There are no right answers for your fat friend.
Scenes from a thinterrogation.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
An electric current runs through me, its pavlovian fear like a lightning bolt in my veins. I have learned what lies behind that question, and I now stand electrified, charged and ready. A thinner family member has just asked me what I intend to order. “The teriyaki,” I say. Then, immediately, “are you sure that’s what you want?”
The interrogation has begun.
We’ve been down this road before, she and I. Whatever I say next, she’ll counter with how about a salad? If I order a salad, she’ll ask what kind of dressing? If I tell her, she’ll insist, just get oil and vinegar on the side.
If I decline to order a salad, frustration will slowly build behind her eyes. Eventually, it will overtake her. She will ask me how I usually eat. I will answer honestly. Then, she will begin the questioning afforded to her by her thinner body. How many servings of leafy greens do you get each day? Have you tried keto or paleo? Is your workout aerobic or anaerobic? Have you tried macrobiotic? If I have, she will probe for all the ways in which I have done it wrong. She will offer to spot me at the gym, go grocery shopping with me, coach me through the rookie mistakes that must have led to my body. I have proven myself to be an irresponsible owner of a body. My size is evidence that I am either too stupid or too weak to be thin.
Sometimes, when I tell her how I eat, she will flatly insist, that’s not possible. Because to her, my body is evidence in a trial that’s already underway. Like a childhood nightmare, I am failing a test that was never announced. I am on trial, and she is judge, jury, executioner. Her eyes are fiery, overtaken with a determination I do not understand. She is a bomb I cannot defuse.
This is the interaction, with staggering reliability, and not only with her. The interrogation is visited upon me from old men and young women; city-dwellers and rural folks; people of all ages and many walks of life. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, this is how we will interact. Every question is a turning point, and every answer a dead end. I am forever searching for an escape that does not exist.
The questioning comes like clockwork. A fat girl orders a meal, triggers a tripwire. A cog clicks, turning a gear. The controlled chaos of the Rube Goldberg interrogation machine begins.
That evening, I daydream of an art installation: life-size photographs of my body, in underwear, matter of fact, taken every morning. Next to my body, photographs of every meal I ate that day. Video of me, peddling swiftly on an exercise bike or running through a city park. Printed correspondence with my physician. Copies of my lab results. My weight.
I imagine lengthy, byzantine halls of heavy proof. Defense discovery after the trial. All the evidence I have to offer. At the end, perhaps, a full-length mirror. You have seen me. Now see yourself.
I wonder if thinner people would understand. I wonder if they would be changed. For a moment, a glimmer of hope: what if they can change?
I think of the reviews. Exhaustion overtakes me.
In my 34 years in a fat body, I have become accustomed to the blinding floodlights of interrogation from thinner people. I am asked what I eat, whether I exercise, when I wake up, how I sleep, where I work out, whether I cook. Is it local? Is it organic? Have you tried Atkins? Clean eating? Weight watchers? It’s not that complicated. You probably did it wrong.
Once the questioning begins, it cannot be stopped. Its only end comes when I have been fully dominated, wrestled to the ground, pinned beneath the superior authority and achievements of a thinner person. Because, in a thinterrogation, a fat person can offer no right answers. Nothing will get us free. Every action, every choice becomes evidence in the unending trial of your body. Thin people’s judgment, their dogged investigation, make every choice a loaded one.
When you go to the gym, you may be faced with the patronizing “good for you!”s from smaller members, or the open snickering of young, thin people. When you don’t go to the gym, you give into a stereotype of the lazy, willfully fat person. You manifest all the images used so often to hurt you.
When you order a salad or vegetables at a restaurant, servers and strangers may offer more condescending congratulations — keep it up! — reminders that you are forever being watched, monitored closely by the investigators in your midst, forever collecting evidence. Everyone, it seems, is a double agent. When you order nearly anything else, you start the interrogation machine. Are you sure that’s what you want?
