I want to return to a topic I first broached on this blog last year, one that I have been engaging with for a very long time: body image and eating disorders. A friend recently shared this thought during a conversation about recovering from an eating disorder:
“When you deny yourself food [in whatever form that denial takes for you, be it starvation or over-exercising or throwing up], you are also telling yourself you don’t have needs.”
This statement hit me immediately. It makes the very succinct point that denial of food is also a denial of a very basic human need: nourishment. As we refuse to feed our bodies, we also refuse to nurture our souls. As she spoke about this, I started to think about hungry souls, and the work that Naomi Wolf did to explore the ways in which beauty (and thinness) is used to control women in Western society. In my own immediate world that I inhabit, women I know are slowly sharing their own experiences of denying themselves food. While it is somewhat comforting to find that common ground with other women, it is also alarming to reflect on the sheer number of us who are going through our days in a state of fundamental denial.
After sharing the above quote, my friend also pointed out that when we refuse to nourish our bodies, we are also denying ourselves the right to take up space. Denying ourselves the right to nurture our hearts, our minds, our spirits. The energy it takes to punish yourself everyday, to consume each waking moment with memorized caloric values, and to know exactly how many kilometres to run to bring your daily allowance down to a perfect point: that exhausts a person. It also means that the energy you could be putting into changing the world is being channeled into a futile battle of wills.
In the year and a half since I started to recover from my own battle with eating (or when my body finally put its foot down and said ‘enough is enough!’ and made the decision for me), I’ve really had to learn to be gentle with myself. But I have also been given this amazing gift: now that I don’t spend three or four hours of my day walking (or going for 100 + km bike rides), I have time to look after myself. At the end of those old days I would fall asleep, exhausted. I could do the bare minimum to get by in other aspects of my life, but I wasn’t fully present. I was sort of a spectre in my own world. The way I inhabited space was meekly, quietly. I was desperate to take up as little space as possible.
But there is a fundamental connection between taking up space — occupying space — and asserting our rights as Indigenous people. So, not only was my war against my body affirming patriarchal goals of silencing women, it was doubly subjugating my Indigenous body and denying me the right to root myself, to stand proud on my ancestor’s land and to articulate what I need from the world in order to be a strong, healthy, engaged and nurturing woman working towards healing myself and building community.
I am very self-conscious, still, of my body’s relation to food. Because, in part, of the many years that I punished it, I am a reactive hypoglycemic. This means that no matter what I do, my body requires me to eat at very regular intervals. I always carry a grocery bag or large purse full of food, in case I start to feel faint in the middle of a meeting or as I go about my day. I eat as healthfully as possible — there are many things that can make my hypoglycemia worse, so I am careful to eat protein, to incorporate more vegetables and non-triggering foods into my diet. But I am always eating, and this creates a paranoia about how people perceive that. I still fight the perception I have that to eat is to be gluttonous, to be gluttonous is to have no discipline, to have no discipline is to be weak.
My friend, however, pointed out that it takes strength to know what you need. And it takes strength to fight those constant messages that women are fed about how to police our bodies to behave in particular spaces. Now that my body has asserted its needs, I finally have the energy to be a strong Indigenous woman. I have always had a strong core, and a friend pointed out I always had a tigress within that would come out and stand her ground when necessary. But that took a lot of energy, and my constant will to be thin meant that the tigress had very little to nourish herself. So it was exhausting to stand my ground, to take up space.
I am now a woman who takes up space, with my body that the Wii Fit cheerfully proclaims ‘obese!’. But I take up that space not only as a woman, but as an Indigenous woman. This means that I am becoming more fearless, and the fighter that used to only appear when pushed to the absolute brink is now being nurtured, strengthened. I am less afraid to say what I mean, to articulate my experiences as an Indigenous person. I am less afraid to weave my own stories into my understanding of particular issues and moments. I am also less afraid to question things that I think are problematic or that are allowing others to be harmed.
As my body gives me the gift of understanding myself more, it also gives me the gift of strengthening my relationship to space, to land, to my roots and to my ancestors who fought hard for what they believed was right. So I am grateful for this experience, even if every day is a struggle to accept that I am larger than I was. When I start to police myself physically, mentally, ideologically, I remember that I was born to be and live in spaces and places, and I was given many gifts to articulate that and share those experiences with others.
So let us allow our beautiful Indigenous bodies to take up space (physically, spiritually, politically), and to root ourselves in our stories and in our homes. That is one small way that we can heal and transform the things that have hurt us.