The First Time Someone Called Me Fat
December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
It happens to most women at some point in their lives. Many hear it as girls and develop major self-confidence issues or a thick skin or both. Some lucky ones call this nonsense by its true name. To quote a brilliant feminist academic I know and love, “It’s the patriarchy.” If you let it get you down, if you internalize that shit, then “they keep having the power.” Totally.
I have amazing friends who are part of movements to reclaim the word “fat” and decouple body size from health. This work is important. But I find myself consistently struggling to emotionally internalize the political ideals and feminist critiques that fill my reading, my writing, and conversations with friends. For far too long I have internalized the values of a culture that is quick to dismiss a woman’s value in a word, a culture that consistently shouts down my feminist superego.
This patriarchal body-shaming BS has wriggled so deep inside me that last night I found myself bursting into tears in a bar when a smart, funny, “nice” guy whom I had met the week before — whom I had had the balls to ask out the week before — told me that his friends had said I was fat. And I started crying. In a bar. In front of everyone.
“It’s the patriarchy.” I keep letting them have the power.
Why does that word continue to have such power over women? I have been called many many things in my day. I am not a stranger to being called ugly or annoying or stupid or uncool. But when I was younger it was par for the course, I was a hyper sensitive nerdy kid in public school. And I never let them see me cry. Or at least, I think, rarely.
But as I struggle to negotiate a hellish job market and singletonhood and a body that is changing as I get older, I find myself with all of my defenses down, and was so taken by surprise last night that I sat there and cried. And then asked why the hell he thought that was an acceptable thing to tell a woman.
Would I have cried had he called me a “buttaface”? Is fat different than ugly? Sarah Jessica Parker is a polarizing figure in the annals of American beauty. An ex-boyfriend who is intimately familiar with my own struggles to accept my face nevertheless persisted in joining the collective who call SJP “horseface.” But one thing Sarah Jessica Parker is not? Fat. Oh no! The degree of shame heaped on women whose bodies are not the “right” size comes from the particular way our Protestant society collapses the assessment of body size into assumptions about self-transformation and worth. Ugly people are ostracized or shamed and face discrimination in hiring, but fat people are a special disgrace in our culture because large bodies visibly defy vaunted principles of self-control and belief in self-transformation. This is why we shame fat people for eating. I direct you to the Fat Studies Reader if you’d like to learn more.
The point here is that fat is a particular kind of slur in our culture that fits into a larger pattern of dismissing a woman’s worth based on her appearance. So was it the word “fat” that did it to me last night or the incredible pain of knowing that I was sized up and dismissed in a moment? Actually, it’s more than that. The man I was with, to all appearances a smart, articulate, interesting, and politically-attuned fellow did not recognize that it is never appropriate to dismiss a person based on her appearance — to her face. He wasn’t the author of the dismissal, sure, and he professed that his friends are idiots, but at the moment he probably laughed. Or maybe he didn’t. I wasn’t there. But he didn’t know enough to realize that you do not ever share that kind of statement with a virtual stranger. You do not say to her face, my friends dismissed you because they thought you were fat and they thought I should dismiss you too.
He later explained to me that he doesn’t care what strangers think of him, so he didn’t consider that I would care or be bothered. First of all, that is epically obtuse. But it also is very revealing of a persistent problem with gender and empathy in our culture. I know that white heterosexual masculinity has some major problems, places an inordinate amount of pressure on men, and really needs to be reevaluated. But it’s not a zero sum game, this is not a contest. Feminist critiques of gender in our culture haven’t done any good if men still don’t understand, can’t empathize enough to recognize that their experience of criticism, their way of handling it, their particular emotional response to judgements of their bodies are not normative. If they can’t recognize that by relaying this kind of a judgement they are complicit in a real feminist problem. Because of “the patriarchy” many women experience these things quite differently. And it is never OK to dismiss a woman to her face about her body, even if you are merely relaying it secondhand.
These things can hurt men too. They hurt men a lot. But the entitlement to dismiss a woman based on her appearance, which we have recently seen enacted quite a bit in politics – politics! – this entitlement is powerfully gendered. And you’re not an educated man, a “sensitive” man, an “enlightened” man unless you have figured that out.
I suppose I can’t expect men to stop with this nonsense until I stop calling myself these things as well. Until I stop “giving in to the patriarchy.” I suppose I had my eyes opened last night about how easy it is to be so fragile even when you think you’re scrappy and strong. Sometimes you’re not your own worst critic. No, the voices in your head come from the world around you. And I wish we could make it stop.