I Am Size Strong

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

While I was waiting to leave a regional comic con in Massachusetts last weekend, I chatted up two old ladies in the lobby talking TV and HBO and Outlander. Y’all know I’ll talk anyone’s ear off about Outlander with the slightest bit of encouragement. Before I left, I gave them each my card because one of them said she loves to read Sherrilyn Kenyon and you never know when self promo at the right moment might pay off. The other lady started laughing uproariously. Turns out she’d read the back of my card with the tagline “smart, sharp, & sexy romantic suspense novels” but didn’t get past the first three words. Thinking the line referred to me personally, her gut response was “my, she thinks highly of herself.” Taking it in good humor, mostly because of her age, I mockingly demanded, “are you saying I’m not smart, sharp, and sexy?” to which she replied, still laughing but totally serious, “yes!”

And now you know why I do my best to stay the hell out of Massachusetts.

Thing is, this nameless, inconsequential woman’s opinion has been haunting me ever since. Not the good times and lovely moments I had that weekend, but this one thoughtless comment from a stranger right at the end. That old adage about how it takes eight compliments to make up for one insult? For two weeks, I’ve been twisting on the negative side of that divide.

I’ll be blunt: I’m an obese woman who struggles with society’s perception of my value based on how I look as opposed not only to who I am but who I perceive myself to be. At Lady Smut, we talk about and celebrate female sexuality, though the majority of the world would tell you that women of my size don’t have any…or perhaps shouldn’t have any, which is just so much ignorant bullshit. Frankly, I’m pretty fucking amazing. That’s a hard-won if fluctuating sense of self-worth there, not narcissistic vanity. But just one scornful word from a near stranger or one fake construct of a perfect beauty can send me spiraling into a cave of self-loathing. That’s because no one can do a number on me better than I do on myself. I’m not alone in this; women are hardest on other women and often harder than all on themselves. We’re conditioned to lead with our faults and imperfections and scorned for openly praising our own considerable skills and qualities.

That I struggle with my weight–“struggle”, as if it’s some Herculean opponent that defines character instead of merely a physical attribute that describes appearance–dominates my every waking thought subconsciously or otherwise. I think about how I move, how I stand, how I sweat because I’m moving and standing. How I sit. Did I hunch over so my chin disappeared or lean in such a way that my belly was grossly emphasized? It’s exhausting, I promise you, but it’s also second nature. As a performer and writer, I’m hyper aware of presentation and perception, which means I have a near pathological need to set the scene, to craft the image being shown to the world. This becomes increasingly difficult when your physical appearance is the antithesis to what society claims you must be in order to be deemed worthy. In our world, beautiful people–beautiful, skinny people–only must apply.

Around Valentine’s Day this year, BuzzFeed® took four woman of various age and physical make up and gave them each a professional photo shoot, full hair and makeup. Each woman’s photo shoot was then photoshopped and the results shown to the subjects. On a whole, each woman was disappointed and some appalled at how their photoshopped image was stripped of their individuality. One woman objected to her freckles being washed out, another that she didn’t feel the new image adequately reflected her true character. Their biggest objection was that the stylized images removed their flaws, the imperfections they valued that made them unique. “Once you take away your imperfections,” one woman said, “there’s not much left of who you really are.” Right, because as women, it’s our imperfections that make us unique.

Give me a break.

I gotta say, given the chance, I probably would’ve preferred that perfected image however fake it may be. Because it was altered to an unachievable but accepted and valued ideal? No. Because it would’ve shown a version of myself that would let society to get the hell over itself so the inner, better me could be perceived. Not because it made me skinny and beautiful but because an ignorant, judgmental society would no longer have to get past my physical size to see the quality of the character beneath.

In Spring 2013, Dove® did a similar “experiment” with their “Dove® Real Beauty Sketches.” Without actually seeing his subjects, a forensic sketch artist took descriptions from several woman as to how they perceived themselves physically. Each one described their most negative attributes: a protruding jaw, a fat, round face, a big forehead, too many freckles. He then asked other people who knew the subjects to describe the women. The artist then crafted two images from those descriptions, one based on how the subject described herself and the other based on how the “friend” saw her. To a one, each self-portrait was much less attractive than the one drawn from the friends’ descriptions. “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty,” said one subject after the dramatic reveal. “It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children…it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

The tagline? “You are more beautiful than you think.”

