Who’s fat enough to be fat?
Most of us feel like we’re fat — but how do we define who is?
“I’m getting so fat.”
You stare in the dressing room mirror, pulling at the swell of your hips, pinching your thicker skin. You press your palm into your belly, hoping to keep its swell at bay. Winter has arrived, and with the change in seasons, you notice your thighs push against the seam of your jeans, their size six beginning to insist upon an eight.
“Seriously, look at me,” you sigh, examining your body in the dressing room mirror. “I can’t believe I’ve gotten this fat.” You trace your fingertips over your body, remembering where convex was once concave, where peaks were once valleys.
I take in both reflections in the mirror — yours, slight and undressed, brightly lit from your harsh floodlight, and mine, its size 26 shadow, distorted and cast behind you.
I’m getting so fat. Your sharp words hang heavy in the air, swinging precariously above my tender neck. I do not know how to tell you, twenty sizes smaller, that we live worlds apart.
I’m getting so fat.
How could you feel any other way? News reports tell you about stress hormones and belly fat, life expectancy and risk for chronic illness, all while you watch white noise footage of impossibly fat people, filmed from the neck down. Their bodies are the faceless specters that frighten you into compliance — the soft, round bodies that can never be yours. Every pound gained is a step toward a body like theirs. A body like mine.
At a holiday gathering, your mother asks you privately if you’ve put on weight; your aunt publicly prescribes a new diet. Both offer motivational advice. Get a pair of jeans you love in your goal size — it’s a great motivator! Want to come to my Weight Watchers group? You catch a chill at the thought of a public weigh-in with so many busybodies.
On a first date, a man tells you you’re cute — I like a chubby face. You feel your chubby face flush red with embarrassment as you imagine the fat face of a child. You remember when your clavicle fell in sharper relief, when your cheekbones jutted out just so. You long to return to the bone structure of a seductress, not rounded edges of a chubby face. He likes you, but you become lost, adrift on a sea of learned loathing.
All of this, you’re told, is the fault of your body. It must be thin, thinner, thinnest. If it isn’t, if you don’t dedicate your life to the calling of thinness, any sickness, breakups, professional failings, family troubles will be attributed to the size of your skin.
I’m getting so fat has little to do with your body, molded in that mirror, and more to do with the state of your life. A thinner frame could’ve guaranteed a less rocky romantic relationship, steadier friendships, greater success, the steady hum of static happiness. Those last 5, 10, 20 pounds, you’ve been told, are the sole barrier between you and a life well lived. Weight loss is the path from a dreary Kansas to a technicolor Oz.
You stand in the dressing room, grasping pieces of your body, wishing them away. Willing yourself into a perfect thinness that never seems to come.
I’m getting so fat.
But I am still behind you, my body your monstrous morality tale, your nightmarish future.
When I talk about fatness, I am regularly met with a simple question: Who’s fat enough to be fat?
Sometimes the question is asked with irritation, sharpened by the realization that the way they see their body might not be the way I see it. Sometimes, it is asked with nervousness, the heavy anxiety of realizing that even though they think of themselves as fat, I might not. Sometimes, it is asked with an urgent desperation. Sometimes they wait, working up the words and courage to ask such a loaded question. But however they ask, they always ask.
When I respond, I often ask a deceptively simple question. How do you know when someone else is fat?
Where do you set the bar for fat in other people? When do you worry for the health of a passerby? When do you think he shouldn’t be eating that or she shouldn’t be wearing that? When do you imagine a piteous life for a stranger, certain that they cannot be loved, cannot be happy? How do you know they’re fat?
Do you decide based on their body mass index, the hasty calculation of weight over height? How do you know their BMI when you look at them? What weight makes someone overweight? What about obese? When does your acceptance turn to worry, worry to disgust, disgust to anger?
Is it when their breathing is labored after physical activity? How much physical activity? How deep should their breath run? Do their faces need to flush? Should their breath scrape raw in their throats, or can it just heave?
Is it when they have to shop in the plus size section of a department store, or when they can only shop in exclusively plus size stores? Or is it when their clothing cannot be found even in plus size stores, and they are relegated to online purchases of the dregs that are extended plus?
