I am sorry that I didn’t thank you right away, my dear friend, and that I seemed so distant. You were kind to pay me such a wonderful compliment, and I was unprepared.
There’s alchemy in compliments. They can change a whole day. Being called smart, witty, accomplished, fun, lively, thoughtful, strong, a good friend, a caring partner, a helpful colleague — compliments reflect parts of ourselves that we cultivate. They feel like someone is recognizing work we’ve put in, characteristics we’ve forgotten about ourselves, or aspects of our personalities that we thought others couldn’t see.
And then there’s being called beautiful. Beautiful is different.
As fat person, I’m rarely told I’m beautiful. When I am, it nearly always comes with a qualifier. “You’ve got such a pretty face. If you lost forty pounds, you’d be a knockout!” “That jacket looks great on you. It hides your midsection so well.” None of them are compliments — they’re wishes for the future. They’re congratulations for hiding unappealing parts of my body, or for some perceived disfunction. They are conditional love, promised but undelivered. You wear it so well.
Those qualified compliments say a lot about the person delivering them. They reveal thoughts that my friends and family never would about fat people. They tell me precisely what rule I am an exception to. Fat people are ugly, but this one looks okay. Rather than setting me at ease, qualified compliments tell me I’m with someone whose feelings about fat people are unsettled and easily triggered, a minefield to traverse alone.
But once in a great while, someone tells me I’m beautiful, and leaves it at that. No qualifiers, no caveats, no pitches for diets or surgeries, no mournful look. Just beautiful. Today, that person was you. I didn’t thank you properly because I don’t know how, and because when you talk about my body, you are never alone.
When you speak to me, you speak in an echo chamber. What you say stays, and longer than you might think. It clatters around with echoes of harsh and horrible things, dismissive and demeaning things, quiet indignities and moments of violence from years past. It careens toward the “fat bitch!” so routinely leveled at me when I decline a date. It ricochets off of my aunt’s ever-growing list of clothing I shouldn’t wear, because of an ever-growing list of body parts she thinks I shouldn’t show: shoulders, arms, thighs, knees, belly, breasts. In amongst all of that heavy history, reinforced day after day, beautiful can be impossible to believe.
You are speaking softly, kindly into a cacophony of comments about my body. Beautiful gets lost. If you say it more, its echo may come back to you. If you sit with me long enough, some of those other echoes may subside. If I am to hear beautiful, I have to hear all the rest, too.
And beautiful is so loaded.
There is a cost of reducing people to their appearances. It’s the foundation for catcalling, sexual harassment, and sexualized violence against women, queer people, trans people — and all of that is unacceptable. We should be defined by more than our physical appearance and our perceived sexual appeal. Too often, we are reduced to the sum of our physical parts, distorted in the funhouse mirror of beauty standards.
“I like a girl with a little more meat on her bones. They’re always wild in bed.”
Beautiful isn’t the only thing that matters. I know that well, because my sense of self can’t rely on a compliment that so rarely comes. As a fat person, the eye of the beholder is unfriendly territory. If I want to feel okay about myself, I have to cultivate other strengths. I build up charm, grace, and kindness as a shield. Humor becomes a martial art, judo to fend off fat jokes and humiliation. My intelligence must be superlative to fight back against the perception that I am uneducated, weak-willed, slow.
Despite our best efforts, beautiful commands attention. Beautiful gets jobs, raises, a foot in the door, a second shot. It is not all of who we are — far from it — but it still carries so much importance. Beautiful matters. It is a language I cannot speak, a door I cannot walk through. It is a currency in the world. Beautiful elevates some people, and it is defined by excluding others — including most fat people.
“I love your courage. You just wear what you want — you don’t care what anyone thinks!”
When you call me beautiful, I don’t just hear you. I hear the echoes of years’ worth of harsh words and unfriendly policies. I feel the lost opportunities and closed doors, the family rejection, the sidelong glances and shouted epithets. I feel suddenly seen, and being seen is always a risk as a fat person. If I acknowledge that you have seen me, so have all those other, harsher critics. It calls up so much hurt, so much need, so much hunger, and so much longing.
Beautiful is hard to hear because it’s hard to admit how deeply I want and need it. Because beautiful, without qualifiers and caveats, is a radical thing to say to me as a fat person. Strangers, family, friends, dates, partners, media, doctors, pundits and politicians all tell me that I am to be rejected, and that being fat means being slovenly, ugly, and usually unloved.
Beautiful, for better or worse, often means loved. Fat people are so rarely told we’re either. As with telling me you love me, only tell me I’m beautiful if you mean it. And challenge yourself to mean it. Recognize the way it stretches you to call a fat person beautiful, not as an exception, but as a shifting, growing rule. Feel all the things you are rejecting by saying such a simple, common word.
Think of calling me beautiful when you see a fat person in a restaurant or on an airplane. Think of your beautiful friend when you see a fat person on the news, headless, during a report about obesity rates. Remember me when a family friend signs their child up for fat camp. See all of them as your beautiful friend, unqualified. Remember how much you love me, and your fat sister, and your fat grandmother. Feel the openness in your ribcage and the warmth in your bones. Extend that warmth and grace magnanimously.
Because when you tell me I am beautiful, it tells me that there is something you understand. Thank you for that understanding. I love it, I don’t trust it, I can’t believe it, I need it, it hurts, don’t stop.
Like this piece? There are three more like it: A request from your fat friend: what I need when we talk about bodies, From your fat friend: let’s talk about fatphobia and A love letter from your fat friend.