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The Long Con: Womanhood, Fatness and Normalizing Abuse

Jessica Walter and Jason Bateman

Jessica Walter’s voice was strangled with tears when she addressed Jeffrey Tambor’s outburst with her Arrested Development castmates for the New York Times.

She was quick to point out that “he never crossed the line on our show, sexually,” and preemptively insisted she needed to “let it go,” likely bracing herself for the inevitable pushback that would come when a woman spoke up about her difficult experiences with a man.

Like many women and survivors of any kind of abuse, listening to the interview was a lot to take. I felt it bodily: the turn in my stomach, the chill in my skin, the clench in my muscles, bracing for the crash. I felt it viscerally, like a method actor sourcing my own memories. The male boss who told me I was too emotional to do my job well. The white man who publicly shouted down a woman of color in a public meeting, and the other white men who gave him endless second chances. The same men who would later say they were stunned to see the wave of #MeToo posts, and who would profess shock at the casual callousness with which the men of Arrested Development brushed off Jessica Walters’ pain.

But somehow, in all that heartache, there was a foothold. The interview went viral, finding its way to women who shared it, and men who were faced with the stark truth of what had too often been their own behavior and the behavior of men they knew. Women wrote think pieces pulling apart Walters’ pain and pointing to the ubiquity of experiences like hers. Tony Hale and Jason Bateman both issued apologies, reflecting on their own behavior and committing to do better in the future.

Thanks to centuries’ worth of work from dedicated feminists, most of us could feel misogyny in that painful interview. We could touch the contours of its waves. We could feel its undertows, know where to find them. We could name misogyny publicly as a culprit.

Yes, there is pain, both for the woman wronged and for those of us who see ourselves in her experience. But there was acknowledgment, for the first time, of the hurt and harm this kind of abuse causes. And there was a reckoning, not only for Tambor himself, but for the Batemans and Hales of the world, who instinctually and reflexively normalize abuse that falls short of physical or sexual violence. That reckoning doesn’t offer redemption — not by a long shot — but it does show some small measure of progress. For once, we were all grappling with the realities not only of verbal abuse saturated with power dynamics, but of the actions and rationalizations of those who excuse it, and soften the ground for repeat abusers.

As a woman who was all too familiar with experiences like Walters’, I felt validated, seen and heard like I hadn’t before. But that validation was, I knew, limited. Because I wasn’t just a woman, I was a fat woman. The bulk of my abuse had come at the hands of thin people, believing they were doing right and doing good, emboldened by a culture that agreed with them. And in my soft and certain marrow, I knew that that abuse — the abuse faced by fat people — would not be understood to warrant a similar reckoning. The same people who chastised Tambor, Bateman and Hale on social media had readily defended the street harassment and institutional discrimination faced by fat people. And, culturally, they were affirmed.

So what do you do when your abuse is widely accepted? And how do you persist when your abuser is a culture?

As I write this, I weigh 330 pounds.

Three days ago, a stranger sped up to pull alongside my car in traffic. She motioned for me to roll down my window. I did, thinking I might have a tail light out. Instead, I was met with a full-throated shout. GET OUT OF THE CAR AND TRY WALKING FOR A CHANGE.

When I got home, I texted a friend to tell her what happened. The response came quickly. Did you do something to provoke her? Cut her off or something? I said no. Nothing? Are you sure? Yes. People are going to judge. I guess the only way to make it stop is to just lose weight.

There it was. My own Jason Bateman, with no reflection or reckoning in sight.

There is a minefield of abuse reserved for the very fat. Two years ago, I weighed 400 pounds and rode city buses daily. At bus stops, strangers would approach me regularly, insisting on weight loss regimens, telling me loudly what I should and shouldn’t wear, shouting to passersby, is everyone seeing how fat this bitch is? Look at her! On airplanes, strangers stared openly and noisily announced their unwillingness to see my body.

I have come to view the world through the prism of that abuse, negotiating my days around reducing it. Who will shout at me? Which doctors will refuse to see me? Which dates will mock my body? Which strangers will photograph me, or make a meme of my skin?

These incidents have become commonplace, even rote for me. I have developed a sad skill set: I know how to minimize these instances. I know how to avoid eye contact with strangers, knowing that our locking eyes are too often misconstrued as an invitation to shout or detail their judgments of my body. I know how to deploy a charm offensive, calming agitated aggressors before they get the chance to unleash their fury. I know how to swallow these instances, feel their pressure only from within myself. I know how to keep abusers at bay alone, knowing that no one else will step in. I know how to contain the blast.

But the most difficult part of anti-fat attitudes isn’t bullying, harassment, fear or violence. It is the sudden glut of defenders that suddenly materialize when I name those experiences. When it comes to fat hate, nearly anyone can be a Jason Bateman or a Tony Hale, eagerly normalizing and excusing abusive behavior.

