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 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 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.

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Fat Talk: You Don’t Know Me

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.”

Oh, right.

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:

  1. I am Black
  2. I am tall
  3. I am a woman
  4. I am fat
  5. I have a cane — I may or may not be walking with it
  6. I have natural hair
  7. 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.

Fat Talk: Giving Over My Body

I’ve been having  lot of physical therapy the last few years. I’ve had a handful of knee surgeries, and now some new knee business and a rotator cuff injury, so PT comes with the territory. A few weeks ago, as Yu-Lan was manipulating my shoulder, I had a little epiphany: I don’t trust people with my body. I don’t relax in other people’s hands.

Yu-Lan needed my arm limp so she could move my shoulder the ways she needed to. I couldn’t relax it. I kept thinking I had relaxed it, and then she’d shake her head and my arm and say, “Let it go.” This went on for a while.

My past PT experiences have been similar. First Daniel, then Mark, tried really hard to get me to relax so they could do their work. I’ve been working with Jeremy for my shoulder–was seeing Yu-Lan because Jeremy was sick that day–and have had the same story play out with him.

With Daniel, I chalked up my tension to the fact that Daniel is beautiful. He looks like Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers. Really. To have this unreasonably-pretty young man put his hands on me was both pleasant and alarming. But–with no intention to throw shade–that wasn’t the issue with Mark. And, as cute as Jeremy is, he’s not the kind of cute I go for, so I definitely can’t blame my libido.

*

I’m middle-aged. I got fat at 15. I’ve spent pretty much my whole life paying very close attention to my body. I’ve learned to be hyper-aware of how much space I’m taking up at any given time, and of how I’m taking that space. I’ve learned to be aware of how my body exists in relationship to other people’s bodies, to other people’s thoughts and feelings about my body.

I’ve spent years choosing to stand so as not to force other passengers on the train or bus to accommodate my size. When I have chosen to sit, I’ve used the things I’ve learned about how to angle my body so that it fills less space, even though all of those tricks leave me uncomfortable.

But all of that, all of those ways of focusing on my body, are different. What I realized with Yu-Lan is something other. Not trusting people to handle my body with care points past the body-awareness I’ve had to develop as a fat person. Points, instead, to the root catalyst of my fat. I don’t trust people with my body because people haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy when it comes to my body.

It’s not a particularly surprising point, of course. Surely the fact that I’ve been writing so much about my body lately is why working with Yu-Lan illuminated this point for me. But what does it mean? What has it meant over time in my life?

It’s little things: Removing myself from any professional development or team-building activity that would or could possibly include trust falls or other intense physical contact with co-workers. Refusing a hand up when climbing walls or trees, when mounting horses, preferring to risk myself by managing on my own rather than risk myself by relying on someone else’s ability to make me safe.

It’s little things: I am a lousy partner dancer, incapable of letting a man lead. I’ve had one male partner who  was able to lead me without me fighting against his gentle guide. One. Every other time I’ve tried partner dancing, it has ended badly. I literally resist my partner’s movements, move in opposition to him as if we are adversaries. It’s never been confrontational, but it sure as hell has made for awkward, clashing dance. I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that I am a crap dancer–because I am a crap dancer–but I think there’s more to it than that. When I dance alone, I’m a far less crappy dancer. When I took belly dance classes, for example, I was totally dance dyslexic–always moving in the exact opposite direction from the one the instructor indicated–but the moves were fluid, came naturally out of my muscles without resistance.

It’s not-so-little-but-entirely-obvious things: Struggling with medical exams, fighting against doctors’ requests for access to my body the way I fight a partner’s dance moves. Struggling to fully relax in the arms of a lover, in bed with a lover. Struggling to trust that person not to morph into someone else, someone untrustworthy, someone dangerous, having my mind play the mean trick of showing my lover change faces as he lies beside me in bed, turning into a stranger, into a demon, into the devil.

*

I’m wondering about the fact that I am extremely ticklish … which makes me think about cats. And Elmo. (Yes, of course. Elmo.) But first cats.

