Earlier this month, I spent 10 days in Jamaica with my dad’s church group, helping to coordinate and administer a free medical clinic for the people of Port Maria and its surrounding communities. For more background on this trip, read part one here.
It started with a woman who had been waiting all day.
She was part of a group that had arrived at the church at 3 am, having traveled from a place called Jacks River, some distance from Port Maria, where the clinic was taking place, and a locale remote and unremarkable enough that Google Maps doesn’t even know where it is.
The Jacks River group arrived first that day, and stood at the door all night, while in time dozens of other early arrivals lined up behind them.
When the medical team arrived, however, and the day began, we opened a different door -- the octagonal building where much of the treatment was taking place had three sets of doors, and the doors we opened to let dozens of waiting people in were not the doors where the Jacks River folks had chosen to stand. Their group did not realize this until it was too late, and registration lists at all the various points of treatment -- dentistry, OB/GYN, internal medicine, optometry -- were all but full.
I met the one woman in particular around 6 pm; we were treating her group in optometry, at least, so their journey wouldn’t be entirely wasted. She exited the alcove after her examination and approached me to receive her prescribed reading glasses. She thanked me for my help.
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” she asked.
“No,” I said, smiling weakly -- I get this a lot.
“I thought so. You’re big like me; my family has been saying all day you were pregnant, but I knew you were just big, like me.” All day? I had gotten used to that fishbowl feeling by now, the fact that by virtue of being one of roughly five white women openly visible in this particular space, and by far the biggest one of them all, I was looked at, by everyone -- the social invisibility imposed on many women who look like me in the US was not a factor here.
The woman proceeded to tell me that she used to weigh 280, but now weighs 240. “My feet were burning me,” she explained. “Do your feet ever burn you?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Well that’s good,” she said. “I wouldn’t have minded being big, if it didn’t give me problems with my feet.”
I had been prepared for a lecture on why I need to lose weight; I had been waiting for her to tell me how much more awesome her life is minus 40 pounds. But neither of these assertions came.
I realized then, with a start, that I had not been body-shamed once since my arrival; in spite of my being so visible, in spite of my being possibly the largest white lady many of the smiling and insufferably charming teenage boys who kept haranguing me for free sunglasses had ever seen, not one of them had made a fat joke at me; not one. No one had. No one stared. Teenage boys!Had not tried to humiliate me! What strange new world is this?
More than that, no one looked at me with a mixture of disgust and concern; no one cared that I spent most of every day marinated in my own perspiration, because everyone did, because it was so obscenely hot all of the time. If I was tired, folks figured it was because I was working so hard; if I was sweating, folks assumed it was because it was so oppressively humid out. No one avoided touching me; no one stood back apprehensively as though I might explode at any moment. Nobody gave a shit.
You must understand: Fat shaming is an unavoidable and intrinsic part of my life. I court it every time I go out in public, especially when I go out in public alone. My size makes me an appealing target even during the most mundane activities; indeed, most of the harrassment I get comes when I am doing something utterly normal, like walking through a parking lot to my car. It results in a certain baseline of stress, knowing that it might happen at any time, that even if it is not an overt, out-loud comment, I might be browsing at the library and spot three people sitting nearby all look over at me and then all start laughing quietly together.
Some of us develop a sixth sense; we can tell when someone is staring, when someone is making a comment to a friend, or when someone is about to unleash some pointless bit of verbal harassment. It’s a battle not to internalize this commentary, to not believe I truly am insuitable for public view. It’s rare that I get to go out and simply exist without being reminded at one point or another of how large I am; if I forget for a minute, someone will invariably happen along and mention it.
But suddenly, that evening with the cooling breeze coming in off the sea and this woman invoking our similar shapes as though it were a source of connection and friendship and not alienation and disdain, I felt completely unselfconscious, the proverbial weight being lifted from my shoulders (and/or my fat ass); I felt like nobody cared that I was fat, and it seemed to be true.
To be fair, Jamaica is hardly a utopian paradise of social acceptance. Like all nations, its culture is complex. It is home to a deeply rooted and intense homophobia, which frequently expresses itself both in popular music and in real life as violence against anyone who engages in queer behavior of any kind. Suspected gay men are often murdered; suspected gay women are often raped.
Even on an institutional level, sex between men is technically illegal, and Human Rights Watch has declared Jamaica to be the most homophobic nation in the world. If there was any doubt, a 2008 poll asked Jamaicans whether “homosexuals” deserve the same basic rights as straight Jamaicans, and 70 percent responded no. Jamaica's primary gay rights organization, J-FLAG, must work mostly underground, its members anonymous, because of the possibly violent -- if not fatal -- repercussions of being out in this country.
