Earlier this week, I took an afternoon break and went out to sit on the beach where I live. It being June at last, and this being New England, the beach was well-attended even on a weekday. I went outside in the short black dress I was already wearing because I didn't feel like changing into a swimsuit.
Even when it’s packed, in the heat of July, with kids shrieking and radios blaring, I am instantly relaxed when I’m at the beach. This particular afternoon was sunny but not too warm, and I sat on the sand and stretched out my legs and leaned back on my hands and -- I’m a dork, okay -- I just felt flooded with gratitude for the moment I was existing in.
I barely noticed the teenagers at first. They were just background noise. But soon they became too loud to ignore. I used to dread crossing paths with a bunch of rowdy teens because it seemed like they were more likely than anyone else to make a disparaging comment about my weight, but with every passing year I become more invisible to them -- I suspect the older I get, the more I seem like I could be their mom. Feeling somewhat protected by age, I don’t freeze up like I used to. These days I assume they’ll just pass and not even see me, because usually that’s what happens.
As the teens came down the beach, yelling and pushing and making a general racket, I tuned them out and closed my eyes and didn’t think much about it. So when one dude bellowed, “HEY FATASS...HEY YOU, FATASS...”
Without thinking, I opened my eyes and said, simply, “Yes?”
I’ve used the word “fatass” in neutral or positive contexts so many times over the past -- wow -- fifteen years that, astonishingly, it didn’t even register as a pejorative when he said it. Instead, my brain went "Oh, he must be talking to me." I heard something friendly and familiar.
Yet, obviously this is a kid with enough fatass-useage experience to know that it’s a term that typically evokes a strong negative reaction. “Fatass” is not a word most people use lightly. It’s supposed to sting. When it doesn’t, the script is turned inside out and where the hell does this interaction go from here?
Later that evening, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a thread of comments on a plus-size fashion blogger’s photo that bothered me far more than that random teenage boy calling me a fatass.
As the public narrative against obesity has shifted away from aesthetic contempt, and toward a discourse on “health” offered out of some misplaced sense of duty, I am seeing more and more unsolicited opinions that forego the once popular “EW, GROSS” model of body commentary in favor of a more insidious, “Of course no one should be shamed for their body, and it doesn’t matter how you look, but you just can’t be healthy at that size.” This was the tenor of the Instagram conversation that got me so irritated.
I’ve heard it often enough myself. The common justification for that line of analysis is, Oh, but it's not about appearance -- because that would be superficial and cruel, I guess? -- it's about health!
Except IT IS about appearance. The people who make these assertions are also making assumptions based on the appearance of the person they’re targeting. It is completely about appearance. Heaven knows they're not making these observations with firsthand knowledge of said person's medical history because -- as many have observed before me -- you can't actually read a person’s medical history simply by looking at them. And hell, even if you could make such comments in full grasp of the facts, WHY WOULD YOU DO SO? It would be incredibly rude. And none of your business anyway.
(Of course, these are usually the same individuals who look at women who are thinner than average and talk about how “unhealthy” -- if not "gross," as well -- those women look, which should be every bit as unacceptable as making negative comments about a fat person.)
Telling someone “But you don’t look HEALTHY!” is no less rude and intrusive and unnecessary than saying, “But you look SO DISGUSTING!” -- or, for that matter, “HEY FATASS.” All of these are unsolicited body criticisms. It doesn’t matter that the first example is cloaked in a shield of pretending to care. I have trouble believing that these same people go about their days worrying about the longevity of everyone they meet. It’s only fat people who draw their concern -- because in the majority of situations, it’s not really concern, but a discomfort with fat bodies in general.
Expressing that discomfort as an issue of personal aesthetics is becoming less socially tolerated, so it's not surprising that the discourse would shift to something new -- to a narrative in which "looking unhealthy" is an appearance-based insult masquerading as sincere worry.
You’re probably wondering how my beach interaction worked out.
When I said “Yes?”, we were both surprised by it (he moreso than I). The boy was standing about ten feet distant, and for a second we just stared at each other. His friends kept walking, oblivious and self-obsessed in that charming teenagery way, and after a moment’s pause for reflection -- and I can only assume because he was trying to be polite -- he asked, “How’s your day going?”
It was surreal. I smiled and said “Awesome,” or something like it, because that’s what I usually say, and I asked him the same. He told me this is his last week of school, and he’s shortly to graduate. He was grinning, friendly, as though the "fatass" comment before never happened. I offered my congratulations, he said thanks, and we parted, and he ran to catch up with his friends, and that was that. Once he was gone, I started laughing and couldn't stop, because what else are you going to do?
Maybe I’ve personally reached a point where, forced to choose, I prefer rudeness to disingenuousness -- although I’d really prefer neither. It would be best if we could all restrain ourselves from making negative comments about anyone we don't find attractive, because they don't owe the world attractiveness or beauty. Neither do I. Neither do you.
And ultimately, whether you're calling that person "ugly" or "unhealthy," it's equally unnecessary and uncalled for. Sure, you get to have your own opinions, but you don't always need to share them publicly if they're unkind.
Maybe we can go directly to politely talking about our day like civil humans with mutual respect for individual differences. Imagine that.