Seen and Unseen
What it means to be a fat survivor of rape
This piece discusses rape and fat hate.
I’m pressed into the corner of my bed up against the wall. My bedroom is mostly bare- a few pieces of furniture, no posters on the walls, a shelf with a few books on it, Discworld books about Sam Vimes and Stephenson novels. The romance novels I hide in desk drawers were people won’t see them. It’s easier to focus on the details of the room than the sounds outside of it. Ryan is out there. He is looking for change for the bus. I can hear him explaining this to another party-goer who stayed the night, explaining his ride ditched him.
My fingers twist in my discarded panties he removed from me while I was sleeping. I am shaking. When I was passing out, drunk, and I felt him climbing onto my bed I snapped “don’t even think about it, stay away from me,” and felt him retreat. Felt him pull away. Felt him understand. Then I woke, and he was on top of me, and his mouth, his hands, his body held me down.
Later, when I tell our mutual friend that Ryan raped me, he will look at me skeptically and tell me that Ryan just “starts sometimes because he knows a girl is less likely to say no then,” and as I’m preparing to scream that I did say no, he adds that I should be grateful for the attention.
Because I’m fat.
I’ll be unpacking this for years, naturally. I won’t let people touch my fat body. I’ll flinch when my parents hug me. I’ll never trust another friend as easily again.
When I see people talk about rape culture and the experiences of women, I will not see my experience reflected there, either.
On the Nature of Bodies
If we’re going to do this, and my aim is to actually do this, we’re going to have to talk about how we treat bodies differently. This isn’t something that comes up in discussions that could be labelled “feminist” nearly as often as it should. The presumed cis white able-bodied heterosexual woman dominates conversations on topics ranging from catcalling to workplace harassment to motherhood. This imagined woman has one more trait as well: she is thin.
Or, if not thin then what the industry has labelled “straight sized” (someone who does not have to shop in what is traditionally labelled the “plus size” racks). This imagined woman, conjured up by societal expectations for what a woman should be, fills mainstream conversations on topics regarding women. This is why it is important for movements that lift up the women who have been historically ignored to exist. Today, I will address the common narrative of what it is to be a woman who has been raped and offer my personal experience as an authentic narrative of a fat woman’s experience as a survivor of rape. My experience is not universal but that’s sort of the point.
I do believe, however, that for the fat women who have survived rape, many parts of my story will seem familiar. I know that there is a level of disbelief that runs through our society that dismisses harm against us. To quote Melissa Fabrizio writing in Spaces Between:
The discourse surrounding fat women’s sexuality is aggressive and harmful in that it places fat women in a position to be thankful for any type of sexual attention, even if it is unwarranted or unwanted. The blatant denial of fat women’s sexuality enables abusers to objectify and assault fat women. It also produces a rhetoric that enables society as a whole to excuse violence against fat women and blame these women for their deviant bodies by emphasizing how fat women should be thankful for any type of sexual attention, since they are so unworthy of it.
This rings true to me. So much of what has happened other people have done in my life has been excused because of my body. Years after I was raped, I got into a relationship that turned very violent. What strikes me so much is that through those early warning signs, Alan cheating on me repeatedly, I had friends telling me that I should probably forgive him, that I should try to understand.
Some of these friends would repeatedly violate my sexual boundaries while I was drunk, because it was just fun to them. It was just a joke. It wasn’t even sexual. How could I, a fat woman, have sexual boundaries when they did not view me as a sexual being?
How could I have boundaries when they barely viewed me as a person?
Men Who Prey
When I was fifteen and putting on weight rapidly, “getting chunky” as some would say, I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I had been told by boys who laughed gleefully the whole time that they had a “no fat chicks” rule. Even though I hadn’t even asked, I felt rejected.
That Halloween, I dressed myself up, like many girls do, as a sex worker. I wore fishnets. I wore a short black dress that had gotten shorter now that I’d filled out. I wore a collar, and heavy makeup, and heels. I felt powerful, like I was taking back some part of my sexuality.
I wonder if the adult who latched on to me could sense that damage, that pain I was working through, or if he just saw a teenage girl in a short skirt. He talked to me for hours, walked around with me, gave me beer and little sips from his flask. He kissed me in the park, away from the crowds of revelers.
“Come home with me, come home with me,” he whispered against my lips. I had already told him I was fifteen and something about him still wanting me frightened me even then.
On the Subject of Bullying
The way people talked to me about myself and my body made me more vulnerable to the people who preyed upon me and my body as well. Not all of it, it must come down to the abusers in the end, but what is bullying but a kind of abuse? The boys who gleefully taunted me for my body, who sexualized me when I grew breasts before the other girls, who terrorized me when I gained weight, weren’t they also a part of the cycle of abuse I have found myself living in, growing in all these years?
According to Fabrizio, this is not an uncommon feeling. Again in Spaces Between, she writes:
For fat women specifically, this vulnerability shapes the objectification and fetishization that they face every day. Beginning in childhood, fat girls are denied a critical aspect of their adolescent sexual development, by not feeling worthy of sexual desire. This continues as fat girls reach adulthood, even if they are no longer socially considered “fat”. The childhood effects of fatness are long-lasting. For fat girls that grow into fat women, the bullying experienced in youth intensifies with age, as they become an adult member of the structural hierarchy that oppresses them. Through this structure, it is possible for fat women to be subjects of abuse from their partners and even from strangers.
Lord knows strangers have felt entitled to shout things at me about my body. Strangers shouting out of cars as I walked home from work. Strangers shouting on the sidewalk as I rode past on my bike. When I’m catcalled and I don’t respond, the whistles turn to cries of “fat bitch!” quick.
As long as we excuse fat antagonism, as long as we make room for fat hate, we are reinforcing a part of rape culture that hurts too many women. A piece of it that hurt me.
Feminist groups must call out fat hate. They must reject it. They must include standing against fat hate and a dismantling of the industries that profit from it in their organizing. This is how space is made for some of the women historically left out of the imagined narrative.
I get this isn’t easy. To quote Fabrizio again:
This is not easy work especially since Western society is founded on principles of the subjugation of women’s embodiment and there are very few communities to contrast these foundations. Theory needs activism to flourish and grow. In the words of Marilyn Wann, “There is more than enough fat studies work for all of us to do: connections to make, freedom to envision, liberation to embody, and implications to comprehend. Welcome to the revolution!”
Welcome to the revolution indeed. Thank you, Fabrizio, for giving me the words to explain how much it hurt to have someone tell me I should be grateful for being raped.