I like my body... now. It's been a long time coming, with plenty of effort and experience, but finally, in my late thirties, I feel good when I look in the mirror. I find myself attractive, and that is fairly new to me. I struggled with my body image my entire life -- mostly because I didn't like my body, starting from a very young age.
As you can imagine, being a fat, painfully gay kid in the 1980s, there was no shortage of sadness and tragedy in my life. I was raised in Woodbridge, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, which, for those who don't know, was seen as the Canadian equivalent of the Jersey Shore. You can imagine how narrow and rigid ideals of bodies and masculinity could be and what this could mean to someone who didn't fit in. I was used to getting teased a lot and being left out, so I felt right at home when I entered the Toronto gay scene in my late teens in the 1990s.
Spoiler alert! There is a hierarchy of attractiveness in the gay community. And as gay men, our experiences with other gay men are influenced by where we rank in this hierarchy. It is very easy for us to measure ourselves, those who we desire and those who desire us against the same ideals of attractiveness.
Though there are many who experience attractions outside of the norm, I am sure you will agree that the young, white, lean, muscular, cisgender (non-trans) body is overrepresented and celebrated in contemporary media and gay culture, and therefore accepted as most attractive.
"Effeminate" behaviour is a characteristic that ranks very low in the attractiveness hierarchy. This, unfortunately, is completely homophobic and misogynistic.
This idealized body is anchored in heteropatriarchy. Meaning the "ideal man" is represented in an image of the straight man, who is incidentally athletic and muscular. This man is not "feminine," but he is "masculine" in the traditional sense. Traditionally, "effeminate" behaviour is a characteristic that ranks very low in the attractiveness hierarchy. This, unfortunately, is completely homophobic and misogynistic.
"Masculinity," a specific body (you know the one) and a dash of internalized homophobia construct a very clear hierarchy of attractiveness. And though most men are not at the top, we continue to celebrate it. Think Grindr, Scruff, gay dating sites, gay TV, gay ads and all porn, for instance.
So when I got to Toronto, I quickly discovered that where I ranked and where I wanted to rank were two different places. I crushed on guys who were "out of my league." I watched my "more attractive" friends meet or date guys who ignored me. I saw others get attention while I was ignored or rejected. I felt bad about my body, which was mostly fat, with little or no visible muscle. My face was pretty and my mannerisms were soft, leaving me pretty low in the hierarchy.
So I took action. Not at first -- at first I took drugs. Lots of drugs, partying every weekend (Wednesday to Sunday) and eventually Monday and Tuesday, too. It's easy to say I think I partied so much because it numbed my experience as the guy at the bottom, but I was also really happy to be having fun, partying.
We need to understand how normative ideals of bodies and masculinities are harmful to everyone!
I did, however, eventually get motivated to change my body and self, essentially. As my body began changing, I was finally getting attention I had always longed for. I was no longer invisible. My obsession went from partying to working out. Like many gay men, the gym became a priority in my life and I kept making the changes I wanted to see happen.
Slowly, over time, my body image has recovered. Now that I'm older, I just don't care as much about what other people think about my body. That, plus I've spent a lot of time being nude around other gay men, like in my gym locker room or other spaces where gay strangers are nude together.
I'm generally more comfortable with my body. There are many factors that contribute to my journey from young, gay, fat kid (with thoughts of suicide) to the person I am today, so it isn't fair to credit just one or two things -- I've been around the block.
Today I am happy with who I am. Today I still work out (though not obsessively), I still party (on special events and holidays), I definitely still have a "soft" side, and I'm still fat (by my own definition) and I kinda love it all. I'm still me, just older and wiser.
Any system that makes us believe our bodies are somehow wrong is a bad system.
So now I'm not afraid to talk about my body and my story. I talk about it with friends, family, colleagues, strangers, anyone who wants to talk about the shitty system that makes us feel bad about our bodies. We need to understand how normative ideals of bodies and masculinities are harmful to everyone!
