Fat Talk: I Eat, Therefore I Am

Years ago, when The Morphine Man* was breaking up with me for the final time (such an unpretty story), he cycled back around to his most significant issue with me, one he’d hauled out in each of our crash-and-burn moments when he wanted to end a conversation and send me packing in one fell swoop: my body. In his last goodbye letter, he told me about a woman he’d met who had confronted him about his smoking, asking him: “But don’t you want to live?” He said he’d never thought of smoking in such stark terms, and her question drove him to quit because yes, he definitely wanted to live.

And so, his question to me as he signed himself out of my life was the same: didn’t I want to live? Seeing me after so many years had broken his heart, apparently, because not only was I still fat, I was fatter. He’d once told me that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman—despite the evidence to the contrary in the form of his unflaggingly ardent pursuit of me. But more than how much he couldn’t possibly be attracted to me because of my body, reconnecting with me had made him understand the true, shattering problem: that I have a death wish.

A death wish. Really.

When he wrote that letter, I had pissed him off well and truly, and he needed me to go away. And the version of me that he’d dated in our first go-rounds would have collapsed in shame and pain at the merest mention of her body, would have slunk away to weep and moan in private, would have stopped speaking. That’s what he wanted and had come to expect from me, so the turn to blaming my fat wasn’t a surprise. If we were going down in flames, there was no question but that my oversized self would be heaved up on the pyre.

Sometimes, I live to disappoint. And in this case, I surprised him by not crumbling and slinking away. In the years between our first failed relationship and final, equally-doomed one, I had changed. I had changed enough that – when I chose to – I was able to talk openly and reasonably-comfortably about my body, about being fat. I had changed so much that I no longer accepted as an “of course” the idea that my body was to blame for any and every ill that befell me.

I clearly hadn’t changed enough to know better than to get involved with that man again, but I knew enough to know that I—and by “I” I mean all of me, all of my body, every bit of my big, fat self—was perfectly fine, entirely loveable, entirely life-embracing. A death wish? Not this girl.

The Morphine Man isn’t alone in thinking fat people are eating themselves to death. Of course not. That’s basically the popular conception of fatness. Fat equals death. Punto.

Except … not.

Here’s a thing we should establish up front: food isn’t the same as cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. Not in any way the same. The woman who turned The Morphine Man’s head was puzzled by his insistence on inhaling poison. On purpose. Over and over again. The choice to smoke is that, a choice. While there is choice involved in eating, eating itself isn’t a choice. I have to eat. I have no choice but to eat if I want to keep living. I get to choose what I eat, of course. And, if my idea of dinner is a vat of Cool Whip, three pints of ice cream and a shopping cart’s-worth of pork rinds, then maybe I need to consider adding some fruits and vegetables to my grocery list, some legumes, a handful of cashews.

Another ex, the one I call “Z,” wondered how I could be fat when I ate the way I did. “I cannot understand how this comes true, how you have developed this size,” he said after we’d been together for a while (Z’s first language isn’t English, so we grant him his funky constructions). It was very simple, I explained to him. “I didn’t always eat the way I do now.”

And that was true. And isn’t it always true for everyone? What we want changes. And so the things I choose to eat change over time all the time. I used to eat meat and lots of it. Then I became a vegetarian. Now I’m an occasional carnivore who’ll probably go back to being a vegetarian. I used to enjoy crappy candy. Now I choose higher-end treats made with better ingredients and fewer chemicals. I used to eat only a narrow range of vegetables, now I eat just about any vegetable that comes my way. The only thing that hasn’t changed in my eating habits is my love and probably-excessive consumption of fruit. I like to think this is evidence of my having been a butterfly in a previous incarnation.

Unlike smoking, drinking, or taking drugs, eating is a thing humans must do … unless they actually do have a death wish. Are there fat people who harbor death wishes? I’m sure there must be. Just as there must be slender and skinny people who hold those same wishes. Where do we lay the blame in the case of a thin person, I wonder. Not on their hideously-outsized bodies, so where?

So, what The Morphine Man called “a zen-clear question”—Don’t you want to live?—works for smoking, works for meth addiction, works for alcoholism. It doesn’t at all work for eating. People who want to live, eat.

