So, even as I’m putting the first words into this post (and such inspiring ones they are), I know this is going to be a tough one to write. Probably awkward. Possibly confrontational. But it’s an important subject, and I’ve been wanting to write something about it for a long time. So here goes nothing.
Zaftig is an adjective which can only be used in reference to a woman, and it describes that woman as ‘having a full, rounded figure’, or simply ‘plump’. My dictionary informs me that it is mostly used in informal situations, and mostly only in North America at that. I say, let’s globalize that shit. Can’t let such a gorgeous word stay in North America. Anyway, it finds its origins in Yiddish, where the word ‘zaftik’ was first recorded in 1937 as ‘alluringly plump, curvaceous, buxom’ (and what gorgeous words they are). As some of you might know, Yiddish has undergone strong German influences, and this particular word derives from the Middle High German word ‘saft’, which means ‘juice’. So essentially, when you call a woman zaftig, you call her juicy. There are too many opportunities for innuendos here, so I’ll leave those to the dirty minds of my readers. Ahem.
But now for the serious part. I have had body issues for about a decade. It started when I hit puberty around 12, at which point I started gaining weight, and hasn’t really stopped since. There have been wild fluctuations in my weight (various diets happened), but at the moment my weight is more or less stable. But even though I have accepted that I will always be zaftig to some extent, I am still not happy with my body. And in our current culture, is anyone, really? Even if you put a host of top models in a room together and asked them to talk about their body issues, I bet most of them would be able to come up with at least one thing. They will probably be minor, but however minor your grievances about your body may seem to others, on this very day millions of women are feeling bad about their bodies because of reasons which are hardly reasonable (true paradox). Some are more valid than others, of course, but whichever way you look at it, the conclusion (made over and over again) is that there is something seriously wrong with a culture which seems to promote starvation as something to aspire to.
I might add that I am solely going to write about women in this post, because sadly they are often more harassed for their (lack of) physical beauty than men are, but I am not saying that men can’t have body issues. Of course they can, and I think it would surprise us to know exactly how many. And I think that it’s actually a taboo subject, so it would be interesting to talk about. But as my experience is that of a woman, I’ll be mostly focusing on that (but males, do not despair: I feel your pain). And my experience as a woman has so far not been pleasant, in the area of physical beauty. There have been moments of triumph, but they always have been short-lived, and even on the best moments I have felt (and feel) a reasonable amount of shame and discomfort about my body.
Being a cerebral person, though, I have tried figuring out why I do feel bad. Because it has been told us over and over again by well-meaning parents that your (lack of) skinniness really does not matter. Culture, of course, tells us quite something different. And it’s not even about having the abs, but it’s the endless shaming of people who do not have optimal physical health. Apparently, in order to be a worthy human being, you need to have optimal physical health, and any deviation from that rule is considered nothing less than a cardinal sin. And you will never hear me say anything against a healthy lifestyle, but it’s the very strict definition of what is ‘healthy’ and ‘not healthy’ which does it for me. If you want to be healthy, you need to eat enough fruit and veggies and stay away from carbs at all costs, you need to go to the gym preferably every day (getting some muscle is good for your metabolism), and you need to get as much exercise as possible, because if you want to qualify as ‘perfectly healthy’, you need stamina.
I mean, really. Ain’t nobody got time (or energy) for that. And then on the other hand there are critical voices which are vehement about the importance of a positive body image, and that whatever someone else says, you should not ever be ashamed of your body. But you put all that contradictory muddle together, and it gets quite confusing. Which authority do you follow? No wonder (zaftig) teenage girls have body issues.
I was comforted and inspired by a passage I read in On Beauty by Zadie Smith. In this passage a mother is confronted with her daughter’s body issues:
“ ‘Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies—it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? To be honest, I feel ambiguous about it all. Having had body issues myself for so many years (which I have not at all outgrown), I can sympathize with women who feel like a zaftig figure is abhorrent, rather than ‘juicy’. And yet as a feminist I feel passionate about battling the shameless bodyshaming (true paradox) our culture seems to promote. Who cares if you’re zaftig? I mean, really. If you have kind eyes and a nice smile I doubt that anyone will worry about your muffin top or cellulite. The so-called “problem areas” (i.e. stomach, ass and thighs) do not, in whatever shape or size they come, detract from or add to one’s general attractiveness, and I find it sad that many women appear to think so. As if the shape and size of your stomach, ass and thighs are a litmus test for attractiveness. You can be one skinny bitch, but if your face is ugly that won’t get you very far. With all due respect to people who have face-related dysmorphia, of course, but weight issues have a special status in our bodyshaming culture. If you have dwarfism or an amputated leg or a twisted spine which makes you look funky (and makes you not fit into our culture’s ideal of physical beauty), that may make you feel self-conscious (and again, all due respect to such issues), but those are issues you cannot, technically speaking, help; they happen to you. But so many women are bodyshaming themselves because of their weight because, unlike genetic or circumstantial malformations, weight is, objectively, something you can do something about. If you are not one skinny bitch, in other words, that’s really your own fault. Which makes zaftig girls like me feel so very, very guilty.
It is a shame that culture intervened in a relationship which only ought to have two partners: you and your body. Ultimately (cliché alert) it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about your body (except your GP, maybe), as long as you feel comfortable with it. So yes, I am zaftig. With that, at least, I have made peace. I don’t like skinny bitches anyway. My litmus test? Go stand naked in front of a mirror and see if you can look at yourself without looking away. It is a test I fail daily, and I know that only when I succeed at it, I will truly feel happy about my body. But that might take another lifetime. And ultimately, feeling happy with your body is one thing, but what is still the most important thing is feeling good about yourself, inside out. And on that I seem to have made remarkable (and surprising) progress this year, so so far I am quite happy with 2014. I’m curious how it might surprise me yet.