The Gifts of Fatness

I know how hard it is to walk through the world in a fat body, but you are stronger for it

Photo by Mari Pa on Unsplash

I was 19 years old the first time someone told me I was going to die.

I was at a work event, and I was dishing up catering, welcoming attendees who made their way through the line. An older man, well dressed, smiled as he accepted the plate of food I handed him. In the midst of an assembly line job, I was grateful for a kind face and bright eyes, and I smiled back.

“When did you put on all that weight, sweetie?” he asked me. Stunned, I didn’t respond — my face froze, smile turning into a mask of a grimace.

“Was it when your dad left?” he asked. Still, I couldn’t respond. I was reeling, my brain struggling to make sense of what was happening. I had been doing my job — a job I loved, was good at, and was proud of — and then this sharp turn left me woozy and whiplashed. Who was this stranger? Why was he asking me these questions? And why did he stay so unsettlingly friendly while feeling so entitled to draw conclusions about my family, my history, my emotions, all based solely on the shape of my body?

I opened my mouth, but no words came. I wasn’t sure I wanted to respond. My silence didn’t stop him.

“You don’t have to die just to spite him. And you are going to die.”

I stood there, dumbfounded, at once feeling the humiliation that comes with being judged so readily, and a deep, bewildered kind of anger that I had never felt before. I was burning, incinerating myself from the inside out with rage. Still, my body wouldn’t move. I was frozen like some living sculpture, and he was the passerby happily critiquing my performance.

My co-worker stood next to me, her face a wrench of shock, frozen in place, just like mine. After our event, the two of us talked about that stranger for hours. She couldn’t shake him. Neither could I. His specter haunted us both.

In the coming years, I came to realize that behavior like his wasn’t the exception — it was the norm. Something about the simple sight of a fat body called out the worst in strangers, acquaintances, friends, neighbors, colleagues — nearly everyone. I came to learn that that stranger wasn’t a prophet, just an entitled man revealing himself to any fat person he saw. He didn’t have any insight, any divine power, just judgment. I was the one who had seen straight through him.

This was one of the many risks, I learned, in moving through the world as a fat person in the only body I have. The body that everyone seems so eager to tell me they don’t want to see, touch, even know about, much less love. I know you’ve learned it, too. We have both lived so long in such reviled skin.

I know how hard it is to walk through the world in such a maligned vessel: what it’s like to hide it, to make excuses for it, to apologize preemptively, knowing that the blame will follow. I know what it’s like to sweat through the summer, wearing long sleeves and sweatshirts because so many people feel entitled to comment on what you should or shouldn’t be wearing. It’s easier to swallow that heat and shoulder constant discomfort than the constant and excruciating reminders of how proudly so many thin people express their disgust and disapproval of fat bodies.

I know the shallow breath, the racing heartbeat when you meet someone new, knowing they haven’t revealed themselves to you yet, but they will soon. Waiting with deep anxiety for the moment they talk about “some fat chick” or “she was huge” or “what is he doing with her?” Preemptively dissociating in anticipation of endless diet talk, or the condescending lectures that so many people seem to consider a favor to you, because they’re “just concerned about your health.” Waiting for the prestige, the grand entrance of the logic of abuse: “I wouldn’t hurt you if you didn’t make me.”

I know the sheer will it takes to stay alive when the rest of the world is telling you that you’re going to die anyway.

I know the downcast eyes when you board a bus, while busy hands move bags to the empty seats, the whole bus signaling just how unwanted you are. The wince and sharp intake of breath when a medical tech announces she’ll have to weigh you — as if you didn’t already know you were fat.

I know the restraint it takes not to cry or shout when your partner tells you she’s just not attracted to you anymore — not in that way. The sheer will it takes to stay alive when the rest of the world is telling you that you’re going to die anyway. The hope you protect and feed, the tiniest flame in such raging winds, and somehow manage never to extinguish.

I know the extraordinary work it takes just to call a truce with your own embattled body. The strength required to withstand conversations with thinner friends, expounding on their hatred of their own bodies, proudly oblivious to the judgments they pass about your body every day. The fortitude needed to get up and go to the gym again, even after that stranger tried to film you, sniggering, from two treadmills over, or after another stranger said “good for you,” her voice dripping with condescension. The determination it takes to overcome the hot shame that floods your face when you learn that your BMI makes you uninsurable.

