How it Works

So, the other day I was talking to a reporter who asked--in the role of devil's advocate--whether it's appropriate for me to be a fat acceptance activist, when I'm only a size or two bigger than the average American woman. Can I really speak for someone 100 or 200 lbs. heavier than me, or more?

The answer--as I've said here before--is yes and no. Can I speak to the experience of living in a much larger body? No. Am I fat enough to have faced discrimination and hatred, and to be motivated to fight against those things on behalf of all fat people? Hell, yes.

Exhibit A. I'm walking home from Pilates this afternoon, and I stop for a red light. Light turns green, I start walking across the intersection, and some asshole barrels around the corner, clearly not seeing me. I stop walking and he hits his brakes--with a resounding skreeee--at approximately the same time. We exchange dirty looks, and I take another step--just as asshole hits the gas again, intending to blow past me.



Woman sitting at outdoor cafe across the street: WHAT THE--?

No kidding, lady.

Let's review. This asshole didn't look where he was going and nearly hit a pedestrian. Therefore, I deserve to be shamed for the size of my body.

Of course. That's how it works.

Assholes like that do not look at me and think, "Hmm, she looks only slightly bigger than the average woman." They do not yell, "YOU FUCKING MILD TO MODERATE CHUB!" They think, "fat chick." And they yell, "YOU FUCKING WHALE!"

And if I have this particular asshole pegged right--which I'm pretty sure I do, however brief our encounter--he is the kind of guy who would also look at someone smaller than the average American woman and think the same thing. It doesn't matter how often you trot out that statistic, or how many idiot columnists claim that since a majority of the population is categorized as overweight, fat has clearly become "socially acceptable." In many people's minds, a woman who is not thin is fat, period, and that is not okay.

Furthermore, the average American woman, for all her averageness, is well into "fat" territory. She teeters on the brink of plus sizes, probably has some flesh that isn't rock solid, will find herself standing next to much thinner women almost everywhere she goes, and will almost never see a woman her size on television or in a magazine who isn't A) depicted as lonely, clueless, and a compulsive overeater for "comedic" value, or B) there to talk about the beginning of her weight loss journey. It really doesn't take any more than that to make a woman think her body is abnormally large--and we all know that the larger your body is, the more shameful it is. So, while the average American woman (or the woman a little smaller or a little bigger) doesn't face anywhere near the volume of discrimination and hatred that much bigger people do, she probably thinks she's fat and hates herself for it--and plenty of strangers definitely think she's fat and hate her for it.

Meanwhile, people both fatter and thinner than she is will repeatedly tell her she's not fat, in an effort to be "polite," and/or get her to quit whining. But they're not there when her boyfriend pinches her belly and says she should do some sit-ups. They're not there when she orders a whole milk latte, and the barista looks at her like she asked for two shots of dead baby in it. They're not there when her mother berates her thirty-year-old ass for ordering dessert, and goes on to insinuate that that's why she's single. They're not there when her thinner co-workers make self-deprecating remarks about the size of their thighs, assuming she'll relate, 'cause... well, obviously. They're not there when a brand spankin' newbie at the gym she's been going to for two years comes up to her and says, "Good job! Keep it up!" They're not there when her doctor tries to put her on Weight Watchers when she's come in barfing up blood. They're not there when she watches TV and sees only much thinner women presented as attractive. They're not there when she looks at a "plus-size" model and realizes that woman, too, is smaller than her--and has long, relatively thin legs and a practically "perfect" hourglass figure, to boot. And they're not there when some asshole yells, "You fucking whale!"--or "Fat bitch!" "Fat cunt!" "Lardass!" "Fatass!" "Cow!"--at her from a passing car.

'Cause guess what--that happened when I was the size of the average American woman, too.

Now, some of you are probably striking up the world's smallest violin right now, so let me make it clear that I am not whining that in-betweenies have it just as bad as fatter fatties here. Don't get me wrong: it's not even close. But this "the average American woman wears a size 14!" shit is utterly meaningless in terms of defining what's "fat" and what's "normal" in this culture. Might I remind you that according to doctors, this woman is normal, this woman is overweight, and this woman is obese. Yes, the whole point of the BMI project is to illustrate how fucked those categories are, but it's one of the metrics for determining fatness that haunts the average American woman--along with images in the media, clothing sizes, and the judgments of both family and strangers. So the next time some barely chubby friend or partner or sister or daughter of yours complains about feeling fat, and your kneejerk response is to tell her she's not, as if she's being utterly ridiculous? Take a moment to consider that maybe she's not. Maybe, just maybe, she's heard from about 1,000 other sources that she is, in fact, fatty fat fat fat, no matter what you happen to think. Maybe just this afternoon some dickhead called her a fucking whale because she had the temerity to cross the street in front of his car, and she felt too ashamed to tell you about it.

You're right, of course, to want to get the message across to this woman that there is nothing wrong with her body. She could probably stand to hear that. But telling her she's not fat is not the same thing. It denies her the anguish she feels about having a body that deviates from the ideal, however slightly--and believe me, deviating even slightly is plenty to cause legitimate anguish--and worse yet, it reinforces the message that her being fat by some other standard would mean there was something wrong with her body.

That's the underlying problem here--not whether the woman is officially "fat," but that so many of us automatically equate fat with a host of other negative characteristics, with there indeed being something wrong with your body. The hilarious thing is that just before this wankstain yelled at me, my Pilates instructor--a student teacher who's not used to me yet, let alone to how all sorts of different bodies work--had been falling all over herself telling me how amazingly strong and flexible I am. (Thank you, yoga.) In the space of ten minutes, I went from being praised up and down for what my body can do to being cruelly insulted because it's not a socially acceptable size. And if that doesn't drive home the point that the real problem is not anybody's fucking fat but a culture that insists fat bodies are intrinsically worthless, I don't know what will.

Another question that reporter asked me was, "Does it still hurt when people say mean things about your body?" I told her honestly that it mostly doesn't anymore--but that I only got here because it hurt like hell for almost twenty years, until I finally got fucking sick to death of internalizing all the nasty things people said, directly or indirectly, about my body. Trolls, especially, just crack me up these days; they're so bloody ridiculous and predictable, it doesn't even occur to me to do anything but laugh. But sometimes? Yeah, it still stings. Today was one of those times. There I was, walking home on a beautiful afternoon, high from a good workout and the praise of my instructor, and out of nowhere, there it was: YOU FUCKING WHALE.

For a moment, I'd almost forgotten that no matter how much I like my own body, other people will always be happy to hate it for me. For a moment, I'd almost forgotten that's how it works.

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