Cats have this thing where they use their purring as protection. When they are stressed or nervous or frightened, some cats will purr to appease, to signal the need for help. Purring appeals to us, makes the cat seem kinder, sweeter, makes us–if we aren’t monsters–less likely to harm the cat. If the cat is afraid of you and purring inspires you to pet the cat, to show it kindness and offer it food or care, that fear response is helpful, protective.

And this is why I’m thinking about my ticklishness and Elmo. I thought Tickle Me Elmo was incredibly annoying, but also creepily manic. That crazed, fake, flinching laughter was a lot like my own response to being tickled, something I’m only seeing now, and I wonder if that was another reason I loathed that toy.

When we are tickled, we are at the mercy of the person tickling us. We are in their hands, literally. And the places where they touch us, where we are sensitive to tickling, aren’t the places casual acquaintances would normally touch us: our waists, the backs of our knees, under our chins, the bottoms of our feet, our stomachs. People who tickle others force an intimacy that may or may not be welcome, desired.

Is then, the response to tickling–manic laughter–like the cat’s purr? Is my hysterical laugh my fear response masked as cuteness? My way of inspiring the person touching me to treat me kindly?

*

I have one strong memory of giving myself over to strangers’ hands, of going completely limp and letting other people manage my body.

Years ago, my sister and I went to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert at the old Felt Forum. Fox, my sister, and I went to a lot of concerts back then. We were good at getting right up in front of the stage. But Fox never stayed at the front. There would always be a moment when she’d look at me and say she was headed to the back of the venue. I, stubbornly, refused to go with her–we were right at the front!–so we’d pick a spot to meet after the show, and she’d disappear through the crowd.

The Echo and the Bunnymen show was no different. She told me it was time for her to go, we picked our meetup spot, and she left. Almost immediately, the crowd turned violent–because that’s Fox’s spidey-sense super power: she knows when a crowd is about to turn. People were pushing and elbowing and punching to get those of us in front out of their way. I was knocked to the ground and the people around me began kicking me. I couldn’t get myself up, and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

From nowhere, a stranger was cradling my head and then pulling me up, some man I didn’t know. He got me on my feet and kept his arm around me, asked me what I wanted to do. He said I could stay, and he’d keep me beside him, keep me safe, or he could get me out. I didn’t see how he could manage it, but I opted for getting out.

He said I’d have to go hand over hand up to the front barricade and then out. That didn’t make any sense, but I said okay, and somehow he lifted me and lay me across the top of the crowd and the crowd passed me–hand over hand–up to the security staff at the barricade and they pulled me down and helped me get out.

That whole passing-hand-over-hand part? I was rag-doll limp. I didn’t assist in my rescue even enough to lift my feet so that my big, combat-booted feet didn’t smack folks in the head as I was passed forward.

Never mind the fact that I still believe that man didn’t actually exist, that he was my guardian angel in corporeal form intervening because it wasn’t my time yet. I certainly never saw him after the show. And there’s no way he should have been able to lift me as easily as he did and settle me on top of the crowd. There’s no way the crowd–which seconds earlier had been kicking the life out of me–should have come together to pass me up to the security guards. Clearly Divine intervention.

But never mind all of that. How was I able to be so handle-able? How did I manage to go fully limp at a moment when I knew I was at the mercy of dangerous strangers?

*

In my PT visit after working with Yu-Lan,, Jeremy needed me to trust him. He needed to test the movement of my pelvis, hips, and knees. To do that, I had to be limp, had to let him take my leg in his arms and bend and twist and swing and pull it in many different ways. I had to lie limp while he pressed down on my pelvis and into the space where my thighs meet my torso. Some of these movements are awkwardly intimate, but Jeremy is wonderfully professional. While being gentle and sure-handed, he basically manipulates my body as if I were a large mound of bread dough–no danger of mistaking the intent of his touches.

