You know you’re in the company of fellow fatties when you crack a joke about wearing bike shorts under your dress and people have a wry giggle. Or the other hilarious, strategic ways of walking to avoid that dreaded between-legs chafe on a hot summer’s day.
What’s equally gratifying is when there’s one skinny person in the group who, alone, hops from foot to foot uncomfortably. Do they laugh? Do they say nothing? Do they grimace? Do they even get it?
My pleasure is not in their discomfort, really. It’s in finally – FINALLY – being in the powerful majority. Because historically, the fat jokes aren’t fun, and they’ve been pointed at me.
I’ve been a fattie since I was about fourteen. Until I hit puberty, I had the board-like, hipless body of an awkward, manic womble. There is a picture of me at ten in denim shorts and a sunflower adorned shirt, grinning and bearing a backpack and some pretty butch hiking boots. I was cute, for an awkward, manic womble.
Then hey, puberty, there you are! Suddenly I had a new, interesting and increasingly curvaceous (damn I love that word) body that felt things and did things and fattened up at the drop of a plate of chips.
I had some issues around food as a kid (note: this is not a cue for a predictable “oh, well THAT explains it”). In a way, understanding these things about myself has led me to love my body more, as I’ve understood that these issues did not do harm by ‘making me’ fat, they did harm by making me sad. That’s what sucked. Being fat in turn never made me sad; it was what I was taught about my fat body and how to relate to it, that made me sad.
But I’m rushing ahead.
I had some issues around food as a kid. I’m not entirely able to trace the origins of these things. Mainly, I was a hoarder, a gorger and a seeker of the forbidden. I liked secrets and deception and doing things I thought I wasn’t supposed to. I was a disordered eater, and I still struggle with this.
As I was too middle class-afraid and tame to actually steal anything other than money out of my mother’s purse, and far too terrified to talk to a peer with a view to kissing behind the local pub (plus, there was all that religion), I ended up engaging with a lot of hidden, solitary pleasures. It was my rebellion – against who and what, I didn’t know at the time.
I remember with a kind of lascivious heady joy the cups of icing (or ‘frosting’ if you’re a yank) I would make in secret each night. I’d sneak out while the cricket or evening news was being watched in the adjacent room, ensconced myself in the cupboards and mix together the ingredients of chocolate icing. It was a silent, fast chemistry that my heart beat heavily through.
I’m not sure whether I enjoyed the fear of being caught as much, or more, than gulping spoonfuls of the thick confection with my door firmly shut. I do know that it was one of the many things – like stealing my parents literotica – that helped me create a secret world of bad things in late primary and early highschool. The bad things helped me cope.
My hoarding and gorging tendencies went through cycles of dormancy and surprising renewal. Though, if you looked at what was going on in my life, there was nothing surprising about it at any given time.
I grew up with a seriously mentally ill, turbulent parent who had a turbulent marriage with my confused, struggling and angry mother (who, to their credit, made the best of it), in an isolated backwater town in which my friends were uncertain but my status as the ‘other’ was confirmed through daily rejections, bullying and social awkwardness.
I was a chatty, cheery thing, but most of this bluster belied my pretty deep sense of being a repellant human being that others rightly pushed far away. Smart, mouthy, and full of what others called ‘promise’, I was assured that I was going to be somebody important. Mostly by people in authority. Apparently putting together a few coherent words and being ok at amateur theatre and rocking at grade five spelling assures you a place in the limelight of adulthood.
My life has proved otherwise. If I keep myself alive long enough to have children, I will never say that to them. I will not give them false promises. The best you can give a kid is the assurance that you’ll try, and they’ll try, and they’re loved. (Don’t ever tell them they’re going to be somebody. What kind of unfulfillable prophecy is that to weigh about the neck of a kid?)
Later in life, during particularly stressful periods, I would bring back to life these rituals of eating. In late highschool – having been removed from my circle of friends to start at a new school during the pressure ridden leaving certificate (HSC) – I kept bags of cookies, fantales, sherbet, lollies and more in the top of my cupboard. I’d sit alone at night and study while crunching and crinkling and licking and munching. It kept me sane, in a town with no friends and a family I didn’t like much at the time. And during my rocky marriage, sleeves of oreos and bags of chips would bring me much needed solace.
