Half Naked Pin-Up Girls: Body Image, Mental Illness and Drawing Naked Curvy Ladies

Kira Scarlet fat positive eating disorder Illustration

I’ve been thinking a lot about body image over the last few days: someone on Twitter, I forget who, shared a link to this post in the Guardian, which examines the author’s reactions to a stunningly ill-conceived blog entry by a blogger named Maura Kelly writing for Marie Claire (which can be found here; trigger warning as well for some terribly negative comments in the post and comments about bodies). The first article I linked to, the reaction written by Marianne Kirby, who seems to have written quite a bit for the Guardian about fatness and body politics, is, I believe, spot on in its description of our culture’s treatment of fatness, especially of the public scrutiny of bodies that do not fit societal norms of beauty. I read it initially with a expanding sense of hell yeah! and mentally fist-pumping agreement:

To be fat in America is to live in defiance of everyone who wishes fat people would just stop existing, and who sees us as monsters instead of real people. When I go to the gym, to the library, to work, to the movies, to anywhere that isn’t my own home, it is with the knowledge there will be observers who wish I would just disappear, and this based solely on the aesthetics of my body.

However, when I got to the end of the brief article, the fist-pumping moment dissipated, leaving something of a cringe behind. I went about my business as usual for a while longer and then came back to the article, read it over again, and then waded into the myriad of reaction articles to the original blog post to write this rather long reflection of my own.

Marianne Kirby quotes the original blogger, Maura Kelly, as saying:

So anyway, yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room – just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.[Note: that is Kelly’s spelling of heroine.]

Kelly is discussing her reaction to a scene in an US sit-com where two people kiss. I haven’t seen the show that she’s talking about — didn’t even know it existed before this debate, actually, though I don’t have a television, so — and for the purposes of this argument, it doesn’t seem to particularly matter.

Marianne Kirby does a fantastic job of making some great points about attitudes towards fat bodies (which can also be applied to women’s bodies as a general whole as well), and I agree with 90% of what she is saying. It’s the final paragraph of her post that seems to echo one side the very heated debate happening on comment threads inspired by Maura Kelly’s post and the hundreds if not thousands of reactions to it:

Kelly’s article is rife with errors, and there is much being made now of her own history of eating disorders, which allegedly would go a long way to explain her behaviour. She is, of course, entitled to her opinion. No one is obligated to find fat people attractive; it is an incredibly personal matter and no one is universally appealing.
But from my perspective – as I walk, work, play and have a fulfilled love life – Maura Kelly and the people who want fat people like me to never be seen are the disgusting ones.

It is in light of this paragraph and with rather great trepidation that I write: I also understand where Maura Kelly is coming from.

OK, let me explain at great, wordy length exactly where I am coming from and why I felt the need to write some 3,000 words on the subject:

Though I’ve been attempting to watch from the sidelines and not get sucked into reading and responding to comments on any of the sites this discussion is happening on, my impression is that the debate is being framed by opposing sides as such: commentators who believe that Maura Kelly is a mean bitch who hates fat people vs. commentators who believe that Maura Kelly has a point and obesity is evil and costing the US lots of money blah blah blah.

What I haven’t seen (in my admittedly limited involvement) is a discussion about eating disorders, eating disorder treatment, eating disorder recovery, medical insurance coverage for eating disorders, medical insurance coverage of mental illness, etc., and it is this gaping hole in the debate and coverage that is on my mind. But why, you ask? In this article by a Daily Mail writer, it is alleged by the editor in chief of Marie Claire, Joanna Coles, that Maura Kelly is a recovering anorexic. Or, rather more tellingly, the editor says “She was an anorexic herself and this is a subject she feels very strongly about.'” Huh.

In the context of the discussion, I assume that the editor-in-chief means that Maura Kelly, the blogger who started this, er, discussion, is recovering from anorexia nervosa, not simply anorexia, which, from a medical perspective, is simply a lack of appetite.