I kept freezing up. Seizing up. Tried several times to pull away from him. He was worried that he was hurting me, but I assured him he wasn’t.

“So quit fighting me,” he said, laughing.

Yeah. Would that it could be so simple.


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.


 

Fat Talk: The Cage, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I said that I’m pretty comfortable with myself, and that’s mostly true. That comfort didn’t happen magically, and it certainly didn’t happen because I’m regularly met with loud and enthusiastic praise for being fat. As if.

And yet, I am pretty comfortable with myself, and I know that that’s both generally unexpected and, in many folks’ opinions, extremely unacceptable. After reading that first essay, a friend said she isn’t used to seeing fat narratives that aren’t about getting thin, that don’t have body transformation at the root. Body transformation is most definitely not my goal, and I know how alien that is for many people who might read these essays. But there it is. Good to establish that right up front.

***

My comfort with myself is relatively new. I certainly wasn’t comfortable being fat when I was younger. The terrible romper I had to wear in high school gym class could have created that discomfort all by itself.¹ So would the mandatory gymnastics routines we had to perform each year to pass gym: choreographed, in teams, in skimpy costumes … and in which I was always the largest, least-gainly, and least able to fit the costume member.

My ease with myself began to develop when I stopped dieting, when I decided that I would never again subject myself to the cruel, predictable roller coaster of dieting.

From fifteen to thirty-eight, I was a dieter. Even when I wasn’t actively dieting, I was a dieter. I lost so much weight on diets. Once, I lost enough weight that a man who had never been interested in me romantically or sexually was inspired to make a violent pass at me. Score! Once, I lost enough weight that a man was kind enough to let me know I’d reached the outer rim of “acceptable,” of fat women who weren’t so fat that he wouldn’t fuck them once. Just once, mind you. Talk about a bonus!

Seriously, though, I did lose a lot of weight on diets. Over and over and over. In that way, I was an excellent dieter, always able to lose, and lose, and lose.

But there’s this thing that happens when I diet. I get smaller. Every time. It’s a problem.

When I lose weight, I get more — and more aggressive — street harassment. When I lose weight, people — friends and strangers — comment on my body. When I lose weight, the fear of weakness resurfaces. Thinness equals vulnerability. Still.

And all of this is why I said it feels safer in the cage than out of it.

Years ago, after I gave up dieting, when I was working on developing a healthier relationship to food, a relationship that didn’t (always) involve eating my feelings, I did a visualization exercise. The idea was to imagine myself in my regular day to day, but to imagine myself thin. This is a pretty easy exercise on its face. I won’t speak for other fat people, but I used to spend a lot of time imagining myself thin.

For the second part of the exercise, I was to pay attention to any feelings that came up as thin me was doing my job and running my errands.

Oh. Well, that was different. I immediately noticed how uncomfortable I felt, nervous, on display, hunted. Hunted? Yes, like I had morphed into prey.

I stopped the exercise. That was the first time I’d articulated equating thinness with being unsafe, being unable to protect myself, the first time I drew the connecting line between being molested and getting fat.

I didn’t know what to do with that, with the fact that the thing I was supposed to want above all things — thinness — was also the thing I perceived as putting me at risk. And it wasn’t just my perception. Men had shown me each time I lost weight — and I never had to lose very much weight for them to make this clear — that they couldn’t be trusted, that I couldn’t feel safe with them.

I’ve done that exercise a number of times since that first, revealing, time. The idea of thinness still calls up weakness and vulnerability, though not as strongly as happened that first time. Which is probably progress.

I know, without repeating that exercise, that I still have work to do here. When I lose weight now, I’m fine with the loss … until someone calls it out, until I’m forced to buy clothes at a smaller size. When that happens, all I want is to start eating, to go back into binge mode to cover myself again, hide myself back behind a newly-fortified wall. And that’s always what I do. I can lose weight fairly easily. Overcoming my fear of being smaller is another thing all together.

