I was walking down a dark bike path, cell phone in hand, noting the sound of every step and scuffle strangers made on the cold, wet pavement. I was in Ottawa undertaking the final phase of my archival research for my PhD dissertation and this was the evening of a particularly long and intense day; we had been in lockdown in a federal building after the murder of Nathan Cirillo and the dramatic events that unfolded at Parliament’s Centre Block. On uber-high alert, I consistently reminded myself why I needed to pay such close attention to every detail of my surroundings. “Okay self. First: last news update. There may be suspects still at large. Fuck. Second: You are an Indigenous woman and statistically have a one-in-three chance of being sexually assaulted. Fuck. Third: No one better mess with me. I have an umbrella, a set of keys, and a large purse and I am not afraid to use them. Double fuck.” Trying to dismiss all of the above, I attempted to rationalize the uncertainty of my situation. “Listen here self: you don’t have to worry about that strange man walking behind you. You’ll be safe you cause you are FAT! Hahahaha – joke is on him! Wait…what?”
This blog post is not about the safety (or lack thereof) of women in urban areas, the Ottawa shootings, or my PhD research. This post is about my subconscious need to retain fat as a way of protecting myself.
When I was 14 years old, I lost my virginity to my rapist. Then, as a teenager, I entered a very unhealthy, mentally abusive relationship with a criminal. After that ended, I put myself back on the market and went to a nightclub with some friends. That night I had rohypnol slipped into my drink and woke up the next morning to find that I had been sexually assaulted by yet another psychopath. I spent the next seven years working in the bar industry, where men (and some women) threw money at me to serve them drinks, while they checked out my bangin’ bod. My bartending career abruptly came to an end when I almost lost my shit on a dude who checked out my rack. It was time to move on.
After I quit bartending, I kicked off my student career at the University of Alberta. I started to gain some weight, but I was not overly concerned about it. I soon discovered that the more weight I gained, the safer I felt. Fewer men eye-fucked me. I could walk down the street, through the library, and even across the dance floor in a bar without feeling objectified by overtly sexualized gazes. Carrying the “freshman fifteen,” (in my case, the freshman thirty – okay maybe forty) made me feel safer. For the first time in my life, I felt in control of my own body. I also discovered that Thai food, nachos, poutine, and cheeseburgers actually tasted really good – foods that I had generally avoided – and I could eat them everyday and be in charge of my life. Eating with purpose! Get fat, feel safer, and fight the patriarchy! YES!
This all sounds great, right?
Two years ago, I started working out with Fitbabe (who is awesome, BTW). I was looking to shed some weight and was okay with that. Since getting married and being ‘thirty-something,’ I was perceived less and less as a sexually desirable woman from most men I encountered on a day-to-day basis. I had successfully manipulated my body and felt safer in my own skin for the last several years. It was time to analyze my eating and fitness habits in the pursuit of good health. After countless workouts, doing oodles of research that taught me about calories, macros, and hormones, and doing a lot of hard thinking about my commitment to this new lifestyle, I have yet to lose much weight at all. By using food as a crutch – mostly in secret – I have succeeded at undoing all of my hard work in the gym and the kitchen by stuffing my face with all sorts of food. On the one hand, “Yay! I am still in charge of my body and still love the fact that men no longer hit on me.” On the other hand, “Gawd, why can’t I do this? Why must I insist on reversing all of my hard work? Did I really need that cheeseburger? WHY DO WOMEN HAVE TO DO THIS TO FEEL SAFE?”
In the past couple months, I have been publicly outspoken about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada. I was a part of the Am I Next? campaign. And then, the media frenzy around the latest predator has launched sexual assault and violence against women into the public spotlight (I am not giving that dirtbag the courtesy of saying his name – you know who I am referring to). Undoubtedly, these events and my commitment to social justice issues have drudged up some feelings about my own sexual assaults. And the fact remains that while violence against white women is decreasing in Canada, violence against racialized minorities is increasing. My first reaction is to eat. Eat, eat, eat. Be safe. Eat some more. Food says to body: “I gotcha, bro.”
Fitbabe has been wonderful throughout all of this and always reminds me of all the psychological baggage that comes with having a body. Bodies. As I work through my relationship with my body – and my (perceived) safety – I seek new understandings of what it means to be Indigenous, a woman, a sexualized being and as someone who cares about their health and how others perceive their body.
Sometimes thinking leads me to being an active body. I went to the gym yesterday and had such an intense and rewarding workout. Squats? Yay! Stiff-legged deadlifts? Yes please! Farmer walks? Fuck yeah! At the end of the day, I tallied my food and patted myself on the back for being so very awesome. Sticking to my goals. Being committed. I can do this. And then I sat down with a giant tub of macaroni salad and a glass of red wine and watched Grey’s Anatomy.
Crystal Fraser is a Gwich’in woman and PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on twitter: @crystalfraser