Fat of the Furious
I wasn’t going to write anything about the Roxane Gay and Mia Freedman incident. On the day it all came out, and I had vented a bit on Twitter after reading the all-too-relatable Tweets from Gay, I was asked to write about my response, and I said no. I said no for various reasons, but the main one was that more than with any other topic I might write about, defending or exploring ‘fat’ issues receives the worst response, and leaves me feeling the most drained. I receive all sorts of negative comments when I write comedy, when I write about feminism, when I write about being queer , when i write about politics — but there is no comparison: writing about being fat brings out the worst in people.
(Let me just remind everyone here that Gay also constantly deals with all of these things, as well as explicit and systemic racism. The fact that she goes out every day in the face of this and shares any of her thoughts and time with the world is something that we should feel astonishingly grateful for, and we should feel truly ashamed that people conceivably “on her side” have caused her to feel like this.)
But sadly, this is all actually a perfect example of why fatness is such a slog to talk and write about. Never mind living it, too. When I write about queer issues, there is a fairly clear delineation between people who aren’t on our side (bad, homophobes), and who are on our side (good, allies). When it comes to being fat, yes there are those who overtly hate you, and see no need to hide their hatred. You encounter these people on a daily basis. Reading the shocked response to what had transpired in this incident was interesting, because there is not one fat person who would have been surprised at Gay’s treatment. You would be hard pressed to find a fat person who has not been made to feel subhuman at some point, if not consistently.
But there is so much more to what you face as a fat person than the man on the street who flicks his cigarette at you and calls you a fat bitch. Fat phobia is an insidious beast, one that lives in the looks people give each other when you push carefully past them in a crowd, and one that lives in the flushed embarrassment you feel when the seat next to you remains empty on a crowded train. It’s so hard to kill because it is not just people who hate fat people that can hurt you, it comes from people who have been taught to hate themselves.
It’s in the pointed comments about her daughter’s weight that your friend’s mother makes at Christmas dinner. It snakes out of the mouths of your much-less-fat-than-you coworkers and friends when they discuss their new diet within earshot of you. It’s the sinking feeling when they talk about how disgusting they feel because they put on a kilo, or that they are the worst person alive because they ate pizza. It’s that they ignore or remain ignorant about how their harsh words about themselves, put there by a society where so much hinges on a hatred for fat people, might make you feel when you hear them.
I couldn’t write about what happened at the time because I felt so despairing when Roxane Gay discussed how humiliated the incident made her feel. I despaired for her, but also for myself. Because selfishly, it made me realise it maybe actually doesn’t get better, like I thought it might. Sure, I am treated awfully, but surely once you are Roxane fucking Gay, it gets better. But no, just despair. Because it evidently doesn’t matter if you are a universally respected writer, someone being flown around the world to speak to adoring audiences. It doesn’t matter how beloved, how successful, how amazing you are — if you are a fat woman, you are first and foremost still just a fat woman.
To so many people you are still simply a fat body taking up too much space. It doesn’t matter if you spend your life, like I have, attempting to take up less room. It doesn’t matter if you do your absolute best to not impinge on anyone. It doesn’t matter if you never sit down on the train because you don’t want to make other people feel awkward. It doesn’t matter if you spend all of your life thinking about how to make sure nobody is made uncomfortable by your mere presence, even though they will still not give you the consideration of thinking of you as someone worthy of basic respect in return.
It doesn’t matter if you are a good person, a smart person, or a person who is worthy in a million other ways. To the world, you are just a fat body.
Gay was a fat woman who was lulled into a false sense of security, volunteering time to appear on a podcast of a self-professed fan. This was not meant to be a hostile environment. This was meant to be a situation where she could ask for a comfortable chair, do a podcast with someone who likes her work, and then leave. It probably would have felt like she could let down her guard for a minute, and instead she was humiliated. Fat people are used to others trying, and often succeeding, to humiliate us. Fat people are used to others humiliating us without trying. Fat people are used to moving through the world being treated differently than their thin friends. Almost on a daily basis I register a moment that I know without a doubt would have gone differently if I were thin.
I’ve made my career on the Internet, and when I meet people from the Internet in real life, those who have recognised me, the difference in how I am treated to how I usually would be is stark, and depressing. And yet, to be completely honest, even though I try not to — I revel in it. I can’t help it. Not because they know who I am, or they like what I do — but because for once, strangers are being nice to me. This is not a phenomenon that I am used to. Actually scratch that, it’s not even that they are being nice to me. It’s that they are just giving me a chance. Unlike in normal situations, with most people I come across, they haven’t written me off completely at first glance, sure that they don’t wish to know me because of what my body looks like. I revel in it, because for once I am being treated similarly to the way that everyone treats my thin friends wherever they go. I revel in it, even though it doesn’t sit completely right.
It doesn’t sit right because I shouldn’t be grateful that someone is treating me at a basic human level. It shouldn’t be a treat for me to not feel like my existence is a burden, or unwanted. I know logically that it shouldn’t take convincing people with my words and my work to be treated with respect, or to be treated like everyone else. And actually maybe it doesn’t take that, as Roxane Gay has now explicitly shown us. Now I don’t know what it will take. As a fat person, even after you have convinced people you are worthy, even after someone claim to be your fan — the hate is just there waiting to surface.
After this incident and the shocked outcry that ensued, I am now even more convinced that most people simply do not have any idea how differently fat people are treated on a daily basis. I try to explain to my friends, those who love me and think I am wonderful, that the world just doesn’t work in the same way for us. From the overt to the subtle, it is an ongoing and tough battle to be fat in public. Maybe you can’t understand until you live it, or until astonishingly blatant examples like this one are put in the public eye — but my hope is that maybe something positive can come out of this, that people might start to be more careful, and perhaps some new people’s eyes and hearts will be open.
It’s not fair that we should have to, but maybe by doing what Roxane Gay did, by calling out people who treat us with disrespect, by sharing the hurt and humiliation and very human feelings that are damaged over and over again either deliberately or thoughtlessly, we can make a difference. Maybe it will get better. And maybe I need to believe it might anyway, because the only other option is despair.