Is it based on how you feel when you see a fat person? Do you feel a pang of pity, or a spark of rage? Do you imagine the sad sprawl of a short life ahead of her? Do you imagine isolation, bullying, hurt, harm? Do you believe he has tried to lose weight? Did he try hard enough? Do you feel the sharp pull to ask questions or make prescriptions?
How do you know when you’re fat? Is it when your weight rises by ten pounds? Five? One? Is it when your jeans cut into the skin at your waist? Is it when your partner dumps you, and you are reminded of the fact of your body?
Does your standard for yourself match your measure for other bodies? Or have you set a separate standard for your own skin, insisting that it applies only to you?
“Am I fat?”
You stare at me in the dressing room mirror, seemingly unaware of the wide shadow of my body.
You are trying to locate your own body in a blurry hierarchy. You can’t fathom being called thin. Somehow, it feels too perfect, eternally out of reach, its immaculateness reserved for the charmed lives of supermodels and movie stars. But you also don’t live the wretched life you imagine for someone like me — someone who, if you didn’t know me, you would likely describe as morbidly obese, whose very body dooms me. You long for some middle ground where your body can be exempted from these stark and brutal judgments. Where your body can somehow disappear.
It’s a loaded question for me, too, newly painted as its reluctant judge. Suddenly, I am an arbiter of who qualifies as really fat, and who is a thin impostor.
Truthfully, there are no clear answers. Whether or not someone is fat enough is a slippery question. We’re all taught to believe we’re impossibly fat. We use I feel fat as a shorthand for feeling ugly, unlovable, failed. We call actors and models fat when they gain ten pounds. What constitutes fat is watered down, in part because we do the diluting, believing fat to be an all-purpose insult for others, or a stinging insult for ourselves. Regardless of our size, many of us have been called fat, a short word spit at us with malice, sharpened to a razor’s edge, whether or not it’s true.
It’s tricky for fat people, too — especially those of us who have found family in other fat people. We have found respite with one another, getting real about what it’s like to live in a world that so loves to revile our bodies. We share strategies for getting the health care that we’re so widely denied. We find comfort in knowing that someone else has felt the constant sting of unsolicited diet advice. We find solace in sharing the searing frustration of hearing a thin friend say she feels so fat.
So, when smaller people ask who’s fat enough to be fat, some of us worry. We wring our hands about diluting our newfound community, about building such a big tent that we can no longer find our shared experiences reflected in our midst. We long to retain the comfort of the connection we’ve found, and we get anxious about expanding the circle to include those who have hurt us — who think our bodies are irredeemable, who would hold our humanity hostage, demanding payment of happiness, health or desirability.
Besides, every definition of fat is deeply flawed at worst, relative at best. BMI standards have been manipulated over time, adjusted most notably in 1998, when millions of Americans went to sleep with bodies prized by the BMI as healthy weight, and woke up the disappointing overweight or worse, the reviled obese. The BMI’s simple, ruthless division of weight by height leaves many of us in the hinterlands of obesity — including many NFL players and American troops.
But for most of us, in our daily lives, fat is rarely as formal or objective as the BMI’s simple arithmetic. What’s fat changes from country to country, community to community, family to family, person to person. Even as individuals, many of us openly admit to having different standards of fat for our own bodies than for the bodies of those around us. And even those definitions are far from empirical or steady, influenced by our personal histories, eating disorders, medical histories, mental health and more.
But whoever we are, whatever our size, our conceptions of what is or isn’t fat have been warped by a culture bent on rejecting fat people at every turn. Fat is slippery because we make it slippery, using it any time we want to hurt someone, reject someone, judge someone — including ourselves.
So, who’s fat enough to be fat?
As a fat person, all I can trust is self-identity. If you, in your heart of hearts, know yourself to be fat, then you are. That’s all I can ask, and it’s all I can trust. I will believe you if you tell me you’re fat. I know the sting of not being believed. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to anyone else.
But if I’m honest, I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of the very people who hurt me claiming the space I take to heal, pushing me out of it, denying my experience while claiming it as their own. Afraid of my rare moments of solace being interrupted by I’m just concerned with your health and who would want someone who looks like that? And I’m afraid that the community I’ve found — the friends with whom I find respite from the work of teaching thin people to stop hurting me — will be hijacked by more of the demanding work that called us to find each other in the first place.
