How “just lose weight” sounds to your fat friend.
On the everyday heartbreak of “why don’t you just lose weight?”
We meet for cocktails. You’ve had a tough week with work and family, their cold, hard edges pressing on either side of you like a vice. Something’s got to give, and you’ve bent as far as you can. We talk at length about the parts of your life that have lost their luster and allure. We troubleshoot. We witness. We connect.
“Enough about me,” you offer. “How is your day?”
It was frustrating. I tell you that a stranger at the grocery store peered into my shopping cart and confiscated the watermelon I was planning on buying. When pressed for an explanation, she waved me off, saying that watermelon was “too sugary for you. You don’t want that.”
I tell you that I am bone tired from fending off strangers’ entitlement to my body, my food, my movement. I wish so deeply for an uneventful trip to a grocery store, a gym, an airport. I tell you that I am desperate for the luxury of being left alone, the gift of invisibility. While I speak, your eyes lose their focus. My voice has become a distant echo to you. When I finish, you heave a belabored sigh and bring your attention back.
“Why don’t you just lose weight?” you ask, your eyes now piercing mine. “I mean, you can’t change the world. Losing weight certainly would solve all of that.”
You must see the way my face has fallen. The glassy glimmer in my eyes, a prelude to tears I won’t allow. You must feel the shaking of the earth under our feet, the crevasse that has appeared between us. There has been a tectonic shift. Suddenly, we are oceans apart.
You are somewhere far away, where weight loss is as simple as just. I am fat.
Why don’t you just lose weight?
That phrase escapes your mouth with a cutting simplicity, echoing so many others before you: family, doctors, colleagues, strangers. My life as a fat person, I am told, will be all stick and no carrot. I will continue to face indignities, insults, material harms until my body becomes what it has never been: thin.
The reward for thinness is so modest and so important. Only thinness, I am told, earns doctors who will listen to you. Thinness secures a loving response to a difficult moment. Thinness ensures that a plane ticket affords a guaranteed seat. Thinness wins indifference from strangers, an end to the shouts that follow fat bodies, the reliable echoes of our footfall.
All those carrots, dangling from that one simple, distancing phrase.
Why don’t you just lose weight?
Just, as if it were that easy to shrink to one third my size. Just, a red pen, crossing out the last twenty years of calorie counting, dieting, desperation. Just, as if every moment of shame and hurt was my fault anyway. Just, watching my hurt roll so cleanly off of you, leaving nothing behind. Just, the earthquake that separated you and I. Just, when you stopped seeing me.
Why don’t you just lose weight? tells me so much about the person who asks — and so many people ask. Today, you have become the next in the endless parade of amateur inspectors, screening my health from a bored distance. Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me so much about you, and about our friendship. It tells me what you have forgotten, or what you never knew, about what it’s like to live in a body like mine.
It tells me that you do not know, or do not remember, the Sisyphean task of real weight loss. Not the freshman fifteen or the ten pounds to a beach body, but the 50, 100, 200 facing me.
It tells me that you have not sat in a doctor’s office, face hot with shame, as she explains what you’ll need to lose to be considered “at a healthy weight” — an elimination of two thirds of your body.
You never made the calculations as the doctor spoke, or felt the crushing realization that if you did everything right, her recommendations would deliver you to thinness in five years. Five years of perfect weight loss. No work meetings or family gatherings with unapproved foods. No sickness, no biological factors. No plateaus, no sicknesses, no slip-ups. Five years to transform your body into one you’ve never, ever had. Five years to meet your most basic needs. Five years to stop strangers’ stares at restaurants and open laughter in a gym.
Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me that you have never been told that you will have to earn basic decency, or prove that you are worth of escape from the casual violence of the everyday life of a very fat person. That you have not known the heartbreak of losing 50 or 60 pounds only to realize that why don’t you just lose weight? is not a continuum, but a brutal and unforgiving binary. It does not care about progress, only arrival at thinness. Why don’t you just lose weight? does not mete out smaller rewards or scale itself to your needs. It does not afford you the luxury of escaping strangers’ comments about the contents of your shopping cart, the cause of your anticipated death, or the open disgust they express when they see your body.
Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me that you cannot conjure the feeling of pouring your whole self into meeting a goal, and the humiliation of failing so publicly to meet it. You cannot recall the vulnerability of wearing that goal on your very skin, and feeling it rot around you, its full albatross weight pulling you down. You do not know how your veins can come alive with the static electricity of fear and embarrassment when someone mentions how that diet didn’t work out, huh?
Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me that you cannot see me. You have not faced a mile-high wall of impermeable judgment, a dam holding back the water you need to survive. You have not been isolated by judgment, have not been starved by its embargo, have not longed for a crack in its facade. You have not sought human contact, a simple sign of understanding, and instead felt its cold, seamless cement. You have not pressed yourself against its surface, wishing for something as plain as I hear you or that must be difficult.
Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me that, when faced with the need to demolish that wall, you decided instead to become its newest architect. Rather than relating to the fat people you know and love, you become as cold as the monolith facing us. In those moments, the best I can hope for is your indifference.
Why don’t you just lose weight? teaches me that you have been robbed of the ability to see fat people as people. Decades of fear mongering, blame and public humiliation have taught you to see us as simple equations of calories in, calories out. Those years have taught you to believe that we only have ourselves to blame if our equations don’t balance.
Why don’t you just lose weight? tells me that you are one of the 75% of Americans who believe that my size is a failure of my character, despite the growing understanding that the size of any body is infinitely more complex than the simplicity of will. It tells me that you don’t know or care that judgment of fat people persists from all sides, and has been corroborated time and time again. It tells me that you do not care to solve the problem of my dignity — you only want to solve the problem of my body. The body that brings me to you.
Why don’t you just lose weight? tells me that despite our years of friendship, I cannot rely on you. That when my body is under attack, the best I can hope for is that you will shrug and you will look away. At worst, you will become exasperated and incurious, insisting upon knowledge that you’ve never needed to test. It tells me that the immediacy of my abuse can only be countered by shedding the 227 pounds that divide us. That, like the shopper at the grocery store or the shouting stranger in a passing car, preserving my dignity is only a worthy endeavor if my body looks like yours.
Iknow you to be a deeply good, thoughtful, compassionate person. When your soul cannot bear what is happening around you, you stand up for what’s right. Your response today tells me that you think whatever I face as a fat person is right in your eyes. Not only that, but it tells me that you believe me to be ultimately responsible for my own abuse.
When you answer my toughest moments with why don’t you just lose weight?, you throw up your hands at grappling with the complexity, difficulty and hard truth of my body, and the life I live in that body. You teach me that connecting with me is too difficult to be worthwhile.
Living in a fat body has taught me not to expect more from friends and family. I should not hope for their righteous anger or solidarity. I cannot rely on their interruption of unvarnished aggression, even when it happens in their presence. I cannot wish for their compassion, much less their action. Even those dearest to me will choose to defend faceless flight attendants, thoughtless doctors, cruel strangers on the bus, or public abusers, rather than simply showing loving concern for the fat person in front of them.
They cannot stand with me. The pull to defend fat people’s abusers is too strong. It is as reliable and resistible as gravity.
I have learned, through years of hurt and inaction, to shrink my expectations to the space provided to them. I have learned to ask for as little as possible, and expect still less, even from those who love me most.
All I need in this moment is your silence, and you cannot muster that. I need you to love me enough to try to hear me as I speak, to see me as I am. Instead, you look away.
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