I can’t remember the first time I heard a fat joke about a public figure. From Al Sharpton to Rush Limbaugh, Kirstie Alley to Mo’nique, growing up in the nineties meant seeing bodies like mine ridiculed regularly and publicly. If a fat person did anything someone else found objectionable, the leading critique was likely to be one of their body — not their actions.
A lot has changed since then, but last week, it felt like so little had. New Jersey, in the midst of a legislative budget standoff, closed its public beaches as part of a state government shutdown. That’s when the state’s embattled governor, Chris Christie, took his family to a closed state-owned beach, then lied to media, insisting he hadn’t.
Shortly thereafter, local media caught him in the act. “That’s just the way it goes,” Christie quipped. “Run for governor, and you can have a residence.”
By any measure, his were brazen lies, unscrupulous acts by a politician who relished his privilege. But despite his unsavory actions, rather than facing an outcry over his ethics, Christie was met with a barrage of fat jokes. In many cases, the fat jokes were just as loud as the chorus calling for accountability. In some cases, they were louder.
I was weary at the cackling at his size. Chris Christie is, after all, a man about as tall and round as I am. But I had come to expect a wave of fat jokes in public spaces. Bodies like mine don’t afford their inhabitants the luxury of avoiding ridicule — it is a sad and simple fact of being fat.
I was ready for the derailed public discourse, the torrents of laughter, the tired and harsh jokes.
I wasn’t ready to hear it from you.
“It’s a smart move — he’d have to close the beach to be seen shirtless in public,” you cackled. We were out for cocktails with friends. Some laughed, some didn’t.
“Come on,” I sighed. “Really?”
You shrugged, tilting your head in the old, familiar way: you can’t be mad if you know it’s true.
I could pursue the conversation, and run the risk of being seen as the fat person who makes excuses for her own weak will. But if I did that, others at the table would disengage or take sides — and when sides are taken, fat people stand alone. Instead of enduring that harsh reminder and putting any of us through the relationship strain that comes with it, I decided to speak to you alone.
The conversation washed away in the usual downpour of rationales.
Come on, you pleaded. You know it’s going to come up. It’s the easiest thing — you can’t be surprised.
He knew the risks when he ran for office. Hazards of the job. If you’re going to be in the public eye, you’ve got to see this stuff coming.
I hate fat shaming. You know I hate fat shaming.
Do you seriously want to defend that guy?
I don’t. I also don’t want to defend my body to my friends.
But here we both are.
I want you to know what your joke taught me.
Your joke taught me how you talk about bodies like mine. When you shamed Chris Christie — even someone whose actions I find reprehensible — I felt it. His body is round and soft as mine. We are both the unflattering sort of fat — not barrel-chested or hourglass-shaped, but the sort with wide faces and circular bellies, like cartoons. Our bodies are understood to be tailor made for pratfalls and punchlines. When you talk about his body, you talk about mine. And if his size is a reflection of his character, mine is, too. If his body makes him worthy of ridicule in your eyes, mine won’t be far behind.
Your joke reminded me that I should never stand out. Even when fat people’s character is exemplary — for good or for ill — it can’t be seen. It reminded me that as a fat person, I will always be seen as my body first, and often only. Any core of who I am may be sacrificed to common cruelty, eclipsed by what I look like. Standing out for good deeds or bad, high performance or low, all serve the same purpose. Making myself known means launching myself like a clay pigeon onto a firing range. Your joke was a warning shot. Don’t aspire to more. Don’t try for better. Make sure you aren’t seen.
Your joke taught me that I’ll be next. You will readily mock fat people who you don’t like or with whom you disagree. To spare myself that fate, I ought to move carefully in your presence, keeping cautious and ever-vigilant to remain in your good graces. Whatever your intent, the message was clear: watch yourself, or you’re next.
Your joke showed me precisely where you give up on me. Fat jokes about public figures illustrate to fat people how easily our friends and family will disregard our boundaries, dignity and humanity. You made an offhand remark that was a misstep — many of us do. I wouldn’t want to be judged on just that. But I will speak with less exuberance and more caution. I will take more care when I step in your presence, knowing that if I fall, you may not catch me.
Your joke told me that your kindness has an end, and that your values have a weight limit. Dare to exceed it — as I do — and anything’s fair game. You were quick to remind me how much you hate fat shaming, but even quicker to make an exception for someone you find ethically and politically repugnant. If you are willing to shame the bodies of the people you disagree with, body positivity and fat acceptance aren’t your values. They’re your hobbies.
Do you seriously want to defend this guy?
I don’t want to defend Chris Christie. I find his actions reprehensible, greedy in a small way that’s indicative of a deep well of carelessness. Nor do I want to defend Donald Trump, Kevin Smith, Roseanne Barr, or any other fat person who dares to be seen.
I don’t want to defend Chris Christie, but I do want to defend myself. I want to stand up for my own dignity, and for the fat people who are told that their character matters less than their bodies, and that their actions will always pale in comparison to their size.
Your decisions are your own, as are mine. The next time you think of making a fat joke about someone — anyone — I hope you’ll return to your characteristic thoughtfulness. Think carefully about your fat jokes, as you do so many other things. As you’re thinking about what to do, I offer only this: if you can find your way to loving even one fat person, imagine telling them your next joke about a fat person. Think about how they’d feel. Then decide what to say.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including To body positive friends who don’t wear plus sizes and “On your concern for your fat friend’s health.” You can also support Your Fat Friend on Patreon.