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Body Image & Control

Body Image & Control

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Body Image & Control

Natalie DiFrank, Gabrielle Smith, & Niki Barker


Stretch Marks

by Natalie DiFrank

I feel as if I woke up one day and forgot the war I fought in

I look at my body and see the scars of the battles I seemed to never win

It's funny how when people see stretch marks on your skin they never ask how

No one wants to know where these stripes on my stomach and arms came from

It's assumed that I didn't listen to the warnings of eat your vegetables and exercise when I was young

I'm never asked where did that particular jagged wound come from

If they were to ask I would tell them of the many battles I fought tirelessly for years with myself

The self hate and the endless thoughts that clawed their way from the inside out

The nights I spent thinking and thinking and thinking about why I have never been able to fit into the neat box I was forced into

These scars came from the adventures I eagerly went on hoping for love and leaving with brandishes forever on my skin

If only I could be pretty, if only I was smart enough, if only he loved me, if only they listened

The lotions and magic fruit will never eradicate the pain that coursed through this body of mine

These scars may never fade and I may gain new ones as I continue

But i wonder what makes these less exciting or striking or mysterious than the scars caused by bike rides

Why do they wonder more about the time I tripped and a pebble embedded itself in my skin than the time I fought hard and strong in order to earn control of my life when the world seemed to never stop stretching and molding me into the form I never wanted to be

Why is being fat a reason to not ask how?

Why does being fat act as an answer and problem at the same time and not a beginning of a long journey that Id love to share with you?

These stretch marks remain a reminder to me of the war I fight to love myself and the battles I've lost along the way



Last Wednesday, we conducted a listening conversation in which we discussed body image. We did not want to limit ourselves to weight, so we also included in our conversation discussion of skin color, hair, and clothing. We held our conversation in the Merion Backsmoker, a very welcoming and comfortable environment.

Initially, we intended to have our conversation emulate the methods of Monsoon Bissell and Benaifer Bhadha. However, we quickly discovered that that format was too restrictive and difficult to adhere to--the performative aspect proved non-conducive to discussion flow. Instead, we decided to have a flowing conversation, much like the performance of Two Women Talking, where each of our stories grew out of each other, showing some mirroring or connection between each of them. We took the sense, rather than the exact nature, of the Narativ method, as a tool for our discussion. We made sure to include feelings and overall thoughts, instead of speaking with no feelings at all. With this, we were able to tell multiple stories each without having to struggle through not stating our feelings. We found that for our purposes this worked wonderfully. Our conversations flowed into each other, interconnecting and weaving together in a way that has proved much like a tapestry--each story had common themes, and to regard them as a whole is much more expressive than to isolate each. Thus, we have summarized the stories we shared below.



The Sunday Quaker Potluck

Most Sundays, when I used to be an active participant, my hometown Quaker Meeting would have a potluck lunch following our 10:00 service. Every time, there was a plethora of food laid out in the Meetinghouse basement--usually things seen as “ultra-healthy”, often dubiously vegan or vegetarian, interspersed with store-bought “junk food” bought just before the meeting, and a separate table full of desserts of much the same ilk. Each time, as everyone filtered down from our service, the group would congregate in clumps around the room, studiously avoiding the tables they had so recently set out with food. It was as if it were a contest (especially among the women!) as to who would not start the meal, after our group prayer. The person who started the line was the loser of this little game, the first to succumb to the unsaid sin of “gluttony”.

Initially, I was still a child, and had no feeling of this game. I was often the starter of the line, as I loved the food and the interaction. However, I grew up in my time at the meeting--this is the same meeting I mentioned in my last post, that ended up supporting my father’s abusive behavior and ostracising my mother and me. As I grew up there over the few years I went, I began to realise this unspoken power game going on, and fell prey to it. Eating in public, especially for women, can become about how we control our bodies, about being more virtuous in how you eat. Even a basic bodily function is a performance and a social transaction.

Eating in Front of my Boyfriend

Niki’s story about being nervous to be the first to get food from her potluck reminded me of being nervous to eat in front of my boyfriend in high school. Even if I was hungry I would refuse to eat due to my fear of  being judged for eating including what, how, and how much I was eating or even worse that he would think of me as  “fat”.

