I’m a member of my local CSA. My farm share gets delivered to a church a couple of blocks from my house, which is perfect. What’s not perfect is the awkward, narrow, sharp-turning staircase down to the church basement. I’ve never liked those stairs. I like them even less right now because I’m having trouble with my knees, and those stairs try me.
Last week, I picked up my share and started back up the steps with my pretty Mexican shopping bags full of goodness.
“That’s what you need to do,” a woman said from the top of the steps. I wasn’t sure at first if she was talking to me because that comment felt like I’d entered the conversation mid-way through. I looked up at her, and she smiled.
“You need to work it,” she said. “You need to strengthen it. That’s the only way. And eat more of those vegetables.”
Yes, because that’s the thing. She is giving me health and fitness advice because she looks at my body, sees me moving slowly up the stairs and decides that she knows all there is to know about me and that she is uniquely qualified to give me advice because—clearly—I don’t know jack about taking care of myself.
“Do I know you?” I was taking one step at a time because the shopping bags were awkward, and my left knee was steady cursing my name.
“I’m just telling you what to do,” she said, nodding. “Just being helpful.”
“Let me assure you that you are, in fact, not being helpful. At all.”
She looked surprised. And peeved. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you don’t know anything about me so you shouldn’t be giving me any advice.”
She scoffed theatrically, like something out of a book. “What do I need to know? I can see you, can’t I?”
I took the last two stairs more quickly than I should have so that I could look down into her face from my superior height. “Yes, you can see me, and you think that answers all your questions and somehow means you can tell me what I should be doing with my body. Since you aren’t my doctor, or my physical therapist, or any other medical professional I know and trust, I’ll ask you to keep your suggestions to yourself. Last time I checked, eating more vegetables wasn’t the key to recovering from surgery.”
“How am I supposed to know you had surgery?” She stepped back from me … my size seemed to have her feeling a little afraid. Well, good for her.
“How, indeed?” I said, turning for the door. “All the more reason for you to keep your advice to yourself.”
This isn’t a way I normally talk to strangers. To anyone. I am usually much more accommodating. But when strangers think they have something to tell me about my body, I’ve set accommodation aside. I am not here for that. Not even a little.
Is it true that a lot of the work I’m doing with my physical therapist is strength training? Yes. Is it true that eating a lot of vegetables is generally a good thing? Yes … but I’m a vegetarian, so that’s pretty much core to the brief. Is it true that none of that matters because the point is no one should be telling strangers what’s true about their bodies or their health and what actions they should take? Yes, exactly.
I was leaving the gym one night before the first of the two surgeries I had last year. I was walking with my cane. As I came out of the locker room, a man on one of the weight machines nodded at me and said, “You keep coming here, you won’t need that anymore.”
“The only thing that will mean I don’t need this anymore,” I said, “is successful surgery. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m being supportive,” he said, his voice petulant and angry.
“No,” I said. “You’re being a jerk.”
If you look at me, there are some things you can be pretty sure of:
- I am Black
- I am tall
- I am a woman
- I am fat
- I have a cane — I may or may not be walking with it
- I have natural hair
- I’m not wearing makeup
That’s pretty much it. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately understand why I have a cane. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately know what my cholesterol levels are or my A1C or whether I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder … or anything at all other than my physical appearance. But people are always assuming they know all about my health simply because my body is large. This is annoying as fuck.
And yet, people are entirely comfortable telling me what I should be doing with my body, talking to me as if they are experts on my health. My fat body is a public possession, something that is eternally open for discussion.
Except … not. Not anymore.
I decided years ago that I was no longer willing to accept public discussion of my body. That doesn’t keep people from opening their mouths. They’ve always been allowed to talk to fat folks however they choose, so they step right up with whatever nonsense they have to say. What my decision means is that I shut them down with some quickness.
In Hunger Roxane Gay talks about people taking items out of her grocery cart and commenting on the food she’s buying or food she’s in the act of eating. This infuriated me. Who, exactly, do people think they are? I wish someone would try to take something out of my grocery cart. Are you kidding? Are you kidding?
In case there is any question, let me be clear: my fat body is no one’s fucking business but my own. If it troubles you to see someone so fat, just take silent comfort in the fact that my body isn’t your body. If you used to be fat and went on some diet that saved your life, that’s amazing and fab … for you. Keep all information about that miracle diet to yourself because you’ll notice that I haven’t asked to hear it. If you’re a medical professional who specializes in weight management, just remember that you’re not my medical professional, and remain silent.
You want to offer me advice, to share whatever thing it is you think you know that will be magical and life-changing for me, that bit of wisdom that will solve the problem of my fat.
Yeah, okay. That intense concern you’re feeling for me? Bite your tongue on it. Save it for someone who’s seeking it out, who will be made better by it, who will feel cared for because of it. That person isn’t here. I am not she.
The shorthand version of everything I’ve said here? You don’t know me … so shut the fuck up. Punto.
One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m a full six months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to keep going, to try my best to write 52 essays by year’s end.