How to Support Your Fat Friends, as a Straight Size Person

Fat people don’t need more diet talk and body shame — we need straight size friends who speak out against anti-fat bias

Photo: AllGo — An App For Plus Size People/Unsplash

II was late for staff meeting. It was one of my colleagues’ birthdays, and I’d slipped out to buy his favorite chocolate chip coconut cookies from a neighborhood bakery. I arrived just in time to sing happy birthday with the rest of the staff and send the box of oversized cookies around the table while we worked through our weekly agenda. Most colleagues happily took a cookie or quietly passed. Halfway around the table, though, the cookies stopped with Dave.

Previously fat, Dave had found the gospel of calorie-counting and was hell-bent on conversion and penance. His diet talk had taken over the office, and it became evident that anyone who needed to talk to Dave would have to endure lengthy monologues about the perils of car culture, the dangers of saturated fats, and an endless stream of reflections on the relative virtues of whatever foods were in the room. Few of us had the fortitude to eat lunch in his presence. His comments lingered in the no man’s land between diet evangelism and diagnosable disordered eating. Regardless of their etiology, Dave’s comments regularly involved cruel and vocal judgments of the bodies of those around him.

I was the fattest person in the office, which meant I heard the most of Dave’s diet laments and food critiques. He lingered in my doorway, warning me about trans fatty acids and the dangers of “visceral fat,” gesturing toward my stomach. “That thing’s gonna be your death sentence,” he’d said one day, pointing at my wide, soft belly as I tucked into a stir-fry. Since then, I had taken to closing my office door or walking to a nearby park to eat, just to save myself and my meal the unwelcome scrutiny.

But on the day of our staff meeting, we were celebrating. Our director was sharing updates when Dave interrupted her, mid-sentence, to weigh his birthday cookie options aloud.

“I had my last 150 calories two hours ago, and I’m not supposed to have my next 150 for another hour and a half,” he announced, voice cutting through the director’s. 20 pairs of eyes turned to him. He continued, seemingly unaware of our collective gaze. “If I have half a cookie, I’ll have to spend another hour and a half in the gym tonight,” he sighed, overwhelmed. “They look so good. But I’d better not.”

Thinking Dave was finished, the director returned to her announcements before his sharp voice cut through again.

“I am down two and a half pounds this week,” Dave went on, heaving another belabored sigh. “So I could afford a cookie, or at least part of one. But nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

While the rest of the staff was happily enjoying their cookies or contentedly forgoing them, Dave felt compelled to show his work like an elementary school student. Somehow, it wasn’t enough that he felt so much anguish and ambivalence over a simple chocolate cookie. Dave performed his conflicted despair for all of us. Like me, the rest of the staff looked on quizzically, trying to make sense of what was happening. The director had once again fallen silent.

At long last, Dave decided against a cookie. He heaved one final, noisy sigh, and passed the box to the next person — one of my best friends. My friend, straight-sized and muscular, watched Dave for another minute, blinking blankly before choosing his words. He turned his attention to the box of cookies, now in front of him.

“I could have a cookie but they’re so good, I can’t just have one,” he announced. “If I have two, I’ll be happier because they’re so delicious. But I don’t know if everyone will get one. But Cathy and Will both skipped theirs, so there might be enough? I just don’t know what to do.”

My friend heaved a belabored sigh before taking two large cookies, smiling at me confidentially, and happily tucking in. Dave did not seem to notice his send-up, staying focused on removing the chocolate chip cookie from his mind.

I felt a wave of relief and sudden, defiant freedom. Someone else had noticed this bizarre display, this strange performance of thin piety and virtue. For once, someone else had found it ridiculous, laughable, strange, and unsettling.

AsAs a very fat person, and as the fattest person in most rooms where I live, diet talk is a constant. Nearly everywhere I go, people much thinner than me are eager to tell me everything they’re doing to avoid looking like me. Without knowing what I eat or how I move, they confidently tell me I’m eating myself into an early grave. It is surreal, being followed by a Greek chorus so eager to foretell my untimely death, seemingly relishing the opportunity to make me a martyr to their cause.

But it doesn’t end with diet talk. Strangers remove items from my grocery cart. They recommend weight loss surgeons without so much as a hello. Some shout slurs and insults from passing cars, even in my otherwise progressive hometown.

