In defense of fat sadness.
I am bewildered and crumpled. A stranger has called me a pig, told me that the thought of me makes her sick. I am shaken, and it shows. I seek out a friend, tell him what she’s said.
I hope you hate me, the stranger said. As long as you are obese, you have no right to feel good about yourself. You should literally be ashamed of yourself.
“Let it go,” my friend replies with a cutting sigh. He hardly looks at me.
“It hurts,” I prompt.
“It shouldn’t. Who cares what a stranger thinks? Just let it go. What else can you do?” It shouldn’t hurt, but it does. Now, on top of that hurt, this shame.
In that moment, the earth cracks open between us, separating us with miles of rocky terrain. As far as he knows, this is the first time this has happened. He doesn’t know that moments like these are regular occurrences. He doesn’t see the sidelong glances on the bus, the whispers in the shopping mall, the judgment at the grocery store. He doesn’t hear peers saying if I gain another pound, I’ll kill myself. He doesn’t feel the accumulation of these moments, each one a brushstroke, painting a thick and vivid target on my back.
He’s new here. He doesn’t know that he’s talking to a master of letting it go.
It’s a small moment, this exchange with my friend, but it stays with me. I remember what it felt like to be trapped in that mobius strip of pain and embarrassment, reaction and shame for that reaction, all connected, one-sided, never-ending.
I have learned not to share my sadness as a fat person. Growing up, I learned that my body was unpalatable enough without adding on cumbersome, messy feelings like sadness. Sad fat people would show up on TV, crying and sweating, their unsavory feelings the only space they were allowed to take up. The only time fat people could be tolerated was when we renounced our bodies, or made them disappear into our suffering. Fat people who stayed fat could be neither seen nor heard.
There are some pervasive, destructive stereotypes about fat people, and the Sad Fatty is among the most ubiquitous. The Sad Fatty doesn’t go on dates, because she knows she’ll be rejected. The Sad Fatty wears ill-fitting clothing and stays in on Friday nights. The Sad Fatty aims low and lands lower.
The Sad Fatty is every “before” picture, frowning and embarrassed of her body. She is in weight loss commercials and audition videos for The Biggest Loser. She is warm in the mouth of Fen-Phen users, shipping banned weight loss drugs in from other countries. She is headless fat people on the news, and she is the dead dial tone before calling Jenny Craig. She is powerless, limp, ubiquitous. The Sad Fatty is everywhere.
The Sad Fatty beats me into every room. Whenever I enter, she’s already there, in the minds of people I meet. Hers is an intoxicating stereotype, telling thin people that their bodies are a manifestation of their happiness and success, and that lecturing fat people on how to lose weight is a charitable act to save us from ourselves. I am so often seen through the thick fog of her sadness.
It is easy to resent the Sad Fatty, when so many people confuse the two of us. She is mapped onto me, and I lose my ground. Suddenly, I am lost.
It’s shocking to see images of us that feel so far from the truth of who we are. So, of course, we want to push back against the stereotypes that define and confine us. When faced with false images of ourselves, distorted by the funhouse mirror of misperception, it can be cathartic to make ourselves their opposite. Not depressed, but eternally joyous. Instead of unsexed, burlesque. In place of slothful and gluttonous, starved and athletic. We become consumed by opposing who we’re assumed to be.
And in the process, we distance ourselves not only from the characteristics of those stereotypes, but from anyone who takes on those characteristics. A fat woman who is genuinely sad or depressed becomes a threat, a flesh-and-blood reminder of who we’re assumed to be. A fat person eating Cheetos represents the glutton we’re meant to be, and a fat person eating a salad turns into the paragon of dietary virtue we’re expected to become.
But, my darling, those are fat people, too. They are acting within the same narrow, unfair, restrictive narrative as any other fat person. Defining ourselves by stereotypes, whether embracing or denying them, keeps us trapped by a story that is not ours.
Fat people who are sad, who eat well, who eat poorly, who exercise, who don’t — we all live our lives in the pressure cooker of fatphobia. Our bodies are epidemics, our disease communicable, our lives quarantined. Of course we defend ourselves, give up, give in, deny, push back. And of course levels of depression are so high amongst fat people. We live in a culture that wouldn’t have it any other way. The Sad Fatty is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We are products of a system that is dead-set on isolating us, shaming us, dividing us, shunning us. Whatever our size, when we carve fat people into acceptable and unacceptable types, we do that system’s work for it.
I know how it feels, my darling. The way the wind is knocked out of you when a well-meaning family member tells you to let it go. As if you hadn’t been doing that for all these years. As if you can’t be allowed your one moment of frustration, feeling, reaction. As if you hadn’t been shouldering the burden of so much of this hate for so long.
There will be days when it exhausts you, being a shock absorber for everyone else’s sad attitudes toward their own bodies. There will be days when you are wrung out, a sponge cleaning up the messes of others misperceptions. We fight long and hard, you and I, just to be seen for who we are, and heard over the din of debate over our bodies.
Remember that your sadness is tangible, organic, important and useful. Sadness is what reminds us of what it means to hurt. Sadness drives empathy — it is how we remember not to hurt others, and how to lead with our hearts. Your sadness is fuel for understanding mine. And your sadness is borne of you, not the scripted lines of the Sad Fatty.
It is okay to be tired. Some days, you will need a rest. Some days, you will feel sad. And your sadness deserves to be seen just as much as any other part of you. Not because it is expected, but because it is yours.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including “’Sweetie, No!’: The heartbreak of ‘you’re not fat’”and A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone. You can also support Your Fat Friend on Patreon.