Amy Pence-Brown, a Boise, Idaho-based fat activist, has made a beautiful video that I recommend you watch right away.
She borrowed the format from the international activist movement The Liberators, and the setup is fairly straightforward: Pence-Brown went to a busy outdoor market in her city, stripped down to a bikini, blindfolded herself, and stood holding two handfuls of markers out to passers-by.
A chalkboard sign explained that all bodies are valuable, and invited strangers to draw a heart on her body to support the very personal drive for self-acceptance.
I started crying in earnest about two minutes in. It’s not a matter of, “Oh, this woman is so brave,” although that is certainly true. It’s not the idea that every person who participated was doing so from a genuine place of expressing their own self-acceptance, because that’s probably not the case.
It’s the fact that people were simply kind, even people who might not have understood what was going on. That people did not take the opportunity to do things that were hurtful or abusive, even though they easily could have.
At some point in my adult life I started expecting people to be cruel, or at least insensitive, given the chance. I don’t expect people to be kind, or thoughtful -- I expect them to see weakness and exploit it, I expect them to see difference and ridicule it. I expect them to see vulnerability, and humanity, and take it as a license to do harm, because she was asking for it, because the plain act of being real and raw is an invitation to be humiliated.
I have so thoroughly learned to expect this that I am shocked when things take a different, kinder turn. I cried at Amy Pence-Brown's video, which is not a common thing for me, because people were smiling and approaching an exposed woman with gentleness. This does not often happen to similar women in different circumstances.
Most people typically respond to the things we think we recognize and know with an unquestioning kneejerk reflex, an understanding we don't feel the need to investigate further. A fat woman crossing a street, or lying on a beach, or loading her car with groceries, or walking in a mall, or out for drinks with her friends -- we have all seen her.
To some people, she is still a fat woman before she is anything else. If we’re one of these people, we think we know her already, even without speaking to her. We think we know all we need to know: that she overeats, that she is inactive, that she is less intelligent, that she has no self-esteem or self-respect, that she is afflicted with or is in the process of developing some heavily stigmatized disease, and that she has done all of this to herself, which means she has forfeited her right to have her feelings considered.
On the other hand, a blindfolded fat woman wearing a bikini and holding two handfuls of markers in a crowded marketplace is something different; we can come at this situation without preconceptions or assumptions because it’s probably not anything we’ve seen before. We want to ask questions; we are open to the possibility of seeing this body with new eyes. We have no script for how to react, or what to assume. We don’t know what to do, except to be moved, and to participate.
The other day I exchanged hellos with one of my neighbors near the mailboxes in our building, and she showered me with effusive compliments. “You look fantastic,” she enthused, “You just look really great and it’s a pleasure to see.”
I was perplexed by her sudden admiration, but also happy, because as much I think I pretty much always look fantastic, it's a nice thing to hear from other people as well.
But then she sort of nodded up and down at my body and said, “All your hard work is paying off,” and my feeling of warm pleasure at being praised sank away, leaving a cold sad void in its place.
I realized this was really a coded reference to the fact that I have been exercising at a new time, and recently we had begun crossing paths in the gym. To her, my apparent “hard work” was new and aimed at looking different, or “better,” somehow. This hasn’t actually happened, to be clear. I look no more or less fantastic, nor do I look any smaller or fitter (if fitness is a "look" at all) than I ever have, in all my years of gym-going, which I do and have done for many reasons, none of which are related to my appearance.
But I smiled and let her believe she had paid me a meaningful compliment, because a momentary passing-by the mailboxes downstairs is not the best time for a heart-to-heart about body politics. I smiled even though it is always strange to hear “You look fantastic” when the subtext is that You look better than you did before, and it’s all the more flummoxing when I don’t materially look any different than I did in the first place.
I understand that her comment was intended as kindness, as positive encouragement. And I try to accept it as such, even as it reminds me that how I look is not something I am culturally entitled to be satisfied with, and that my body, for as long as it is fat, will always be seen by others as a work in progress -- as a mistake I must be trying to remedy. Neighbors can see me leaving the gym, sweaty and exhausted, and comfortably assume that they understand my purpose, while ignoring the far more challenging truth. They can identify me as looking "fantastic" not because of the way I am right now, but because they perceive me as changing.
Her comment was intended as kindness, but it’s hard to take it that way when it so completely misunderstands me, and does so without inquiring as to how I truly feel, but rather relies on a set of assumptions I am held to whether I agree with them or not. It's a bummer when even kindness comes with strings attached. If she had stopped at "You look fantastic," wouldn't that have been enough? For both of us?
I can’t control people’s individual perceptions of me. It's pointless to try. But it’s also occasionally tiring to realize that at least some of the people around you are making the same wrongheaded assumptions all day long. It puts you in a position of constantly battling to know yourself, to be sure of who you are. It puts you in a place where you have to fight to remember things like, "I am a complex human being and I deserve respect," or "I am okay the way I am," or "I am not the horrifying gluttonous monster some people want me to be."
The idea that You are not a monster is one many people get to take for granted, at least some of the time, but for others it is a daily struggle to hold on to the concept that we did not formally request to be regarded unkindly, that we don’t deserve to be treated with disgust or to be subjected to stereotypes or assumptions, simply because we dare to look the way we do and exist in public space. That we can live now, in the bodies we have, and be happy, and as our bodies change, which is as inevitable as the passage of time, we can learn to roll with those changes too.
Amy Pence-Brown’s experiment is beautiful and remarkable because, for a few minutes, it envisions a world in which strangers are only kind and supportive to a woman who dares to make her fat body visible without apology, where they recognize and even applaud the courage required to perform such an act in a public space, to make oneself so vulnerable and to trust in the hidden good within each human to win out over any ugly urge to be vicious or cruel.
She changes the framework, she stands up with confidence and a blindfolded smile and invites them to comment in the context of her own struggle for self-acceptance, and in the shock of this unfamiliar ground, they can only respond with love. They are kind, with no strings attached.
What if we looked at everyone around us with such care all the time? What if that was how we looked at ourselves? What a home for all bodies we would build, if only we could be psychically drawing hearts on one another’s skin every time we looked at each other.