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: The Diva and the Pea

I am a high-maintenance woman. I know that about myself. I tease myself about it, but I don’t make any effort to change it. Why should I? This is actually who I am. I’m fussy and frou-frou. I like comfort and luxury. I accept this about myself. Others struggle with it, with my embrace of this truth, with how fully I lean into it.

metal chair

I recently went to see an off-Broadway show, when I got into the theater, one glance told me the narrow, armed, metal chairs wouldn’t fit my ample butt and that I’d be so horribly uncomfortable that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the show. I checked in with the usher, asked if there were any wider or armless chairs that could be swapped in for mine. She said she’d find out and let me know.

As she took off to investigate alternative seating options, I went back to stand by my seat and wait. A couple came up the aisle and, as they passed, the woman said she could see that the seats would be really tight. She sat — in the seat directly behind mine — and confirmed for her partner that the seat was, in fact, too small for her. She shrugged it off and settled in.

When the usher returned with a handyman to figure out my situation — my chair needed to be unbolted from the risers — I stood off to the side. The couple seated behind me watched what was going on. The man asked his partner, “Do you want to do that?” She, giving me a nanosecond’s eye flick of a glance, said, “NO. I’m not that big.”

The stagehand guy finished his work and walked off with the uncomfortable chair. The usher carried over a totally suitable chair, and I took my seat.

I understand that woman, mostly. She was correct, for what it’s worth. She wasn’t as big as me. But that really wasn’t the point. She’d already called out the discomfort of her seat. Presented with a pretty easy way to fix the problem, however, she rejected it out of hand, chose to be uncomfortable all evening. Of course. Because God forbid anyone should equate her less-fat size with my much fatter one. God forbid anyone should see us as being anything alike. Better she should remain squeezed and in pain for a couple of hours than have anyone realize that she was fat.

I understand that woman because I spent many years being that woman, squeezing myself into seats that were never meant for asses of size. Or, even worse, turning down invitations because I knew I wouldn’t fit into the space that would be provided.

But I quit that nonsense. It was certainly not as simple as snapping my fingers and having it be so. It started after I damaged my knee and began to realize that venues could and would accommodate me as a disabled person. So why shouldn’t I ask for the accommodations I needed as a fat person?

I know who I am and how high-maintenance I can be and often am. I ask for my needs to be met and expect it to happen. As much as I was an entirely go-along-to-get-along child, I have grown into a very let’s-talk-about-me-and-my-needs woman. I’m Meg Ryan ordering food in When Harry Met Sally — because I know what I want and I can’t really imagine why I shouldn’t have it. I’ve visited theaters before buying tickets so I could try out the seats and ask about better options. I’ve called ahead to restaurants to find out how close together tables are placed so I’ll know if I can move easily to and from my seat. I know what will make me comfortable, and if it’s possible to have that, why wouldn’t I?

The fairytale, “The Princess and the Pea,” centers on proving or disproving the royal blood of a rain-soaked woman who claims to be a princess. She is given lodging, but a pea is placed beneath the mountain of mattresses and feather beds on which she is invited to sleep. She, of course, is so delicate a creature that she is kept awake all night by the painful discomfort of that pea. It’s a Hans Christian Anderson story, part of the fairytale canon and source material for Once Upon a Mattress, a hilarious romp starring Carol Burnett.

As a child, I thought the story pretty ridiculous. It seemed only to prove that anyone could be a princess. Wouldn’t everyone feel something annoying in their bed? Obviously, no one had a spare supply of mattresses and feather beds to pile up for a random guest to sleep on, so that was just storytelling foolishness. One woman, one mattress, one pea seemed more likely … and seemed likely to prove nothing.

I didn’t have any princess aspirations, but that story made clear to me that I’d be able to prove my royalty quite easily. I had no doubt but that I would feel that pea. And that I would turn that bed inside out until I found it so that I could get my tired self to sleep. Please.

People often mock me for my picky, I-want-what-I-want behavior. I’ve had folks chide me for being demanding and selfish. Yeah, I suppose I am demanding and selfish. And? I’m not rude about it. I’m not taking anything from anyone else. So what’s the problem?

I get it, of course. I’m supposed to go along, supposed to take what I’m offered and be happy with it. Or … let’s be more exact: because I’m not white, beautiful, young, and thin I am supposed to be grateful to be allowed to show myself in public at all, allowed to take up even the least amount of space. Because if I looked like Tay Tay, people might find me petulant and spoiled, but they would be far less likely to be annoyed by me. For me to call out displeasure or desire for something different is demanding, is presumptuous. How dare I imagine that I, in my fat, middle-aged, Blackness, draw attention to myself, have the nerve to give voice to my needs? Welp. There you go. Life’s like that sometimes.