If you agree with this, you should check out m.bodiment.ca. Here a group of gay, bi, trans and queer men share their experiences with body image.
This project has been created to help get that conversation going. You'll be able to see that though everyone's experience is different, what is common is that everyone has felt bad about their body in one way or another.
And that's the point. Our bodies aren't wrong; the system is wrong. Any system that makes us believe our bodies are somehow wrong is a bad system. We need to shift our thinking: all bodies are good bodies. We need to rethink what we find attractive and ask ourselves why we think the way we do.
And we need to talk about it -- all of it.
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Jessica Biffi, Blogger, Fashion Designer, Project Runway Canada Finalist -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? I've always been heavier, even as a child. There were always comments made about my weight from family, from as young as three or four years of age. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? When I was in high school I became very focused on fashion. I decided in grade 11 that I wanted to make fashion design my career. I decided if fashion wasn't going to make a place for me, I would do it myself. What would you like to see happen in the future of the body-positivity movement? Personally, I'd love to see more diversity and acceptance. There is a lot of self-hate, even within the community itself. It would be amazing the see a photo posted online and not see people projecting their own self-hate onto others that want to feel confident and love themselves. That only sets us back.
Aisha Fairclough & Jill Andrew, Co-Founders of Body Confidence Canada Awards (BCCAs), and FatinTheCity -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? JA: As a child, I was always told I was strong, smart and beautiful with a great deal of potential. However, this message began to get a little muddied as I got older. I was told by selective family members that I had such a pretty face, and I shouldn't "let myself go" [gain weight]. When I was likely no more than 10 years old, my aunt got upset with my mother for allowing me to have a second piece of meat during Thanksgiving dinner and fat-shamed me in front of the entire family. These incidents gave me a strong message: I was strong, smart and beautiful, but I was also fat and liked food "too much." So the subtext was: watch out or else! AF: My parents always told me I was beautiful, but I can distinctly remember my aunt taking me shopping for my birthday and telling me that she couldn't find anything to fit me, because I was too big. I was eight years old, I have never forgotten that. What would you like to see happen in the future of the body-positivity movement? JA: I'd like to see the movement more comprehensively integrated into schools. I'd like to see the movement become more diverse, including women of colour, queer persons, disabled persons, etc. Also, we really need to take on mainstream diet, advertising, clothing industries, as well as the medical community, to include health at every size and weight inclusive. The body positivity movement has gained excellent ground but we've got a lot more to cover! AF: I'd like to see the body positive moment become more diverse. Representation matters; if you don't see yourself, you become invisible. #visibilitymatters
Anna O'Brien, Fashion Blogger, Plus Size Yogi, Runner + Athlete -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? I was always chubby. At 10 years old a family member told me I needed to lose weight. I looked her in the eye and said, "Jesus loves me no matter what." Her response still makes my skin crawl: "Anna, you know God doesn't love fat people." I told my mom, but she didn't console me. She put me on weight loss pills the following week. I remember thinking to myself that I had to be thin in order to be loved. There's a hurt there that words can't even express. How do you feel about your body at this moment? I feel confused. I don't hate my body or want to change it; however, it's frustrating to know that I always seemed to be judged first as a fat person, and then as an athlete, fashionista and human being. By showing that I live a full and happy life, I have inadvertently become a statement that "fat people can be happy too," contrary to society and even the plus-size community's beliefs. I have never thought that I can't be happy. My body is my body, and it doesn't prevent me from doing things; it just sometimes forces me to rethink the execution in a new way that works for me. What is something you thought you would never wear, but have now worn? I never thought I would wear a bikini. Mainly because they never made beautiful swimwear in plus sizes. Ours was a world of hideous floral print Lycra racerback that, at best, led the eyes to an overly voluptuous swim-skirt. Then somehow the gods of mass production decided that the world could see plus-sized women's stomachs and thighs, and we finally were able to purchase some non-hibiscus clad suits that showed off our assets.
