There’s a new book about fat on the block, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy (ask your local library if they’ve got it, if not, ask them if they can get it in for you) and having a read. It is Fat by Deborah Lupton.
It’s not perfect, there’s quite a bit of privilege denial (ugh, thin privilege) and she completely misses the point about much of fat activism a fair bit, but it has been giving me some real food for thought.
One of the things it has triggered a lot of thinking about lately is how those of us with fat bodies negotiate our way through the physical spaces of the world. I got to thinking about just how conscious I am of the space my body takes up, and how I have to negotiate my body in a world that marks me as “abnormal”. The more I paid attention to it, the more I noticed that almost every aspect of my life is framed around this process of moving my body around in the world.
People with thin privilege do not see that as well as the general stigma and shaming around having a fat body, the act of simply existing in a fat body is something that constantly has to be monitored so as to minimise further shaming and stigma.
Even at home it starts…
The first thing I do in the morning is jump in the shower. In my flat, the shower stall is quite small, smaller than the one I had in my previous home. As I get in to the shower, the glass door sometimes swings wide open as I bump it, which means water sprays out onto the bathroom floor. After my shower I get dressed in clothes that I have had a lot of difficulty to find (correct fit but also clothes that I like and reflect how I wish to dress, and are suitable for the place I intend to wear them). Once dressed and shod and ready to leave the house, I grab my handbag, which I had some difficulty finding one with a long enough shoulder strap that it would fit cross body, so that I could have my hands free. As I leave my building I squeeze through a space between the stairwell and the garden edge, that is cut to narrower than my body.
I walk to the train station, often facing abuse that early from cars that pass me, or if nothing else stares when I get to the train station. I sit down on the benches on the platform. People usually avoid sitting next to me, and often make it clear that they find me repulsive. I wait for the train, usually catching up with Twitter while I wait. Once I get on the train, I am lucky enough to get on at the second station so there are usually plenty of seats. I sit on one facing the direction of travel, move close to the window and put my bag on my lap or between my feet. My body, while very large, does not take up more than one seat width, though my shoulders do a little. I usually read while commuting. I make my body take up as little space as possible. As people get on the train, and it begins to fill, I notice them looking for seats anywhere but me. Some of them sigh or tsk as they pass me. Many would rather stand, or sit next to a man with his legs widely spread and his newspaper out open than sit next to me, as though my fat is contagious. I see them staring (I wear sunglasses which hide my eyes so they don’t know which way I am looking) sometimes they nudge the person they are travelling with and not-so-subtly point me out. Semi-regularly I catch someone photographing me on their smartphone. Occasionally if I don’t have my iPod on, I hear someone say something like “If it wasn’t for fatso there, we would have more seats.”
When I get to my destination, I leave the train and walk through the station. I walk down the stairs to the subway, no slower than most other people, but there is always someone who huffs and puffs behind me like I am holding them up. Usually my speed is determined by the people in front of me, but the eyes on me say “Fatty you’re holding people up.” Sometimes people even say this out loud. As I line up for the GoCard gates, I am acutely aware that my body only just fits through the gates, and when I am wearing my bag across my body I have to adjust it to be in front of me so that I fit.
I walk to work, still facing comments, nudges and stares from strangers. As I walk into my building and get into the elevator, often people eye me up and down, sigh or tsk as if they’re offended at the amount of space I take up in the lift. When I get to my desk, the standard office chairs are not wide enough between the arms for me to sit comfortably, in fact, they’re not wide enough for MOST people to sit comfortably, almost everyone in the office has a different brand chair to the “standard” but as the fattest woman I’m the one looked at askew for using a different chair.
Anywhere I walk in public I constantly have to be aware of the space I am taking up. I am expected to apologise for not fitting between groups of people crowding a walkway, or through the gaps in chairs in the building’s food court area if I go to buy a coffee or my lunch. Furniture is arranged so that it is too narrow for my body to pass through, and I often have to move chairs, squeeze sideways or ask people to move because I don’t fit the designated space for a body. Bathroom stalls are narrow, the sanitary bins often dig into my side if they are not far back enough. Meeting anyone in a doorway means that I must again apologise for my size, because we won’t both fit through at the same time.
