It was a Sunday, bright and hot and sunny, and despite a difficult morning I was feeling good. I’d just had my final session with a fantastic therapist I’d been seeing for almost two years. With her help I’d worked through some things I thought I’d never have the courage to face. It’s hard to say goodbye to someone who changed your life so profoundly, and even though it was a professional relationship, there was real emotion and affection there at the end of our time together. She was leaving her sporadic private practice for a full time job with benefits at the VA. We shared tears over our parting, and excitement for her new adventure. Getting a secure gig would allow her wife to quit her dull day job and make a go of turning their shared home into a rescue hostel for abused pets. My loss was to the gain of many furry little friends, and I couldn’t help but be happy for them, even as I was mourning the end of one of the most productive therapeutic relationships I’ve ever had. My eyes were red and puffy, but I was smiling, which is the best you can ask when you lose someone you rely on.
My Sunday mornings are crowded affairs at this point in my life. I have therapy bright and early, then a half-hour break, then my yoga class. It is my custom to swing through Dunkin Donuts on my way to class, because it is convenient to my therapist’s office and after an hour of letting her rummage around in my skull I usually want a treat. The promise of iced coffee is all that has gotten me through some of these sessions, and there is no iced coffee I love more than Dunkin Donuts. I only lived on the East coast for a brief and unhappy time, but during that stay I developed a thirst for Dunkin Donuts iced coffee that rivals a vampire’s thirst for blood. I lived around the block from a DD in Baltimore, and by the time I moved away my sweat smelled like hazelnut. (Honestly, it was an improvement). On this particular day I was sorely in need of a pick me up, so I grabbed an apple fritter as well.
I was dressed as I usually am for yoga; black leggings, a long lightweight tank top, a supportive-if-flattening sports bra, and sandals. No makeup, as sweat and eyeliner are a poisonous eyebath and the sort of vibrant blood-red lip color I favor ends up making my yoga mat look like I murdered someone on top of it. For the record, I was also wearing a hat.
This is a lot of boring detail, I know. There was nothing interesting about what I was doing that day, or what I was wearing. Which is why I was surprised to see a young white dude surreptitiously taking my photo from a perch by the pick-up window.
It was unmistakable. The lens of the camera was pointed right at me, he was looking at the screen intently, hunched down like the Formica counter was some kind of excellent camouflage, and his thumb was pressing the home button. My suspicion was confirmed when I glared into the lens that was pointed at me- an angry eye for an angry eye -and he jumped.
“Did you just take a photo of me? What the fuck, dude?” I snapped.
He stood up quickly, bright red. “Sorry.”
He didn’t deny what he’d done. He didn’t seem to feel an apology was merited. He muttered a half-hearted acknowledgement in a tone that I’m sure his parents and teachers have had plenty of opportunity to grow weary of over the years: the apology of someone who is only sorry that they were caught.
I wish I’d done more, now. I wish I’d demanded he hand over his phone, forced him to delete the photo, taken a photo of my own for public shaming purposes. I wish I’d stomped his stupid phone into plastic shards and glass dust. I wish I’d throw a coffee right in his weaselly little face. But I was taken aback by his lack of shame, and stunned into inaction by the oddness of it all. So he walked away, and now there is a photo of me sweating and crying and eating a donut on some stranger’s iPhone, and there is nothing I can do about it.
You may feel that I overreacted. And maybe I did! Maybe there are a thousand innocent reasons a complete fucking stranger would use a take out counter like a duck blind to snap a secret photo of me. But I find that hard to believe, because I am incredibly fat, and I have been navigating this world in this body for a long time. I am accustomed to the ways it attracts attention to me, and that attention is rarely kind. Secret photos are only the latest expression of a truism I’ve known since I was young: when you’re fat, your body belongs to everybody else but you, and everybody feels entitled to give you shit about it.
