[Content note: sexual assault & harassment.]
We were trading catcalling and harassment stories. A group of smart, thoughtful, fun, funny women had gathered, as many women do, for a moment of catharsis and commiseration over the ways in which our bodies are taken from us, little by little, with stunning regularity.
One woman’s coworker had asked her out three times, unswayed by her declination. Another waited at a bus stop when a man, unannounced, wrapped his arms around her from behind. Gross, everyone agreed. Me too.
The stories gained momentum, building to purging crescendoes of laughter and irritation. This is how we unburden ourselves. This is how we loose tension back into the world that foisted it on us in the first place.
When asked about my own experience, I shared something about an acquaintance making a graphic pass at me months earlier. “He kept telling me how he wanted to hold my arms down while I struggled to get free. It was gross.” I shrugged it off.
Friends’ responses sharpened. What had been lighthearted release turned to vigilance and concern. This moment, with this acquaintance, had felt routine to me. He was not the first man to tell me about a rape fantasy, and he wouldn’t be the last. I had assumed it was just a particularly unsavory version of a kind of harassment we’d all faced. Other women at the table assured me it was not.
Afterward, a friend asked why I hadn’t told anyone sooner. Just as she’d been surprised by my experience, I was surprised by her question. The answer felt so evident. Like many women before me, when I share stories of harassment, catcalling, unwelcome advances and violence, I am met with pushback. Unlike other women, that resistance comes as a question:
Who would want to rape you?
There’s a common misconception that fat bodies cannot be desired.
This, dear friend, could not be further from the truth. Fat people date, marry, hook up, get lonely & get laid just like anyone else. Yet still, we are regularly depicted on screens and pages, by media and loved ones, as undesirable and undesired. Those depictions give way to a belief that fat people are isolated, unloved, desperate, voracious. Grateful for what little attention we get, and forever longing for more of it.
So when we are harassed, catcalled and assaulted, those moments are supercharged with entitlement and violence. Those who harass us are emboldened by the belief that we’ll be flattered, relieved or honored by the attention. Their expectations have been skewed by a culture that tells them to indulge in any impulse, disregarding any want that is not their own. A culture that tells them that they are entitled to nearly any body they claim. That tells them that so many of our bodies are disposable, accessible, theirs for the taking.
This was supposed to be easy. You were supposed to want me more than I want you.
And when we don’t, they lash out.
A man asked me out years ago. I declined gently, in the way that so many of us do — a survival skill to avoid violence. My heart raced, straining against my ribcage as I gingerly chose my words. You’re so sweet. I’d love to. I can’t.
Still, he became agitated, asking why. I told him I was queer. Of course you are. How could you ever get a man? Who would want you?
I didn’t want any part of him, or the picture he painted me into. Still, my rabbit heart wouldn’t stop thumping. Still, it stung. Still, I cried.
It felt so familiar. As a fat woman, the messages I receive about sexual harassment are cruel & constant. Be grateful for the attention you get. Even if it’s violent. Even if you don’t want it. Did that person really want to rape you? Really, you? Because we still think of sexual assault as being driven by desire. And who would want such a wretched body?
Of course it gets violent. Of course we don’t tell anyone.
You and I sipped cocktails, dear friend, while you told me about the umpteenth man to make an unwanted pass at you. He told you how beautiful you are, how lucky you’d make him. You turned him down, and rightfully so. I’m so over it, you said. I get it, you’re into me. Move on.
I can relate to your irritation — like you, I have felt the frustration of so many strangers’ entitlement to my body. Our bodies always seem to be public property, there to be grabbed, judged, claimed, conquered.
Your frustration I understand. But your boredom and disgust sting.
Your reaction makes sense: your body is held up so often as an ideal. Your skin is the shape of desire. When strangers and acquaintances see that silhouette, they approach you, almost reflexively. You constantly spend time, energy and effort, making sure you can stay safe. You do not know when a spurned stranger will turn violent.
You long for a day uninterrupted by a stranger’s assessment of your body. So do I.
But where you are inundated with offers, I am pinned down with demands. Where you are sought after with lust and attraction, I am expected as a convenience, readily available. I have shirked my responsibility to have a desirable body, so I am an easy mark. The men who approach me believe I will not resist, and I will not report. I will not be afforded the thin, flimsy veil of courtship. They will speak to me of violent desires, the darkest corners of their intentions.
After all, who would want to rape a fat woman?
You have become exhausted with the value of your body. I am terrified with the debt of mine.
Harassment of fat people is so much more than sexual, and deeply different from the harassment faced by thinner people. Strangers on the street regularly approach me to tell me that I’m fat, and how not to be. Sometimes, they tell me that I wouldn’t be fat if I were a better person. Some shout that I shouldn’t show my face in public. Others rage at having to see me at all.
The message is clear: whoever you are, my fat body is more yours than mine. Fat bodies are always someone else’s property, open to prescription, lecturing, anger, pity. Like eager children with new pets, we haven’t proven ourselves responsible. We can’t be trusted with our own skin.
When you talk about catcalling and harassment, dear friend, you talk about your own experience. Sharing it with friends, raising awareness in media and through activism— it’s all important, cathartic, meaningful, and catalytic. But street harassment, sexual harassment & catcalling go so much further than that.
Street harassment happens when a stranger makes a pass a fat person, then laughs derisively. It happens when trans people are asked what’s in their pants. It happens when people of color are told to “go back to” another country, regardless of where they were born. It happens when women in headscarves are accused of terrorism.
Street harassment, catcalling & sexual harassment don’t impact just one kind of body. They are vicious reminders to some of us that we are too desired, to some that we are unwelcome, to some that we are owned. It tells all of us that we are expendable.
We so often hear the harassment stories of such a narrow slice of people — usually young, usually women, usually able-bodied, usually thin. To dig up the roots of this violence, we can’t just listen to the stories that sound familiar. We can’t just commiserate. We have to stretch beyond our experiences. We have to hear from more of us. We have to embrace the complexity of the phenomenon that so viciously targets so many of us.
I want to hear from you, dear friend, and I do. Now let us both listen closely for more. Our safety depends on it.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone and A love letter from your fat friend.