Go on dates, and you risk face-to-face rejection of your body, a reminder of the cultural insistence that the shape of your skin makes you categorically unlovable. Don’t date, and you fulfill the prophecy of the sad fatty.
Lose weight, and you open the door to an endless stream of backhanded compliments. I was getting worried about you. No offense, but it was kind of gross. Gain weight, and you’ll face a crashing tidal wave of concern from the same people who you now know think your body is kind of gross.
Buy two tickets for your upcoming flight, and your breath will thicken as you call customer service to ask for the passenger of size tickets. You will wait, as they look up the policy, prepared to pay double, even though your second seat may still be resold. But two tickets will not save you from the worst of it. You will arrive at the airport to the same open glares, strangers’ hot eyes boring into you, the gall of your presence already having wronged them. Don’t buy two tickets, and you might not arrive at your destination at all, facing the long march past rows and rows of watchful faces, a built-in audience for your public humiliation.
And if, after all those wrong choices, you dare to share the hurt and harm caused by others’ thoughtless behavior, you risk being told to just lose weight, as if it were ever that simple. As if it hadn’t been your life’s work. Or you might be told that you’re the one who’s in the wrong — that the only way to escape public abuse is to jettison the only body you’ve ever had. After all, if you walk around looking like that, you’re practically asking for it.
But if you don’t name that abuse, its caustic ocean will surround you. Over time, it will corrode you, eating away at your skin, then flesh, then bone, then marrow, until the sum of you is made carrion for the birds of prey circling overhead.
Are you sure that’s what you want?
On twitter, I ask thin people what it would take for them to believe fat people when we tell them how we eat and exercise. Do they need to hear from doctors? Celebrities? Our parents? Medical organizations? Oprah?
The responses deflate me. Many have misinterpreted the question as are you a good person? Accordingly, they respond, why wouldn’t I believe you?
One week later, I tell my thin family member about the newest round of comments I’ve received from strangers on the internet — people who have never seen my face, do not know my name, only know that I am fat. I tell her about the relentless questioning and rote lectures that flood my inbox.
When I tell her, she gasps. Who would treat someone like that? A gulf opens between us.
I think of James Baldwin. “I cannot believe what you say, because I see what you do.” I find myself wondering if a thin person could ever see themselves in a mirror held by a fat person.
That evening, I climb into bed, bone tired, but I struggle to sleep.
34 years of my life have been spent at the hands of thin people’s interrogations. They are merciless and unending. No proof satisfies their questions, no evidence strong enough to excuse the body they are forced to look at momentarily, but that I live with every day.
Thin people’s entitlement to know, their relentless questions, leave me hungry to learn why. Why do they demand to know so much? Why does the sight of me insist upon an assertion of their supremacy? But no matter how much I learn, no matter how much insight I gain, I still live the grim reality of facing the same questions, the same force, the same thirst for dominance from the thin people around me. I become the mat on which they prove their strength; the battlefield upon which they triumph; the canvass on which they paint their superiority. I long to find insight that will free us both. But no matter how much I study the past, I remain doomed to repeat it.
I search for ways out of thin people’s relentless questioning, but there are none. Like a lab rat, I am trapped in a maze made entirely of labyrinthine turns and dead ends. There is no escape, no respite, no ingenuity or tenacity that will deliver me from that cage of a maze. I am forever wrong, and forever captive.
I keep searching for the solution, the insight, the empathy that will free us both from this endless, unforgiving routine. We have learned combat like a dance, emerging bloodied, but comforted by the familiarity of our regimen. I ask thin people, but they cannot answer. I dig for insights with friends and family, but most do not recognize the dynamic at all. As if in some science fiction dystopia, their bodies are overtaken by an outside force they cannot resist.
I do not know how to free us. I do not know how to convince thin people to give up the fight that drains us both, to simply let me be. I do not know how to stop the steady drip of questions, judgments and rejections. I do not know how to counter the constant assertions that I am either incompetent or deceitful, all from people who deeply believe themselves to be helping me. I desperately want to know, but I don’t.
I do not know how to stop the slow erosion of the whole of me.