That’s it. I ate in the furtive, coveting ways I did because I was really bloody unhappy. I don’t think it actually ‘made me’ fat, to be honest – the calories consumed were usually burned off, in my pre teen years, with legging it about the mountains near my home or bushwalking with my family. It likely did in my late highschool years, coupled with the inactivity of crazy amounts of study.
What really ‘made me’ fat is the lack of activity that became a habit when I felt too awkward and self conscious to take part in school sport due to its competitive and ‘best wins’ mentality. As my pubescent body fattened normally due to floods of hormones, I was too embarrassed to do much in PE and at sport, in part due to bullying. This inevitably translated across to physical exercise in general, and persisted through into adulthood. Irony; let me show you it.
So why bother telling you, if the eating thing didn’t explicitly and solely make me fat? How does this relate to the fat thing at all?
Because of two problems, that share similarities, in how we discuss fat politics or, conversely, the ‘fat problem’ (if you’re looking at this as a body fascist, which is the way the mainstream views fatties).
PROBLEM: HIJACKIN’ MY FAT
I have a major issue with the way fat histories are told, retold, and analysed by both those involved in fat politics and the body fascist movement. Let’s face it: behind all this is the fact that right now, it is trendy to both revere and hate fat. We’re so fucking confused – we want to hump Nigella, cheer on the Masterchefs, while damning fattie shlebs like Jessica Simpson and…god, who knows else. Check the cover of your local women’s rag. They are informative sources of body shaming.
Fatties in the public eye are required by the mainstream media and Western culture to share their fatstories with wet eyed shame to be approved of – it’s seriously like Oprah is lurking in the mouth of every interviewer who talks to someone important who happens to be a fattie. More often than not, this will be a woman. Woman fatties are routinely exposed in the public eye and having learned the code of acceptable fatness, the most obligated and sometimes eager to share their deepest and darkest. To qualify for their place in the spotlight, they must affirm the code of the body fascist and have a wish to lose weight, or at least talk a lot about how they eat really healthy.
I was never told in explicit terms by any adult, or any peer, or any community member until recently that my fat was not wrong. I was never told my fat history, my fat self, was mine and didn’t need to be discussed at dinner parties, barbecues, sleep-overs, in doctor’s offices, in psychologist’s rooms. I was never told that being fat was normal, fine, ok, would not stop me from having awesome sex, would not in fact make me unattractive, would not in fat stop the bloody world from turning or me from having a fulfilling life.
My fat was always a problem and the best way to counter this was to 1. express hatred for it and 2. allow others to give me advice. This was a way to reclaim power – by offering my body up for scrutiny.
Fat positivists, fat positive feminist particularly, are punching a fist in the ridiculous face of all of this. Sure, they’re starting from the ground up and trying to build seemingly improbable rumbles that scream obscenely radical messages in which all bodies are good, whole, fucking brilliant wonderlands. They say we don’t have to race or run or qualify. We simply are, and there is no body that is put away in shame. Every body is worthwhile, and there’s no upper limit or point at which we get to remove respect for autonomy. Fat is reclaimed, re-branded, and breaks every law of censorship. Fat activists tell you to get your agenda off their bodies, their plate and their movement in the world.
I’m on board. I’m really on board. One of the most liberating moments of my life was, as a fat femme, dancing in nothing but sheer underwear and heels at a fundraiser for a local fat femme’s documentary that was all about fierce fat lives. I was terrified, but was overwhelmed at the appreciation for my body which – for so many years – I’d hated. It was fun, which is what I most remember. I danced near naked in front of a couple hundred strangers, and it was fun.
Ten year old me would never believe it and 15 year old me would have recoiled in horror and shame. It would have blinded them with impossibility. I had that positive experience only because a bunch of fat people got together and created the opportunity. (thankyou Kelli Jean.)