I have come to expect epithets and aggression, have come to weather their heat and pressure. But I have never become accustomed to the complete lack of empathy from so many around me. I refuse to accept it.

As I listened to Jessica Walter’s tearful words, I thought of our similarities, the sad and unjust overlap in the Venn diagram of our otherwise disparate lives. But as the public response unfolded, replete with sympathetic heartbreak and righteous outrage, I found myself thinking more and more about our differences.

For women — especially white women — describing our abuse is difficult, but increasingly, it’s met by some measure of sympathy, even if only from other women. But when fat people disclose our abuse, we are met with a steely refusal to believe it.

Nearly everyone defends abusers of fat people. My friend — an avowed feminist — seemed certain I must have done something to aggravate the driver of that passing car. Despite her bone-deep values, she suddenly searched for the wrongdoing in the bullied, not the bully. Even her final response insistently normalized that abuse. The only way to stop it is to just lose weight.

When that abuse turns physical, those scraps of empathy dissolve altogether. Fat survivors are told we are so undesirable that it’s impossible to sexually assault us. When it turns institutional, as with staggeringly prevalent employment discrimination or punitive airline policies, others’ responses curdle, turning from indifference to outright defense. Suddenly, people who otherwise relish complaining about delayed flights and cramped legroom become airlines’ staunchest defenders. They’ve got to make their money. Like spokespeople, they pivot to profits and regulation, the cost of jet fuel and supply side economics, defending companies they otherwise regularly decry.

It gets disappointing, seeing how quickly even those who love you can forget your humanity, explain away your abuse. But more than that, it gets lonely.

There are so many barriers to empathizing with fat people. Many will overconfidently assert that fat people are in full control of our own bodies, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary. Fat people are readily, gleefully mocked in movies, or held up as tragic morality tales on TV. When fat people are depicted with anything approaching normalcy, we’re met with naked disgust. Disdain for fat people is even encouraged, reframed as tough love, somehow deployed to our benefit (again, despite the proof that it often only makes us fatter).

Yes, there are barriers to empathizing with fat people. But it shouldn’t be an act of courageous defiance to name what fat people face as abuse. It shouldn’t be a radical act to insist that no one’s body warrants beratement simply by passing through someone else’s field of view.

I understand why others don’t intervene when fat hate rears its head. Intervention is uncomfortable and uncertain, risky and difficult. We don’t know what to say or how to make it stop. We find ourselves out of our depth, reaching for skillsets we’ve never had to develop, or suddenly reliving our own abuse. I can still recall vividly the times I have frozen in the face of abuse, or the times that I have failed to recognize it with the seriousness it deserved.

But all of that assumes we already see fat people’s experiences as abusive, and that we recognize it as something that’s wrong. But at our core, even without intending to, most of us believe that abuse of fat people is simply a natural consequence of living in such defiant bodies. We believe that fat people can change our bodies, we simply fail to. We believe that “tough love” will motivate that change. And we believe that fat hate ought not earn our outrage because it is simply the way of the world, unworthy of the effort it would require to change it.

Yes, I long for intervention in fat hate when it happens. But more than that, I am desperate for simple acknowledgement. I yearn for a that should never happen to anyone, offered without caveats or limitations, “tough love” posturing or threats of my assumed impending illness.

If you don’t wear plus sizes, you may struggle to hear the severity and irrationality of anti-fat abuse and bias. It may be difficult to hear, or difficult to believe. It speaks to a world that may be unfathomable to you. Life in a thinner body means the world around you has been redacted, presented to you only in part. It is unthinkable that strangers shout unprompted epithets at my body, but they do. It is unfathomable that doctors ban fat patients from their offices, but they do. It is impossible that airlines would bend to the will of brash and finicky passengers, but they do.

Like those mystified men, Bateman and Hale before you, you cannot see the air you’ve been breathing for years, cannot touch the shifting ground beneath your feet. Fat abuse has become invisible to you, a natural law. To many thin people, objecting to fat hate is as irrational as objecting to gravity. Why waste outrage on a simple fact of the world we live in? You have passively accepted it, because that is the only option that has been presented to you.

The greek chorus of Batemans and Hales in my life, when faced with the ubiquitous sharp edges of fat hate, have too readily insisted that you can’t change the world, you can only change yourself, by which they mean me.

I am asking you to try to change your own perception, and in so doing, make some small change to the world.

I am asking you to reach out, feel the world around you as it exists now. Experience it anew. You cannot see the air, the way it pushes in gales of wind. But you can look to the trees. You can see how they sway and break when its momentum becomes too great.

I am asking you sharpen your vision if only so you can see me. I am asking you to notice when I am swept up, broken, gone.

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