***

I don’t think of my body as a cage. My size does make some things true for me that aren’t true for thin people. And my size makes me behave in ways thin people have likely never had to imagine behaving. But this is my body. It’s not a cage. It’s me.

Yes, there is the idea of my body as a protective wall between me and anyone who might harm me. But I also understand the false security of believing in that wall. Both the attempted rape and the rape happened to fat me, not slender me. Rapists and abusers don’t care what your body looks like. Their violence has nothing to do with societal beauty norms.

But if I know that, if I know my body isn’t safety, why maintain this size? If I don’t think of my body as a cage, why did I describe myself as trapped?

Yeah.

What I know for sure is that I won’t diet again. Ever. The mind required for dieting is damaging to me, feeds doubt and self-hate. I am currently in a fight with my cardiologist who wants to enroll me in a managed, monitored weight loss program. Guess again. The wonky heartbeat that mysteriously developed last summer has been fixed, and while going on a diet might fulfill his fantasy that I will begin to look like my mother — something he calls out as a goal for me every time we meet — dieting will do nothing for me but mess up my head, slam truck-sized holes into all the progress I’ve made toward liking and trusting myself. I am not interested.

Giving up dieting sounds like abandon, sounds wanton, almost criminal. As a fat person, I am supposed to crave thinness, supposed to want and need to lose weight. Really, even if you’ve never had this thought about me or said some of these words to me, trust me: plenty of other folks have. Plenty.

But I’ve turned away from the path our fatphobic society thinks I should guide myself down. I have become a Bad Fatty.

***

Which means that I remain fat, yes. And it also means I am somewhat belligerently so. I don’t have patience for people’s fat-shaming and fat phobia — good God, don’t I wish that had been true from the beginning of my fatness! Once, before I became a vegetarian, I was ordering a sandwich at a deli. The person taking my order disapproved when I added bacon. She paused before noting what I’d asked for, sighed, looked at me, and asked, “Are you sure you want that?” Because heaven forbid I should have bacon on my turkey sandwich. Imagine the eventual destruction-of-the-world should I have bacon on my turkey sandwich. I looked at her, surprised. “You’re so right,” I said, smiling. “I meant to say double bacon! Thanks for catching that!”

I don’t have time for people’s mess. This is my body. Mine. All mine. And if folks don’t like looking at it, they can look elsewhere. And if folks want to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, I am happy to tell them that, since they aren’t paying for my food, since I didn’t take my food off their plate, they are welcome to shut the fuck up. I will feed myself what I want when I want it. I will dress myself how I like when I choose. I will have the audacity to take up all the space I take up.

When I lose weight now, it’s a sign that I’m feeling myself – feeling stronger, feeling safer. It means I’m trusting myself, committing to my creative self. It means I’m living more mindfully. And I’m glad for all of those things. And sad when I feel the fear creep in, when I start to gain back whatever I’ve lost.

***

I am comfortable with myself.

I am comfortable with myself, and there is still work to do. I still don’t believe the world is safe for me to be smaller. I still don’t want to invite the added attention that comes when I’m smaller.

So yes, work to do. Not so that I can lose weight and keep it off, but because living in fear isn’t a way I want to live, because overcoming those fears will move me — finally — past the object those men and that boy wanted to make of me, the object other men have tried to make of me.  Overcoming those fears will leave me stronger, more whole, more myself.

__________

¹ Have you read Eleanor and Park? That’s exactly the romper I wore throughout high school. I mean, Oh. My. God. For real.  (Also? Just read that book because it’s good.)



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.

Fat Talk: The Cage, Part I

One of the first things that struck me in Hunger was Gay’s statement that her body is a cage of her own making. The truth of that resonated for me, even though I have never thought of my body as a cage. Like Gay, I made myself fat as a form of protection and a way to become invisible. I wasn’t as aware as she was of what I was doing, not in the beginning, but even after I became aware, I kept right on building the wall of my body. And now that I have come to a place where I no longer think I need the wall, the wall remains. There is more, of course, to tearing down a protective shield than just deciding I might be fine without it.

