Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about being fat. You can read it here, if you’ve somehow gotten to this story without having read that one.
In the piece, I tell a story through a series of rules. The rules are for fat people, and talk about lowered expectations, conditional love, acceptability through making yourself small. The story is about about being sliced to ribbons by societal expectations, about protection through camouflage, about less joy and more sorrow. It is a story about shrinking, inward if not down. It is a story about disappointment.
It is my story, but it is not just my story.
I wrote it because I was having a hard day, on top of a hard week, on top of a hard couple of months. On top of a hard few years. On top of a hard life.
I don’t make it easy for myself. I joined a study that’s about weight loss, because I know that a lot of weight loss studies draw conclusions about what’s possible based on the people who stay in those studies — which is to say, based on the people who are successful at losing some weight, at least temporarily, because those are the people who stay in weight loss studies. I do not expect to lose any substantial amount of weight — I have proved again and again that this is impossible for me. I am only trying to improve the science, plus they pay a little.
I started dieting when I was about 11, and I have been on every diet you don’t have to pay for. Atkins? Yup. Low fat? For years. Calorie counting? I have used notebooks, excel sheets, apps, homemade deal-a-meal cards. Veganism? First year of college (I gained 20 pounds.) Grapefruit? With and without cottage cheese. Intermittent fasting? I’m doing that now — breakfast makes me nauseous. Full blown, undiagnosed, restrictive eating disorder? Try the entire last half of the ‘90’s. So I’m vaguely familiar with the routine.
The study is pitching a pretty standard weight-loss plan — they gave us a copy of the DASH diet book. It’s one of the heart-healthy diets that tells you to eat more plants and go light on the braunschweiger. They have shown us the pound of fat vs a pound of muscle, and the disgusting rubber portion sizes of various foods, and chair yoga. They have walked us through a pricey grocery store with a terrible dietician who pushed us toward more expensive pasta because she said it had a lower glycemic index. They have once again entrusted us with the secrets of macros and calories; we have each set a goal weight and outlined our personal plan. We have made lists of barriers to weight loss. We have committed to meal prep. We are prepared.
I did not list the physical impossibility of keeping weight off as one of my barriers, even though it is. I don’t want to make anyone upset. I tell you, though: being shown — again — how to read a nutrition label by a girl who weighs a third of what I do and was not yet born when I first started dieting burns a little. It shouldn’t matter that she is blonde, and tall, but it does.
The day I wrote the rules for fitting in, I was coming off a particularly brutal class, where we set our weight-loss goals, and a particularly brutal rest of the week where some dude at the gym thought that it was acceptable gym behavior to stand behind the squat rack, stare at me, and sigh for my whole workout AND some woman at the thrift store turned sideways to get through the aisle behind me when there was more than enough room. I felt like a freak. I felt like a mess. I felt like I would never belong anywhere.
It’s easy to feel that way, still.
After 20 years of trying I’m getting better.
But I didn’t want to write about those things, not exactly. That essay about the rules for being fat isn’t some disaster biography, a history of the ways my body betrays me or the ways society betrays me or the litany of who has judged me for walking around in my fat skin. Other people have written that, better than I could. I don’t know if there’s anything new to say about hormones, about stares, about how many pieces of cake I’m required to publicly turn down in my life before I am infused with an aura of permanent grace that will allow me to eat carbs in front of people.
What I did have was advice, a warning, if you will, a cautionary tale for fat people who are living their lives in the most virtuous possible way. I wanted them — us? — to know that it is true for everyone on this side of the weight distribution that the world is too small and everyone looks at you funny when you act like a normal person with normal needs. I wanted my thin friends to have a sense of what it feels like to be both invisible and unmissable, obvious and unnoticed. I wanted my fat friends to feel seen. I wanted people to admit what happens to people like me in the world.
And I got some of that. For a couple of days, on Facebook, I got feedback that let me feel like I was helping people feel better about themselves, and especially helping them feel less alone.
I also got a lot of other, stranger, stuff.
A lot of people thought I was asking for sympathy. I will admit: there is an element of that. It’s terrible to be in pain, and walking through the world fat is to be in a state of constant pain. But I wasn’t trying to make people feel sorry for me; I was trying to let them know I saw them and how the world was hurting them. I was asking if they could really see me.
I don’t want pity, just acknowledgement.
Some people thanked me for being so honest, which still feels a little weird. I suppose it’s honest to take your experience and distill it down to something universal, but I only write things like that when I can’t not write them — my default is not to write anything. If you have no choice but to tell the truth, is it still honest? I’m not sure. It feels the same as being called brave when you weren’t afraid, or being called faithful when you weren’t thinking about straying. It’s confusing.
One thing that came up several times was people telling me the ways they doubt themselves, especially when those things were not about their body, or reminding me that I was a strong, incredible woman, or telling me that I have a powerful writing voice. And I get it — when people write hard things, when people say they’ve had a hard day, when people reach out in pain we want to help them feel better. But that’s not what this was about.
Because the goal wasn’t finding help for my sadness — I have other routes for that. When I need help, I reach out directly. My goal, in writing, was to call out society’s sin.
We are cruel to all kinds of people, and many of them far more and far worse than to the fat. I’m not the only one with a claim on being dehumanized; being bullied and looked down on for being fat is not the only, or even the worst, way that it happens to me. It was just the way that the world was burning me that day, just the thing that had been brought to my attention. This time. Being fat was the thing that the terrible voice in my head was using to stab me in the hindbrain.
And I wrote about it, and about the messages we hear from the world, and some people got it, and some didn’t.
One person really didn’t. I got accused of trolling.
Now, I’m from the early days of the internet. If I am trolling you, you will know: I am neither subtle nor kind.
I apologized (past aside, I’m from the midwest: I can’t help apologizing to strangers) and told her that no, I’m not trying to tell fat people not to live real lives or to sink into despair. I’m just sharing the unwritten rules we’re asked to live by. Because if we can’t say the quiet things loud, if we can’t listen to people’s real arguments, we can never refute them.
She told me I was depressed.
Now, I’ve been depressed (see above, “the entire last half of the ‘90’s”), but I’m not depressed this year. This year, I’m fed up, and I’m angry.
I’m fed up with disparagement, with judgement, and with shame, and I’m fed up with the burden and I’m fed up with the fight. I’m fed up with being marginalized no matter what I do and I’m fed up and I’m getting up and trying to set it right.