What I’m not on board with is when our fat stories are hijacked by anyone. Because while I feel the pressure from body fascists, I also feel it from the rhetoric of the fat positive movement to always love my body, all the time. I have most noticed this in online forums and discussions, less so in real life discussions with local fat positive/pride activists.
I feel like if I talk about being uncomfortable with disordered eating, it will be interpreted as me not loving my body, or admitting that there is something bad about eating and enjoying food. Body fascists will jump on the morsel of my relationship with food and use it define me and my fat as bad, sick, broken and deeply pathological. Some body positivists need me to never have a bad day, to never express negative relationships with my physical self, to never have a self hate day – or at least, to keep that shit to myself. But in my mind, talking about my disordered eating has nothing to do with my body; it has all to do with sadness.
I don’t always like my body, and I want to admit this and have love and kindness and a space for the honesty. Some days I look in the mirror and all I see are chins and rolls and scars and – I hate it, I hate every bit of it. I go weeks being glad I’m currently single, glad I don’t have to bear the touch of another person right now, because fuck – why would they want to. I’d cry to be looked at naked. And at the same time I despair at the programming that has caused this because, these thoughts are not mine and I am beautiful.
I know that these thoughts are not mine. They are messages that have seeped into my skin from a sick culture that would take a surgeon’s knife to all of us, if it could. I was born knowing nothing, and possibly there have been moments in which I’ve felt whole and beheld and magnificent. What I know, for certain, is that I was not born to count calories and pinch my thighs.
This is a pretty terrible way to think about yourself, this desire to reduce and fade and take up less space. If a friend said these words to me, I’d hug them really hard and try to make the bad thoughts go away. What I wouldn’t do is censor them, and that’s what I feel the fat positive movement can sometimes do with people’s stories. It can be just as distorting of living in truth as the maelstrom of shame mainstream culture pits against us.
In truth, there are fatties in the fat activist community who have their shit all worked out and don’t – or never have – had problematic feelings about this stuff. I am honestly glad for them, and I do not mean to imply that all people of size are full of neuroses – we aren’t. I’m speaking about/to those of us who are not 100% ok.
There has to be space for us, for those of us recovering from horrific childhood experiences and internalised discourses centred around our bodies, and current constant negative screeching that we are DISGUSTING, there must be space for us to grieve and feel bad with a soft place for that to go.
If I sit among fat friends and say something negative about my body, surely I don’t want them to agree or say nothing. I definitely don’t want to be told I’m a bad activist. Or that I should “take my self hatred somewhere else”. There’s ways of framing community response to the pain of toxic socialisation that is reassuring and soft enough for listening. There’s ways of giving people space to express how broken their brain is feeling by all those thoughts seeping through skin.
Saying you’ve had a complicated history with food, or you feel badly about your body, doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the movement. It means you do, more than anything. You need it, more than anything. Some days though, you can’t be fearless or proud because you’re working hard to just be real, to be yourself, to sieve through the difficulties and make some sense of it.
That’s ok, in my book. Nobody should be expected to carry a party line to the point of silencing real struggles.
And so I come back to that beautiful fat joke, shared among fatties. Never nasty, it’s usually about some quirky aspect – or even something mundane – peculiar to the lived experience of being a fat person. Bike shorts between the thighs, baby, all the way.
We alone understand us, and we alone have the right to laugh with – not at – each other. There’s a lot of love in my heart for those who rock the fat with me, who refuse to wear skirts to their ankles, who refuse to stay on the sand and instead dive into the ocean in bikinis and no board shorts. I look at our joy and I’m overwhelmed. I look at fat activists around me who inspire my desire to move ever closer to true self love, or who already purely inhabit that love, and I am again overwhelmed.
I hope they know how much I admire them. And how much, on the bad days, when their bad thoughts come, I think it’s ok for them to feel it and when they’re ready to – let it go. And they can talk to me – I’m here and I’m safe. Fact is, we’ve had stuff installed in our heads from birth and we didn’t ask for it to be put there and that’s often hard to fight. But we’re resisting, we’re working hard, we’re making space and taking it up.
We’re fierce, as plump islands of hell yeah, but even stronger together. Fist bump, my fatties.