“I’ll pray for you.”
I already know what the woman sitting next to me in the coffee shop is going to say; I can see the words forming in her mind as her face draws taut from casual friendliness to a more calculated condescension.
Instead of finishing that chapter I’m writing, which is the reason I’m even in this coffee shop, working on a Sunday, my emotional energy is now forked into twin riverbeds of potential responses: Will the waters rage, becoming a fist of a current? Or will they be placid, yet potent ― leading me to deliver one of the cutting comebacks I’ve curated for just such an occasion (and still somehow manage to often forget in the moment)? I’d better decide fast.
“I’ll pray for you to have the strength, so you can lose the weight,” she says.
I could easily retort that I’ll pray for her to have the strength to ditch the acid-washed jeans, or to mind her own damn business. Instead, I laugh.
Being a fat woman ― and not fat in that polite, “curvy is the new chic” way we see in the feel-good beauty campaigns with those otherwise toned, hourglass-shaped plus-size models, but unabashedly fat, with rolls and dimples and unruly hips ― is already a feat of extraordinary strength.
We exist, and persist, in a world that opposes us at every turn: Every time we enter a new office or a movie theater, we must perform the mental Jenga of whether that seat can accommodate us. Every time we take any kind of mass transit, we walk a gauntlet of stink-eyes and people not-so-subtly maneuvering suitcases and grocery bags and umbrellas to the seat next to them, just so we don’t get any ideas.
Every time we enter any kind of public space (especially doctor’s offices, grocery stores or any kind of exercise class), we become sideshow spectacles ― our bodies exist as other people’s horror shows, objects of disgust and pity, the subjects of much comment and, now, even prayer.
From the moment I begin my day until I’m finally asleep again, I swallow so many indignities. Some of these indignities are obvious enough that most folks could understand them, even if they can’t entirely empathize with them ― like Ms. I’ll Pray for You or the constant catcalling that makes my face spark whenever a car slows down behind me (even if I can see the driver squinting at street signs).
Though the broader bigotries are more blunt and bludgeoning ― and I will never get over seeing my body turned into a rubberized grotesquerie on film or TV, or my fear of sitting, or walking, or existing, alone in public spaces ― the stones with the sharper edges, the ones that cut me up on the way down, are the petty insults, the ones that seem small enough to be insignificant.
The bitchy boss who’s always a little mean to everyone, but appears to reserve an extra-special, extra-public dressing down for me ― and always in front of my thinner co-workers. The chatty grocery store cashier who can’t help but muse aloud on how avocados are “the good kind of fat” as she bags them for me. The neighbor who waves at me as I’m taking a stroll with my dog and remarks, her voice overly bright with incredulity, that she’d be “absolutely winded” if she were walking “you know, like you.”
I want to ask her what, exactly, she means by “like me” ― to watch her trip and stammer over a number of euphemisms like “plus-size” or “curvy,” to goad her, through exaggeratedly polite questioning, into saying what she really means. But I don’t. I ignore her and continue walking ― a feat of Herculean restraint.
I try to imagine that ignoring this granular-level insult and abuse (some of it, perhaps, unconscious on the part of the people inflicting it) or at least pretending that it’s not because I look like, well, me, will get easier over time ― like sitting in a scalding hot bath and blowing on the water, telling myself that it’s cooling down, becoming bearable, even as my skin blisters.
Thin people get the privilege of dignity by default; fat people must earn that dignity, as I once tried to, years ago ― binging and purging, running on the treadmill until my knees ached, running until I fell on the still-running belt and skinned my poor palms, my poor belly. Until I sat with my pain, until I came to pity my bruised stomach, until I said that this circular hell of calories-in, calories-out wasn’t worth risking my safety or my sanity.
It would be easy to acquiesce to the idea presented by the bitchy boss and the coffee shop “Christian” and the doctor who cheerfully broached the subject of weight-loss surgery as she inserted the speculum in my vagina (“it’ll be perfect for you, because you can still have chocolate cake,” she said): My body is a problem to be solved. The only “good fatty” is someone willing to starve herself or run on a treadmill until her knees buckle, to devote her precious mental energy to dieting or even to amputate internal organs ― so she doesn’t have to be a fatty any longer. Once she’s thin, she can just be good.
My valor comes in deciding that I’m already good enough as is.
What I want to tell the woman in the coffee shop is that I’m already strong. I am living in this body, building a home in the world in this body, creating art and making love in this body, even though every aspect of the culture tells me, with a hammering insistence, that I don’t have the right.
I stood up after that fall, with the treadmill whirring beneath me; my legs were shaking with fear and pain, but they were strong enough to hold me.