“Aren’t You Uncomfortable?” And Other Bull$%!t Things We Assume About Fat People

No, I am not uncomfortable. This chair might be uncomfortable, and your assumptions might be uncomfortable. But I am just fine.

Dec 10, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Comfort on a garden swing!

“Doesn’t your... size... ever make you uncomfortable?”

The inquiry comes while I’m seated at an outdoor picnic table, from someone I had not expected to voice such a question. “What do you mean?”

“Like, you look kind of uncomfortable.”

I looked down at myself, sitting -- I thought -- in a completely comfort-neutral fashion on a bench. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I was thinking about how the sun was shining, and what a pretty day it was. I wasn’t even thinking about being fat.

“It HAS to be uncomfortable sometimes.” 

No. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t HAVE to be uncomfortable. Really.

I take ownership of my own comfort. When something comes along to threaten that discomfort, like a too-small chair, or a narrow turnstile, or a dress that doesn’t quite fit, or what-the-hell-ever, it doesn’t even occur to me anymore to blame my body, because it’s not my body making me uncomfortable -- it’s the thing that cannot accommodate me. 

Still, this is the kind of bullshit I have to listen to sometimes, comments that come attendant with the idea that I am somehow too stupid to know how I feel. I can tell people I don’t feel exhausted or uncomfortable, that I am not worn out from lugging my fattery around, but they want to correct me, they want to explain how I must be wrong, how I must feel those things -- maybe through my thick cushion of fat I’m just not getting the full force of it. Here, they’ll be happy to poke a little harder -- to help.  

I wouldn’t debate the notion that occasionally, fatness is probably uncomfortable for some people. I am well aware there are people in the world who find their own bodies to be unbearable. These are stories we hear all the time, everywhere, in weight-loss success tales and on reality TV diet competitions. But that’s not my life.

For me, my dimensions are just where I expect them to be. I am neither larger nor smaller than I anticipate. Even when my petticoat-covered bottom knocks the occasional salt or peppershaker off a table in a restaurant (and, um, this happens a LOT), I am not particularly surprised when it occurs. 

AND YET.

I know what people mean, when they see discomfort where none exists. I know because I’ve seen it too -- in pictures of myself, even, in circumstances where I know I wasn’t feeling fidgety or awkward or cramped. We all learn to process visual images through the media we consume, and given the limitations of how fat bodies are portrayed in media -- typically as the butts of jokes, or as sources of embarrassment, or as all-over defining plot points -- it’s not surprising that I might have even slightly internalized the idea that fat bodies as a rule look “uncomfortable.”

Because while I have spent a lot of energy over the past decade learning to look in other places, these mainstream portrayals still comprise a huge portion of what I see. Complicating things further is the fact that for all our handwringing and wailing over the Obesity Apocalypse, we do not actually live in a world that is super physically accommodating of larger bodies, and few things can make a person look uncomfortable more so than being in a space too small for them to exist. (Maybe we can call this Fat-Guy-in-a-Little-Coat Syndrome? Please?)

Last week, Salon published a piece entitled, “She’s fat, and I’m not,” about the struggles of a newly-thin woman to accept her fat girlfriend -- not because she has a problem with said girlfriend’s body (to her credit) but because her weight is sometimes a limitation in her life, preventing her from engaging in somewhat obvious activities like parachuting out of an airplane because of restrictive weight limits, but also limiting her ability to fly in comfort, or to find clothes that fit.

The author describes her girlfriend as “morbidly obese” -- a term that describes me as well, although I prefer “death fat” -- and has an honest and unusually sensitive debate about her struggle to share her own happiness in weight loss with her girlfriend, while also not wanting to pressure her or make her feel badly about herself (the same cannot be said of the commenters, one of whom predicts amputated legs for the girlfriend and a doomed life as a live-in nurse for the author should the couple stay together). 

The author, simply put, wants her girlfriend to be happy. The girlfriend, for her part, does not come across as particularly unhappy, nor particularly motivated to lose weight, and only mildly put out by those aforementioned limitations that come with being fat. So who is really uncomfortable here? 

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Comfort on a couch!