To give this dude the benefit of the doubt, I’d have to ignore a lot of things I know for a fact. I’d have to ignore years of getting yelled at by dudes that look like him from porches, from high-school cafeterias, from the windows of cars. I’d also have to ignore what I’ve seen happen on the internet to photos of people like me. The rise of the communication age has given these over entitled assholes both the advantages of technology and the cover of anonymity, like a bunch of jerk-off wanna-be Batmen who spend their time fucking around on Reddit instead of fighting the Riddler. Ask any fat person you know about how fat people-ESPECIALLY fat women -are treated on the internet. You’ll hear about websites like People of Wal-Mart, where being fat is the second-worst sin to being poor, and thousands of image boards on places like 4chan that are set up to laugh at us basically for existing and being outside. You’ll hear about fit-speration memes where photos of us at the gym (at the fucking gym! Exercising! Like you pricks wanted!) are used to mock us for trying and inspire skinny folks to do whatever it takes to avoid looking like us. You’ll hear about the few brave fat women who speak openly about how much this all sucks being overwhelmed with vigilante mobs of anonymous jerks, intent on punishing them for…
For what? That’s the question that haunts me. This doesn’t seem to be happening to any particular end or benefit. And yet, if I’m being honest, I know exactly why these caped crusading shitstains feel entitled to punish fat women like me. It’s because they have been raised in a society that has taught them that the value of my female body is the ways it can pleasure men, and if it has a form that displeases them, they have the right to file a complaint. Your body must be hidden or it must be compliant with their standards for you to be treated like a person. Fuckability is the rent they feel women should pay to take up visual space in the world they think they own, and woe betide those of us who come up short.
They didn’t come up with it. It’s an ancient attitude made modern through repetition and reinforcement from authority. There is a reason that classical poetry constantly compares women to inanimate objects; hips like lyres to be played upon, figures like vases to be filled. They have been taught that my body’s job is to be in a shape that they find of use. I’m a misfired pottery, a broken instrument, and like any other inanimate object I’m supposed to lay still and ignore the ongoing redfaced, snot flinging tantrums of these adult toddlers who don’t like their toys.
But I am not a toy, and neither are the other fat women who are expected to endure this abuse. We don’t deserve to get punished for not killing ourselves to comply with the body fascist, capitalism-driven industrial fuckability complex. I am tired of doing the complex mental gymnastics required to give young spoiled men an out when they treat me like shit. Y’all are adults. This isn’t Entourage. Do better!
It’s maddening, how obvious it is from in here. This guy saw a fat woman dressed for yoga eating a donut, and he thought it was funny, so he took a photo. Other people will think it’s funny too, if they see it, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Nobody will care that the photo is of me, a living breathing person who has not incurred the kind of karmic debt that should pay off in public shame. The photo is now an object of its own, subject be damned. It may as well be a photo of a vase, a lyre, an inanimate thing for all the difference it would make. My best case scenario is that I spooked him enough that he won’t do anything with it, or just text it to a friend so they can make shitty, private jokes with each other. Annoying, but it won’t affect my life. A more difficult outcome would be if he posts it in an imageboard, and it becomes memetic, and I have to deal with seeing my own sugar-streaked face pop up in Google image searches. It’s happened to other people I know, fat yogis and fat models with neon Tumblrs and the lack of patience for other people’s shit that attracts this kind of attention. I’ve watched them attempt damage control. I do not envy them the task.
The absolute worst case scenario, of course, is that someday I will write something somebody doesn’t like and they will want to punish me for that. If they have a way to link that photo to me, they will- I have an Instagram, I do open mics, I have a distinctive name, I’m not hard to identify -and then I will get doxxed, and that candid snapshot will be all myself and anyone connected to me will see for weeks. An endless tide of Pepes and eggs, calling me an ugly whale and telling me to kill myself. Because that’s what passes for discourse these days, and fat women who dare to be visible deserve what they get.
It’s not an exaggeration. It happened to Lindy West, it happened to Jenny Trout, it’s happened to dozens of brave outspoken women I know and read and admire. And if my writing career ever gets to the point where people actually know who I am, and put a name to my face, it will almost certainly happen to me too. Someday.