Of course, that’s not really what The Morphine Man was asking me, I know. My fat meant something was wrong with me, meant I was unhealthy. The fact that I was fatter than I’d been when he and I had last been together meant things were out of control, meant I was eating myself to death. That, too, is a pretty common perception of fat. If everything were fine with me, why on earth would I be fat? If I were the picture of health, I would—obviously—be as svelte and fit as an Olympic athlete. Like everyone else in the world. Like The Morphine Man himself, right? Except The Morphine Man, though thinner than I am, had never been “svelte” in all the time I’d known him.

If The Morphine Man hadn’t been throwing my body at me in an effort to drive me away, I would have talked to him about some of the things that are true about why I am fat and what being fat has meant and means for me. I don’t know that he could ever have processed the idea that, rather than eating myself to death, I had eaten myself to a sense of relative safety. He wouldn’t have understood that, but he might have had a better understanding of me, of the things I’ve dealt with.

As for his insistence that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman, that was surely true … for all that it was also quite obviously completely false. While I never had any doubt that he was physically attracted to me, I was certain I was the first fat woman he’d ever dated, maybe the first fat woman he’d ever wanted sexually. It had to be both puzzling and troubling for him to find that he could be attracted to me, could want to have sex with me. Men aren’t supposed to want to be with me. With the exception of my hourglass shape, I most emphatically don’t fit conventional beauty standards for female bodies. For him to pursue me while at the same time knowing that he could never be attracted to a fat woman must have created some painful cognitive dissonance for him.

I keep thinking of that question: Don’t I want to live? Well, yes, I absolutely want to live. But—of course there is a “but”—I want to live on my terms. I want to live in a way that will let me live fully, comfortably, and confidently. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Isn’t that what we should all want? It shouldn’t be surprising, and it also shouldn’t have to have anything to do with the size of my body or the food I eat.

Because I have for so many years had a disordered relationship with my body and with food, living fully and comfortably does have to do with my body, does have to do with what I eat. Living comfortably means I need to change that relationship, need to continue the self-love journey I started years ago. And that means I need to care deeply for this body I have—care for myself. And that’s something I know how to do and something I continue to learn and relearn how to do. This self-care is pretty basic: I need to feed myself what I’m hungry for when I’m hungry for it, keep myself hydrated and well-rested, move for strength and flexibility, take myself out into nature so I can feel sunshine and summer breezes on my skin and sand between my toes, surround myself with people who love and respect me, laugh loud and long, and take lovers who want me—not some idea they have of the person they should be with but me in all my me-ness.

It’s possible that, should I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, the size and shape of my body will change. But it may not. If I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, what is sure is that I will be healthier and happier, stronger and more deft in my movements. And that will be fabulous. I’m looking forward to that.

I eat, therefore I am. And I have every intention of keeping it that way.

_______________
* I don’t generally use folks’ real names, and I haven’t come up with a good fake name for him, so I use this nickname because it pleases me, and he is the person who introduced me to the amazing band, Morphine.


Part of a series about my body, originally inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
If you haven’t read the ground rules, please take a look before commenting.
You can find all of the Fat Talk essays under the Fat Talk tab. 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 do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Fat Talk: Fat-Shaming and My Secret Decoder Ring

So, with the fat shaming. I am over it. I’ve been over it. So over it that I’d think my over-it-ness would be glowing off me like a radioactive cloud. Trouble is, the assholes who have what to say about my body can’t actually see me. They just see FAT WOMAN. I am a faceless, ageless, blob, existing only to poison their fields of vision and offer myself up for their instruction, ridicule, scorn. Yes, sure. But really: I’m not the one.

Man behind me at the bagel place this morning sucks his teeth when I order a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese, says; “And you wonder why you don’t lose weight.”

I turn to give him some heavy side eye (pun entirely intended), say: “Actually, I’m wondering if I’d also like jelly. And of course I’m wondering how it is you think what I eat is any business of yours.”

He screws up his face, asks, “You ever look in the mirror?”

If he only knew! My vanity and I spend more than enough time gazing dreamily into looking glasses. But here is the thing. His answer — asking if I ever look in the mirror — is straight-up stupid. Because here’s the other thing. A fat body is only his business if it’s his body. Punto. And then here’s the last thing. I’ve been clear just how few fucks I give about his opinion, and yet he keeps it going. What could be his problem?