Perception is so key to our self-worth, first in our self-perception and then in what society tells us we should feel about ourselves due to how it perceives us, which is often vastly contradictory. Any woman, no matter her size, will tell you clothes shopping is the worst. There’s little more detrimental to your ego than a fitting room’s florescent lights and unforgiving mirrors. There’s no hiding anything there, not weight gain, face lines, hip spread, the works. “It’s so depressing,” says one woman in Special K® cereal’s “More Than a Number” advert where the brand asks, “Why do we let the size of our jeans measure our self-worth?”

Why do we let an old bitty’s stray comment determine our self-worth?

Last year, Special K® invited a group of women to “Rethink Your Jeans” and shop in a store stocked with size-free jeans. Instead of numbers, the labels were marked with affirming assertions. Store clerks were armed with measuring tapes whose demarcation lines were marked “radiant” and “confident.” “I’m size strong,” one woman proudly proclaimed. “Not seeing the number is so freeing!” announced another. “Let’s rethink what defines us,” advises the tagline.

We take a lot of crap in Romanceladia for what’s perceived to be idealized heroes and heroines, for creating characters real-life people can’t hope to emulate. (Never mind the vastly sexualized, deeply unrealistic portrayal of women in, say, video games, comic books, fantasy fiction, and other male-dominated genres, but that’s a soapbox for another day.) In fact, romance heroines aren’t an idealized image of what real-life women wish for but can never hope to be; they are the personification of what we already are: Empowered. Sexual. Strong. Amazing.

One label does not fit all.

Just like changing the tags on jeans in a store revolutionizes how a woman perceives herself while shopping, exploring the myriad shades of woman, particularly in romance genre where the heroine is almost always the protagonist, changes the restricting concepts of who we’re supposed to be, or expected to be, or told to be in society. It gives us not the photoshopped, flawless version, but the second forensic sketch because it’s truer than any perception we might have of ourselves. Because we are more beautiful than we think and infinitely more beautiful than we’re told.

“My, she thinks highly of herself.”

Yes. Yes, I do.

So should you.




Follow Lady Smut. We’ll show you all kinds of beautiful.

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  • Post authorKayla Lords

    It sounds simple. It even seems simple. Love ourselves. See ourselves as worthy. But damn it’s hard sometimes.

    I’m working hard to be more accepting of who I am – physically, mentally, the whole thing. But you’re right, one wrong comment can send you spiraling.

    I have to say I like your characterization of romance heroines. I’ve struggled lately with the idea that I’ve somehow idealized the characters I write, but I agree with your assessment. Women *are* the way we write them – it’s the rest of the world that’s never tried to see us that way.

    Reply to Kayla Lords
  • Post authorKemberlee

    Great article. I’ve had very similar experiences as you my whole life, and I’m insulted every day just walking past shops that only cater to the 0-16 sizes. Worse, here in Ireland (as with the UK and most of Europe) sizes are different than the US. A 16 here is really a US 12. If I see a 22 on the rack, it’s really an 18. How do big girls compete?

    We keep hearing that obesity is common in every 1st world nation. Nearly half of the women are overweight, and a large percentage of them are obese. If that’s the case, why are 99% of the shops catering to regular sizes? Why are larger sizes only special orders? Why are they only available outside the shop, online or through catalogs?

    By forcing us to buy our garments outside the shops, it strips away who we are as women, strips away our femininity, strips away socialization and interaction with the community, etc. We can’t ‘do lunch’ with the girls, then head to the shops to buy a cute top or a special outfit. We’re relegated to staying home and buying in, what amounts to, secret.

    Even the so called places that cater to big girls only do so to a certain size (here it’s size 30 which is really a 26…though my 44 bra is really a 50 here!). Or they only cater to girls with big boobs or butts. What about us with big tummies?

    And I hate buying pants. The crotch is always at my knees just to get a waist that fits. Seems most pants are for short-waisted, long-hipped women. I’m neither of those things. So I buy men’s jeans. And unless I take up sewing again, I’m relegated to men’s teeshirts just to cover my tummy. It used to be, when I was younger, that I had a hard time getting tops big enough to fit my boobs. Now that’s not really the issue. It’s my tummy. And there just aren’t any pretty clothes for apple shaped women unless you shop in the maternity store, and even then don’t stock tops with shoulders wide enough, even if the tummy part IS.

    And don’t get me started on models. I would have a Kim Kardashian butt in a heartbeat if it means my tummy was flatter.

    Every time I see a top or dress I’d love to wear, I’m insulted that it’s not in my size. And every backhanded comment races back…you’d be so pretty if you lost weight…what’s wrong with you, just stop eating…no one will love you unless you lose weight…if you want to be successful, lose weight…If you want to fit into our clothes, lose weight…etc.

    It’s all really quite insulting, isn’t it?!

    With regards to that old nag, be glad you don’t wake up beside her in the morning. SHE is the one with the problem, not you!