It’s insane, to me, that my body can still be weaponized against me so effectively. Fat is a fact of my life, and it has been as long as I can remember. It’s not like you’re bringing me some shocking piece of information when you comment on my weight- I have mirrors, I buy my own pants in the dimly lit husky girl crawlspaces of your favorite clothing stores, and I have recieved Weight Watchers memberships as gifts for multiple holidays. (I have to tell myself they came from a place of love.) It doesn’t hurt me when someone calls me fat. I love my body. I made peace with it a long time ago, and now we’re pretty tight. But the constant external attacks from places of power are exhausting, and the way those attacks are given priority over my own feelings is deeply frustrating. It’s other people’s beliefs that my body is a disgusting mistake that give these kinds of events power, not my own. Weight stigma is the shitty little Tinkerbell of my life, and no matter what I do to kill her off, y’all keep clapping her back from the dead.
Maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn about loving myself these days. I remember how hard it was to grow up hating myself. I know how hard it is now to advocate for myself, make the case for the space I want to take up in the world. I didn’t wear tank tops for the first thirty years of my life. I didn’t exercise in public. I had vivid daydreams of carving a thin body free from my fat sarcophagus, like a Saw movie sponsored by Weight Watchers. (Speaking of Weight Watchers, raise your hand if you did yourself permanent metabolic damage by participating in fad crash diets because a medical professional recommended them to you! I don’t have enough hands for all the times I fell for that.) Those were not conscious decisions that I made because I thought it would be fun to hate myself and my body. Those were lessons that were taught to me from a thousand sources, and I never saw anyone contradict them, so I believed them to be true. I wish there had been more people arguing against them when I was having my own struggle.
But there wasn’t, so my path to loving myself was longer and harder and rockier than it needed to be. That’s why these days I am my own furious advocate, and I don’t even pretend to be nice when anyone implies I’m anything less than human. If I can’t fit in a chair you give me, I don’t squish myself between the armrests and perch grimly on the edge, flinching at every creak. I ask for a new chair, and if you don’t have one, I’ll stand. I go to the gym three times a week and I work my arms to make them even bigger, inching closer to my dream of being able to defend Planned Parenthood’s funding stream in an Over The Top style contest of strength against Paul Ryan. I dress how I want to dress and I act how I want to act and I read and love and support all of the other proud, visible fat girls I know. I know how brave you are to take up space like you do. I’m a mouse compared to you lions, but I’m getting bigger and louder every day and someday my squeak will be a roar. That’s why I write about this stuff, that’s why I fight for it like I do: I want the next girl who feels like I did when I was a teenager to have adult me as an example of another way to be. Maybe things will be easier for her, in the long run.
But even with all the work I’ve done internally, and all the hopes I have for the future, there’s nothing I can do about the way society views people like me right now. Not in the short term, anyway. The reams of scientific research that proves that diets don’t work and shame and weight stigma do more to keep fat people unhealthy than McDonalds ever could might permeate public consciousness someday, who knows. Maybe the idea that a woman’s appearance is more important than her humanity will go the way of phrenology and bloodletting once we all evolve a little more. But right now, the opinions of gross dudes that hate my body will always be listened to over my own. That arrogant manchild’s decision to invade a stranger’s privacy for his own amusement will be celebrated. My choice to dress comfortably and eat delicious food that I like will be mocked. Patriarchy is a thumb on the scale of karma.
I can’t win everyone over. I don’t have to try, anymore. No matter how people feel about me, I can still demand my own space in the world. I don’t have to be nice, quiet, or compliant. I can be the person who gives people like me a chance to be brave. I can take on people who would hunt my fat ass for sport. So here’s a photo of me, in my gym clothes, if you need it. Meme it up. I’ve said my peace about it. I just hope that if it goes viral, some unhappy fat girl will see what I see in it: a happy woman enjoying her awesome body, unfettered by fuckability and on her way to find more joy in her great big life. I hope it’s what she needs to see. I hope I meet her someday. Girl, if you’re reading this: I’ll meet you out there, when you’re ready. Your next iced coffee is on me.