On Fatness: Acceptable Fat, Respectability, & the Silencing of Super Fats
Content Note: Discussions of fat, fat phobia, sizeism, health, disability, and related matters
This is me, currently at a size 26/28. I’m 5'4" and 310 pounds. It’s not easy to type that out knowing this is public for all the world to see. But I also know, because of my light skin and because of where/how I carry my fat, I am still blatantly privileged in my fat body compared to many of my loved ones. I’m 42-soon-to-be-43, post-menopausal, disabled, and have worked hard to accept the way my body has changed over the years. I’m outside the “acceptable fat” range, but not quite deemed the “OMFG what’s wrong with you” fat range yet. I’m not diabetic, I have excellent blood pressure, my heart is in great condition (I know because I’ve had 7 EKGs in the past two years), and my cholesterol is only slightly elevated (and I’m on a medication to help keep it from getting worse). I can honestly tell you my fat does not mean my health is bad, and the ways my health is bad have nothing to do with my fat. But I shouldn’t have to justify my fat that way, and people who do have health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure shouldn’t have to either.
Four months ago I destashed my clothing in the process of moving, getting rid of 3/4 of what I owned, and making some hard choices about some things I could no longer fit into that I had only had under a year. I’m about to go through what I have left and donate at least 1/3 of it again because I’ve outgrown so many of the things I could wear just four months ago — even though my actual weight has not changed at all. I can’t buy new clothes. Most of my wardrobe over the last three years has come thanks to a Lane Bryant credit card (that now has me in debt) and Torrid. I’ve found, the hard way, that both are completely unreliable in sizing, and Torrid is pretty unreliable in quality. I can never afford to get things tailored, so Torrid items end up never fitting quite right — because fat bodies aren’t all alike and what works for my hips doesn’t work in the chest, or what fits my upper arms ends up way too long as if they assume I should be 6 feet tall to wear something that wide. Thrifting was fairly easy when I was a ranging from 12–18, but it has become less and less possible as I’ve gotten bigger.
Here’s the thing about shopping while fat: Right now I can still shop at Lane Bryant, even if I end up sending back half of what I order because it doesn’t fit like expected. But if I gain more than another 20 lbs or my weight shifts any more pushing me up another size, I have no idea where I will be able to buy clothing from. And since I’m super poor (and already in debt), I don’t have the pleasure of hiring people to make things for me.
I’m not model-pretty acceptable fat. I have stomach rolls. I have a huge ass (I’m quite fond of it, for the record). I can’t even find regular bras that fit me correctly and comfortably, and thanks to fibromyalgia and skin sensitivities I find standard bras painful in any case. (Sidenote: If you are looking for something more comfortable for these same reasons, I recommend Hanes ComfortFlex Fit Wireless bras. I wear a 3x but have seen them in stores up to a 5x. They do require some shoulder flexibility because they also don’t have any clasps but are put on over the head similar to an athletic bra without the confining strictures.) My upper arms make it difficult to find sleeves that aren’t too tight. My thighs wear out pants, leggings, and nylons with a quickness.
But enough about me.
I’m writing this mainly to address some of the hurtful shit I have watched friends bigger than myself be subjected to, time and time again, mostly by people who call themselves their friends.
Concern Trolling — There’s enough written by other fat people about how annoying and offensive concern trolling about our health is. Concern trolling (telling us they care about our health to encourage us to lose weight) is one of the most common things. It’s when friends feel compelled to tell us that they are “worried” for us. It’s when they tell us that our diabetes would disappear if we lost weight. It’s when they tell us we would “feel better about yourself” if we lost weight. It’s when they tell us our chronic pain will magically go away if we lost weight. And some of the worst perpetrators of this particular offense are “former fats” — friends who have lost weight and think everyone else should do the same. This is a form of “respectability” — when people believe that if we do things “the right way” our oppression will stop. It doesn’t address the systemic ways fat is falsely posited as a national health crisis, as a moral failing, and as a determinant for everything bad that we experience.
Lifetime Fat vs New Fat — There’s is a huge difference, both to one’s personal conception of themselves and their body image, and to how one has been treated by others, for people who have been judged as fat their whole lives compared to those who became fat later. When I was young, I was thin. I had more booty and I got breasts earlier than my friends, but I was still thin. And thanks to poverty and an eating disorder, I was also starving as a late teen. It wasn’t until my third pregnancy (that followed two miscarriages) that I discovered what it means to be deemed fat. I gained 85 lbs with that pregnancy. I was showing when I was 8 weeks along. Because I had literally been starving and almost died just prior to that pregnancy, my doctor insisted I eat very well and not to think about the weight gain. The only time I’ve lost weight since (in 21 years) is due to starvation, and even now I have chronic malnutrition despite my size and weight. But my experience of getting fat in my 20s after the experience of being deemed beautiful and conventionally attractive in my formative years is profoundly different from my friends who say they were being teased for being fat since they were children. The messages they have had for a lifetime about their bodies have also created a lifetime of trauma and shame.