A little background, so that you and I, hypothetical internet readers, are on the same page: anorexia nervosa is a mental illness. Classified as an Axis 1 disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-IV, anorexia nervosa is, simply and non-medically put, an eating disorder whose diagnosis criteria included excessive weight loss, an intense fear of gaining weight, a refusal to maintain a body weight above 85% (or, in other words, a BMI under 17.5 or so) and a distorted perspective of one’s own shape and weight.

More background for you to think about regarding health insurance and eating disorders:

1. Something that also has not come up in the debate anywhere I’ve seen is the inadequacies of the mental health care treatment available to folks in the US, even for those lucky folks with health care insurance. Again, I don’t know what Kelly’s particular situation was and is, but in general, mental health care beyond immediate in-patient crisis situations, is hard to come by. My impression is that she is a freelance writer; in the USA, that means that medical insurance is doubly difficult to come by, extremely limited in coverage and extraordinarily expensive.

2. Along with medical insurance in the United States, the DSM and the American Psychiatric Association in general, the diagnosis criterion of anorexia nervosa are… contentious, as the diagnosis itself relies on several controversial physical indicators, including BMI and amenorrhea. One of the issues I have heard discussed about the clinical definition of anorexia is how those very particular physical indicators cut off many patients from treatment that they need.

Again, to quote Wikipedia, since the original study is not available for free and I can’t seem to find any of my old textbooks or readers to quote from:

There have been criticisms over various aspects of the diagnostic criteria utilized for anorexia nervosa in the DSM-IV, including the requirement of maintaining a body weight below 85% of the expected weight and the requirement of amenorrhea for diagnosis; some women have all the symptoms of AN and continue to menstruate.Those who do not meet these criteria are usually classified as eating disorder not otherwise specified this may affect treatment options and insurance reimbursements.The validity of the AN subtype classification has also been questioned due to the considerable diagnostic overlap between the binge eating/ purging type and the restricting type and the propensity of the patient to switch between the two.

Which is to say: it is possible to have an eating disorder which involves extreme calorie restriction (think 200-400 calories a day, potentially coupled with binging and/or extreme amounts of physical exercise, like running or elliptical use), a horrifically distorted perspective of one’s own body image and body images in general, and that courts organ failure, but if your BMI is not under 17.5 or your period has not stopped, you will potentially not get treatment for your illness. And even if you do get treatment, that treatment may not work, especially if the treatment was involuntary, as it often is.

Force feeding a patient and going to group therapy sessions and being released when one’s BMI is at 17.6 is not treatment. And resolving physical and/or outward symptoms of a disease does not necessarily heal the internal triggers for illness. Again, I don’t have any textbooks around me to quote this from, but it is my understanding that there is a good portion of folks diagnosed with anorexia nervosa that receive multiple hospitalizations and in-patient treatment.

From my extremely non-medical-professional background, I feel as though it is necessary to reiterate out that is difficult to obtain good medical treatment for mental illness, and that eating disorders are particularly difficult to treat.

My point/argument/etc.

As someone who has struggled with eating disorders and body image issues, and as someone who has received consistently truncated, ineffectual and inadequate mental health treatment for those issues, I simply wish that parts of this debate were framed differently, very, very differently.

Because on one hand, what the blogger Maura Kelly said was horrible and fucked up. Mental illness history or no, the attitude that Kelly expressed is horrible and utterly impermissible. As far as I am concerned, there is no situation of any kind where it is appropriate to ask people to hide themselves as less than people because you don’t like looking at them.

However, I do not believe that it makes her, as the original post that brought this debate to my attention claims, a repulsive human being. To me, that statement is just as awful as the comments that spurred it. And, if Ms. Kelly has indeed been diagnosed with an eating disorder in the past, I believe that it is impossible to separate her statements from her illness. I am not a physician nor a psychologist or a psychiatrist, simply a recovering sick person myself, but from the extremity of the “brutally honest” comments that Kelly made about fat people, it does not sound to me like her mental recovery is complete.

