My body, as should surprise no one, is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me.¹ I am visible. And visibly fat. And people struggle with that, with being forced to see me.
I encounter these people everywhere. Their faces usually give them away, but quite often I don’t need to see their faces because they are entirely comfortable saying all the things they are thinking. The woman in Macy’s who looked at me with horror and said, “I wouldn’t even leave my house if I were big as you.” The woman walking down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn who pointed at me and said, “She’s big as a house! So disgusting!” The man who violently drew himself away when I sat beside him on the subway and then flung himself out of his seat, calling out loudly–calling for agreement from an apathetic car of morning A-train commuters: “I shouldn’t have to sit next to that! Shouldn’t even have to see that.”
You get the idea.
Whenever I tell stories about the things strangers say to me, people respond with amazement that anyone would talk to me in whatever way I’m describing. I have stopped being surprised. People really just don’t hesitate to say whatever they want to say. That freedom comes from three specific places. 1) The popular view that fat bodies are public spaces and, therefore, fair game for commentary. 2) The understanding that it is always okay to shame fat people, that other people will condone it, maybe even join in. 3) Fear. Fatphobia is a powerful force. A fat body is abandon, lack of control, a turning away from order. And that’s scary. There’s safety in conformity. The fear is also about contagion. Fat bodies are so reviled, the sight of one spurs a vehement there-but-for-the-grace-of-God response and a recoiling, an irrational belief that the horror could spread and infect others. “What if I were that fat?” (Imagine Psycho shower-scene sound effects in the background.)
I signed my nerdy self up for summer school one year to retake a math course because I wanted a better score on my Regents exam. This was the summer before senior year. I was 16, decades too young to have developed and settled into being the Bad Fatty I am today. I was as horrified and ashamed of my fat body as society would wish me to be.
One afternoon as I left class, I was walking down a long hallway when I heard boys behind me mocking me. There were two of them, young, maybe 7th or 8th graders. They were chanting, almost singing at me: “Tubbalard, tubbalard, tubbalard …” The full length of that impossibly long hallway until the freedom of exiting the building and disappearing into my dad’s car.
It was a while before I realized that what they were trying to call me was a tub of lard, a bucket of pig fat. I honestly don’t think they knew they were saying tub of lard. They just knew fat people were called tubbalards, and I was nothing if not a fat person, and so.
That was the first times I can remember being called out because of my body. Summer school was on unfamiliar turf, a school that wasn’t mine, full of kids from three different districts. I wasn’t a person to anyone there, not a friend from homeroom or a favorite lab partner or a stand-mate from band. I was Fat Girl. And fat people were for mocking.
I wonder now if what I felt that day planted the seed that would eventually become my efforts to hide my body from public view, draping it in loose, dark fabric to make it disappear.
At the time, I did what I always did when I was attacked: I comforted myself with my intellectual superiority. I’m not kidding. Being educated and smart had been the protective mantle I’d wrapped around myself since kindergarten. I was that kid, that snobby, brainy kid. I didn’t show that side of myself often, but it had an active role in my thoughts. I listened to the way those boys talked, to the clear indication that they didn’t understand the insult they were hurling at me, and I dismissed them as dumb.
That didn’t keep the experience from being painful. Hardly. But it was a way of distancing myself, pulling myself out of the moment.
I’m not that girl anymore. When people say awful things to me about my body, I sometimes choose to ignore them because I haven’t the time or energy to be bothered. More often I slap them back because I have the time and energy, and they need to know.
A couple of years ago, I encountered a man who felt compelled to tell me I shouldn’t be wearing my knee-length dress because my legs were too big.
“Big-legged women in short dresses,” he said. “You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”
I feigned surprised dismay for a second then smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me,” I said. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them. You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”
People who are horrified at the sight of me act as though I expand to fill their entire field of vision, as though I become the only thing it is possible to see once they’ve clapped eyes on me. And–while this would be a weird and potentially excellent super power–it isn’t reality.
These people know they can look elsewhere, know that I’m not spreading a dread obesity virus. They call me out because they can, because it is entirely safe to aim their darts at me. Fat hate hasn’t ever come close to going out of fashion, and now that THOTUS² has made many other hates acceptable again, fat hate will remain available to all.
I wonder if people realize how much of themselves they reveal when they give voice to their ugliness. When they come for me, their comments expose their fears and vulnerabilities. I’ve written about this before, about how the things people say to me are pretty much always about them, that I am just the convenient target at which they can aim their insecurity and self-loathing.
That woman who said I was disgusting and big as a house? Obviously feeling disgusted with herself because she has been made to feel that she’s taking up too much space or getting above herself, too big for her britches. The woman who said she wouldn’t leave the house if she was as big as I am? Clearly feeling over-exposed in some aspect of her life, wanting to hide herself from the spotlight. Those boys in the hall at summer school? Probably feeling crappy, feeling like sacks of shit because they were stuck trying to unfail classes while their friends were enjoying the summer–playing ball, going camping, lazing by someone’s backyard pool.
This isn’t me doing some “I’m rubber, you’re glue” back flip. I mean sure, it is … but it’s also real. We lash out at other folks when we’re upset about our own shit. Make that other person question themselves or feel bad about themselves in the hope that it will distract from the ways we’re questioning or feeling bad about ourselves.
My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. And whatever anger or fear they’ve been wrestling with gets stirred up with their fat hate and fired at me.
Knowing that doesn’t make mean comments easier to hear, doesn’t excuse anyone’s rudeness or fat prejudice. Haters still need to be read, slapped right the fuck down. And I’m usually here for that. But let’s be clear: dealing out clapbacks is work. I’m pretty good at it, but only because I’ve had so many years of practice. So. many. years. Summer school me didn’t have any snappy retorts. She had to focus on not crying, not giving those boys additional ammunition.
My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. But–as I’ve said before–my body is mine, my business, not anyone else’s. I am a fully unrepentant Bad Fatty: ready, willing, and able to get in folks’ faces and hold up a mirror to their bullshit.
Yes. All comers beware. The Fat is strong in this one. Folks need to watch out for how much of their tender underbellies they expose to me.
¹ The truth of my body’s visibility stands, even in the face of the contradictory truth of my body’s invisibility. I walk in the street, and people walk right into me. They stutter back in shock, saying, “Oh! I didn’t see you!” their voices childlike in wonder and amazement.
How is it possible that I am so un-see-able when I am, most assuredly, corporeal? I have mass. I fill space. The folks who run into me certainly feel the solidity of me, even though they have managed not to see me.
I am the triple-whammy of invisibility: Black, fat, disabled. We are trained not to see such aberrations. And when they come lumped together in one person … instant invisibility.
But let’s turn aside from those can’t-see-me folks. They will need their own separate essay. My lens is trained on the see-me-but-wish-they-didn’t folks.
² THOTUS is that man, 45, the Titular Head of These United States–I say his name only when there isn’t another option, and I never attach it to the title he has usurped. 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 months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.