Mo Handahu, Blogger, Designer -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? I was in the fifth grade when I realized that I was taller than all the boys. We stood in a line from shortest to tallest and I was at the back of the line. I walked with a slouch for a few years after that. What is something you feel like you have missed out on by letting insecurities take over at any point of your life? The most important thing I've missed out on, in moments where my insecurities over-powered me, is experiencing pure joy. I've wasted time being unhappy instead of just living, accepting my truth, and being happy while I deal with what I want to change. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? After years of not being approached my men and being depressed about it, I met a guy who really, really saw me. He taught me to love myself as I am, and not to dismiss that love until after I've achieved whatever ideal I was chasing. Although I'm going through another bunch of years without men noticing me, I'm totally OK with it because I love myself more than I ever have, and that self-love is not on pause for another person's affirmation.
Sarah Taylor, Miss Canada Plus Canada, Plus-Size Model, Mentor & Motivational Speaker, Blogger -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? I wish I could say that my earliest memory of a negative body image thought was later on in life. Unfortunately, it was in kindergarten. I was the youngest, tallest and chubbiest in my class, and I never looked like all of the other girls. Even at that age, my peers made me aware that I was different; back then being different was like having a plague. What is something you feel like you have missed out on by letting insecurities take over at any point of your life? Looking back over my life I would say that my insecurities took the driver's seat throughout most of my life. Before making most decisions my first thoughts usually were "Am I too big to do that? Will it look awkward if I do that? Will I fit? Will you see my rolls? What will people think if I do that?" Eventually they turned into "I can't do that because I'm too big. I can't do that because I'm not pretty enough. I can't do that because I am not enough." I was not living my life, nor following my dreams, but rather just surviving. What is the number one piece of advice you would give a woman who suffers with their body image? Learn to love who you are today, not your past self, nor the person you want to become or look like, but who you are right in this very moment, because you are simply amazing! It's time to re-record that tape in your head and instead of all the horrible things you tell yourself, begin to build yourself up.
Diana Di Poce, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of DARE Magazine -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? It goes back to elementary school. I recall thinking that I did not look like the other girls in my class, and I envied those that were thinner than me. My negative view and thoughts of myself made me truly believe that I was less worthy than others because of my clothing size and shape of my body. I would often let my self-consciousness stop me from doing what I wanted to do. When I was younger, going shopping with my straight-size friends was very uncomfortable, because I knew that I would never fit into the clothing at the stores where they shopped. How do you define beauty? In my opinion, beauty should not be defined by physical appearance. My definition of beauty is based on how you feel about yourself. If you feel fabulous, you look fabulous––simple as that! Being so influential in the plus-size media community, what would you like to see happen in the future of the body-positivity movement? I'd like to continue on the path of accepting and highlighting all plus-size bodies, which includes all sizes, heights and races. I also hope that more straight-size clothing brands extend their size range to include plus sizes, so that women of all sizes can shop together.
Jessica Kane, Blogger, Body Confidence Crusader, CEO of Skorch Magazine, Creative Director of Society Plus -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? From the earliest age I can remember I was shown to hate my body from the women in my life. And until about 10 years ago, I held up that tradition nicely. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? At the age of 24, my self-loathing led me to an unhappy life with a marriage out of convenience, but then I looked around and realized I was a happy soul in a sad mind and body. What would you like to see happen for the future of the body-positivity movement? We need to see radical body diversity where a size 12 woman doesn't represent the spectrum of plus-size women. As a size 26/28, I cannot shop at Victoria's Secret or BCBG, but a size 12 girl can. We are replacing a super thin woman with a woman that is healthy, which is great, but that can't be where the representation ends. How do you feel about your body today? I can honestly say that I love my body and have grown to appreciate it thanks to some radical self-love!