Not only are fat people expected to shoulder the burden of endless social stigma, we’re also expected to internalize it, bottle it up, and understand it as the natural consequence of our defiant bodies.

When I tell thin friends about these experiences, they shrug before my sentences are even finished. “What did you do to prompt it?” “They were probably just trying to do you a favor.” “Maybe you misheard them. I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.”

Time after time, thinner friends have minimized, dismissed, and recasted events they neither witnessed nor experienced, going out of their way to explain away the harms done to me and other fat people in their lives. The vast majority of friends and family who don’t wear plus sizes struggle to fathom the ubiquity and pervasiveness of anti-fatness. It follows fat people everywhere: to the gym, the grocery store, work, school, home. It bombards us in our careers, families, and relationships. Its long shadow follows us everywhere, blotting out the sum of us with its exaggerated panic and preening abuse. But the thought that fat people walk through such a dramatically different world than thin people is too alarming, too threatening for most of the thin people in my life. It is much easier and much more comforting for them to deny the harm, to minimize or justify it. So most do.

Over time, it becomes part of the punishment of daring to live in a different body: Not only are fat people expected to shoulder the burden of endless social stigma, we’re also expected to internalize it, bottle it up, and understand it as the natural consequence of our defiant bodies.

The vast majority of thin people I know have memorized their lines, which always imply — but fall short of directly stating — that whatever befalls me as a fat person is somehow my fault. All roads lead back to me, to the problem of my body. Even in moments of brutal public humiliation, no matter how many thin people surround me, none of them will intervene. I am not worthy of their empathy, their indignation, their support, outrage, or intervention. Mine is not a body worth defending, not a heart worth protecting.

When I talk to thin people about those moments, they swear up and down that they would, will, and do intervene when fat hatred rears its head in public. Each one swears that they wouldn’t stand for that kind of indignity, that they couldn’t bear to see another person treated so poorly. I suspect they believe it, too. They see themselves as deeply good people, protectors of the underdog, taking proud stands for dignity and safety.

But their words are belied by inaction. In the dozens of moments of ruthless public humiliation and harassment I’ve faced, thin people don’t intervene. It simply doesn’t happen. When passersby relish the street harassment they hurl at me, even on a crowded city street, no one else speaks up. No one tells them to knock it off. No one checks in with me. They are all good people, self-proclaimed egalitarians. And they are all silent. That moment in the office when my friend took two cookies was so notable because of how completely rare and unexpected it was. Moments like that, as a rule, simply don’t happen.

When a thin person does something — anythingto defend or support a fat person, it’s a thunderclap, a cathartic climax in an otherwise desolate movie.

Over time, this simple truth becomes supremely exhausting and isolating. I have learned to subsist without much validation, because there is so little to be found. I do not dare to dream of vocal, material support from thinner people — that is a horizon too distant, a future to greedily grand to imagine. Support, validation, and solidarity are too much to ask for when even simple empathy is out of reach. So as a fat person, I have learned to go it alone.

Imagining thin allies feels presumptuous until a new possibility presents itself in moments like that staff meeting, until little glimmers of hope show up in the few, precious friends willing to listen, willing to say something, willing to do something.

When a thin person does something — anythingto defend or support a fat person, it’s a thunderclap, a cathartic climax in an otherwise desolate movie. I long for those moments. I imagine a thin friend talking about their fat politics, unprompted, with other thin people. I imagine them proactively bringing up fat activism, inviting other thin people into a conversation about solidarity and matching their actions to their values. Still, they come so rarely.

AA thin friend asks me out to happy hour at one of her favorite restaurants. When I arrive, I notice that most of the seating is made up of booths: tables bolted to the floor, hard church pews fixed to the ground. I feel myself deflate as I realize that this whole place was designed for thinner bodies, thoughtlessly exiling bodies like mine. I wonder if I should tell my friend that I am not feeling well, if I should suggest another place, if I should confess that I will not fit.

When the server arrives to seat us, he confidently leads us to a booth before my friend pipes up.

“I noticed a table over there,” she says brightly, pointing to a free-standing table and movable chairs in the corner, still piled with the last party’s plates. “Can we take that instead?”