I smile at him — as if he could ever deserve one of my smiles — and tell him the mirror and I have been in a long-term, committed relationship for many years. Surprisingly, he isn’t amused.

“You big black women,” he says, “you always have too much attitude.”

“And it really hurts your feelings, doesn’t it?”

“Nothing about you is worth my time.”

I laugh. “And yet, you’re wasting all this time thinking and talking and worrying about what’s going on with me. Interesting.”

He pulls out his phone, suddenly very interested in the facebook. Right.

I’ve written about foolish, fat-phobic people like this before, people who think they have the right to comment on my body simply because I have the audacity to have my body. In public. Where anyone can see it.

Sigh.

I sound cocky and comfortable in that exchange, but that’s not entirely the case. Yes, I am good with comebacks. I have so many years of practice, I’d better be good. But the bagel place is crammed with people, some of whom I see on a regular basis. It’s never my idea of a good time to be fat-shamed, and certainly not in front of a crowd. I receive no support or warm smiles or acknowledgment of any kind from the people around me — because of course — so I step up and shut this fool down all by myself. Because I am grown and I know how to do that shit. Because there’s no authority I am bound to obey that says I have to take anyone’s crap any day of the week. Still, the whole business leaves me pissed off and uncomfortable. Leaves me playing the moments over and over in my head. The ugliness has been silenced, but its sting and stench linger.

*

I’ve also said in the past that, whenever someone comments on my body, I know they are really talking about themselves. It’s really just always true. Always and always and always. It’s hard to see sometimes, so you have to look carefully. It helps if you have a Fat Shame Decoder Ring. I’ve got one. It’s lovely, forged in the fires of Mount Doom and everything. One ring to read them all.

the-one-ring-3d-model-max

And so, I’ll decode this man’s comments. His snarky, “And you wonder why you don’t lose weight,” is clearly directed at himself, wondering why he hasn’t been able to achieve some goal he thinks he’s supposed to want. And when he looks in the mirror, he’s reminded of that perceived failure, of just how much he hasn’t achieved. It would be sad if he weren’t so annoying, so ready to scrape some of his self-hate off and try smearing it on my beautiful brown skin.

His next comment is definitely for me. I do have far too much attitude. Far too much. Much more than I am supposed to have given how society sees me. I should be humble, should be trying to hide myself, should be well and truly ashamed that other people are forced to see the grotesquerie that is me. Instead, I walk around like a person who deserves life, who deserves a bagel and a schmear. My audacity really gets on his nerves. After all, if he knows how deeply he has failed at whatever task he’s set himself, how can I — so clearly failing to meet society’s standard of female beauty — have the nerve to mind my own damn business standing in the bagel shop? How can I dare to order breakfast in the sight of hardworking assholes like him, people who are really out here trying?

His last comment is a toss-up. It’s meant for both of us. He wants me to know he’s not actually focused on me — because of course — but he’s also breaking my heart just a little bit by telling me that nothing about himself is worth his time.

That’s a sad declaration to make about one’s self, so yes, breaking my heart … but only the tiniest of bits. Because, as unfortunate as it may be that this man doesn’t find himself worth his own time, his insecurity and self-loathing don’t make his behavior toward me any more acceptable. It’s always true that the things people say to me reveal the things they fear or despise in themselves. I’m still left with the public shaming, with that effluvium drying on my skin and stuck in my hair.

The decoder ring only works after the fact, long after the ugliness has passed. Because it’s for me, not for whoever’s words I’m decoding. No matter how well or poorly I handle the unpleasant moment, I need to handle it on my own. Telling whichever awful person is in my face that they’re really talking about themselves will serve no helpful purpose. So I say whatever I say, hold whatever silence I choose, keep my head up. But then I carry that bitterness around with me, even after I think I’ve moved on. It keeps creeping back in.

That’s when I need to slip on the decoder ring and remind myself what was really going on so I can remember that I am exactly the same as I was before encountering that stranger and their mess — just as tall, just as black, just as fat, just as fine, and that nothing they’ve had to say changes any of that.

I’m glad to have the ring in my jewelry box, though I think sometimes it would be preferable to move through the world in a sound-proof booth.


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.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Fat Talk: Rubber, Glue, and Things that Can’t Be Unseen

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 time 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” backflip. 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 oThese 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.