Needs I have. And I will make them known. Put a pea under my mattress and feather bed, and I’ll be sure to complain loudly enough that you’ll fix that shit just to shut me up and preserve your own right to a full night’s sleep.

I’m not a jerk about getting my needs met. There’s no cause for that. and no reason to make scenes … as long as no one tries to deny me out of pettiness, fatphobia, or misogynoir. If something I want can’t be done, it can’t. Okay. But if someone just refuses to accommodate me, that’s a whole other story.

I don’t think of myself as a princess. No, I’m more a Prima Donna … but, contrary to the snarky dictionary definition, my sense of my value isn’t in any way inflated. I am temperamental and unpredictable. I am demanding. Because I know how I deserve to be treated. And I’m comfortable making sure you know, too.


Part of a series about my body, originally inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
If you haven’t read my 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: Fit-Modeling and Clothes-Shopping while Fat

My dear friend Lisa (who you can find at satsumabug.com) sent me a note about a shop looking for plus-sized fit models. I emailed back and forth with the shop and decided to take myself up there and try on their clothes.

It could be a fun thing to do, but mostly I was incredibly nervous. Did these women know anything about plus sizes? Did they know anything about being fat and what clothes shopping can be like for fat folks? Was their idea of “plus-sized” really not “plus” at all (I see all you, shops that have the audacity to call an 18 a 3X)? How would they address my body?

So many questions. So many things to worry about.

Clothes-shopping-while-fat can be fine. It can also be a nightmare. There are over-perky sales people who talk to you as if you’re painfully dim-witted as they try to tell you all the parts of your body you should be trying to hide, all the ways you shouldn’t show yourself in public. There are the sister-girl salespeople who think you need to be told you’re smoking hot every five seconds if you have any hope of feeling good about yourself. There are the clothes, abundant in sizes 14 to 20 … and then scarce, scarcer, scarcest the farther up the numbers you go. There are the clothes in your size that are always buried behind every other thing like undesirables that must be hidden.

There are the clothes-makers and their inability to understand body differences. There is a universal belief among manufacturers of clothes for us fatties: we all have the exact same shape. Depending on the company, the belief is that we are all shaped like Marilyn Monroe writ large, or we’re all shaped like fireplugs. Fireplugs win out most often.

Meanwhile, what is true is that none of us are shaped like fireplugs. And, even for those of us with hourglass figures, it’s not as simple as just sizing up from a thin hourglass. Also, we fat folk (hint: like all folk) come in more than two basic shapes. It is possible to be both tall and fat. It is possible to be fat and have a flat butt. It is possible to be fat and not need armholes that open to our waists. It is possible to be fat and have small breasts. It is, let me just say as plainly as I can, possible to be fat in MANY different ways. MANY. MANY.

And yet the clothes are made in basically two ways. I have no idea if non-fat people have this problem. It’s likely they do. It’s also likely, however, that it’s less pronounced because there are so many more places where non-fat people can find clothes in their size, so they have a better chance of finding things that will work for their bodies.

And then, of course, there are the prices. There is the obscenity of having to pay more – a lot more in some cases – for the same items non-fat people buy. Having to pay more for what are often poorly made clothes, for clothes that don’t fit us properly because they’re made for some version of a fat body that isn’t ours.

It’s a lot. Trust me that this is only the briefest description of what clothes shopping can be when your body doesn’t conform to society’s beauty standards.

_____

So I set off on my adventure and rode uptown. I walked into the shop and smiled at the beautiful young woman who smiled at and greeted me. And then at the young woman who came out from the back when she heard me say my name. They were both warm, and neither did a spit take at the sight of me, so I figured that might bode well for what the experience would be like. I took off my coat.

Young Woman #1 (YW1) was working with a customer, so she turned back to her. YW2 and I chatted for a moment: what size did I wear, where did I usually shop, do I have any favorite brands … And then she brought out the samples. One was green, the other red. To my great pleasure, she had me try on the red. Both were beautiful colors and patterns, but the red was just a little more stunning and fab, a little more yes-yes-a-thousand-times-yes than the green.

I slipped my arms in. I buttoned up. I turned to look in the full-wall mirror … and I loved it.

Oh, sure, there were little problems here and there. YW2 and I went through them in detail so she could understand how the pattern should be changed. We went through the flaws, but, even as I nit picked about one thing or another, all I could think was how much I loved the dress, how I could already see myself wearing it, how much I didn’t want to take it off and give it back.

We went over more details about the dress, and I kept loving everything about it. Finally we were done, and I slipped it off and handed it back to YW2.