The server nods and crisply pivots, seating us at our new table. When we take our seats, my friend shakes her head. “I don’t know who those booths are made for,” she says, rolling her eyes, “but it’s not anybody I know.”

I feel my breath deepen and my shoulders loosen. We drink and talk for hours. Laughter and conversation both come more easily and, unexpectedly, I find myself able to relax, relate, and just be. This simple act of friendship — making sure that where we sit can accommodate both of us — is a rare relief, and its value is not lost on me. My friend does not call attention to my body, does not explain her actions, and does not expect accolades for her understanding. She simply noticed, took action, and saved me the hot and blinding spotlight of advocating for my aberrant body, if only for one evening.

For her, this moment is a fleeting one. For me, it is monumental.

A thin friend calls. She tells me a mutual friend had come to visit, gotten off her flight and immediately complained about the fat person in her row.

“He needed a seatbelt extender. How do you let yourself get that fat?”

My thin friend seized the opportunity. Her voice was bright with adrenaline, the rush of a risk that paid off. Like a child on Christmas morning, her words tumbled out on top of one another when she reported back to me.

“I told her airline seats have been shrinking steadily for the last 30 years, and that some airlines kick people off the flight for being too fat. She said ‘Okay, but they get a refund,’ and I said, ‘That’s the thing — they don’t! It’s totally f**ked!’”

“She was like, ‘He didn’t even consider how miserable that made me,’ and I was like, ‘Right, but if you’re uncomfortable, imagine how he feels. Don’t you think it’d be worse to be the fat person, knowing how much everyone doesn’t want to sit next to you? Knowing you might get kicked off the plane, even though you paid for one ticket, or even two?’ And something clicked. She stopped fighting and she just heard it.

My friend is eager for my feedback. She wants to know where she messed up, where she missed opportunities. She wants to know that she’s done a good job, and she has. She worries about imperfection. I tell her not to worry — most people wouldn’t say anything at all.

Her adrenaline has run its course, and her voice is quiet when she responds. “It feels like a Pyrrhic victory.”

“It’s not,” I say. “Not for me.”

When we hang up the phone, I find myself crying for the first time in months, overwhelmed with gratitude.

NNow in my mid-thirties, I have amassed a group of thin friends who consistently take action in my defense. They find opportunities to confront anti-fatness when I’m there and when I’m not. They take it on directly, name it, and do the work to bring other thin people along. They have seen the vicious burden of anti-fat sentiment, the gremlin that clings to fat people, that drains us of our humanity. They have seen the pervasiveness of anti-fatness in every aspect of our culture and, over time, have learned to find it wherever it finds me.

These friends are thoughtful and attentive; they listen to fatter people and believe our experiences of fat hate and anti-fat bias. But they know that listening and learning is no substitute for action. Their allyship isn’t rooted in good intentions, but in consistent action to ensure that fat people are seen, believed, defended, and cared for.

I have come to treasure thinner friends’ small, powerful actions to swim against the current of fat hate.

Alejandro stands with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the face of anti-fatness. Once the tensest moments have passed, he works to lighten the mood. Kim talks about anti-fatness whenever the opportunity presents itself, even (and especially) when I’m not there. Angus takes my lead but never takes a back seat, boldly naming anti-fatness as one of his anti-oppression values. Tara’s responses are direct and immediate — she does not let anti-fatness go unnoticed or uninterrupted. Rossi, like my late grandfather, gets angry, astonished by the cruelty of anti-fatness, and regularly offers to beat up my aggressors. I suspect that, if left to their own devices, they might.

These friends are the bright and beautiful exceptions to the world around me. They know that they have internalized anti-fatness, and know that their good hearts and best intentions aren’t enough on their own to end anti-fat bias. They recognize that compassion and commiseration are meaningless without sustained action.

I have come to treasure thinner friends’ small, powerful actions to swim against the current of fat hate. Over time, I have drifted apart from the friends who minimized such great hurts, who justified such pervasive harms. Instead, I carry these wonderful moments with me like hazy photographs in a locket, a reminder of what’s possible.

The friends I have kept understand that their support doesn’t hinge on how they feel, but on how they show up and what actions they take. Each time they speak up against anti-fatness, I catch a glimpse of some glimmering possibility of a kinder, freer future. Each time they take action, just for a moment, I can see the birth of a new world.

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

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