Comparing Bodies with my Brother

Natalie’s story reminded me of something that I started to do when I was little. When I was little my brother and I would compare the size of our waists to see who was bigger. He would always say I was bigger, and then call me fat. I would tell my parents that he said that, but their only response would be, “but are you fat?” Beginning then I sometimes wait until everyone is out of the kitchen before I eat something.

Apologizing & Realising

Whenever I eat in the dining halls, I am constantly conscious of who is around me, who is sitting near me and with me. (This is one reason why I tend to sit at the same table in Erdman---it’s a way for my friend-group to find each other, when we all eat at so many different times of the day) I regulate how much I get, what I get, I see what others are eating. Even now I hate it when others look at my plate. On my worse pain days, I even will start apologizing for eating any more than one sparse plate of meat and veggies. My friends have told me to stop apologizing, that what I eat is my own business. Many of them have struggled with similar issues to mine, and with more severe ones--I know multiple people who have true eating disorders, not just my tendency to eat more on bad days. I feel like I need to apologize, as somehow it seems my fat is a moral failing, like I wasn’t strong enough to combat my new disability medications, and my grief from my dog’s death in freshman year, and my grief over my diagnosis. And yet, I still feel the eyes hovering on my newly-formed double chin, the swell of my “watermelon stomach” through my clothes, my thighs rubbing together, my steps falling harder.

Black in America Screening

    In Highschool after reading The Invisible Man, my classmates started to make a lot of racist comments between classes. I was enraged, but I couldn't say anything, so I had to keep my anger to myself until I got home. It was that week that I looked into a mirror and realized the true color of my skin. Before that point, I always thought of myself as darker than I am.

    I told this story to one of my hall mates last year, and somebody down the hall heard our conversation. She was white, and she yelled out to me "LOVE YOUR SKIN. LOVE IT FOR WHAT IT IS." Or something of that nature. My thought process was exactly this: 1. I wasn’t talking to you. 2. I didn’t say I didn’t love my skin. 3. You’re white.

Swapping Clothes--or Not

Gabby’s story reminded me of my experience with friends in and outside of Bryn Mawr who would try to make me “feel better” by offering me their clothes when I obviously was or am not their same size. When I would tell them that I would not be able to fit into their clothes because I was larger than them they would try to reassure by telling me I could fit in their clothes and their jeans would fit because they have big butts so their size is larger than it appears. It some aspects it was a denial of my identity of a fat woman.

Making Cosplays

Whenever I start talking about the struggles of shopping with my friends, they often seem to assume that I’m feeling ashamed of my size. Most of the time it’s just sheer frustration, with not being able to find something that makes me “feel right”.   One of the ways in which I’ve begun to combat I constantly vacillate between feeling ashamed of my weight, and being angry that society is making me think that this is a bad thing.  This is most evident to me when I’, trying to find materials for my cosplays. However, it’s been a boon in other ways. I’ve actually become a much better costumer because of this, and have developed a strong style of cosplay. I even ended up teaching myself how to draft a corset for one of my most complicated cosplays yet. It’s become an exercise in finding the positive in what society often sees as negative.

Makeup, Bandaids, & Shaving

Where I'm from it is very hard to find makeup in my shade. When we first moved there, even my mother could not find makeup, and she is much lighter than me. Now they only have shades which are one shade lighter than me.

When I was in the 8th grade, I wore a Dora bandaid to school, and jokingly complained that how everyone will see my silly bandaid. A white girl at the bus stop asked me, "why don't you just wear a skin colored bandaid?' I pointed at the back of my hand and said, "they don't have band aids the color of my skin."

Whenever they have commercials for any cosmetic product on TV, my mother tells me that it is not made for black people if there is not a black person in the commercial. If it was for hair removal she would say our hair is too thick. If it was shampoo she would say our hair needs more moisture. In high school I would get really embarrassed when I would change for gym class in the morning and my legs would be really ashy even though I lotioned the night before and that morning. Now I'm committed to buying effective moisturizing lotions that are really expensive.