Jamaica has also historically had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world, although these statistics have improved in recent years. Nevertheless, while I was there, a female security guard was murdered in Port Maria itself -- stabbed while on an overnight shift and left to bleed out -- and few people seemed particularly surprised by it.
Thus, as much as I'd like to announce that Jamaica is a perfect society, it simply isn't so -- perfect societies do not yet exist, and here as elsewhere, the social politics that govern bodies of all kinds are still evolving.
That said, I must admit that the lack of cultural concern over my size was relevatory. I’ve spent close to 15 years being outspoken about bodies that are different, and about being fat, and refusing to apologize for it. I’ve even written a book about it. But in all that time, I never really thought about what a culture with less body-shaming in it might look like, or how it might feel, as a real, tangible place.
The positive attention took a few forms. One woman told me she that she liked seeing “big girls” in dresses, because we look great in them. This was a curious departure from the conventional wisdom in the US, which is typically that fat girls got no business wearing dresses or skirts -- an ideology borne out by the relative dearth of options in plus sizes.
Another woman -- tall on the verge of statuesque, with meticulously applied eyeliner and a self-assured stride -- I met in a public market remarked that: "You're fluffy, like me. We like the fluffy ladies here. You're just like me, with a pretty face but fluffy. It's a good combination." I’ve never been fond of “fluffy” as a euphemism for “fat,” but somehow in this context it didn’t bother me, probably because she was so marvelous to look at. (My husband suggested she was making these comments to entice me to buy something, but I replied that if she had tried such an angle with many fat American women she would not have met with much success.)
Women don’t often connect over size in such an upbeat way in USAian culture. I’ve never had an American stranger come up to me and talk about our similar sizes as if it means we share an immediate and unbreakable bond, as though we understand something special about each other in an intimate and meaningful way. My experience has always been that there are few circumstances in which self-identifying fat American woman can connect over this shared characteristic with positivity and not self-loathing.
Sure, fat ladies often bond over their unhappiness with their bodies, over their dieting practices and their efforts toward not being fat anymore -- and that’s fine, truly -- but it’s exceedingly rare to stumble across an American stranger with whom I can observe that we have similar shapes and not have that person respond with an apology, or self-recrimination or weight-loss tips.
The why of it is clear: by recognizing and identifying with a person’s size, I am technically calling them fat, and for the majority of individuals, this is not a mere statement of fact but is indeed one of the very worst insults a person can speak to another. So I don’t often do it, unless I'm pretty sure my comment will be received in the spirit in which it was intended, as spending one’s life constantly upsetting strangers is really exhausting.
I understand that some of the patrons (i.e., a few readers) of this fine website are tired of reading about fat here. I feel you. I’m tired of it too, tired of feeling like a public target, tired of hearing the comments, tired of fending off stares and snickers and near-daily news articles telling me I am flirting with my own destruction by not obsessively dieting to the exclusion of all other life goals. I can certainly relate, but while many people can simply skip past these issues if they find them uninteresting, I cannot. I have to live with this every day; frankly, even if by some miracle I lost a substantial amount of weight, I would probably still have to live with it, because of the many people I’ve met who have done so, all of them still feel like a secret fat person on the inside.
Being fat is a rough business, and it sticks with you. This is why I was so moved by the non-response to my size in Jamaica; for the first time in my adult life, I found myself going about my business without the slightest awareness of my body.
I’m certain body-shaming happens, in Jamaica as elsewhere -- and it’s possible that my having spent most of my time with Jamaicans residing at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale is a factor in my experience there, as in many cultures, the value placed on slenderness tends to be more common amongst the wealthy -- or at least comfortably well-off -- than it is amongst the poor.
It is also possible that my being white -- and the cultural privilege that affords, even in a majority non-white nation like Jamaica -- was a protective influence. With me an outsider, those teenage boys may have been on their best behavior simply because I was a visitor to their country, and the preponderance of Jamaicans I met seemed to take powerful pride in their home, and in making it a welcoming space to everyone visiting it.
Whatever the reason, body-shaming sure seemed to happen less there than it does here, in my everyday American life. This revelation has helped me to remember that the pressure to look a certain way is not necessarily universal, but is pretty arbitrary; it made me realize that even as culture has the power to change people's lives, culture itself also has the power to change.
I’ve brought back a number of things from Jamaica, but this experience of a social world without compulsive and ubiquitous fat-bashing is by far my favorite souvenir.
If only you followed Lesley on Twitter, you'd be privy to more chatter about body politics, as well as pictures of cats, socks, and the strange things she sometimes finds in supermarkets. #marshmallowbitsinacan