I look happy in the photo. Is that the first thing you noticed? My happy smile? The truth is, I was happy. I was celebrating my marriage. But I can’t think about that. When I look at this picture, my happiness becomes so irrelevant, I can barely manage to consider it. Instead, the first thing I notice is my moon-pie face. The second is my upper arm. (I measured one once, years ago, and found that my relaxed right bicep had the same circumference as a friend’s leg. That’s hard to forget.) The third is this:
I am fat.
And that is the thought that echoes. It eclipses everything else. There are days when I say “I am fat” and I mean just that – that my body is bigger than your body, bigger than her body, bigger than my culture tells me I’m supposed to strive to be. It means boutiques don’t carry my size. It’s a hassle, but it’s not an indictment. It it is only what it is – nothing more. I am fat. It’s as easy as saying “I’m short” or “I am tall”. These are good days. There are days when I say “I am fat” but leave unsaid a secondary thought: “but at least I’m not that fat”. On these days, I am ashamed. Though I’ve learned enough to keep such thoughts to myself, I haven’t succeeded at banishing them entirely. They are vain thoughts, stupid and mean. I wish I was better.
On my worst days I say “I am fat” and I wrap up in that statement all of the other things fat has come to mean. I say it and all the other words so many people think when they hear the word “fat” rise into my mind. I say it and I watch the distaste flicker across my friends’ faces. They are thinking ‘fat = lazy, gross, smelly, stupid, evil’. They are thinking ‘fat = bad’. And I am too. They hate that I verbalized it because they know I’ve caught them out. They know I know what they’re thinking. This may seem like projection, but I don’t think it is. I’ve been thin. I remember how it was. People censor themselves now that I’m fat. They forget while I remember. So many folks seem to prefer the word “overweight” – have you noticed? It is a word that disgusts and infuriates me. (Over what weight, exactly?).
In protest, I’ve started to talk more about my fat, and about myself. I mention it often, and I refuse to use euphemisms. I am trying to teach people that it’s okay, that being fat is okay, that saying fat is okay, but it rarely works. I’m not much of a teacher. Suddenly, my friends are all a-flutter. “You’re not fat!” they cry. “You have such a nice smile!” Some just shake their heads, rejecting what I’ve said, uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve said it. This is supposed to be soothing. Looking at this photograph, one friend in particular noted, “Look at how happy you look. That’s all I see.” It is the first thing she said when she saw the picture. It is the only thing. If she hadn’t added the second bit, I might have believed her. As it is, her dishonesty galls me. After all, a man has mooed at me from a passing car. A lady in the supermarket has removed an item from my cart, saying “You don’t need this, sweetie.”
I know it’s polite to pretend, but I am fat, okay? It’s a fucking fact. It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise and listening to people lie about it – though I know their intentions may be good – makes my palms tingle with a strange desire to slap. It makes me so angry.
And it has created a distance between me and the people I was close with when I was thin. I can’t forget how they used to lament their bodies in front of me, how they used to panic when they pushed into size six territory (never mind size sixteen; god forbid, twenty-six). These tiny women used to call their bodies (their thighs, their stomachs, their cankles, their arms) “disgusting” in my presence, and now they’re saying I’m not fat and that all they see is my smile? Spare me. The gulf between us is too big to leap. There are so many reasons for my body’s size. And then there are no reasons. My body just is, and I don't need a reason, right? When I can, I believe that. I let my Size Acceptance/Fat Activism freak flags fly.
But on most days, on regular days, I fail to live up to my own political standards. It’s so hard, in this world, with these people around me, to be as tough as I need to be. So often, I find myself obliquely apologizing for the way I look, for not wanting to walk into yet another store that won’t serve me, for whatever I’m eating at any given moment. I find myself explaining myself away, casually listing off the “reasons” for my fat body when I sense even the slightest judgement (so, all the time, since the judgement is constant) – this drug, and that drug, my thyroid disease, my eating disorder recovery, and blah, and blah, and blah. These reasons are real, but I wish I could shut up about them. My body doesn’t need a reason.
It doesn’t matter why I’m fat.
It doesn’t matter. IT DOESN’T MATTER.
The discrimination is real. The unfairness of the world is real. I don’t deserve it, but not because I have good “reasons” for being fat. No one deserves the boatloads of shit that the world can pile on us. That’s what matters. So why can’t I stop explaining? Look. Look there, in the last paragraph. I did it again. I listed my “reasons”. I snuck them in. The truth is this: I think I’m always trying to say, “This fat is not my fault.” As if “fault” matters. As if that is something I should spend even a millisecond worrying about. I want to be a “no apologies” type of person, but I guess I’m not there yet. I worry I won’t get there. This worry has replaced all my old worries about wanting to be smaller. Maybe this is small comfort, but it feels like progress.
To return to the photograph, yes, I was happy. I was happy in that moment, but it doesn’t make me happy now. Looking at this photograph makes me sad. It makes me anxious. Still, I keep it up. I allow it to remain tagged on Facebook. I let it exist because I figure it won’t hurt to fake it until my dark heart finally catches up with my brain and my mouth stops spouting reasons. I guess I’m just testing myself. I’m testing everyone else, too. I need to know if I can trust you. This photo says one thing louder than all other things and it says it in a way that I can’t always manage succinctly in my actual life, with my actual mouth. It says, This is how fat I am.
– Jen Selk (www.jenselk.com)