A love letter to a fatcaller
To the man who shouted “I would not f — you!” from a passing car
Of all the things strangers have shouted at me on the street, yours is my favorite. But it was far from the first.
A year before you and I met, I was walking home from work. A stranger stared at me, slack jawed, looking my body up and down, over and over again.
“Excuse me,” she shouted. “Are you big enough yet?”
I kept my head down, eyes fixed on the pavement, walking swiftly, willing the moment to pass.
“Is everyone else seeing how fat this b — h is? Look at her!” She pointed at me, searched the faces of passersby. “How do you let that happen? Can you even hear me? I deserve an answer!”
For months, I couldn’t think about what she said — I could only feel it. I remembered her constantly. Shame filled my body like a water balloon, fragile in its fullness. The simple act of walking down the street in a fat body had called up a deep rage in a perfect stranger. I tried to imagine what kind of body would cause me so much anger, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t fathom feeling a rising tide of hostility just from seeing another person’s skin.
Our encounter had taken place across the street from my office. I regularly feared seeing her, uncertain of when she would find me again. I found excuses to walk home with colleagues or work from my apartment. I wasn’t always afraid, but I was always aware.
I stopped wearing the dress I wore that day, first hanging it in the back of my closet, then giving it away a few weeks later. Its bold, magenta knit had drawn too much attention to a body that couldn’t keep me safe. I began wearing baggy, nondescript clothing. Plain jeans and oversized black tunics. Long sleeves and large coats. Long necklaces over high necklines. But even with my new wardrobe and protocol in place, it happened again.
After a late night in the office, I walked out to my car. I heard light, shuffling footsteps behind me. At the end of the block, I checked furtively over my shoulder, and saw a sallow, older man a few paces behind me. In the crosswalk, I looked back again. His eyes were fixed on me.
“No one will ever love you,” he said loudly. “Not looking like that.”
I walked faster, feeling for my keys inside my bag.
“No one will ever love you,” he said again, louder.
My feet moved faster. I looked again, and he was still following, watching me so closely. I broke into a run, sprinting to my parking garage, running up the stairs past the too-slow elevator. His voice echoed up from the street.
“No one will ever love you,” he repeated, his voice rising to a full-throated shout.
I started the car and drove out of the garage as quickly as I could. When I reached the street, I nervously scanned the sidewalk for my phantom aggressor. He was gone.
I drove home as quickly as I could, heart still racing. When I finally reached my street, I pulled up to the curb and cried. My tears came in waves, stronger each time, until I could hear myself wailing.
I wasn’t humiliated or ashamed. I was terrified.
All my precautions had failed. There was nothing I could do to stay safe. However I dressed, whoever was around, I was always vulnerable. My body made me a target. Over time, I came to accept that there was nothing I could do to control these moments of unbridled aggression. I told myself that these two strangers had made their own decisions about what to do when they saw me. I told myself that they were responsible for their own behavior, although I couldn’t quite believe it yet.
That’s when you came along.
I was finishing up a long walk in a nearby park, returning from my lunch break during an especially difficult day at work. I crossed the street back into a thicket of skyscrapers, lost in thought. That’s when I heard you, so loud and so close.
“I WOULD NOT F — YOU!”
I lifted my head, jolted out of my thoughts, to see who was shouting. I saw you, your head jutting out of the window of a white SUV, looking squarely at me. Your face was bright with the rush of transgression, frozen in an expectant grin. You were waiting for my reaction.
In the past, my only response had been to retreat, fixing my eyes on the ground and leaving as quickly as I could. Usually, moments like this sent me into a tailspin. But today, my response was immediate.
“I WOULD NOT F — YOU!” you shouted.
“OKAY!” I shouted back, shrugging.
We paused, you stuck at the stoplight, me standing on the street corner. I started laughing. And I couldn’t stop.
