Melissa A. Fabello
Body Acceptance Activist & Sexuality Scholar
Melissa A. Fabello, PhD candidate and writer, tells us about her research that explores the intersection of eating disorders and sexuality. She also talks with the Body Pos Project about her hopes for the future of human sexuality, her criticism of the body pos movement and how she found feminism.
LJ: As someone who had an eating disorder in your early adulthood, can you talk about your body image pre-eating disorder?
M: As far as I can recall, I had really healthy body image my entire life. And I mean, really healthy body image meant I had bad days, because we all have bad days. That’s normal, that’s part of being a human. I can totally recall getting really frustrated, putting clothes on or thinking, I could lose x amount of weight. I definitely thought about those things, but never thought about them obsessively or really harmfully. I would say the happiest I ever was or the most confident I ever was was in college which is also when I weighed the most and is usually a time when people, especially women, really struggle with their body image. It was not something that I saw coming from a mile away. It was definitely not predictable.
LJ: Was there a moment when that changed for you or was it a gradual change in terms of how you thought about your body?
M: There is a specific situation. I was in a relationship with someone who struggled with his own body and I think sometimes took that out on me in ways that were really painful and in ways that I had never experienced before. He would say things about my body that were really disparaging. For example, he asked me one time if I thought I looked good naked and I said yes and he said, really? So that relationship was really rough. When that relationship ended, that is when [my eating disorder] started and I think part of it was coping with a break up and being really sad about that. Then I think that a lot of it turned into that idea of revenge body. I think it started with the fact that I just couldn’t get out of bed because I was sad and wasn’t eating. And then I realized how quickly weight drops when you basically don’t eat at all. Then I kind of had that revenge body idea in my mind. I went on a diet—this is when my story gets to be really typical—went on a diet, spiraled out of control and that’s where it ended up. I lost a lot of weight in a really short period of time.
LJ: I would love to hear more about recovery and what that journey has been like and I imagine, continues to be like. And as you mentioned, how did it interact with how you found feminism?
M: Yeah, it all comes together, right? So I had gotten out of this relationship with someone who was emotionally abusive. Then I was having this issue with food. That summer, [two friends gave me feminist books]. So I just so happened to have these books in my life at this time when I was dealing with my own self-image in general. It wasn’t even body image that was the problem so much as I was so broken from being in a relationship with someone for nine or ten months who was mean to me. I was kind of rebuilding myself.
Feminism came at this very perfect time for me. When I discovered feminism, I was like, oh my gosh, this is exactly what’s wrong. This explains what is wrong in my life. Anything I could think of, any major point in my life that was really major and had a big impact on my own development in a negative way, I realized, oh this explains that. This explains how all that happened. And as I started getting more into intersectional feminism and thinking about intersections of identity, I was like, this explains everything that is wrong with the world. This isn’t just about me, this is everything. That’s huge. Once I discovered feminism, it was like the gospel truth and I just have to spread it around the world. It was the light of my life. I think that the idea of body acceptance and eating disorder recovery holds hands with feminism. They are glued. You can’t separate feminism from body acceptance. I really struggle with people who identify as body acceptance activist but don’t identify as feminist. That makes no sense to me. I don’t see how that’s possible.
LJ: So I’d love to hear a little bit more about your PhD research. To start, can you talk about your thesis, which is the research of women with anorexia and how they experience sensual touch.
M: Sexuality is really complicated and I think people either think of it as intercourse or they think of it as orientation. But sexuality is really profound and can include a lot of different things.When I say I’m researching anorexia and sexuality, Im looking at anorexia through the lens of various ideas or topics within sexuality.
I found a place where a lot of research is missing, which is in the conversation about sexuality and sex drive. There is actually a lot of research on eating disorders and sex drive--a lot, a lot, a lot. But, the issue is that the way that sex drive is always defined is basically as desire for intercourse or other explicitly sexual activities. But there are ways you can enjoy touch with another person, with a sexual or romantic partner, that isn’t explicitly sexual. But that had never been explored. No one was thinking, Okay, we know that people with anorexia are less likely to desire sex or want to have sexual relationships, but what do we know about: Do they like to hug? Do they like to hold hands? Do they like to cuddle? Do they like massage? What do they want to do with their partners? No one had answered that question which seems kind of strange to me, especially since that research is done in order to work with and talk about couples where one or both people involved have an eating disorder and how that affects the relationship. Well, if we want to talk about that, why aren’t we talking about all the ways that people can touch?