Yes, I choose to believe people who tell me they’re fat. But when I look for my fat people — the community I call home — I think of people who are united by experiences of widespread, inescapable exclusion. Not just people who’ve been called fat, as all of us have, but folks who are shut out from meeting their basic needs because of the simple fact of their size. Not just people who struggle to find clothing they like, but people who struggle to find clothing at all. Not just people who feel uncomfortable on buses or airplanes, but people who are publicly ridiculed for daring to board public transportation at all.
For my fat people, our size isn’t just an internal worry, it’s an inescapable external reality. We aren’t held captive by our own perceptions, but by others’ beliefs that we are immoral, unlovable, irredeemable. But that’s one of many, many approaches to defining fatness. There are nearly as many definitions of fat as there are people in the world.
No, I won’t tell anyone that they’re not fat, not really fat, or not that fat. I will not compound the isolation of living in a fat body with the cutting knowledge that it will not be embraced, even by other fat people. I will not presume to know the cultural context that has shaped others’ experience, or the toxic forces that have shaped their thinking.
I will not deny your truth of your body. But I will ask you to consider the impacts of publicly laying claim to fat. I will ask if you diet, if you want me to diet with you, redoubling the harm it caused the first time around. I will ask if you assume my ill health, because you believe a body like mine cannot be healthy. I will ask if you will use health to bar the door from entry into the home I built for myself.
I will ask if you believe that your body makes you unlovable. I will test the recklessness of that belief, and ask if you are willing and able to make space for fat people who fiercely believe themselves to be lovable, deserving, and truly loved. I will ask if you know the heartbreak of rejection from family, doctors, teachers, friends.
I will ask what you want from publicly calling your own body fat. Do you want reassurance that you’re not? Do you feel left out of a conversation, and want to find a home in it? Do you want to share that you know the universal hurt of being called fat, the widespread terror of a softening body? Do you carry a history with eating disorders, their heavy fog clouding your vision from seeing your own body as others might?
All of those things, my darling, are simply signs of having a body — any body — in a world that hates fat people. They mean that you have learned the lessons you are meant to: that fatness is undesirable, unlovable and unforgivable. If you are a woman, it means that you have learned that your duty is to be universally desired, and that you know yourself to be shirking that duty. Of course you feel those feelings. All of us do. They’re compulsory. You have internalized the logic of fat hate and, cruelly, it has led you to seek fat community.
All of us have felt the sting of rejection of our bodies — either at our own hand, or another’s. But not all of us have been repeatedly, materially harmed by the universality of that rejection. That’s an experience shared by those of us who are unquestionably, undeniably fat.
That experience is shared by those of us who know the heartbreak of a doctor who won’t believe or investigate your symptoms because of the simple fact of your size. Those of us who have seen procedures warp before our eyes — a warm and welcoming reception for thinner people, and an icy skepticism for our own broad bodies.
It’s held by those of us who can feel the blood sear our cheeks when we remember the faces of the flight attendants who escorted us from a plane, past all those watchful, judging eyes. Those of us who have been told by family that we deserved hurt at the hands of an abusive partner because we really let ourselves go. Those of us who have faced sexual assault, then the compound fracture of hearing police tell us we should be grateful for the attention.
Those of us who have felt our heartbeat flicker, like a young flame on a thin wick, when a friend asks to go shopping, because we will have to tell her that we need to go to a separate store, and we know she won’t come. Those of us who have learned to anticipate the aching lack of reciprocity in our relationships.
If those words resonate like bells in the sanctuary of your ribcage, if those memories flock and settle in the steeple of your spine, then come sit by my side. You are my family. Let us heal, connect, find the warm and tender parts of each other as we slacken and, for the first time, simply let our bodies be.
If they don’t, you are still my compatriot. Let us work together, shoulder to shoulder, to pull apart the world that has taught us to hate ourselves with such dedication. We can draw upon each other’s strength, build each other’s muscle, and build something glorious, daring, and new.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including Body positivity and its discontents and What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Facebook and Twitter.