Your face twisted with anger, and you fixed your eyes on the traffic light, waiting for it to change. I was still overcome with laughter long after your car pulled away. For the first time, I genuinely understood that you alone were responsible for your behavior. You saw my body and decided what to do. You, a grown man, saw me, a perfect stranger, and decided on a course of action. And the course of action you chose was absurd. It was just so deeply funny.
On my way back to work, my mind raced. Who shouts that? And why?
What were you expecting in response? “Thank you!”? “I’ll try harder next time”? Should I have tried to seduce you, convince you otherwise? Maybe you were expecting something more cutting — a gasp? Tears? Trauma? When you thought up this great caper, what outcome were you looking for?
Did you expect to shatter me? Maybe everything you had been told about fat women was that we moved through our lives totally alone, pining for thinner men. Maybe you thought you were my type. Maybe you thought any taker would be a fat woman’s type. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? Did you think your exclamation made a statement about me? Or did you know how much you were revealing about yourself?
Absurd as your actions were, they rested on a longstanding dynamic between fat people and everyone else. There is no debate over whether or not fat people are treated poorly. There is only debate over when and whether that poor treatment is justified. (The consensus seems to be always and yes.)
Fat people are trained to believe that everything that befalls us is our own fault. Any negative reaction our bodies receive, any harsh treatment laid upon us is ultimately our responsibility, justified on all sides by the logic of abuse. This is for your own good. I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t make me.
The spotlight is always on our bodies, and that spotlight tightens over time, growing hotter and brighter until our bodies are all anyone can see. The audience melts away. All we can see — and all we can blame — is fat people.
But that performance relies on a willing subject. In the months leading up to meeting you, I’d started thinking in new ways not just about my own body, but how other people treated it. Since nothing could keep me safe from strangers like you, I had no reason to hide. Whatever I wore, wherever I was, I was still fat. Nothing changed that.
I started to realize that there was life beyond the spotlight, so I wandered out of it. I stopped performing. I lifted the house lights, let my eyes adjust, found the faces of the people watching that floodlit stage.
When you shouted at me from the audience, you were counting on that enduring spotlight. But for the first time, I saw both of us differently. My body wasn’t responsible for your actions. I wasn’t the only person worth watching. Like so many hecklers before you, you didn’t expect me to see you, too. When you thought of rejecting a fat girl, you never expected her to laugh.
As the weeks went on, yours became one of my favorite stories. I told everyone about you. Friends would ask me to talk about our encounter at happy hours and dinner parties. I told a theater full of delighted listeners all about you. Coworkers delighted in speculating about what else you might shout. Women especially loved hearing about a spurned catcaller.
And I loved talking about you. So often, others tiptoe around the fact of my body. Family members insist you’re not fat, you’re beautiful! But those same voices will offer unsolicited diet advice and backhanded compliments. You’re so brave to wear that — you just don’t care what people think! Grow your hair out — short hair just emphasizes a round face. I know a great surgeon if you’re interested in a lap band.
To them, admitting to being fat means being unloved, undesirable, unsuccessful, alone — sometimes even unhygienic, lazy, stupid, sick. So thin people take on a careful, precise dance to make sure that fat people know we’re not fat. Being fat would be terrible. Don’t say you are fat, say you have fat. As if I, then a size 30, had the luxury of separating myself from the fat body that preceded me.
Our encounter flew in the face of all that careful choreography. You laid bare the ultimate threat: that you, a thin man, might not want me, a fat woman. You cut to the quick of the terrible fate that’s meant to befall me. And I found it absurd.
All that careful dancing around how to describe my fat body, the looming threats that hung over me like a guillotine’s blade — they had nothing to do with me. I was loud, boisterous, happy, surrounded by extraordinary, loving friends and family. I was good at my job, successful, academically accomplished. I’d become resilient, having built the muscle memory of trying hard, taking feedback and learning from mistakes. I worked hard to make myself into someone decent, empathetic and kind. I failed regularly and kept at it. After all that work, I genuinely liked who I’d become. I didn’t need the incentives of love, respect, happiness, success, a life well lived. I already had them.
You would not f — me?