but that is not what I am here to do.

Admiring the dirt that comes with manual labor after harvesting rice in November
Loving my body, Loving my life