Why does it still feel safer in the cage than out of it?

***

I wasn’t fat when I was fourteen. I was fat when I was fifteen. A couple of years ago, a friend from high school sent me scanned snapshots of 9th-grader me performing in our school musical. The shock of seeing those photos was of seeing how completely not at all fat I was. I have no memory of looking the way I look in those pictures. I thought I was fat then. I thought I’d always been fat.

That’s a thing I say, that I’ve always been fat. Even though I know it’s not true. I see myself in childhood photos, and I’m not fat. A picture of myself as a 12-year-old at summer camp shows me as a leggy, curvy adolescent, not as a fat person. The pictures of me belting out my big number in that musical show me as a not-in-any-way fat teenager.

And then I’m fifteen, and I’m fat. Not as fat as I’d eventually get, but definitely fat. So clearly, fourteen years old is ground zero. The reason for building the wall of flesh I live in.

It’s easy to point to some clear catalysts for building the wall. No, I was never brutalized the way Roxane Gay was. I can’t imagine finding a way to survive, to hold on to any part of myself after such an ordeal. I was raped in my 20s, but I still can’t imagine Gay’s experience and the strength she had to marshal to survive.

But when I was fourteen, I became visible to boys and men. Or, more exactly, I became more visible and more easily available to boys and men.

I’d been visible to men for years. I was eight the first time a man exposed himself to me, nine the first time a boy tried to touch me in a sexual way, the first time I was shown porn in an attempt to arouse me. I was twelve the first time I kissed a boy, the first time there were boys who wanted to kiss me who I also wanted to kiss, thirteen the first time an adult man propositioned me.

That was likely the beginning of seeing my body as a problem, of associating my body with the dangers presented by men. That man was a counselor at the summer camp I’d attended from seven to twelve years old. He’d known me since I was nine, and yet he had no qualms asking if I was a prostitute, if I was interested in money for favors.

I didn’t understand what he was asking me, but I understood how uncomfortable he made me, how uncomfortable I felt under the look he gave me. I understood that it wasn’t okay, that he shouldn’t have been asking, that no one was supposed to look at me the way he did, certainly not someone I thought of as a teacher, someone who was a grown-up, like my father. In truth, the man was probably in his early 20s, but I was thirteen. Whatever his age, he shouldn’t have been asking me about selling sex.

So, even before I was fourteen, men had become a problem, my body had become a problem.

I was thirteen the first time my mother put me on a diet. She signed me up for Weight Watchers. It was my first summer home, not at camp. All of the other people in the group were women, were my mother’s age and older. And there I was: thirteen, confused … and not at all fat.

I wasn’t aware of not being fat. There was clearly something wrong with my body or I wouldn’t have been having so many problems, wouldn’t have met with my mother’s displeasure. So I accepted that I was fat.

I’ve come to realize that, rather than fat, what I was was terrifying: I was grown-looking. I suddenly had a woman’s body — breasts and hips — and I think the reality of that scared the crap out of my mother. I think she hoped that, if I lost weight, I wouldn’t look so womanly. My friends were all small, skinny girls. Maybe she thought she could whittle me down to look more like them.

She had worked hard to keep my body under wraps, dressing me like a toddler until I was eleven or twelve, then transitioning me from a child’s clothes to a matron’s. Looking through family photos at the change in my appearance is interesting. There I am at ten in a sundress so short it reveals the matching bloomers I’m wearing underneath. There I am at eleven in a short babydoll dress and patent leather Mary Janes, an outfit that would be more appropriate on a five or six year old. There I am at twelve in short-shorts and a tie-dyed midriff top — surely the outfit that solidified my mother’s fear. There I am at thirteen on summer vacation in a coat-length, baggy cardigan and a turtleneck next to my older brother and younger sister who are in shorts and tees and who look like my children. There I am at fourteen in a 70s suburban mom uniform of 1000% polyester, sewn-in-crease slacks while everyone else in the family is wearing jeans and shorts.

