Before I moved to Los Angeles last year, I lived in New York City for 15 years. And before that, I was a high school kid. Neither of those places, New York City or high school, tend to be that welcoming, no matter who you are. And when you're overweight, which I am, bullies crawl out of the woodwork.
I'd been called a "fat ass" (New York City), "fat bitch," (high school) and I'd been verbally harassed for having "huge boobs” (New York City and high school). Not to excuse anyone's behavior, but I figured part of the problem was proximity. Being lumped together in a confined space with a bunch of hot-headed strangers all trying to get ahead in life (New York City and high school) certainly inspired conflict.
So, when I decided to move to LA for work, I'd heard rumors of vanity and superficiality but how bad could it be, I thought? I wouldn't be spending evenings wedged into a subway car with a thousand other grouchy souls itching for confrontation. And I wouldn't be walking everywhere I needed to go, which, in New York, had basically become an open invitation for rude comments about my physical appearance from whichever drunk frat-bro asshole happened to be passing me by.
It was refreshing to consider a life in Los Angeles where I might be less concerned about public fat-shaming, if only because I wouldn't be spending so much time amongst the general public.
Once I arrived in LA, most of the people I met were really nice. Honestly, my first few months in town left me wondering why it had gotten such a bad rap. People were genuine and down to earth. I loved how at ease everyone seemed to be in their workout clothes and flip flops, and how not-judged I felt when I invariably showed up at the grocery store in yoga pants and a torn hoodie.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only were remarks about my weight as commonplace in Los Angeles as they'd been anywhere else, they were, if possible, nastier.
The first time I was fat-shamed in LA, I was hiking up Runyon Canyon. Several yards in front of me was a shirtless, fit guy, and walking past us on their way down the mountain was a chatty couple, a guy and a girl, who seemed to be good friends. I'm a people watcher and I was keyed into them as they hiked past. Fine. I was eavesdropping.
First they made a comment about the fit guy in front of me. "Look at him," one of them said. "He must spend entire days at the gym. I could never do that." The guy was wearing headphones and couldn’t hear them talking about him.
Then the two friends looked up, saw me, and grinned at each other like they were sharing a good joke. They didn’t know I was listening.
"Yeah," one said in between giggles, "but at least we're not huge like her!"
The other one guffawed, "Great point!" and they continued to laugh heartily as they stomped by.
Stunned, I took a few weightless steps (pun intended), letting the whole thing sink in, then I stopped dead in my tracks. I turned around and looked back down the mountain, as if I could watch an instant replay of what I'd just experienced. I started toward them, I wanted to say something.
"Hey!" I could say. "I heard what you said! And you’re not so hot either!” But I'd already lost them in the crowd.
And besides, what good would that do? Would I prove a point to a couple of self-absorbed assholes? Or would I, more likely, end up embarrassing myself by confronting strangers at the park? I knew trying to put them in their place would probably end up making me feel worse.
In fact, I’d already had an unpleasant confrontation with a stranger in Los Angeles. A few weeks earlier, I was at the dog park and I'd gotten into a bicker with another dog owner. I realize that makes me sound a little insane, and I am. The dog park is like a kids’ playground, except it's nuttier because it's dogs. So when you find yourself saying stuff like "She didn't do it on purpose," about a dog, you realize you've crossed a line you can't uncross.
Anyway, I was uselessly defending how much exercise my dog gets to another dog owner. "Actually, I walk her a lot," I said. "Well, you can't tell," he spat back. "She’s energetic,” I started, but he interrupted me. "No, I mean you can't tell that you walk a lot."
Now might be a good time to address just how overweight I am. I'm kidding! That doesn't matter! That's not even remotely the point! It's rude, hurtful and ignorant to bully anyone, no matter how they're different. I will say, I've been everything from kinda curvy to morbidly obese throughout my life. In fact, I lost over 100 pounds in my early twenties when my weight struggle was at an all-time high. And my body image is something with which I have a very storied relationship.
When you've got a personal challenge, bullies can smell it. They seem to know just by looking at you which buttons to press. So, in case I've been at all unclear, it doesn't matter if I'm a bit overweight, or if I'm the star of TLC's "My 600-lb Life." It's not right to shame someone for being different than you want them to be.
The other night, I was on my way to perform a show with my sketch comedy group. The venue only had street parking, so I'd parked a good distance away, and ended up having to walk down the steps of an overpass to get to the theater's entrance on the street below. There was a homeless man occupying the public staircase, so I did my best to step around him. He made a few kissy noises at me but I ignored him and continued down the stairs.
When I got to the street level, I still had a four lanes of traffic to cross to get to the venue, so I pressed the button and waited for the "walk" sign. Apparently, the guy hadn't lost interest yet, because I heard him calling at me from the staircase above, urging to me to cross the street, saying the cars weren't gonna stop and I just had to make a run for it. I continued to ignore him and when the traffic cleared, I hurried across, hoping he'd go away.
And that's when I heard him yelling down to me, proudly singing, "Oompa Loompa doo-ba-de-doo!!"
A guy standing above you singing a fat-shaming song in your honor is an experience most people probably won't get to have in life, and that's really too bad. Sure, it's painful, but it's also very funny.
My jaw dropped and I laughed, hard. I thought it was a pretty sophisticated insult. I just wasn't expecting it. I'd been on the receiving end of lots of commentary from homeless people after years living in New York City, but none of them ever remarked about my weight. It just wasn't something the East Coast's homeless population seemed to be concerned about. My purse, my dog, my shoes -- they had quips for all that stuff, but never my weight. In Los Angeles, even this man thought I was too fat.
So, what am I supposed to do? Should I assume LA just isn't a place for people past a certain pants size? Should I diet myself crazy, try to lose another 30 pounds? Maybe I should wear around a T-shirt that says, “Make fun of my weight & I’ll write a critical piece about you on the Internet!”
And for what? All so I can hope to walk around town without being called "huge," so I can avoid being serenaded with classic songs from "Willy Wonka"?
After years of being the not-so-thin person who inadvertently invites commentary from random strangers, I've figured out it’s best to ignore the bullies. They're not going anywhere. That day on the hike, I felt compelled to chase down the assholes who made fun of me, but I knew it wasn’t worth it. I took a deep breath, looked down at my dusty sneakers, turned, and continued onward and upward.