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“Look at her,” you say, nudging me, nodding toward a plus size woman wearing a crop top. “She should not be wearing that. Who wants to see that?”
A current jolts through my body. I am electric with fear, singed by exhaustion. I remember the fact of my body, so much larger than hers.
“She does,” I say.
“Well, I don’t.”
“It’s her body. You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”
“Look,” you sigh. “I know you’re all about body positivity. I am, too, as long as you’re not obese.”
My arms tense, calves flexed. I am calculating how long I can stay here, with you.
By the standards of the Body Mass Index, I’m not obese. I’m what it alternately calls extremely obese or super morbidly obese. According to the simple arithmetic of the BMI — a statistical tool created two centuries ago to measure populations, not individuals — my particular body is still unimaginably, unforgivably fat. I am cartoon villain fat. My body is an epidemic. My body provoked an unending war on obesity. Even 75 pounds smaller, I have descended from unthinkably fat to a garden variety sudden death fat.
But I do not describe myself as obese. Instead, I say simply that I am fat. It is short, straightforward, descriptive, easily understood. Fat does not claim anything my body is not, does not assign value unless I bestow it. Fat comes from people who are comfortable enough with my body to treat it as a matter of fact. Fat does not ooze with benevolent disdain, does not crawl with judgment.
Obese is deceptively medical, regularly used by people whose concerns are anything but, and who are almost never doctors. Obese drips from the lips of those who consider their disdain a blessing, a noble gift from a magnanimous benefactor that will end this wretched chapter in this unfortunate body. Obese almost always preludes diet advice, dating tips, or other demonstrations of thinner people’s believed mastery of a life I cannot possibly lead. Obese accompanies an insistence on the superiority of thin bodies, and the character, will, intelligence and tenacity that earned them thinness like a medal.
Obese often comes with a quiet cruelty, a creeping condescention. I didn’t expect it from you.
There’s a power dynamic that comes with people who call my body obese. It hides otherwise naked disdain behind a gossamer thin veil of medicine, legitimating the bullying and lecturing that will inevitably follow.
And that disdain is often borne of a deep, uncontested belief that thin people are superior to fat people in nearly every way. After all, they must be smart enough to understand thermodynamics and dietetics; moral enough to understand their obligation to remain thin; have the strength of will and character to stick to a plan; exhibit the determination to work out every day. Even if they have always been thin. Even if they don’t do any of those things.
But fat is so much simpler. It is a prosaic insult that reveals its speaker so readily. It is also a plain descriptor that simply, accurately describes my skin. Not like the slippery saccharine venom of obese.
I’m body positive as long as you’re not obese.
I’ve heard I’m body positive but… more times than I can count. Caveats abound. Yes, you should feel good about your body, but only if you’re not too fat. Only if you’re healthy. Only if you’re able-bodied. Only if you remember your place. Only if you stay forever vigilant, always remembering that your body is less than. Only if you stay ashamed.
I’m body positive as long as you’re not, you know, obese. For fat people, daring to feel even neutrally about our embattled bodies is a mortal sin. But if body positivity isn’t for fat people, who is it for? If body positivity only extends to people who already meet our standards of beauty and virtue, what does it accomplish?
I’m body positive as long as you’re healthy. But what of those with chronic illnesses, reaching to love the bodies that cannot love them back? Are cancer patients the kind of healthy that will be permitted to embrace their own skin? What about type two diabetics, people with hypertension, people with gout? What if you’re sick, and the whole world tells you it’s your fault? What if you’re not sick, and the whole rest of the world insists you are? Would you permit those people to love themselves?
Underneath all those caveats lies an insidious implication that body positivity is reserved for the pure, the pious, and the strong of heart. The belief that body positivity only belongs to those of us who remember the inherent repulsiveness of our bodies, who have done penance for our size six silhouettes too long. Body positivity is only for people who are wrong about the disgustingness of our bodies. Body positive caveats tell us that there is a kind of body that deserves to feel good about our bodies. The rest of us, though, ought to stay on our toes.
And caveats on body positivity reveal an underlying belief that we somehow chose our bodies. Body positivity that’s contingent on health, size or activity levels implies that, if each of us worked hard enough and dedicated ourselves fully enough, we could become as thin as we wanted. As if we consciously selected our bodies. As if fat people, people with disabilities, people who cannot claim health or thinness are somehow to blame for the burden of our bodies.
Thin people have somehow outwitted their bodies, while I have succumbed to mine. If only I’d been shrewder, more dedicated, longer suffering, smarter or stronger, I could have earned a thin body. And then — only then — I, too, could have body positivity.
My muscles stay tense around you now. I find myself ready to fight, ready to leave at any moment. I silence my telephone when you call, find reasons not to call back.
Because even if you do not believe any of this, you have revealed it to me. To you, bodies like mine have not earned peace with our own skin. To you, people like me, people like that stranger in a crop top, do not merit a simple ease with the bodies we have always had. And because of that, I struggle to feel that simple ease with you.
I am not obese, not an epidemic, not an enemy combatant in a war on obesity. I am not struggling to claim unjustly a body positivity that I have not earned. I am only trying to negotiate a ceasefire with my own skin. I am only trying to embrace each of us as we are. I am only trying to find my way to some semblance of wholeness.
I do not attach caveats to my love of you. I do not wish your body away, or quietly sequester it from the world of realer, more deserving people. I do not begrudge you your struggles with your own size or skin. I do not deny you the hard-fought wins you have found in your battle to embrace your body.
I wish you would not deny mine.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including To plus size women who cannot yet name their bodies and Who’s fat enough to be fat?