Most longtime fat people are keenly aware of everyone else’s comfort. Often more so than they are of their own. When I fly -- something I do several times a year -- I accept that I am going to be pretty miserable no matter what, and I tend to focus my energy on doing everything I can to ensure the comfort of those around me. 

Socially, this is what we expect of fat people -- we are meant to know that our bodies are an inconvenience, and we’re expected to apologize for them everywhere we go.

But there are also times when I don’t comply. If I’m in a restaurant with a booth that is truly uncomfortable, I will ask to be moved to a table. If I’m in a waiting room (or, in my grad school days, a classroom) filled only with narrow chairs with arms and no other options, I will cheerily sit on the floor. If I’m at the doctor for my annual physical and the paper gown they give me is too small, I don’t wear it -- actually in that case I’ve been known to sit on the table starkers until the doctor returns, just to make my point. (I’ll admit I have, like, zero modesty in medical situations.)

To some, these issues might themselves seem like worthwhile motivation to lose weight. Who wants to worry about something so banal as fitting in a chair? The difference is rather than fight a futile battle to lose weight, one that leads to a load of self-loathing and overall misery for me, and leading to a goal that I genuinely don’t give a crap about ever achieving, I’d rather there just be a chair that I could sit in. I don't have to fit every chair in the room, but it'd be nice if there were at least one.

On a different note, Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones has recently written about a reality TV show that followed contestants in a UK plus-size beauty pageant. The resulting column is amusing for a few reasons. 

For one, it cites Kim Kardashian as one of the “women with no flesh on their bones” fawned over by the media, when Kardashian is sort of famously (and hilariously) referenced as a “curvy” (which is, of course, code for “bigger”) female celebrity in the US. 

For another, Jones also describes the US as a place where fat women are often “celebrated rather than ridiculed.” Cultural relativism in action! I mean, I get that fats are probably more statistically common in the US, but at least in the UK you see legit fat people acting on TV, often in roles that have nothing to do with -- nor that even acknowledge -- their size.

But anyway, Jones goes on to describe her reaction to the pageant’s swimwear event:

The bikini-wear section features one woman who, at the sight of her acres of bare flesh, prompted me to exclaim: ‘Oh my God!’. I cannot help but gawp at her body — the sheer dimensions of it. She is a perfect cylinder shape. As a woman with body-confidence issues myself, I wonder if she would ever go on a beach like this? People would stare and point.

She’s right -- they would stare and point. Because that individual woman’s ability to be comfortable with herself in a bikini is still subject to the discomfort of other people who have to look at her on a public beach -- a discomfort, ironically, born of the fact that we see undressed fat bodies so rarely that they are unfamiliar and therefore discomforting to look at. So whose comfort is more important here?

Remarkably, for all her gawping and gasping, Jones’ exposure to these half-naked fat women does inspire some positive self-reflection, in which Jones ultimately concludes that seeing these women has changed her perspective for the better.

These women are not letting life pass them by — they are letting it all hang out. [...] Let’s not ostracise these women. Rather, let them wear ostrich feathers and spangles and whatever else the hell they like. 
[...] This film does not promote obesity — it says ‘live your life’. We will all be dead soon, all skinny once we are skeletons. Any woman who is thinking of embarking on a pre-Christmas diet, watch this and don’t weep, but celebrate instead.

It is pretty magical when fat women can manage to be self-accepting even in the midst of a culture that tells us self-hatred is compulsory, and that self-love is impossible in a body that exceeds a certain number of pounds. And yet, that magic happens, all the time.

For me, being fat isn’t like wearing a suit or a costume, and it’s not like carrying a big backpack full of lard. It’s normal. If I’m tired, it’s because I’m tired. If I’m uncomfortable, it’s because this chair sucks. But it’s not because I am fat. 

Back at that picnic table, after my self-assessment, the helpful comments regarding my comfort and well-being had not stopped, in spite of my plainspoken feelings. “But don’t you ever think you might feel better if you lost weight?” If fat people look so uncomfortable to you, maybe it’s you that is the cause.

“You’re making me uncomfortable, right now,” I said. “Was that the point?”

And I got my fat ass up and walked -- quite contentedly -- away.