The kitchen and bathroom basins in our office building force me to lean over them and my belly gets wet from water people have slopped there beforehand and not cleaned up. If I go into shops, I have to manoeuvre my way around racks, displays and other people who are all closer together than fits my body. Chairs provided in public spaces are either too narrow for me, or too flimsy or both. If I go to the movies, the chairs there are uncomfortable, older theatres have narrow seats with inflexible arm rests that dig into my sides, and again I face the constant tsks of disapproval from strangers for sitting in chairs near where they want to sit, even though none of me protrudes out to other chairs except my shoulders, which would be the same if I were thin. The same goes for restaurants and other places with public seating – either seats are uncomfortable for me, or I get shamed for taking up too much space.
If I want to eat in public, I have to decide whether I have the sanity points to deal with comments people make, or more stares and nudges. Often some of the rudest comments or behaviour comes from the staff of the place I am purchasing food. I quickly work out the places I can go where they won’t shame me for buying any food, and never return to those that do, if I have a choice. In supermarkets, people stare into my trolley/basket and don’t hide their disapproval at finding food in there. Sometimes they make comments about foods I have chosen, either chastising me if they deem it unhealthy, patronising me if they decide it is healthy. I have even had people remove food from my trolley, scolding me that I “don’t need it”. I always use the self checkout units at the supermarket, even if there are cashiers free, because it’s not worth putting up with the comments the cashiers make, or the scrutiny of the shoppers behind me.
It even affects my friendships and relationships. One ex-boyfriend left me because he couldn’t tolerate the stares and nudges in public. Several of my friends have told me that they find themselves getting angry when they are out with me, because they see how people behave. I find myself getting angry after a few hours in a public place like a shopping centre, because I’m sick of being stared at and openly judged, which ruins my enjoyment of time out with my friends.
When I take a walk or a bike ride along the beautiful waterfront parklands near my house, I get more stares, more comments. People stop me to make patronising comments “encouraging” weight loss. One afternoon I had stopped at a picnic table to rummage through my bag for my purse when a woman came up to me, indicated I should take my earbuds out and then said “You are doing SO well, keep going and you will lose ALL that weight.” She didn’t like it when I responded “Mind your own business, I’m quite happy with my body, now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go buy fish and chips for dinner.” In the heat of the past few weeks I have packed a salad in a lunch box and taken it down to the waterfront picnic tables to eat in the sea breeze, much more pleasant than the heat of my home. People stare and make comments about “people like that eating”.
Most people parrot “Well just lose weight then!” with no actual experience in what it is like to try to make a fat body smaller, or no true knowledge of how a fat person lives. They believe the stereotypical myth of fat people rather than take the time to actually know what a fat person’s experiences are, what it is like to live in a fat body or to even believe not just fat people, but science that tells us that 95% of people can not lose weight permanently. Instead of making the world variable enough to fit all of us, they insist that we make ourselves fit the world.
This is why when someone says for the millionth time “But what about your health!?!” I get angry. What about our health? Do people really think that stigma and shaming, and a world that is deeply uncomfortable for fat people is actually good for anyone’s health? Do they really think that by not allowing us to live our lives in peace and dignity, we’re going to suddenly go “Oh wait! I should get thin!” as if we have never tried it? It is also why when people parrot the old “Just put down the cheeseburger and get off the couch” bullshit, I get angry. Every morsel we eat is policed, and every moment in public is too. Do they really think that this helps us live full, happy lives? Do they really believe that they have the RIGHT to intervene in our lives?
There is not a day goes by without these micro-aggressions coming my way, as they do for most very fat people. I don’t share these things so that people feel sorry for me, that’s not what I want at all. I want to highlight just how fat stigma and shaming forces fat people to spend their whole lives mitigating unpleasant, embarrassing or painful incidents caused by a culture that refuses to share its space with them. There IS plenty of space for all of us, big or small, on this planet. The problem is that fatness has been so demonised, so dehumanised that everyday people feel they have the right to be police AND judge, jury and executioner for fat people in the world.
I never feel discomfort because of my fat body. I constantly feel discomfort because of the way the world treats me and refuses to accommodate me because of my fat body.