A few weeks ago, my father celebrated his 65th birthday. As usual, in getting ready for the big party he was having (at which I was due to perform a few songs in his honour) I found myself lapsing into a woman’s fit – that is, I tried on every suitable outfit in my wardrobe and felt morbidly obese in every single one of them. Even the darkest, most loose-fitting items seemed, in my increasingly blurred vision, unable to make me look less like a gross hippopotamus. I felt the minutes ticking away as I frantically started scurrying around the room, looking for anything I hadn’t yet tried on, hot panic rising up inside my chest. Now let me take a moment to make something clear before we continue: I am not fat. I’m not overweight. I wouldn’t even call myself chubby. I’m what some people call curvy and I call “me.” The key word here is “felt” – I felt fat, knowing full well I am not, in fact, anywhere near what is generally considered to be fat. I think most women can relate to what I earlier referred to as a woman’s fit (mostly because it’s seen as a stereotypical woman’s thing, although for all I know, men have them too) – it doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with your weight; it may also manifest itself as a bad hair or skin day. In short: something you suddenly feel disproportionately insecure about. Anyway, moving on: after some time of panicking about the room, my mother walked in and asked me what was going on. I tried to explain to her how I felt, at which, rather than giving me the hug I was craving so much, she exploded into a rant. She told me I was being absurd; that no one thought I was fat; that I was an idiot for thinking it myself and that I looked absolutely gorgeous in the outfit I happened to still be wearing at that moment (black pumps and tights, a green flowy dress topped off with a jacket, to cover my belly). She assured me no one ever looked at anyone the way I looked at myself, and told me to get a grip and slap on some make-up because we were about to head out. Which is, of course, exactly what I needed at the time – more than a hug, even.
However, at the party, where I met a lot of distant family I hadn’t seen in a long time, it struck me how many people actually did comment on my figure. They were all compliments (or so intended), sure enough, but still; no less than nine out of the twenty-something guests I spoke that night said something along the lines of “You look great! You’ve lost some weight, haven’t you?” – and in most cases this remark served as their conversation starter. Other comments included “How are you? Got your figure back I see!” and “You’ve sure lost some pounds, eh?” while boldly giving me a few pats on the belly. So what? you might say, They were all complimenting you, weren’t they? Yes, that’s true. In fact, that evening I realised I have lived most of my life striving for those very ‘compliments’. But something dawned on me that evening. When you’re not skinny (and perhaps this extends to anyone who is considered “too skinny,” but I can only speak from experience), it is apparently appropriate for people to comment on your figure, even if it is the first thing they say to you in over two years. I realised that I was taught to feel insecure because my body type diverges from the norm. The overly-critical way I see myself was imposed on me by Western society, rather than being something my own feeble women’s brain conjured up. More than that, I don’t just look at myself that way; I look at everyone that way. I have a hard time being friends with people who are “too pretty.” I can’t even consider going on a date with someone I deem “too beautiful.” It took two full years of being in a happy committed relationship before I could start to see myself a potential “catch.” But apparently, this obsession I have with appearance isn’t just my obsession – it’s society’s obsession, and most of us don’t even realise how obsessed we really are. I know I didn’t. Now, I won’t pretend I have even the faintest inkling for a solution to this problem; all I can do is address it and hopefully make some people slightly more aware of its presence. And have a cheesecake. And surround myself with great people who have a healthy view of the world and the individuals around them so that maybe, just maybe, their view might rub off on me some day.
By Anne Oosthuizen