6th Grade Shaving

I started shaving my legs in sixth grade. My sister mocked me until I did so, making the summer of sixth grade when my mother told me I could officially shave my legs a celebration for me. But the mocking and pressure to shave did not stop there. By seventh grade friends of mine began making fun of my dark arm hair that covered my nuckles. I shaved my legs secretly, knowing that my mother would not approve but feeling like I had to. Once I shaved my arms my friends began praising me for doing so and making comments like “Now you don’t look like a monkey”. After this experience I routinely shaved my legs and feared people even seeing stubble.

Within my first semester at Bryn Mawr I began to not shave my legs. I did so purely because dorm showers are two small and it took time that I would rather have spent sleeping. No one judged me at Bryn Mawr for doing so yet, when I went back home I immediately felt the pressure to shave. I felt this pressure when I left Bryn Mawr’s campus as a whole. Even if I was just going to walk around Philly I would worry endlessly about the impression I was making with my legs. When people see my unshaven legs (even if they are family), my words become a jumble of radical angry feminist thoughts therefore making my words irrelevant.

Laverne Cox & Hair

When I was seeing Laverne Cox speak the entire time I was thinking about her hair. When she would flick it back and forth, I thought I knew exactly what she was feeling. It put me right back in the time when I relaxed my hair. The week after I would get it done my mother would always call me out for doing what some people call "the white girl wave." Which is when your hair moves just like a white girls. Normally that doesn't happen. Once I had my hair in a ponytail, and my white neighbor commented on how much hairspray I must have had in my hair because it wasn't moving an inch. I was really embarrassed because I didn’t have any hairspray in my hair.

The Navy Newsboy Cap

I struggled with my hair for many years. You see, I have trichotillomania, which means I pull out my hair when I’m stressed, or sometimes even utterly unconsciously when I’m not stressed. It’s part of a group of disorders classified as “impulse control disorders”, distantly related to OCD. ICDs run in my family (virtually all the women on one side of the family have manifested one or more of them). At one point, when I was 13, I had an episode in which I pulled out nearly the entire top of my head--I looked like I had a monk’s tonsure, People with impulse control disorders tend to do similar coping behaviors to cover up their injuries, if they can, but some can’t be easily covered. I can often pick out fellow ICD people, I can tell who they were because of how we dress, how we carry ourselves, to cover and hide our injuries and scars. In my case, I took to wearing a navy newsboy cap, that I only rarely took off. I had my hair shorn short, too, to stop the pulling. (In the end, that wasn’t that good an idea, and is one of the reasons I’ve recently decided to grow my hair out)

This was, in fact, during one of the worst times in my life; I’d just witnessed another of my father’s attacks on my mother, which had triggered the episode. Ironically, this was followed with one of the best experiences in my life: a conference for extremely academic young people, for lack of a better description. One of the oldest in the group had permanently swollen, scarred knuckles, from biting them. Another had pockmarks all over her arms, from picking at scabs. I wasn’t the only one. My hair was just another thing, not a thing that enfreaked me.

The newsboy cap became one of the main ways people identified me from afar. In the end, though, I finally felt comfortable enough to take off the hat, pass it around, along with another person in the group who was wearing a hat. The little game of musical hats really showed to me that it wasn’t our physical differences that mattered. This conference was the first time for me where difference was ornamentation to our commonalities.

Wrap-Up Discussion

From this conversation we were able to gain a better understanding of how capitalism impacts power, control, and access. Products for othered groups tend to cost more, which reinforces socioeconomic inequality. Things are made for white wealthy, usually men, which are cheaper on the whole. Makeup & self care products for PoC cost more, clothes for people of different sizes cost more (especially towards the larger end), products for the disabled cost more. These all make it so that being a white younger man is the easiest and cheapest way to live. Women in general are paid less. Women who are overweight are paid even less than that and have more expensive clothing. Women of Color get paid less and are forced to pay higher prices for personal products. People who are disabled have a hard time getting employed and have to pay more for their products.


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