It Has Its Down Sides, Too
The great mystery of why people become and remain fat has forever intrigued and, simultaneously, grossed people out. Fat people talking about being fat has to be one of the most embarrassing scenarios that exist – for everyone involved. Even if someone is just a little overweight and wants to rap about it, no one can sit still. The room gets all dee-doo-doo, kicking the dirt with a toe. If the conversation is in writing (like here and now), there’s the big question mark regarding how large the author is, as if knowing will make the piece somehow more or less valid, and determine not whether, but just how embarrassing the piece is. For everyone.
Just assume I’m a girl. A girl who lives with her lover, and trudges through her workdays at a job she maligns, who generally makes a solid effort to look fly, and wants more than anything to write novels and novels and novels. Assume I’m a chick whose ordinary life sometimes crashes up against bullshit scenarios like this:
In an elevator, after a period of substantial and noticeable weight loss which brought me from really pretty fat to what every uncreative word-mincer loves to call “curvy” (aka the average size of the human American female), a skinny chick, who’s “struggled” with the same 5 pounds for most of her adult life, says to me, “You must feel soooo great.”
Let’s go back a second. We’re in an elevator, okay? Only a skinny chick who has no idea what it feels like to have been a single fat woman in New York City would bring up someone else’s weight loss in a stupid place like an elevator. In an elevator, there’s no time for a substantial conversation on the matter. She’s mistaking my body, and everything it’s been through, as something appropriate for small talk. The question in itself (if it’s even a question), is insulting, and the venue only makes it worse.
Next, it presupposes that I have or had as much of a problem with how I look or looked as she does or did. She’d hadn’t considered that I like taking up a little space. That I’m proud of how my body can fill a below the knee rib-knit tube dress from here to tomorrow in a way three of her bodies never could. That having the physique of a woman from another century suits me just fine. And that if given the genie-in-a-lamp opportunity to change anything at all, I’d probably choose a little more height over a little less thickness.
But all that aside… I think on what she’s said.
I think on it, and as the doors open at my floor I shrug and say, “Losing weight. It has its downsides, too.” I step off and look back, and as the doors close between us I see the look on her face. Perplexed doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s something – despair, maybe? – mixed with confusion, and she says, “Like what?!” It’s too late, though. The lift brings her to her office upstairs, where she’ll go through her workday and wrap up around five, and leave in her gym outfit, walking quickly through the unforgiving streets of New York in spandex pants, never knowing what it feels like to be mocked openly for being fat by any stranger who’s had a bad day, or worse, to be ignored altogether as if she isn’t even a woman.
If there’d been time to answer, here’s what I’d say.
As I see it, there are three downsides to losing copious amounts of weight in one fell swoop. These are them, in order of least to most devastating:
Thin, I feel overexposed. Scrutinized. Judged. Dissected. And it’s not just the men. I catch women – of the straight and narrow sort – checking me out. And it’s not a, “gee, I wonder where you got those boots” check-out. It’s an unrelenting hair to toes checklist. I imagine the inner dialog is a compare and contrast of their own litany of insecurities. Something like – her hair is nicer, but her ass is way bigger…
Fat, I feel basically invisible (with the exception of your average subway degenerate, frequent Mexican busboys, occasional Dominican doormen, and black men over fifty, who all love the shit out of my body no matter what state it’s in). You know who checks fat women out in the street? Other fat women. Except there’s a code. One mustn’t stare. The thin girl-on-girl scan is a free for all, decorum be damned. The fat girl-on-girl check out is a much more subtle peripheral thing, lest either of us expose an insecurity. We have to be tough, right? We’re fine as we are. Fine as in okay, and fine as in fine. Doesn’t matter how we add up to someone else.
There’s something to be said, though, about walking down the street, and not having anyone look at you. There are the downsides to that, which I made clear just a few short paragraphs ago, but sometimes you want to be left alone. This one is a little confusing for me, because fat or thin, I rock my big tits. What I mean is, I wear low cut clothing. And I like it when people look. That’s something that’s true. I also find a certain solace in knowing that sometimes people don’t notice. That’s also true.
So I lose a bunch of weight, and my skirts get shorter. My jeans get tighter. I might walk a little sexier, I dunno. And at the same time, I complain that I have no privacy in the street. Guess what, world. I’m one more multi-faceted person in a world full of complicated, contradictory people.
The point is, it’s quite a thing to get used to being invisible, to carrying out your day like it’s your own business and no one else’s. Then another day, you’ve become something of everyone else’s scrutiny, a breathing object of desire or scorn. It’s a vulnerable contradiction. It can be jarring and even scary, and there are only two options. One is to dress dowdy, to cover my body and leave it unadorned (which is not actually an option in my world). The other, of course, is to become invisible again.
Relationships with men
This one’s pretty simple.
Where before it was easy to call up a guy-friend, and meet up to kick it, now his girlfriend comes along. If she doesn’t feel like it, they’re both unavailable. I’m never able to ascertain if it’s talked about (“I don’t want you to see her without me”) or if it’s just one of those unspoken things that’s made plain through all those learned relationship cues.