Ama Scriver, Freelance Writer, Body Positive Activist, Creator of the former Fat Girl Food Squad -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? When I was six or seven years old, I had huge ears that stuck out, and kids in school would tease me endlessly and called me "Dumbo." I remember I used to come home from school everyday and cry to my mom, because I felt like I didn't fit in with everyone else. My mom was always super supportive of me and tried her very best to let me know that what the kids (at school) were saying didn't matter, because I was an amazing individual. In the end, I begged my mom to let me get my ears pinned back. Looking back now (as an adult), I don't know if it was the best solution to the problem. But I know that my mom let me have the surgery, because she saw how unhappy I was and how much the bullying affected me. It's hard to think that at six or seven years old, children were bullying (and body shaming) another peer like that. Some things never really change. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? I feel like I'm still on my journey towards self-love and acceptance. It's a journey that is changing day-in and day-out, but one that gets stronger and better every single week, month, year. I feel like sometimes saying that out loud sounds super corny, but it's absolutely true. The turning point though, for me, was realizing that I was worth it and I'm OK just as I am. I feel like once you focus on the positive in your life, others feed off of that energy. I still have a lot to work on, but each day I feel better. My journey to self-love and acceptance has been an almost four-year work in progress — these things do not happen overnight. What is the number one piece of advice you would give a woman who suffers with body image issues? I'm not lying, surround yourself with bold women who support you through good, bad, thick and thin. These women can be found online or in real life. It is so encouraging to hear positive self-talk, praise, support or just have a lending hand around when you're feeling down from a badass group of female friends. Female friendship is so important and thanks to places like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, I have honestly met some of my very best friends. Your friends are the ones who will support you and bolster you.
Annika Reid, Blogger -- What was your earliest memory of a negative body image or self-conscious thoughts? It was around age seven or eight, and I had family members constantly tell me what I should and should not eat. That I did not need that second scoop of ice cream, because I'm already "too fat." After a while you begin to believe those messages and thus starts the downward spiral of low self-esteem. How do you deal with haters, fat-shaming, or negative comments? I have learned to pick my battles. Some I ignore for the simple fact that the space my body inhibits is their issue not mine. If it is a family member or someone I interact with regularly I have an honest conversation with them letting them know that my body or its size will no longer be a topic of discussion or we will have to put serious limitations on our relationship. It is important that as we navigate through life, we learn to teach people how to treat us. So setting boundaries is key to surviving negativity and hate. When do you feel the most body confident? To be honest, I feel the most body confident when I am working out! I am now at a place where I can appreciate and be thankful for the the things my body can do, rather than hate it for what it is not. I can leg press over a hundred pounds, squat over 50 times in one setting, and I am improving in my yoga poses. I am pretty impressed and loving this body of mine, simply because she is strong and capable of doing anything any other body can do, and loving her for who she is.
Sarah Rae Vargas, Blogger -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? I can't remember a single time in my life when I wasn't highly aware of my size. There's not a moment in my life when I wasn't conscious of how big my body is. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? Finding this body positive world online helped immensely. I was tired of only seeing fat people in the media, because they hated their bodies and were trying to lose weight. Seeing a community of women that could come together and make each other feel loved, beautiful and worthy was incredible. I've never looked back. How do you deal with haters, fat-shaming or negative comments? I'd love to say that I'm immune to it all, but I'm human. If I see a negative comment on my pages, I'll delete it. I never respond to the hate, because it just ends up in a fight and I'm so tired of fighting for my right to exist and be happy.
