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So, I’m angry. I’m not going to try to hide that because I have every right to be angry and I want you to understand that in advance. Recently, I was in Charleston visiting family, and I went into a clothing store and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter.
At first glance, this seemed like a really interesting exchange. She was in her 60s, thin with funky two-toned hair, spoke liberal, and was very excited to hear that I was a documentary film producer.
“What is your film about?” She asked.
As you can imagine this is a canned answer for me, one I’ve practiced and know down to the syllable. So my response sounded exactly like this: “My film exposes how popular culture fosters weight bias and fat hate, and then offers an alternative way of thinking -- embracing body acceptance at all sizes. It’s called 'Fattitude'.”
Honestly, 90% of people reply to this in one of two ways. Either they say, “Wow, great title” or they say, “Oh, I should be in your movie.”
This particular woman was one of the latter.
She explained her life-long struggle with body image and food, noting years of purging and undiagnosed bulimia. She said she was lucky to be alive and that she had “healed” herself -- her term not mine. I genuinely felt sympathy for her. Her struggle wasn’t well-suited to the conversation in our film, but it was clear that she had experienced the brutal pressure that many of us feel when it comes to body weight and body image.
And then the conversation changed.
She began to talk about how she was proud that she didn’t ever "really let herself go," and for a second I thought she tilted her head in my direction. At this point I should probably tell you that I’m a fat woman, like for real. I’m not a few pounds over my ideal size. I buy my clothes in plus size departments and weigh over 200 pounds.
To be honest, in the moment, I wasn’t really sure if this particular stranger was signaling to my body as an example of that which has been “let go.” I had to check my paranoia meter. As a fat woman, people have a tendency to talk to me about my body and assume I live in a state of body hatred, so over time I’ve gotten a little hypersensitive to people’s negative comments, and therefore I might think someone is talking smack when they’re just babbling or twitching. To accommodate this sensitivity of mine, I tend to let a situation saturate for a minute or two and see what happens before I speak up.
In this case the woman cleared up my suspicions that she was implying that my body was less than worthy a few sentences later when she said, “I mean if I had your body type I’d kill myself.”
What do you do with that?
A decade ago I would have hated her.
I would have seen her behavior as a product of an ugly personality and a bad person. I might have cried and I would have definitely felt shame. But the thing is this isn’t an isolated experience unique to a particular person.
Lots of people, kind people, who I know well, who do good deeds and shower the world with positive vibes, talk to me or my family members about my body in a negative way. These generally kind people assume that this an okay practice because my body is fat. Let me give you some examples of people assuming that my fat body is or has been an atrocity for me:
Assumption 1: Being my thin mother’s daughter was a nightmare.
A couple of years ago I was having lunch with my mother and a friend of hers. My mother is a tiny woman whose body type is pretty much in line with the culture’s ideal. She’s thin, somehow still curvy and has a gorgeous mane of red hair. Her friend is a smart, educated woman who busily dedicates herself to helping every cause on the planet. We were in a salad joint, all eating leafy greens, when my mom’s friend asked me if it was hard growing up looking like I did and having a beautiful thin mother.
I hope I don't have to tell you why this is ignorant. Growing up was great, thank you very much.
Assumption 2: My husband doesn’t find me appealing.
Making "Fattitude" has been an interesting and sometimes harrowing experience because it stirred up the dark troll-y corners of the Internet. While we were being stalked by trolls, my husband ran into a client of his who is a totally decent guy -- albeit a little straight-laced for my tastes. My husband relayed the nightmare we were going through and the client asked my husband if he was worried about the stress of the situation causing me to gain weight and become more unappealing.
Seriously. This man actually said that. TO MY HUSBAND.
Assumption 3: I’m at the gym because I want to lose weight.
I go to the gym three times a week, like clockwork. Gyms are notoriously known to be environments where fat-shaming occurs, which is counterintuitive, but whatever. The gym I go to is small and all the people there would wave at each other if they were passing at the mall, but we are not friends.
More than once one of these complete strangers has walked up to me and said something like, “I’ve been watching and you are really working hard. Bravo. I’m sure you’ll see the difference soon.” They are trying to be encouraging, but let’s face it, they are actually condescending and their comments are based on the assumption that I’m working hard at the gym because I hate my ass.
I'm not looking to change. I just want to stay healthy because guess what? I am.
Assumption 4: Fat-shaming others in front of me is fine.
This has happened so many times that there are a million stories I could tell, but I’m going to go with a beach scene. I’m 20. I’m in college. I’m at the beach with my entire crew -- a gaggle of social justice dorks who pride themselves on knowing terms like intersectionality and heteronormative. I’m not brave enough yet to wear a bikini, so I’m in a black tankini with giant red flowers all over it. Admittedly, we’re drinking underage and laughing and talking and a woman, who is maybe a size 12, walks by.
She is wearing a bikini and someone says, “Really, who does she think she is? She’s too fat to wear that. She shouldn’t even be here.”
People laugh. Not one of my super-smart cool colligate peers even considers the idea that I am also in a bathing suit on the beach and I’m easily a size 16.
How do people not know? How can someone look me in the eye and say, “If I had your body I’d kill myself,” and not for a second realize that this is more than marginally insulting?
The answer is simple. And honestly, it’s not that I’m surrounded by asshats, although I can easily see why you might think so.
The treatment I receive is the result of an unchecked cultural prejudice. In other words, the belief that a fat body is unacceptable, unwelcome, unwanted and unappealing runs so deep that people cannot begin to imagine that what they are saying is unwarranted or unkind.
So, I’m angry. I wrote this because I need to tell the world that it is messed up to assume that fat people hate their bodies, and I’m choose to channel my anger in a way that might change a mind or two.
P.S. My body is amazing.