    Reply to Kemberlee
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    Great article, Kiersten. it reminded me of something I heard once while working at Mode magazine, a fashion magazine that, sadly, met its demise back in 2001, but that had a dedicated and loyal following. The reader demographic of Mode was “plus” sized and its tagline was “the new shape in fashion.” There were some designers who were venturing into that market because it was so poorly underserved. After all, just because a girl is big doesn’t mean she wants to wear a tent, so the magazine was able to get advertising from those designers/lines. But it struggled with the beauty market and the ads were sparse. When I asked one of the sales reps once why we couldn’t seem to grab the attention of beauty, she told me that a beauty advertiser had once bluntly confided, “we don’t want fat girls at our cosmetic counters.” I was so shocked and saddened by that comment and it’s always stuck with me.

    I’ve seen the Dove ads and thought they were great. But there’s still such a long way to go. In the meantime, Kemberlee is right … the biddy is the one with the problem, not you.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
  • Post authorC. Margery Kempe

    Fuck yeah, I think highly of myself. And fuck yeah, that “unrealistic, idealized” is held against romance because you know, FEMALE so we must unrealistically require you to do ALL the things.

    Not that I’m cranky or counting down the teaching days left or anything (3).

    Reply to C. Margery Kempe
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I have this rah-rah encouraging rebecca-of-sunnybrook-farm funny bone in me that I just can’t help, as totally annoying as it may be. So I am compelled to look on the brighter side of your rant.

    You’re right about women being harsher than men. Men like the BBW category–they watch it in porn–which, I mean, common, who’s going to pay for porn or download porn that doesn’t actually get them off. We know romance readers like the BBW category too. Some romance writers are paying for luxury vacations off the money they’ve made writing to that market. So bully for them!

    I love Massachusetts — and the NorthEast in general — and one thing worth noting about the NorthEast is that they know not from sexy and they don’t give a damn. Make-up? Whatever. Everybody is just hands and a face for half the year anyway…they care about intellect and character. Massachusetts has always been leery of sexiness. For all we know she could have thought calling you ‘sexy’ an insult to your intellect and personality. That saying you were sexy was like associating you with dumb idiot who, without brains or charisma, is left to use all the artificial tricks of man and aspire to be ‘merely’ sexy. Do I really know if that’s the case? Not at all. But I know enough about MA to know it *could* be the case, and God love ’em for it!

    Which brings me to my last point — I’m glad that you recognize that amongst a field of ripe comments you have picked up one rotten insult and upheld it above all the rest. This is not a good habit. So many of my friends have it. *I* have it on occasion. It’s a dis-empowering habit. I think we can overcome it, because the men by sloughing that stuff off easily, have an edge over us.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorKel

      Heh… there’s truth to that. There’s also truth to the fact that things are not allowed to be sexy here in MA. We’re all a little too in touch with our Puritan roots…

      At least out in public. But that’s no reason to be rude.

  • Post authorKiersten Hallie Krum

    Thanks all for the encouragement everyone, but my point was that it may needled me for 2 weeks but I got over that woman eventually in my own special snowflake way. 😉

    And Madeline, I lived in MA for 5 years. It likes me about as much as I like it, take my word for it. And I don’t think the sexy part was that lady’s main objection, honestly, more that it was part of the whole. If I had to guess, I’d say she was more taken aback by my aspirations to intelligence given how she didn’t even make it to the end before forming a snobby opinion. Which I guess ultimately proves *your* point after all.

    Reply to Kiersten Hallie Krum
  • Post authorKel

    MA has a lot of negativity. I know, I live here… I also have an excellent “other people” filter and think quite highly of myself.

    Society is hard on people. There are unreasonable expectations all around; be more beautiful but don’t be vain, be smarter but not smarter than everyone else, be more passionate but less aggressive… fuck em. Be you. If they can’t keep up, leave them behind. Be healthy. Be happy.

    I have moments of “fat” certainly… especially when shopping for formal wear. (My eternal frustration: Why are women’s plus sizes only wider, not longer?) But when you’re just bigger all over than the average woman you get over it… at least I can always reach the top shelf.

  • Post authorbarbaramikula

    Excellent article. We all battle the extra pounds, and like me, scars from breast cancer surgery 15 years ago. I’m still here, but the results were not really pretty. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And there you are–another illustration of the truth of Kristen’s article. We need to battle that self-deprecating attitude more than the pounds. Most of my heroines (and usually heroes) have some issue to battle. None are perfect Victoria’s Secret models. I hope that goes a small way towards that end. – Skye Michaels.

    Reply to barbaramikula
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