Lisa Schoenberger, Blogger -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? In kindergarten, my great-grandmother had just given me a new purple jogging suit. I was so excited to wear that outfit. However, when I got to school I was devastated, because it was picture day. All the other girls in my class were wearing dresses, and being a chubby kid, I was even more self-conscious that I looked different. I can't believe now that at five years old I was so concerned with how the girls in class reacted or that I looked different. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? My journey has been a long one, but in April 2013 I had lap band surgery. I had reached a point where I felt my weight was truly keeping me from doing things I loved. When I lost 75 lbs I began having complications and it has not been effective since then. That was a huge disappointment for me, but did allow me the opportunity to shop at stores like Lane Bryant and Addition Elle again, and expose me to new brands like Torrid. I fell in love with fashion again. Having surgery is the most extreme thing someone can do to lose weight and when that didn't work, I had to look myself in the mirror and decide to accept myself as I was. Admitting to the world that I had surgery, although it failed, and that I still love myself, is a huge accomplishment. What is something you thought you would never wear, but have now worn? I never thought I would wear a bikini (not a fatkini, one that seriously showed some skin). I shot swimsuit lookbook in 2015, that included a bikini and a fatkini, but I remember my best friend asking me if I would ever wear the bikini in public. I took the bikini on my cruise this past November. I was nervous until the day I wore it; a sea day when the pool area was packed with people ready to judge me. I walked out there, despite all my nerves, and never looked back. I didn't get a single rude comment, and there were other plus-size gals rocking their bikinis too. It was a triumph for me as it showed off the two scars I have left from my surgery. If you had asked 16-year-old Lisa, who was only 130 lbs, if she would have ever worn a bikini, it would have been a resounding no. Twenty-four years later, a lot has changed!
Megan Kimberling, Plus Size Model -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? In elementary school I wanted to be a rodeo queen; I remember thinking that if I was incredibly talented, there was no way they would pass me over just because I was fat. These thoughts stuck with me all through school. I was always bigger than most of my peers, so I focused my energy on my intelligence, wit and talents hoping it would balance my worth as a fat person. How has being in front of the camera changed how you feel about your body? Luckily, my body image was repaired fairly well when I started modelling. Being in front of the camera solidifies the love I have for my body. As I grew older, I learned that no part of my physical body is more important than the thoughts, ideas, discussions and intangible emotions I leave in this world. The camera has allowed me to share my love for my being and my body-positive journey with the world. Is there any body image thoughts you still struggle with? Being in front of the camera has had its pros and cons. The pros are that I get to document my journey as a woman and model in my 20s; I have begun to establish myself in the BoPo [Body Positivity] community; I am able to look at my photos and see a strong, powerful woman. However, the cons are: putting myself out in our society, which has thrown a lot of backlash and shame at me, I find myself slipping in negative body image thoughts after hurtful comments. And I am judged and slut-shamed for posing nude and creating art. I am a competitive person and have always compared myself to others. I know I do not look like the commercial model, and that is OK, because I am not them; I am me.
Karen Ward, Blogger, Owner of Your Big Sister's Closet -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? My earliest memory of being self-conscious about my body was when my doctor told me and my mom that I was in the 95th percentile of BMI for my age at eight years old. I remember not feeling "normal" and feeling so fat compared to my classmates, so I started my first diet, which consisted mostly of Special K for breakfast and Diet Coke for lunch, since the ads I saw told me these would help me lose the weight. What was the turning point for you in your journey to self-love and acceptance? The turning point that led me down the path to self-love was fashion, surprisingly. I've always loved it, ever since I can remember, but felt very alienated by the images of women in the industry who looked nothing like me, and of course by the lack of options available for women my size. In 2010, I discovered GabiFresh.com, then known as "Young, Fat and Fabulous" and I was so inspired by her style and attitude that I decided to write my own blog (Curvy Canadian) to provide fashion information and inspiration to plus-size women in Canada. In 2014, I opened my very own store, Your Big Sister's Closet, and have been spreading body love in the changerooms and over our social media ever since! How do you deal with haters, fat-shaming, or negative comments? It's a three-step process: delete, ban, forget! I have a zero-tolerance policy. My social mediums are not a space for haters: they are a safe space for those that need help learning (or frequent reminders) to love their bodies. I place the utmost importance on maintaining the safety of my online media for my customers and readers, and of course, myself!
