Here’s a thing that happened once.
I was walking down Union Square West in New York City with my husband. It must have been June, because it was the kind of warm weather where you could meander around reveling at the heat on your shoulders without being accosted by the humid garbage funk of Late Summer in the City. We had just done something normal-weekend fun — a movie? A book shopping spree? An afternoon in the park? — and were on our way to dinner, standing at a light and waiting to cross 14th.
I remember what I was wearing; it was a pair of cargo pants with the ankles rolled up into high waters, and an orange tank top. I remember that I really loved that tank top. I remember that I was fat, because I have literally been chubby-to-fat for my entire life.
A guy walked up to me while we stood talking about whatever we’d just done or what we were about to do and enjoying togetherness and sunshine. He was a white guy of a particular age and social milieu, the kind of guy one might call a bro or a white hat, but who I will call “A Raging Jackwagon*.” Anyway, Jackwagon was really not into the idea of fat women parading around the streets of New York, upper arm fat all akimbo, having fun and not appearing to think about or be ashamed of or hide their fatness, and taking a valuable non-fat man off the relationship market, most likely through witchcraft. So he walked up to me, grabbed my stomach with both hands, squeezed and shook it a little, and said, “You should really take up smoking.”
(The joke’s really on him, though: little does he know that I’m almost always thinking about, ashamed of, or trying to hide my fatness.)
Let me reiterate: a complete stranger felt it was so important that I be publicly made to feel terrible about being fat grabbed a part of my body with both hands. Not touched, or patted, or poked, but grabbed and hung on; like I said, I’m fat, so that’s something you could do, if you were A Raging Jackwagon. And pinched it to cause extra discomfort, and shook it to make it jiggle a little, because OMG gross. And suggested that it would be preferable that I engage in a known lethal behavior, because then I would either be (1) less fat, or (2) dead, and people wouldn’t be forced to see me in public.
Two or three of his friends (the Jackwagonettes) stood nearby, laughing and congratulating him on his brave, trenchant bit of social commentary-slash-performance-art. (“Unorthodox and provocative!” said Manhattan Jackwagon Weekly.)
* * * *
What does one do in these situations? I’ll tell you what I did: I froze, until he let go of me — in real time, the whole thing probably only lasted a second or two. Then I walked as fast as I could in the opposite direction from the one he and his friends took, although that hadn’t been the way I’d was going. Then I cried. Then I got on the subway and went home, because being out and about in the world — let alone eating out and about in the world — was no longer on the evening’s agenda.
Mission accomplished, Jackwagon: no other unsuspecting dude would be forced to behold my obscene girth on this night! I hope this got you one step closer to earning your Advanced Raging Jackwagon merit badge.
* * * *
Since that night, I’ve been trying to not hate my body; one day I’d like to love it, but baby steps and all, so I’m shooting for not actively thinking it’s grotesque. I spend a lot of money that a person who didn’t hate herself might use for trips to Bali or Macchu Picchu on therapy co-pays. I read fat-positive Tumblrs and look at pictures of fat women wearing crop tops to try and normalize fat bodies. I force myself to look at my body in the mirror and wait for my inner Jackwagon to say something negative, and then tell myself that that is not my real voice. It’s starting to work, a little bit. I mean, I recently purchased a strapless romper, so either something is shifting or I’ve had a small stroke that impairs my sartorial judgement.
My reactions to the Street Jackwagon eat at me, though. Why didn’t I shove him? Give him the finger? Destroy him with a devastatingly witty insult that would garner me the grudging respect of the Jackwagonettes, then stroll proudly away, hand-in-hand with my loving, not-fat husband to proudly eat a cheeseburger? Because surely, if I loved myself, I would have done those things, and if I can’t contemplate doing those things, I don’t yet love myself.
When I think about what life might be like if I were truly at peace with my body, I think that things like this would just roll off my back. I’d yell back. I wouldn’t cry; my night wouldn’t be ruined. (Night, ha: my week, my month, my year.)
The other thing that nags is the second, more secret part of my reaction: that he was kinda right. Perhaps the way he chose to express it via bodily assault was… ill-advised, let’s say, but the underlying premise was valid: I’m too fat. It’s gross. I should cover it up. I’m too big, and not the marginally-acceptable-ish kind of female big, with an hourglass figure and a real waist and a defined jawline and I’d be so pretty if I just lost a little weight; I’m the worst kind of female big, with a sizeable, droopy gut and no hips and a chubby face.** No one wants to have to look at me. I should do something about it, anything.
(Joke’s on him for the second time: I’ve been trying to do something about it since I was eight years old! Ha, I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.)
I had no comeback because you don’t need a comeback when someone has a fair point. Because you don’t grow up fat and not internalize the the constant message that you are disgustinglazystupiduglysmellywrong. Which is just another way of saying: I deserved it.
* * * *
The weird thing is that while I sometimes try to disguise my fat rolls — I’m just gonna say it: yeah, I have rolls*** — I don’t generally try to shrink myself as a person. Even if I wanted to, it’s impossible; I’m almost six feet tall, so I’m roughly the size and shape of a professional linebacker. And yet, my brain still thinks that if I can arrange the drape on my t-shirt just so, it will create the illusion that I’m the “okay” kind of big.
(I’d like a FitBit that tracks the energy expenditure of a fat person tugging at her clothing over one 24-hour period; I bet it’d be shocking. But then we’d probably just get a bunch of magazine articles about Fidgeting your way to a beach bod!, so maybe not.)
The tank top I was wearing that night was well-worn and loved, washed to a thinned-out softness, not capable of obscuring the rolls. It put my fatness on display, so what did I think would happen?
* * * *
When I read this back, “I didn’t fight back,” “I deserved it,” and “Look at what I was wearing; what did I think would happen?” sound suspiciously like the sort of victim-blaming statements we would rightfully decry in another context. And if a friend told me this story, that’s what I would tell her. Not because I want to equate this experience with a sexual assault, but because the simple facts of your body and how you choose to clothe it are never invitations for someone to treat you inappropriately. Because when someone lays hands on you, unexpected and unwelcome, freezing is a normal, protective bodily reaction and not a sign of your weakness or complicity.
I would tell her how sorry I was that this happened, and try to help her see the encounter for what it was: a Raging Jackwagon being a Jackwagon, and not a public referendum on her acceptability as a person. I would try to help her see herself for who she is: a woman trying to get through a shocking and publicly hurtful episode, and not an object of justifiable scorn.
I would tell my younger that, if I could. I tell my current self; I mostly believe it.
I’m sorry, younger self. I’m sorry, current self.
* * * *
Man, remember when I used to write mostly funny, entertaining things? Those were good times.
*Non-gendered insults FTW.
**And slammin’ hamstrings and super strong lats and excellent cholesterol levels but no one can see that; maybe I should get my bloodwork results printed on a t-shirt. And yargh, why do I feel like I need to qualify this at all, because every person of every shape and health status should be able to walk down the street without being accosted. This whole “But I’m a good fatty!” trope is bullshit, but that’s another post. Normal triglyceride levels are not a prerequisite for humanity.
***That actually felt really good to say out loud, so I’m gonna say it again. I AM A FAT PERSON. I HAVE ROLLS OF FAT. THEY ARE ME, AND I AM THEM, AND THERE IS NOT A THIN PERSON TRAPPED INSIDE THEM TRYING TO GET OUT.****
****Goddamn, I love a footnote.