It is worth nothing that when I say mental recovery, my definition of recovery and healthy body image is not necessarily the same as a clinical definition of recovery: I do not believe anything short of the capacity for complete acceptance of any body type, one’s own or someone else’s, is fully recovered from an eating disorder or body image disorder. I believe that anything short of that acceptance, which is so, so difficult, leaves room for hatred and self-hatred to slip back in and poison the mind.

I understand that both weight and the intimation that one is subhuman are fucking triggering and enraging for everyone. On a personal level, Kelly is talking about my body: to her, I am disgusting, repulsive and potentially sub-human. As Marianne Kirby points out, the original blogger believes that I should be barred from expressing physical displays of affection because my body is repulsive.

On the other hand, I think these things about myself every time I look in a fucking mirror or get dressed or undressed. And I, depending on the time of day and month, am more or less ill and deeply scarred.

Which isn’t to say that I am correct in positing that Ms. Kelly is still struggling with recovery and her own body image. We do, after all, live in a culture that tacitly condones giving 8-year-olds Botox & “fitness shoes” and digitally enhances the bodies of the women who are arguably the pinnacle of physical perfection according to our own cultural standards because they are not perfect enough; the messages that the media are sending her and everyone else with access to media would be more than enough to convince someone that fat bodies are unnatural and grotesque.

I just can’t put aside the idea that in calling Ms. Kelly a repulsive human being for her words, that the blogger and the commentators of the world are talking about me as well. I am sick, mentally ill; I think horrible, awful things about my body, and have engaged in a variety of terrible behaviours toward my body that have made non-ill individuals shudder. I’ve lost people I care about because of mental illness, eating/body image disorders and otherwise. Am I a repulsive human being because I am sick? Sometimes it feels like it — the weight of carrying hurtful words that Marianne Kirby mentions is not limited to remarks about weight — but objectively, no, I am not a repulsive human being because I have been and am sick and recovering.

It is because of this that I believe that the debate about this article is lacking multiple perspectives necessary to understand and move forward from this kind of attitude.

The connection to my work, or, why I am writing about this in a place where I share my artwork:

This entire essay started as an attempt to write a brief few sentences about why I create and draw what I do, both for Half Naked Thursday sketches, coloring books in general, as well as my series of naughty vagina embroideries.

I draw curvy women because I think the women who are able to embrace their bodies are heros. Sheroes? (Heroines!) Their courage is what I am striving towards; they are (one of) the reasons that I have strapped on my roller skates for the past month. I look at women who fight and strive to embrace their bodies and to change the way the world looks at women’s bodies and am inspired to keep facing my own struggles with body image. I might still see a monster when I look in the mirror, but I can now see & celebrate how beautiful bodies, all bodies, are.

Since I am all about sharing love, here is a bit of a list of some bad-ass women & blogs who are all about body love:

– April Flores, AKA Fatty D, where D stands for Delicious.
Queer Fat Femme, Bevin Brandlandingham, who also wrote this wonderful article about how to have a gorgeous beach body, which made me tear up with happy tears — it’s the antidote to every magazine article about how to hate & punish your body better in order to crash diet away 40lbs. to look emaciated in time for bikini season.
Jiz Lee, genderqueer superstar whose brain I have a gianormous crush on (OK, who am I kidding, I have a crush on all of Jiz, not just their brain).
Fashioni.st, a street-fashion blog based in San Francisco — Mai, the blog’s author, features an extraordinary diverse range of people, fashions, ages and shapes, all beautifully confident in their own bodies and styles (or, you know, faking it until they make it).
– Kate Harding’s Shapely Proses, sadly now defunct but archived in all of its glory; check out one of my favorite posts of Harding’s which outlines her principles of fat acceptance.
VonHottie! I just discovered Von Hottie thanks to this article about swimsuits for all bodies and preferences on Autostraddle, and I am in love.

So what do you think? Where do you, hypothetical internet reader, stand on this matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any recommendations for body-positive blogs.

*Illustration process note: Yes, that is my body, vectorized. I often use photos of myself as reference for my sketches. I <3 comfy hoodies.


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