I know the wave of sadness, longing, hurt, anger when your favorite fat celebrity becomes a Weight Watchers spokesperson, extolling the virtues the rest of the world is so ready to tell you you’ll never have. I know the isolation of living in a world that constantly, violently pulls your body away from you, insists it is a mark of shame; then force-feeds you an endless parade of reductive punchlines, well-intended hatred, and doomsday prophesies, all to cultivate that hatred within your own veins, marrow, cells. I know the sad realization of recognizing that a culture that so violently hates fat people has annexed your self-esteem, making you a perpetual motion machine that does its work for it.

There is no amount of demonstrated effort that will end those comments, satisfy those who would wish you ill. No amount of dieting, no surgery, no personal trainer, no weight loss will teach you to expect more of the world, much less to demand it. No virtuoso performance of good health or fat shame will teach you to accept affirmation when it arrives, take a compliment, or recognize the gifts you’ve been given, just from moving through the world in the body you have.

As difficult as it may be for both of us to see now, our endlessly vilified bodies, raised and burned so readily as twin effigies, have provided us with such extraordinary gifts.

Your slandered body has made you an extraordinary judge of character, seeing through to the heart of anyone you meet in mere seconds.

Like my 19-year-old self, you have a superpower that thinner people do not. People reveal themselves to you in ways they never do with thinner people. They readily show you their condescension, their missionary noblesse oblige, their ruthless judgment, their harshest selves. Your slandered body has made you an extraordinary judge of character, seeing through to the heart of anyone you meet in mere seconds.

Moving through the world as a fat person has made you exquisitely resilient. Where thin people can only imagine silent judgment as their worst fate, fat people know what lurks beyond that judgment — the ready harassment and eager discrimination that follows. We have seen it, we have lived it, we have survived it, and increasingly, we have learned to laugh in its face. We have seen and survived so much, you and I, and it has brought us both such strength.

Your life as a fat person may also have endowed you with a deep capacity for empathy. You have seen the dark underbelly of so many otherwise well-intentioned people, have seen the way their treatment warps and buckles when faced with a body of which they don’t approve. You still have so much to learn, so many communities to learn to be accountable to, but the concept of well-intended harm isn’t foreign to you. You are willing to entertain the idea that even good people can cause harm, and that systems can be stacked against any of us.

You have become a master of emotional jujitsu, a David learning to wield Goliath’s strength and might for your own defense. You have learned to dodge street harassment and flight attendants, dismissive doctors and judgmental family members. You have seen so much, survived what you shouldn’t have had to survive, and emerged as a gray-eyed master of your own self-defense.

You have seen the other side of rejection, of dismissal, of judgment, of discrimination. You have taken on the daring feat of deciding not to hate yourself, and you walk its high wire nearly every day, defying gravity and proving yourself a death-defying acrobat. You have withstood accusations of “glorifying obesity,” of self-deception. Your body has been named an unwilling combatant in some “war on obesity,” and through all of that, you have survived, persisted, learned to thrive. You are staggeringly strong, now irrepressible where others have so often tried to repress you. Even in the face of billowing winds, your pilot light stays lit. Your strength is nothing short of a miracle.

You are not buoyed by thinness, not bolstered by a false sense of security from the shape of your body, and so you have had to reckon with and build the person you want to be. You have learned to be true to yourself — that approval isn’t coming, so you need only make yourself into the person you want to be. In the face of extraordinarily limited clothing options — a limitation many straight-size people cannot even imagine — you have forged your own style, building something out of nothing at all. You have cultivated a personality that suits you, learned to focus on your value to yourself, your community, your family, your people. You know who you are, and you know what you value.

Like me, you may have been fat your whole life. Or maybe you’re newly fat, still smarting from the abrupt and unceremonious rejection that so suddenly surrounded you. Maybe you are still longing for weight loss, still pining for the shining city on a hill that thinness so often promises, but so rarely delivers. Whoever you are, whatever the story of your body, your experience as a fat person has shown you a side of the world so many don’t see. It has taught you, you have learned, you have grown, and you are stronger in ways you never should’ve needed to be.

You are free where so many are bound. You have questioned the naturalness of hating yourself. You have seen what happens when you don’t. You have seen the worst-case scenario — you have dared to become fat — and still, you thrive.

My greatest hope for you isn’t that you embrace all of this hurt and harm as some secret gift. It isn’t that you naturalize or celebrate all of the ways your body has been pushed to the margins, so readily demonized and eulogized even while you live.

No, my greatest hope for you, my darling, is that you recognize these extraordinary strengths, that you find other fat people with gifts like your own, and that we all band together, shoulder to shoulder, to tear down this world and build a new one — one with less hurt, less rejection, and brave new mistakes to make.

Your Fat Friend writes about the social realities of living as a very fat person.

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