“I feel fat.”
I struggle to find my breath, and then my voice. Sometimes I don’t bother, because it feels so fruitless to tell you how it feels when you say that you feel fat. You ask me if I know what you mean, and I genuinely don’t. I have never felt fat.
I don’t feel fat. I am fat.
You feel fat for good reason. You lost ten pounds and a dress size — down to an eight! — only to go on a date with a guy who told you he wasn’t attracted to “thick girls.” Your coworker can’t stop talking about Dr. Oz and green coffee extract, cortisol and belly fat. As a child, your grandmother told you that if you just drank mustard, you could make yourself vomit, and you’d never need to put on another pound. You can eat whatever you want! You follow all the rules your mother told you about — no horizontal stripes, only wear black, nothing too tight, no cap sleeves— because “you can always stand to look slimmer.” Sometimes you even buy Woman’s World or Ladies’ Home Journal, with their ridiculous crash diets. They never work, but what if this one does?
The whole world is telling you you’re not thin enough. Get skinnier, but not too skinny. Work out, but don’t show your muscle tone. Whole industries have been built on the wrongness of your body, on the certainty that if you just tried harder, if you just wanted it enough, your body would metamorphose into someone else’s. That structure must stand, and your dissatisfaction with your body is its foundation. Your body must remain an urgent question, forever open to painful, public debate. You must stay hungry, always hungry, never satisfied. You must remain in pursuit.
I hear those messages, too. They’re delivered differently, and the fact of my body demands a different desperation. My body does not qualify me for precariousness. Mine is not a story of vigilance, but of redemption. My body is not a question, but a foregone conclusion. My body is a lost cause.
Because of the size and shape of my body, you and I have different experiences. Compliments about my appearance are always harsh, chased with pity or advice, some small reminder that I am shirking my duty to have a more expected body. I am defying the mandate to be universally desirable.
Street harassment is different, too. I am as likely to hear insults shouted from the window of a passing car as I am to be catcalled. Unwanted sexual attention looks different, men’s entitlement supercharged by the expectation of desperation. They act with certainty that any fat woman will be flattered by even the most violent demands. I do not balk as readily you do, with the confidence of a woman who is regularly reminded of her beauty. I have learned my place.
Being fat is never as simple as a feeling. And feeling fat is rarely about the shape or size of a body.
Feeling fat is a shorthand. You say it when you feel unattractive, slovenly, lazy, dissatisfied and unsatisfying. My body becomes your shorthand for your shortcomings.
Feeling fat is a way to bond. It is contagious, driving a never-ending race to the bottom. It announces a contest that’s impossible to win: who can vocalize the cruelest feelings about their own body? It’s a performance that forges connections in the fire of self-loathing.
As a woman, that self-loathing isn’t new. As a fat person, it’s not novel — it’s dangerous. It’s a reminder of all the ways my body has failed, all the times I’ve been rejected, all the hurt and pain and harm that’s been caused. It is never a feeling, always an impossible, isolating truth.
And feeling fat is counter to your politics. It assumes terrible things about beauty standards, and makes demands of women’s bodies that you never would. It elicits a deep shame, not just about what we look like, but about who we are — a shame that you’d never intentionally make anyone feel.
Still, you say it.
I grew up queer and came out young. In middle school, my classmates would play smear the queer, insist that unacceptable or ridiculous behavior was so gay. Socially powerful boys would call less popular boys fags. These words all stung me then as I’m sure they sting you now. Because we know — we all know — that using someone else’s experience or identity as an insult is hurtful, unacceptable, foul. It was prevalent then, but its ubiquity didn’t make it right.
But feeling fat is uniquely insidious because it’s not externalized. Feeling fat is a weapon designed only to use on ourselves. It’s a compulsory display of the ways we’ve learned to hate ourselves after years, decades, generations of self-hate being required of us. It’s a public performance of dissatisfaction, and our only audience is ourselves. It is a theater of war.
Still, somehow, fat people are always collateral.
Fat people are casualties of this friendly fire because our needs are so rarely considered. Countless thin friends have told me they “feel fat” because it doesn’t even cross their mind that their feelings might impact me. After all, they’re just feelings, right? And people are only temporarily fat, since we’re all duty-bound to lose weight at all costs. If I don’t lose weight, then my experience needn’t be considered. Who needs to account for the feelings of the lifelong fatass?
You and I both live in a world where hating fat people isn’t just common, it’s mandatory. The difference is that my body is the target of all that vitriol, quarantine and fear.
In amongst all of that, I have made the unpopular and essential decision not to hate myself. Family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, doctors, magazines and television shows make me feel terrible enough as it is. I have spent years making an overflowing hope chest. I have carefully collected trinkets and rations, thinspiration and too-small clothing — supplies for the life I’ll only be allowed when I’m thin.
Now, after years of methodical and mandatory self-loathing, I have decided to stop waiting. I have decided that my life is worth living now, as I am. At size 26, I will date, I will travel, I will love, I will wear bright colors, I will swim and run. I will give myself the sustenance of moments of joy, even in a world that tells me my body affords me only shame.
So every day, I wake up and decide to take on the herculean task of learning to accept my body. Some days I get as far as indifference. On brighter days, I can see glints of love for my maligned skin. That love glimmers far away, a hint of a sunrise after a long and brutal night.
After all that hard work, feeling fat is a reminder of all the terrible things my body represents. It reminds me of how exhausting it is to defend my self-worth every day, how much energy it takes to exist in public, to be seen. It’s enough to fend off the constant stream of explicit messages about what my body ought to be without hearing friends deal with the tragic fate of feeling like they have the body I do.
You are a fantastic friend and a thoughtful person. You deeply value respect, fairness and dignity, and you go to great lengths to live out those values. You are also the product of a world that teaches all of us to take up the mantle of hating ourselves. When you do that, it undercuts your tenderest self, the sweetest parts of you. It cuts you off from the values you hold dearest. And your dissatisfaction with your own body puts such distance between the two of us.
Loving yourself is an extraordinary act of compassion, dear friend. You wouldn’t tolerate hatred of your friends, you family, your community — anyone else. Call up the strength and courage to love yourself like that. It is as urgent for my subsistence as it is for yours.
Just once, let us be the causes we live for.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone and On your concern for your fat friend’s health.