Lindsey Averill, Co-creator "Fattitude" (Documentary), Fat Activist -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? At six years old I asked to go on a diet. My parents, who are kind, smart, educated, supportive people, agreed to take me to a nutritionist, because they wanted to help me. The culture told them that my extra pounds, which were minimal at six, were a precondition for social issues and a health nightmare. That was the beginning of disordered eating for me. Literally, I do not remember a time from six till thirty when I wasn't either on a diet or looking for my next diet, because my body wasn't "pretty enough." When do you feel the most body confident? It's a funny thing to think about — moments that are distinguished as most confident. I can easily tell you that my body image activism has helped me clarify the spaces that were confidence-sucking and either reshape them or eradicate them from my life, like dressing room drama. I no longer do the whole try-on-clothes-that-don't-fit-and-weep-at-the-mall thing. It wasn't healthy for me, so I've left it behind. I feel confident, or rather, completely free of shame most of the time. I don't know the answer to this question, because my world shifted, my confidence is no longer completely defined by or linked to my fatness. And once those two things were decoupled, I came to realize that I like being me a lot more than I thought I did. How has the word "fat" personally changed in your life? Well, once upon a time the word fat made me cower in fear and shame. Today, "fat" is a fact, a description of my body. It's also a word I can use to describe the work I do, fat activism. In this context, fat marks my fight and purpose. I am working everyday to help fat people see that their fatness doesn't make them less valuable, less worthy, less wanted, less capable of self-care or, most importantly, less deserving of respect. So, I guess you could say that being fat shaped everything about me. It's my journey and my fight. It's who I am.
Cynthia Ramsay Noel, Blogger -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? In grade four, I was excited that I weighed 100 lbs; it seemed like such a cool thing in my mind. I remember going into school the next morning and telling everyone, until a boy told me that I weighed more than him, and said that I was fat. This definitely planted the seed of self-doubt in my mind. Throughout school I was picked on daily, and would look at my body in the mirror and wish I was someone else. I exercised excessively, deprived myself of food, contemplated just how painful it might be to cut off my flap of tummy fat with scissors. In sixth grade I padded my hips where they curved in, to create a more rounded silhouette that didn't accentuate my fat rolls. I came home crying everyday because of the humiliating things the boys would say — the animal noises they would make as I walked past. What is something you feel like you have missed out on by letting insecurities take over at any point of your life? My whole life has revolved around my weight. It still does, just in a different way, as I continue to share my story and dedicate my work to spreading body positivity, self-love and body acceptance. I have turned my pain into positivity, but it wasn't always like this. I missed out on so much, because of my low self-esteem, like going to the water park with my friends, never being comfortable in the summer, because I was too embarrassed to show my legs or arms, or allowing myself to be loved, and believing that I was worthy. My negative body image was so intertwined with my thoughts of self-worth, that I allowed myself to remain in manipulative, abusive relationships starting at the age of 16, because I couldn't imagine ever deserving better. When do you feel the most body confident? Things have changed a lot for me. I love myself so much now. I am able to see the beauty in my body, and believe that others see it too. I feel the most body confident when I'm doing a photo shoot for the blog. I honestly feel like in those moments, I could take on the world. I feel beautiful, sexy, strong and empowered, and seeing that confidence coming through in the photos really shows me that I am the person I want to be. It makes me so proud to be a visible fat person who loves her body, because growing up, I didn't have anyone like me to relate to, and I think things would have been a lot different for me if I had.
Chastity Garner Valentine, Blogger -- What is your earliest memory of having a negative body image or self-conscious thought? Out of my immediate family, I was the only one that was heavy, so I was hyper aware of my size in comparison to everyone else's around me. I remember distinctly wanting to look like everyone else when it came to my body and being very frustrated that even though I began dieting from an early age, I was never thin like the rest of my family. How do you feel about your body right at this moment? I'm good with my body. I accepted me a long time ago. How do you deal with haters, fat-shaming, or negative comments? I ignore a lot. I also don't read all the comments anymore on sites where I know people are just going to be disrespectful. I want to be my best self, and that involves my mental state, and reading a whole slew of rude comments doesn't help anyone. On my own social media, I address a lot of critical comments. At this point, some of my pages are almost like forums, so it's a great place for open dialogue, even if we can only agree to disagree.