There was no denying the body under the clothes, however. And dieting only served to accentuate my voluptuous hourglass, setting me up for even more male attention, the entirely opposite thing from what my mother had hoped.

***

I was fourteen, me and my newly-slender woman’s body, me with my no idea how to deal with boys or men, and no way to learn much of anything. We lived in a very white place, a place where there would be no white boys looking to date unacceptably not-white me.

But there was still the opportunity to come into contact with men and boys. No one wanted to date me, but that didn’t mean no one noticed me. I was molested twice when I was fourteen, repeatedly by a boy close to my age and once by a man at my church.

(I think about that man at my church and about that counselor at camp. I’m sickened when I think about them. What is wrong with men that they think it’s okay to decide an adolescent girl is fair game for their sexual advances? What is wrong with our society that we have allowed them to feel entirely within their rights to prey on children? Yes, in our current apocalypse-world with a president who brags about being a sexual predator, I can’t truly be surprised. THOTUS wasn’t spawned whole from the ether. He was cultivated, steeped in a culture that had no problem with his behavior, that has no problem with most men’s behavior when it comes to women and girls.)

I told one of my friends, a boy, about the man at my church. He became very protective of me, sticking close to me when that man was around. And that was a good thing. It meant the man never had another opportunity to be alone with me.

I never told anyone about the boy who molested me. That situation was much more dangerous, fraught with terrible consequences that I couldn’t make myself cause.

He was a little older than me, and not at all interested in or attracted to me. I know this because he made sure to tell me, to tell me that he couldn’t find me attractive because of how I looked, that if I looked more like [insert name of whichever (white) cheerleader he currently lusted after], maybe I would be desirable. He told me all of that while doing a lot of unpleasant and often painful things to my body — the body he didn’t find desirable.

There was no penetration, and for that I’m grateful.

***

Here I am in the school musical, playing the Acid Queen in our production of Tommy (seriously.)


Today I look at those pictures, and I can see that I was cute as fuck, that there was not one thing wrong with my body. And I wonder how differently my life would have played out if I’d known that then. Would I also have known that I deserved better treatment? Would I have allowed that boy’s abuse to go on for as long as it did?

***

I was fourteen and I knew some things clearly: I wasn’t attractive, my body was unacceptable, my body drew unwanted attention from men and boys even if they didn’t find me desirable.

And deep in my psyche, on a level I wasn’t aware of, I made the decision to change my body, to erase it, to remove it from the focus of that problematic attention.

This was when I started to think of my body as separate from me, as “other,” a burden I had to deal with but not who I was.

Maybe I could have gone the other way, tried to disappear myself with anorexia. But I knew that wasn’t the answer — skinny girls got attention. Thinness made my body a target, so it seemed reasonable to assume that skinniness would make me more of a target. Skinniness equaled weakness and vulnerability, so I wouldn’t be skinny.

***

I got fat quickly. those Acid Queen pictures are from the fall of 9th grade, right after I turned fourteen. By spring of sophomore year — halfway through being fifteen — I was fat.

Since I have no memory of getting fat, since I have only recently been forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t always fat, I can’t say much about that period, that quick-march toward obesity. How were people responding to the changes in my body? What did my mother think was happening? How did we afford to buy me an entire new wardrobe when money was always tight but I couldn’t fit my old clothes? No idea. I wasn’t fat. And then I was.

***

Being fat had the desired effect: I stopped having to deal with unwanted male attention because there was no attention. So, in some ways, the body I built created freedom and safety. I had managed to remove myself from the equation of men’s lust.

But I made myself invisible right at the moment when I was starting to be interested in boys and would have welcomed some non-violent attention. But my body closed the door on everyone, not just the predators. (This isn’t the story of my whole life here. There were, eventually, men I was interested in who were interested in me. But high school and the world are decidedly different places.)

