I’ve stolen the following, word for word, from FemCentral:
Elephant keepers and trainers in India – mahouts – commonly use chains to restrain their elephants. A chain strong enough to hold a grown elephant, however, would be far too heavy for a human to lift. So, the mahout ties the baby elephant with the heaviest chain that the mahout can handle. Though the size of the chain is too big for the baby elephant, it attempts to break the thick chain for years, finally getting the notion that the chain can never be broken. Later when it becomes an adult and actually has the strength to easily break its chain, the elephant never attempts to do so. Its willpower has been destroyed. The elephant lives its life not knowing about its strength.
Occasionally, an elephant becomes aggressive and tries to run away. In that struggle it breaks the chain and sets itself free. Once the elephant is caught and again chained, however, it does not remember that it can free itself. (Source: http://www.sakthifoundation.org/breakchain.htm)
Jenn was using that well-written elephant metaphor for women – in number, the majority now in most first world countries, and yet whose issues are marginally represented in the political arena. I remember hearing that same statistic back in my senior year of college (1992 or 1993) when Naomi Wolf spoke at my university to promote her then-new book, The Beauty Myth. Incidently, Naomi argued that the real problem was how afraid most women are of the label “feminist” and urged us to take back the term – something Jenn is doing herself at the moment over at Fem Central, and beautifully so. That was a pretty profound lecture to a happily conservative, religious girl from the rural South – I’d even go so far as to say, life changing. So if you haven’t read it, proceed at once to obtain The Beauty Myth (and everything else by Naomi Wolf). Then come back here.
Because here, I want to take a moment to contemplate this metaphor in a very personal way. I can think of other examples of this same phenomena from the animal kingdom – once bullied by the family cat, puppies tend to stay that way – even when they outweigh said cat by 100 lbs or more. Similarly, a puppy who retreats under a couch to “hide” from scary things like thunder will still try the same maneuver – even when only the very tip of his muzzle will actually fit under the couch in adulthood.
I guess the point is this: we form impressions of ourselves and our relationship to the world in childhood and often – too often – we never even examine those beliefs in adulthood, let alone challenge them. I’m willing to bet you that as adults, those elephants never even asked whether they wanted to be chained. It was just a fact of their life – taken for granted, background to their lives.
There is no doubt in my mind that we have these same types of beliefs – untrue but unnoticed – that shape our behavior to food and fat. For example, the white bikini. As to why owning (and possibly even wearing) a white bikini is one of my personal goals, suffice to say it’s a long and personal story, even for an anonymous blog. But take it as a given that when I can put on one of those white bikinis that tie in the back and at the side of the bottoms, I will have totally arrived at a destination with my body image stuff.
So a few days ago, I had a few minutes to kill. I’d been thinking about the white bikini, and thought, wouldn’t it be cool to print a picture of someone with my general body type to tack up in my room somewhere? And so I hit google images and started looking around. I found a few – quite a few, actually. And clicking to go see the photos led me to articles that describe white bikinis as “timeless” and (dangerously) to sites that sell such items. Never one to do things free when you could spend money, I thought, what if I bought one to hang in the closet? Wouldn’t that be even more concrete? Wouldn’t that be an affirmation of all I want to do and how committed I am?
So, here is what I immediately learned: skimpy bikinis are really damn expensive. Like, many dozens of dollars per square inch of thin fabric expensive. Like, hard-to-justify-randomly-buying-one-when-you-don’t-know-what-style/size-you-will-want-when-you-reach-a-bikini-state expensive. So I decided to print the picture and move on with my life.
And since then, it keeps coming back to haunt me. Not that I didn’t spend the money – believe me, I know I will spend it and enjoy it when I am actually CHOOSING a bikini at my goal. But the more I looked – really looked – at the styles of bikini, the more I realized my brain was just FROZEN on being able to imagine wearing such a thing in the privacy of my closet – let alone out in the world. Not because of modesty reasons – although yes, that, too. But because I can’t imagine my body that “smooth” again. If “again” is the right term, since even when (objectively speaking) it was smooth and a bikini would have been cute on me, I FELT enormous.
Other than an unfortunate chubby period before major puberty kicked in (at, say, fifth and sixth grade), I was NOT a fat kid. The summer before seventh grade, every bit of pudge I had put on suddenly rearranged itself, pretty much overnight, into tits and ass. But in the style of the day (preppy, man cut clothes) I felt like I was about to bust out of every button up everything I owned. I hated my body – ironically, a lot more then at 125 lbs, than I do now, at 300 lbs. And I have carried that chain ever since middle school – certain that because my mom was “fat” (to varying degrees) and always dieting (in various ways) I was destined to be fat.
The scariest part is not, as you might imagine, the fact that I had a kid, became a “mom” and immediately started living out that “only fat women make good moms” mental record I have for myself. No, the scariest part is that even after literally decades of working on mental state, I still can’t look at that white bikini and KNOW – BELIEVE – that I will be able to put it on.
But you know what? That’s not a real chain. It has no power other than the power I give it with my own mind. My body could have worn a bikini then, and it will be bikini-rific within the next three years. I may never wear it out of my house, but I will own one, and it will look awesome. Listen up, Little Kitteh, because that is just some puny little weak chain taht has bought into. I am not about to give up.