This was definitely not a typical CSWF (clothes-shopping-while-fat) experience. I had talked easily and comfortably about my sizes and what parts of me are hardest to fit. I had let YW2 put her hands on me without tensing up or pulling away. YW2 had talked to me about the look and fit of the dress in a way that didn’t condescend or artificially inflate. No one – YW1, YW2, the other customer – behaved as if my looking good in the dress was shocking or anything other than entirely normal and expected.

That experience definitely ties for first place with the one other truly lovely CSWF experience I’ve had. Yes, that’s right: I am a middle-aged woman who’s been fat since early high school … and I’ve had exactly one great clothes-shopping experience before this fit-modelling moment. That is a true statement. That is how bad it can be out here in these sartorial streets for us fatties.

To be clear. This experience wasn’t great simply because I liked the dress and looked good in it, though that certainly helped. No. I find clothes I like and clothes that mostly fit me quite often. I’ve even had plenty of entirely wonderful clothing finds. (Do not get me started on the day I tried on my first Christian Siriano dress. Do NOT.) This experience was special because of how I was allowed to experience it, because of how I was treated, because of how I was seen and valued, because of how I was treated respectfully and not like someone’s dirty secret.

The experience was special because it was a reminder of how simple CSWF can be, of how easy it is to just treat people like people and provide quality service.

I’ve gotten good at CSWF. I can deflect unwanted sales help quickly and deftly. I am easily able to ask for whatever I need to make my shopping experience work well for me. I also do a fair amount of shopping online … for the convenience of having things I want show up at my door, and to spare myself CSWF foolishness.

While it’s true that designers of large-sized clothes need fat fit models so they can make their designs with actual women’s bodies in mind, they aren’t the only ones who would benefit from this service.

I want store staff to go through a training with a fat fit model, want them to have to work with that mock customer until they can get through a full sales process without fat-shaming, without saying one offensive or irksomely insincere, perky thing.

I would take on that fit-model job. Not because my skin is thick enough to handle the fat-phobic nonsense – although I think it is – but because I would enjoy getting to school people on all the ways they aren’t getting their pitch right.

“Let me stop you right there, Marny,” I can imagine myself saying. “You shouldn’t assume there is any part of my body that I want to hide. I’m fat, and however “slimming” or “camouflaging” you want to think this outfit is, everyone will see that I am fat. You need to talk to me about how well it fits, how comfortable and intelligently made it is, how good I look in it.”

“Hold up, Tiffany, it’s not at all helpful for you to bring me clothes that are a size too large. Wearing things that hand awkwardly off my body because they’re too big isn’t flattering, it’s annoying. You have clothes in sizes that fit me. Your job is to help me find them, not to try covering me in a tent.”

Of course, I am only one size and style of fat woman. I don’t want designers and stores to exchange one fat body idea for another. I want the idea of what is a fat body to diversify, to encompass as many types of bodies as we have. Yes, this sales training would need a whole team of willing fatties to really get the job done.

AS much as I love the idea, I’m pretty sure this program wouldn’t work, however, no matter how many fat shoppers were up for the challenge, no matter how many sales staff were trained. It would be about as successful as the single-day racial bias training Starbucks is gearing up for will be. Well-meaning, but one day of real talk can’t undo a lifetime of programming. Not about race and not about fatphobia.

_____

The almost-end of this story is that I took off the dress, YW1 and YW2 thanked me for helping them, and I left.

The real almost-end of this story is that I couldn’t stop thinking about the dress and emailed to suggest that I should be given said fabulous item, that it would be good for the store because I would get a lot of compliments and would talk up the shop every time that happened. It was a pretty brazen email. I don’t know who I was in that moment!

But it worked! I got a reply right away saying the dress was mine! As a friend said when I told her about it, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Can’t deny the truth there.

So, the actual-end to this story came yesterday, when I wore this lovely dress out in the world. The weather didn’t much cooperate before now, and then I had a big work event on my schedule, so I saved the debut for that. And here I am at the end of the day (photo cropped so you don’t see the stacks of still-unpacked boxes that are the primary décor in my apartment!), a totally happy camper:

Zuri dress

It’s as if I’m wearing a coral reef! And yes, it has pockets! The dress is from Zuri. I don’t think the plus sizes are out yet, but the smaller sizes are there for the having. Plus sizes — up to 3X — should be available late spring/early summer.



One in a series of essays inspired by Roxane Gay’s, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. You can find all of the essays in this series under the Fat Talk tab. Thank you.

GriotGrind Next Wave logo

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

original-slicer-girlgriot

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 about 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.

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.