There is a concept in sexuality called skin hunger, which is the desire we feel for sensual touch. It’s the reason why if you don’t hug people for a while, you start to feel sad. And that can be a really powerful experience because you have this other need for touch. There wasn’t really any research on eating disorders and skin hunger so I said, well, here’s a gap that’s worth looking at. I’m sort of devising my research project to look at women who have or have had anorexia and how they talk about or define or make experiences out of their sexuality and skin hunger and how that compares with their experiences of sex drive so we can start to fill that gap a little bit and draw out the nuisance.
LJ: I’m curious if you could talk about how society doesn’t allow women to talk about sexuality?
M: Audre Lorde in 1984 pointed out that one of the tools that patriarchal oppression uses is to silence women, especially in response to their own oppression. So, sexuality, for example, is an axis on which women are oppressed. Part of how patriarchy works then is to not only oppress us based on sexuality but also to silence us from being able to discuss our sexuality. Which makes sense if you want oppression to “work,” then you want people to be oppressed and you don’t want them to talk about their oppression because you don't want them to figure out that they are oppressed.
Going off that theory, we can say it makes total sense that sexuality is a taboo topic for women. Obviously, that operates on a lot of different levels, even when you think about something as simple as the virgin/whore dichotomy or the idea that women’s sexuality is so narrowly defined or that there is such a thin line between what we consider healthy sexuality and dysfunction in women.
We are also coming into a really interesting space which evolved from the 60s and 70s were talking about sex and being opened sexuality is cool. Maybe not to my parents, but amongst my own friends or even within feminism, there is an expectation to be really open about your sexuality. It has made this sort of weird pressure that we have right now where we expect people to be having sex, to enjoy having sex and I think that that also can be really, really hurtful to women. When you’ve been brought up in a culture that has been shaming you your whole life and has created a lot of guilt around the idea of sex, to suddenly be in a situation within a certain age or a certain cultural context when you’re all of a sudden expected to talk about sex openly and happily and proudly, can cause a lot of pressure for people. It’s hard. It’s a double edge sword type of situation that no matter what we do.
LJ: As someone who studies sexuality and is engaged in the body positive movement, I’m curious your thoughts on the conversation around the sexualization of plus size women and how it can sometimes feel like, for plus size women to be seen in the media, they have to be sexualized and can’t sort of just be.
M: I think that as a straight size person, it’s not necessarily something I’m thinking about all the time and not something that I can speak to as knowledgeably as someone who is plus size could. In thinking about it, I could go one or two ways. First, do we see large bodies as more sexualized because we de-sexualize them? We could argue that women in media are sexualized, period. That is obviously true. So the question becomes then, if a straight size woman and a plus size woman are equally sexualized, do we conceptualize a plus size woman of being more sexualized because in our every day lives we de-sexualize her? Part of me is thinking that we might be observing these things but need to question if the observation is actually objective.
But the other thing that also makes sense is that when we’re talking about anyone who is marginalized, the ways in which we allow those people to exist or images of those people to exist in media, particularly when they are women, is to sexualize them. That is how we make women acceptable. I also think it’s such a tricky conversation to have around the idea of objectification. I personally believe that self objectification is not a thing. I don’t believe you can objectify yourself. I feel like there is a lot of debate in the body acceptance community around whether or not images of ourselves that are sexualized are actually body positive or not. Are we actually fighting patriarchy if we are taking pictures of ourselves in our underwear? Is that actually helping? That’s a debate I hear a lot. And I think this sort of fits into that same conversation. If we’re talking about plus size women or fat women being sexualized, either by media or by themselves, if they are posing sexually or what is being read as sexual, is that actually a problem? That is the first question to figure out and that is such a nuanced conversation that has so many elements to it. Mainly, who decides if something is sexual? Is there something inherently sexual about underwear? Are our bodies inherently sexual? I would argue that bodies are not inherently sexual. Is seeing a naked body necessarily a sexual image or have we been trained to see women’s bodies, either naked, in underwear or in bathing suit, as sexual when they are just bodies in space? And there is a lot of fetishization that happens around fat women that could also add to that. Similar to women of color that are also exotified and fetishized. A naked black woman is potentially perceived differently than how a naked white woman is seen, so how do we bring socialization into our conversation or the how we see certain things.