Male coworkers are a problem, too. It’s not like I catch them masturbating to my photo on the corporate intranet or anything. It’s something that occurs in casual conversation – a new impediment to communication. Eye contact is more of a challenge. Casual banter becomes stilted. There’s less lingering around in the kitchen after lunch. It’s particularly the married men, or the ones in relationships, though no straight male seems exempt from the post weight loss discomfort.
I’d think it was about a feeling of disloyalty to their partners, but since the single guys are not immune I’ve developed another theory. I think it’s an inability to reconcile an attraction to a prior fatty. Plain and simple. I’m not of the feminist opinion that men are the doltish, lumbering counterparts to wise and agile females. However … I think it’s fair to say that the male mind is generally uncomplicated. I believe an equation like – I was previously unmoved by this woman, and I’m now moved by her. This is confusing. – might be to what I can attribute the newfound discomfort.
Built in Asshole Detector
The most difficult thing – the worst aspect of this whole shit show – is not knowing the truth about people sooner. I wonder sometimes if maybe this is why, no matter how many times we get thin, we get fat again. And by we, I mean me + all the rest of us.
When you’re fat, certain people treat you a certain way. It’s impossible for some people to see through fatness. These people write a fat person off, straight up. They tend to be innately shallow, and not worth any effort at all. They make themselves known, and disappear. Happily, their feathers are often easy to ruffle, so you can have a little fun with them, too.
There are those people who see your fatness, but are able to work around it. They see the fatness always – the way some people always see the color of someone else’s skin – but they don’t “mind”, per se. If you can say that. They’re friendly with you, but you’re never just a person to them. You’re a person who’s definitely fat. While they treat you decently, it’s evident that your fatness makes them lean in one direction or the other in the decisions they make about how to perceive you moment to moment. Sometimes this breed is especially kind, sometimes immeasurably fickle. Unlike people with more covert compulsions, your vulnerability is on constant display when you’re fat, and so sometimes with people like this, you become an obvious target to collect their disappointments – either by something underhanded, or by being a friendly receptacle into which they feel all too free to dump their own woes.
Finally there are those wonderful and rare ones who don’t seem to see the fatness at all. They see the people people are, and make their decisions about relationships based on that alone.
The final category is the safety zone. The rest are full of danger, particularly that middle group.
When you’re fat, you know who’s who. No one’s wearing masks. You know right away who the good guys are, and you do what you need to do to protect yourself from the bad ones. The middle ones are trial and error, but with any degree of awareness, you figure it out. Thinner, these walls come down, and everyone is a potential maggot.
The differences in the way the world treats me from the top to the bottom of my scale, if you could somehow sketch it out and animate it in a tangible way, would break your heart to bits. It’s more than the difference in subway seating (fat: audible moans and groans when I try to take a seat. thin: seats offered). It’s full of subtle moments of heartbreak. And based on everything we know about fat people – they’re sad, and hiding, and harboring all sorts of devastation related to sexual abuse and other trauma, right? – it seems like this story would play out worse on the fatter side. But that’s not how it goes. With fatness comes a certain spidey sense, at least in my case, that’s my built in asshole detector. Thinner, I’m not as sure who’s who. Anyone has the potential to suck. And in this way, the whole world becomes a faceless mob full of potential liars, and every kindness feels like a trick.
I don’t particularly like writing things about fatness. I think this piece is less lucid then some of my others, and I’m at a loss for how to iron it out because this is such a tender topic. I don’t like the thought of people reading this. I’m not going to send this one to my friends, and I don’t like the idea of you sending it to yours, mostly because people tend to say the same shit.
“Very brave,” for example.
“You’re beautiful!” That’s a popular one. Here’s a thought on that: Fat people don’t always require reminding. When I’m thin, people don’t tell me I’m pretty half as much as they do when I’m fat.
I’m pretty sure that fat or not my self esteem is in better shape than most of the thin girls I know, and when you make a big deal about how I’m pretty, it just makes me feel unattractive.
Let’s, perhaps, try to avoid hyperbole all around if you feel the need to respond. Consider it a personal favor to me.
So. In summation. Losing weight is not the end of everything. The newly thinner aren’t skipping through their lives in a state of self-satisfied revelry. Pachelbel’s motherfucking canon is not the private soundtrack to a freshly enlightened existence. We’re still ourselves, carrying around the same burdens, the same heartbreaks, the same desires and all the rest.
People make a lot of assumptions. About everyone, fat or not. That’s how we spend our whole day, practically – hearing words come out of other people’s mouths and then assuming we know what they hell they’re talking about. All of it, though, every last action and reaction, is filtered through all the conduits of our past experiences, passed through the mesh of each of our complicated stories. So that nothing is seen or perceived quite as it was meant to be.
When some skinny chick assumes aloud that prior to weight loss I felt lousy, and that post weight loss I “must feel sooo great”, she’s really just talking about herself. That five pounds she’s mentioned struggling with might have caused her much more emotional havoc than forty or seventy or even a hundred pounds has caused me in the long run. What I hear come out of her mouth is an ignorant assumption, but what’s hidden beneath is something that runs deep for her. Something I’m not able to understand or relate to. It’s hard, though. To remember that all the things people have to say and think about you aren’t about you at all.