Acceptable Fat vs. Unacceptable Fat — A friend who is a few sizes larger than me recently decried the difficulty of finding other Black femmes of a similar size in her locale to build community with. I understood what she meant, because I struggle to find POC friends at all in my locale, much less any of a similar size to me. The response to her query, unfortunately, was several friends who consider themselves fat taking it personal that she was excluding them. What they didn’t seem to understand (and blatantly made light of) is how vastly different their 16/18 fat bodies are accepted compared to her 30-something size body. They are curvy, considered symbols of fertility, the sort of fat that while still marginalized is more and more being celebrated in ad campaigns, music videos, and other media that is reaching out to the reality that the average U.S. woman is now a size 16. Even brands that exist for fat people espouse acceptable fat as their limit of tolerance. Remember I said I soon won’t even be able to shop at Lane Bryant? That’s because their sizes only go up to 28, and it’s not at all unusual for styles I like to be unavailable in that size, especially if I need to wait for them to go on clearance. Let’s also not forget that the majority of Lane Bryant (and other brands, including Torrid, Roaman’s, and Woman Within) models are size 14–18. Even when I was still wearing a size 22, and occasionally still able to wear a 20, those items never looked on me the way they looked on the models. There’s fat, and then there’s super fat. And super fat experiences are a completely different world than fat experiences. My comfort levels have changed vastly going from size 22 to 28 — in terms of whether I can sit comfortably in a movie theater, make my way through a boutique shop, or get a seat belt on in some friends’ cars. But fat people often don’t want to make space for that conversation.
Fat and Race/Ethnicity — Let’s be honest, white fat is a dramatically different experience than Black or Latinx or Indigenous or Asian fat. And the proximity to whiteness also impacts our experiences. My super light skin protects me from the specifically racialized fat hate. It protects me from doctors assuming certain specific things about my diet (do I eat too much fry bread, too many tortillas, too much fried chicken), it protects me from stereotypes about activity levels (it’s assumed that I have no problem with swimming, for example), and it protects me from stereotypes about my alcohol consumption levels (if you didn’t know I was Indigenous and if you didn’t know that I’m in recovery already, you might not think to ask if I’m drinking too much beer). My light skin also protects me to some degree from assumptions that I am med seeking, so I have access to better (not always great — and yes, I definitely still face fatphobia) healthcare. Unlike most of my fat friends who are more obviously POC, I’ve never been asked to explain my mother’s failures to teach me nutrition or about her weight. My light skin means there isn’t the automatic assumption that my weight is somehow her fault — because white moms cook healthy meals, model appropriate nutrition and activity levels, and never rely on McDonalds at the end of their stressful work day, right? (I’m being sarcastic here, because of course white mothers are no different than any other mothers in these regards, but stereotypes are that mothers of color are all ignorant of nutrition.) Anti-Blackness is especially pernicious in this area.
Fat & Ableism — Tied greatly to the faux health concerns is the assumption that disabilities would be magically cured if we just lost weight. While some symptoms *might* be exacerbated by weight gain, there really are NO legitimate studies to prove that fat creates disabilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. My right knee has gone bad over the past two years — my doctor told me it’s a common unspoken symptom of menopause and estrogen depletion. It also became dramatically worse after I broke my left ankle last year, on account of the right side of my body taking on most of my body weight to compensate for the weakness on the other side. That has nothing whatsoever to do with how much I weigh. Fat doesn’t cause diabetes, and plenty of thin people are also diabetic. Fat doesn’t cause scoliosis — I already had that since childhood. Fat doesn’t cause cancer. Lots of thin and physically active people still have heart attacks.
You’d think the backlash against Mamamia for their treatment of Roxane Gay recently (Trigger warning on that link for examples of horrific fatphobia) would make us all more sensitive not only to how we talk about popular icons but also our own loved ones. That doesn’t seem to be happening, unfortunately, leading to me feeling the need to write this. It’s really pretty simple actually. We shouldn’t feel compelled to comment on other people’s bodies, health, or access needs. And we should listen to people when they talk about the ways they are being made to feel unwelcome, unsafe, and unheard simply for being fat.