***

Not all stories of fat have their origins in sexual abuse … or at least I imagine that to be true. I wonder how many do, however. My own story has more to it than sexual violence. There was the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, which triggered a low-grade depression that resulted in fortifications being added to the wall. But there was also an attempted rape while I was at college, an actual rape in my early 20s.

Whatever the catalysts, here I am, many years later, much larger than I was at fifteen, the wall miles thick at this point and nearly as high. And me nestled inside with my books and pens, my knitting. Still protected, but also held back, trapped.



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.

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Fat Talk: The Ground Rules

I started reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger a few weeks ago. I both wanted and didn’t want to read this book. Wanted to read it because I like Roxane Gay’s writing and the way she thinks, and I was curious to see how she would talk about her body, her weight. But I knew reading the book would be hard, that it would call up all kinds of things about my own body, my weight, my life. And, as comfortable as I am with myself, I wasn’t sure how ready I was to have all those things–or unexpected things–surfaced.

As I knew out would be, reading the book has been challenging. I’ve had to put it down more than once and walk away. That’s why I’m a few weeks in and still nowhere near done. Any other book of this length and readability, I’d have blown through in a couple of days. With this one, I have no idea how much longer I’ll take to push myself to the end.

As I get started with writing here about the book, my body, my weight, this is a good moment to put some cards on the table. Not all, not yet, but some key introductory ones. Talking about being fat is charged and difficult, so I’m posting some ground rules.

Card #1: I am fat. Very fat. I’ve been fat for decades. I’ve been both fatter and less fat than I am today, but never in my adult life have I not been fat.

Card #2: My decision to talk here about my body, my fat, is not an invitation for any attempt at education, intervention, or counseling. I’m not interested in anyone’s nutritional or medical advice, in predictions about what my future will hold or what dire outcomes I’m waddling toward if I don’t change my lazy, evil ways posthaste.

Card #2a: I’m also not here for all the “You’re not that fat!” reassurances folks like to give. I’m not actually sure what that’s supposed to mean, anyway. There’s no set of gradations I’m measuring myself against. I am fat. Punto. It’s not a negative or positive thing, it’s simply a descriptor of my size, differentiating me from thin people, or stocky people or waif-like people, or whoever. I. am. fat. It is in no way flattering for anyone to deny the reality of my body. That’s in the same category as people who tell me they don’t think of me as Black–and, in case there’s any question, I am decidedly, unquestionably, and unashamedly Black.

Card #3: This is the first of what will be a number–perhaps a significant number–of  “Fat Talk” essays. Essays about my body, about being fat. Now that I’ve opened this flood gate, it’s open. I’m sure there will be folks for whom all this fatgirl talk will get wearing or boring or troubling. If that’s you, I won’t be offended if you step away, choose to stop reading. But I will be pissed if you violate Card #2.

Card #4: Spoilers! If you’re planning to read Hunger and haven’t yet, you should know that I will give away things from the book. Hunger isn’t a mystery and there are unlikely to be any surprise twists, but if you’re like me, you still won’t enjoy hearing what happens before you’ve read it. I’ll try to remember to give spoiler warnings as I go, but I know I’ll forget–in fact, I’m likely to blow it straight out of the gate–so just be aware of what’s in store.

I think that’s enough cards for now.

I’ve gone back to reading Hunger. I picked it up yesterday after an almost two-week break. I’m not sure I’m actually ready to dive back in, but not reading it is starting to make me feel cowardly. I’ve walked away from other books. And I’ve finished books I wish I’d avoided (the night- and daymare horror of reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder comes readily to mind!). But I want to finish this book, so I will. And it’s high time I wrote more directly and sustainédly¹ about being a fat Black woman in this world, so I’ll read … and then I’ll write as many of the things the book surfaces for me as I can. And I’ll share them here. Perhaps not all. Most probably not all. But some.

Depending on how people respond to all this direct and sustained fat talk, I may have to add some more ground-rules cards as we go.

__________
¹ No, it’s not a word, but I like thinking it is.



I’m not sure this really, truly counts as an essay … but I’m counting it anyway!

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.