I think, generally speaking, the sexualization of women is overall a bad thing because it does not allow us our full humanity. Sexuality, for some people, not for everyone, is an important part of who we are. And it is part of who we are, but when we only ever see sexualized images of women, we lose that there are humans beyond that, beyond sexuality. That is not the kind of equality that I’m here for. I’m not here for, Now we’ve sexualized all women! I don’t think that is helpful. I think that is complicated. I think it depends a lot on where those images are coming from, who is in charge of those images, who is the person who owns those images sort of and what their purpose it.
LJ: What would your hope be for women of all sizes in terms of their own relationship to their sexuality?
M: My dream would be that anybody of any gender would be able to experience their own sexuality or asexuality as an individual and for that to be respected and for that to be value neutral rather than having any kind of morality attached to it. My dream would be that people could be sexual, or not, in the ways that feel good to them. And that you could talk about it because it’s no different from any other conversation that you’re having or you could not talk about it because nobody is expecting anything from you in terms of your sexuality. And that sexuality can be thought of as a part of who you are rather than all of who you are. I think it would just be so nice if it could all balance out and sexuality or asexuality could be a healthy part of your life and to not have any moral boundaries around that.
Of course, that’s not necessarily possible because we live in a society that moralizes sex so I think that next best thing would for us to have these conversations about how that is harmful. If I am going to bring a child up into this world, I wouldn't pretend like the problems don’t exist but address those problems. Like, you could say, here is how people are going to make assumptions about you and your sexuality based on your various identities and here is why that is nonsense and why you can push back against that. How are ways that you can express your sexuality in ways that feel good to you outside of what society is telling you about yourself? I think we need to be able to talk about these things instead of sweeping it under the rug and pretending it’s not a problem.
LJ: How do you see social media playing a part in feminism and with someone with your research background, are their nuisances that you’ve thought within social media? Are there things you’re excited about or worried about?
M: The thing that I’m thinking about most in regards to social media lately is the idea of media literacy. We’ve gotten a lot better over the past few decades of understanding the concept of media literacy. You’d be hard pressed to find an adult woman who couldn't tell you that magazine photos use photoshop. It’d be hard to find someone who didn’t know that models are thinner than the average person. Most people have a basic sense of media literacy in their lives. What I don’t think people have is an idea of media literacy around social media. For example, I don’t think that people think about the fact that Instagram is also media that they are consuming every day. And I love Instagram and I love social media, but something important to consider is, when I’m posting to Instagram, when I take a selfie, I’m going to take 20 to 50 pictures, I am going to use the one I like the best, I am going to crop it, and I’m going to filter it and I’m going to post it with some cute caption and that’s not really what I look like necessarily. It’s the best picture of me in the best lighting with the best filter. It’s not photoshopped, but it’s not necessarily how I look. If you look through my Instagram, you’re going to think I’m more attractive than I necessarily am in real life and that is true for most people.
And add to that, the fact that on Instagram, I could be scrolling through my own friends and then there is a picture of Taylor Swift and there is a picture of Kim Kardashian, you start to think of it all as normal. You think it’s all real life. It’s not like, oh I’m picking up a magazine and I know I’m looking at a magazine and I know these images are photoshopped. I think that causes a lot of confusion and I don’t think we think about it or talk about it at all. We don’t view social media critically. We have at least learned how to view magazines and TV and music critically and I think it can be challenging in how we view the world around us.
LJ: In a culture that benefits from our insecurities and pits women against each other, how would you encourage women to create or maintain their own body positivity?
M: We need to think of our bodies as a part of us and not us, which is really, really difficult when you grow up as a woman and are told that your body is everything. Part of the ways that body positivity can fail is when we push women to continue to obsess about their bodies. Like, now I am going to obsess about feeling good about my body? How is that better? I think at the end of the day when we think of ourselves as bodies, that is always going to be harmful. We are more than bodies. We aren’t just bodies in the world. I think that when a lot of people first come to body positivity, it is extremely body focused. We are trying to love our bodies because we have been taught that our bodies matter. And I think that is a first step for people and I think that is fine. And there is a million different ways you can do that and how to start doing that. I personally have affirmations next to my mirror and I take a lot of selfies because they make me feel good.
I think we need to move past that, move past thinking about our bodies in a happy way. I think we need to value ourselves more than that. I value myself more than that. I am also smart. I am also kind and creative and compassionate. I think that women especially aren’t given space to be more than their bodies. I think it would be good to think about your body in more neutral terms, that your body isn’t necessarily good or bad in your life. It just is. It is the vessel for you are as a person and that is a much more interesting thing than what you look like.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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