Raising the Barre

I’ve never been skinny. I’ve made peace with the fact that I never will be. Really, I have.

There have been a few times in my life, however, when I’ve been fit. When I’ve felt strong and limber and good about my ability to move the way I want. The most recent of those involved dance class. Belly. Modern. Ballet.

It was a few years ago now that I was going to three or four dance classes a week. I’ve wanted to go back, but the combination of time and money and the dread of getting back on the wagon have held me back.

This morning that changed. This morning I went to my first barre class. Here’s how it went…

I showed up at the studio twenty minutes early. I was the first one there. The girl who checked me in assured me it was 1) nothing like ballet, 2) really hard, and 3) unlikely I’d be able to do the whole class. Then she sold me $20 grippy socks.

Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t mean. In fact, I appreciated her saying she couldn’t do the whole class at first either. She pointed out the room and told me to grab a mat and pick my spot.

I entered the room. Funky mirrors hung on the walls; ballet barres lined the room. The instructor promptly asked if I could take off my shoes first. Right. I’d not noticed the cubbies when I’d arrived. (They weren’t pointed out either.)

I took off my sneakers, put on my (cute, hot pink) $20 socks, and tucked my things into a cubby. Another regular arrived and the three of them talked amongst themselves. I hovered awkwardly.

Other women (and one guy!) trickled in. I was definitely the chubbiest in the mix, but there was a range of ages and body types. I felt better. A couple of them told me what to expect and how to situate myself in the room.

Why is it that the older, non-skinny women are the kindest? Do they know what it’s like to feel out of place? Or have they settled into themselves and are actually happier and more confident than the younger, more perfect-bodied ones?

I like to think the latter. After all, there’s hardly a woman alive without some kind of baggage about her body. Even the ones who are much closer to society’s standards of perfect. The patriarchy does a bang up job on that front. Besides, it’s not like anyone was mean. They might be introverted people who are just as nervous about being there as I am.

Class began. Much sweat. Extensive muscle trembling. A couple of things I couldn’t do at all.

But the instructor said encouraging things, corrected my form a couple of times, then complimented it. I made it to the end. I didn’t throw up.  Or cry.

The verdict? An intense workout that taps into my affinity for form, posture, and grace. Not as much actual ballet as I’d like. Intimidating, but not unbearably so. I’m booked for another class on Wednesday.

Fat Femme

This weekend, I filled out the form to participate in panels at the Golden Crown Literary Society conference. There were lots of great topics and my top choice was a panel called “Where Am I?” The  theme of the panel is the juxtaposition of diverse, realistic characters with fantasy ones. It’s something I’ve grappled with in my own writing and one I’d love to discuss with other authors and readers.

I checked the boxes, filled out my information, and was about to hit submit when one question stopped me dead in my tracks:

I consider myself a member of a diverse group (e.g., age, color, culture, custom, size, etc.) Yes

As a cis-gendered white woman, I’m extremely hesitant to claim any kind of diversity status, especially among fellow lesbians. Yet, the examples clearly listed size and one of the criteria. And I am fat.

Not only am I fat, I think a great deal about size and body image. I think about being fat when I go shopping, when I’m presenting in front of a group of students, when I’m in the shower, when I write. One one hand, my fatness has been the source of deep self-loathing and cruel bullying. On the other, it’s been empowering. I wrote my entire master’s thesis on representations of fat women on television, using the framework that the standard of thinness is one of the primary means of repressing women and keeping them distracted from the legitimate power discrepancies in our society. I used a lot of Foucault; it was great. I also included a whole section on using the word fat as a way of denying it negative power. I am, if you will, a fat expert.

And still I hesitated. Even though I no longer doubted whether I could legitimately claim the status, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. By checking the box, I would claim that identity. I would, at least on some levels, agree to take up the cause. Would my cool writer friends still like me? Would my readers?

I spent a great deal of my youth trying to deny or hide the fact that I was fat. I spent a good deal of my twenties and thirties trying to make peace with it, trying to find a balance between self-acceptance and self-care. I’ve gained weight and lost it, supported friends who’ve done the same. I discovered dancing and got in really good shape for a while; I got a new job and let it slide. I’ve loved myself and hated myself, sometimes on the same day.

It’s a complicated business. In some ways, it’s more messy than sexuality or even gender identity because, even in progressive circles, fat often comes with value judgments. It’s something one can help, something one chooses.

Finding the right balance remains a work in progress for me. For now, I try to embrace the fact that I can be fat-positive and body-positive and still want to fit into my pencil skirts that are too snug right now. I can be proud of my friends who are getting in shape. I can commiserate with those who seek solace in bread and cheese and chocolate and wine. I can try to keep my own exercise regimen because heart attacks run in my family, and because I like the way it makes me feel. I remind myself I can be a size 16 (or 14 or 18 or 12 or 20) and feel strong and limber and sexy.

I checked the box. I hope I get picked for the panel. Even if don’t, I’m glad I’ve had the chance to think about what size means to me as an author, and what it means for my writing.