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.

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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.

Oh, Universe. You and your shenanigans.

Today, I was not wearing a dress. Today I was walking down Eastern Parkway to a meeting at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. It was a semi-gorgeous afternoon and my coat was open. My lovely multi-pink scarf (thank you, Sonia!) was fluttering around me, my hair was big and fabulous. I was looking forward to my meeting because I love the library.

“Big-legged woman.”

And I thought, “Oh, come on.” I mean, after all, I just finished writing about this nonsense. I need new material if I’m going to make it through the rest of this Slice of Life Challenge.

The speaker was behind me. I just kept walking. And he kept on, too.

“I don’t know, but I been told. A big-legged woman ain’t got no soul.”

(In tune, in a really good, deep, raspy voice, too. Maybe he was even doing a little air-guitar accompaniment.) Still, I resisted turning around. I was so close to the Children’s Library entrance . A few more yards and I could duck inside and be done.

“You don’t need no soul, baby. I got enough to share.”

And into the library. Free.

He had enough soul to share. And he sang the exact LZ line I referenced in my last post. That almost made me laugh out loud. It really might be the best bit of street harassment of my whole life. (Or maybe a close second to another street singer from a couple of years ago.) The universe, she likes playing with my head.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

Miss me.

Yesterday I wore a dress. It’s not a big deal, or shouldn’t be. I was still beat to my socks after Saturday’s adventure, and I had to sit on a panel mid-day, and I wanted to perk myself up. So I wore a new dress, a dress that hits just about at my knees. For me, this is as out of character as wearing a micro-mini. Folks who know me: when have you ever seen my legs? Seriously. But I’ve been wearing “short” dresses for a few months now, so it’s weird but becoming not weird for me.

So I wore a dress. With tights and boots. I went to work, I went uptown to sit on the panel. I left the place where the event was held and walked to the subway.

“Nobody wants to see that.”

I heard this semi-surly voice say that as I headed down Park Avenue. I kept walking because it seemed to be one of the random snippets of someone else’s conversation that filter into your consciousness.

“Big-legged women in short dresses. You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”

This time, the speaker — a small, maybe-40-year-old Black man in a leather stadium coat over a suit — got right up on me to say what he had to say.

People often tell me they’re surprised by the things folks have no problem saying to me. I’m not surprised. Certainly not about this. Being rude and insulting to fat people is the last truly safe bullying, discriminatory behavior people have. Yes, you can be a jerk about all kinds of things, but there will almost always be someone ready to speak up for the person you’re insulting, someone ready to call you out on your racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, ableism. With fat people, that’s pretty much never going to be the case. Fat people, because we have the audacity to be fat, are assumed to deserve whatever bile you choose to spit on us.

But you know what? Not really. And not me.

I stopped and looked at him. I made a dramatic “shocked” face, complete with one hand on my cheek and my mouth in a stunned “O.”

“Really?!” I asked.

He looked pleased, ready to tell me all about how disgusted he felt at the sight of me.

I dropped my hand and smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me.” I looked down, gave myself a once-over. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them.” I started walking again. “You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

Yes, it hurts my feelings to have some jackass say no one wants to see a woman who looks like me. But you know? I’m not here for anyone’s fat-shaming. I’m not here for men thinking I can or should be ruled by their gaze. I’m not here for strangers on the street who think they have anything to say about what I choose to wear, how I wear it, or how I look wearing it. You can miss me with all of that.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

I’m a Hollaback! girl, but …

I’m no fan of street harassment.  As the title says, I’m a Hollaback! girl, and a fan of Maggie Hadleigh-West’s amazing War Zone and of Holly Kearl. I’m happy every time a harasser is challenged, every time one is charged.

You can already hear the “but” coming, can’t you?  Yeah, it’s there.

I stepped off the bus this morning and headed for the subway.  As I approached the corner, I saw a young guy turn, see me, give me a serious once-over. When he gave me the second full-body stare and opened his mouth, I took a breath and set my face.  Whatever he was going to say, I was ready.

So here’s the but (or, to be crass — and give away the punchline — here’s my butt).  He started singing.  Started singing Queen.  Sang out loud and proud, “Fat-bottomed girl, you make the rocking world go round!”

I could have gotten mad at him, but really all I wanted to do was laugh.  First, I love that song.  Second, I often sing that song in reference to myself.  (I know I once wrote here claiming another number as my theme song, but who says you can only have one?)  Third, I just never expected him to sing, and certainly not that song.  Wasn’t he too young to even know that song?  And who sings Queen to strangers on the street at 8:15 in the morning, anyway?

I didn’t laugh.  I didn’t hug him, either.  I just kept walking.  But I won’t lie and say I didn’t have a little bit of a smile on my face for the next two blocks.

Note to the other harassers out there: this trick isn’t going to work every time, so you can put your songbooks away.

(adi)POSE

fat

Last week I had the pleasure of hanging out with several of the ladies who have posed for the adipositivity project. Someone pointed me toward this page a year or so ago, and I was intrigued.  Never would have thought I’d be having pizza with the models, however.

The photographer, who calls herself “Substantia Jones,”  does some really wonderful work.  And the ladies I had dinner with are quite a lot of fun, in addition to being big and beautiful.  They aren’t glamourous (well, ok, one of them was pretty glamourous …), they are ‘regular’ people.  They made me start to think about my own adipositivity … and about whether I could ever pose for Substantia, whether I would ever be able to do that.  Not that I would have to pose nude.  In most photos on the site, the women are clothed.  And not that, if I did pose, you would ever know it was me.  In almost all of the photos, the women’s faces are hidden or out-of-frame.  Posing for Substantia would be entirely about my own experience, about stepping out of my shell, re-embracing the side of me that used to appear in the Mermaid Parade.  I realized, as I looked through the images on the site, that I’ve let mer-Stacie disappear a little.  She hasn’t entirely slipped beneath the surface, but she’s not as front and center as she used to be, either.  Inviting Ms. Jones and her cameras into my cozy little home would definitely serve as a wake-up call …