Your fat friend wants you to read the comments.
The comments section isn’t just the work of internet trolls — it’s what many fat people are up against every day. And it’s key to understanding your fat friends and family.
I felt my breath shallow as I boarded my flight. My muscles tightened while I fumbled for my boarding pass. I cast my eyes down, careful not to make contact with my fellow passengers, lest I provoke their complaints. I had taken every precaution I could — brought my own seatbelt extender, paid an extra $900 for a first class ticket on a cross-country flight — but as a very fat person on a plane, there are no guarantees that I will reach my destination.
Bodies my size are routinely cause for passenger complaints, even when we do everything we can to care for the comfort of those around us. We are frequently reseated following passengers’ loud and strenuous objections; videotaped for the sole purpose of shaming us; mocked and insulted; and even kicked off our flights, left stranded far from home. My unease was rooted in a long history of experience — both my own and others’.
The tide of anxiety lapped at my feet the night before, but now it was waist-high, its viscous waves making it difficult to move. So, I did what I often do to manage tough situations: I wrote. Just before takeoff, I posted a thread on twitter, detailing the uncertainty that I face as a fat passenger.
The responses were substantial, swift and sustained. For over a week, strangers have written emails and tweets in response. At first they were supportive, then they curdled into something reliably acidic and corrosive.
I shared a few comments with you in the hope of finding a witness to the cacophony in response to my handful of tweets — someone who could confirm the absurdity and harshness of strangers’ responses. I should’ve anticipated what you would say.
Don’t read the comments. I never do.
You, like so many other thin friends, were shaken, and found the comments too harrowing to continue reading.
I was surprised. These comments weren’t anything I didn’t hear regularly. These are words that strangers will readily say to me, face to face. Passersby shout epithets on the street. When turned down for a date, men snap “fat bitch” back at me with startling ease. Family members offer an unwelcome and unsolicited onslaught of diet advice and surgeon recommendations. Coworkers complain loudly about sitting next to passengers smaller than me. These comments are as ubiquitous as the air that I breathe. And like the air, they are invisible to you.
This wasn’t the first time you struggled to believe my experiences. You and my other, smaller friends long strained to accept the harshness faced by so many fat people. You were the same friends who would sigh, then just lose some weight, as if two hundred pounds could molt like a second skin in springtime. The ones who would defend street harassers. Are you sure she meant you? You probably shouldn’t have worn short sleeves if you didn’t want comments.
Don’t read the comments. I never do.
That’s when I realized that while these comments are as ubiquitous as the air I breathe, they aren’t for you. We breathe different air because we walk through different worlds.
As someone who doesn’t wear plus sizes, you tell me about challenges with your self-esteem. You struggle to see yourself as beautiful until you lose another 5, 10, 20 pounds. You love that dress, but hate how it clings to your hips. You aren’t plus size, but would never deign to call yourself “thin,” a shorthand for a self-centered kind of perfection that no humble woman could rightfully claim. You won’t wear shorts until you’ve got the thigh gap for it.
Your self-image has been raked over the coals, rough and charred from impossible standards that your body has never quite met. Years of tough comments from classmates and family members, matriarchs and frenemies have left you bruised, and they’ve erected an intricate and ironclad mechanism to make sure you feel terrible about your body at every turn; a Rube Goldberg machine to automate an adversarial relationship with your own body.
When we talk about what it’s like to be fat, you tell me about body image and self esteem and confidence because those are your struggles. But they aren’t mine.
Where your challenges are deep-rooted and internal, mine are external. As a fat person, the world refuses me at nearly every turn, rejecting my body like a bad organ transplant. Doctors refuse to treat me, and some refuse even to touch me. Strangers regularly mock my body publicly, shouting insults openly, and no one responds. Even loved ones assume that I am constantly trying, and failing, to win the body I was meant to have. That I am shirking a responsibility to achieve a more acceptable body — one like yours.
No, mine aren’t issues of body image or self esteem, they’re issues of concrete exclusion. The world I walk through begins the moment that good, thoughtful people abandon reason and compassion. Mine isn’t a challenge of not thinking well of myself. Mine is a challenge of external harms born of external pressures.
It’s no wonder, then, that when it comes to our bodies, we don’t connect. No wonder that you struggle to believe what happens to me — you don’t read the comments. You protect yourself from the storm of insults and exclusions that I cannot escape. No wonder that we cannot speak the same language about what happens around us. We experience different things.
We live in different worlds.
I don’t read the comments. I never do.
But, my darling friend, the comments are the one passage from your world to mine. The comments are what I breathe every day — the heavy smog that thickens in my lungs. The cloudy mess I exhale when I tell you what has happened. The thick skin that has brought me this far, and allowed me to take so much in stride.
I need you to peer into the world I walk through every day. I need you to read the comments.
See what strangers are willing to say to fat people — fat people they’ve never met, never laid eyes on, never spoken to. Hear the unyielding beat of sharp and freezing rain, the endless ice storm of diet suggestions and gym membership offers. Feel their icy sting on your skin. Know that for me, there is no respite. There is no safety from fat tub of sh** or you should be embarrassed.
Listen carefully to the strangers predicting my death — gleefully foretelling amputated feet, cardiac arrest, sudden and gruesome demises. Imagine that they are describing your body. Imagine that no one interrupts. Imagine that your death is seen as poetic justice, a cruel joke to end a wasted life.
Read the words of person after person who say that bodies like mine can’t be loved, can’t be desired. Walk through a world where the people who love you betray themselves, believing themselves to be crazy, made unstable or unworthy by the simple fact of loving you.
I know it hurts. I know it tugs on something painful, digs its finger into your bruises. But I need you to stay with it.
I need you to find the place in yourself where that storm still rages. Find the places where our worlds differ. Find the places where you still believe, somewhere, that the treatment I face is somehow justified. It’s there. Keep looking. I know it hurts.
Because hurtful comments don’t just come from Pepe avatars and career trolls, distant and disembodied aggressors. Hurtful comments don’t just echo across the vast expanse of the internet. They come softly, wearing a mask of concern. They come brashly, calling themselves uncompromising and tough love. They come from good people who have not yet learned the alchemy of transforming good intentions into an end of thoughtless, harmful, offhand comments.
Sometimes they come from you, when you forget the body that stands before you, or when you remember it too well. Your exhalation becomes the air I breathe, the makings of the world beneath your own.
Find the darkest corners of yourself. The parts that want to agree — that tell you that fat people aren’t good enough the way we are. That tell you know our bodies better than we do. That convince you of the noblesse oblige of spreading the gospel of thinness.
Flood them with light. Examine every part of them. Learn how they work. These are time bombs, and they are yours alone. Learn to defuse them.
Stretch yourself to see the world that lurks beneath yours. You and I will become closer because of it; you will find worlds you’d never imagined: an extraordinary, resilient society that has resisted its own subjugation. You may find a richer kind of humanity, a sweeter wine, something fermented in the darkness. You will learn more, connect more, become more.
And you will know me more. You will better understand your fat neighbor, father, aunt, coworker. You will learn to better stand up for them, because you’ll be able to see what needs standing up against. After all, the deepest intimacy is made up of the ugliest parts of us, the most desolate, mundane, harsh experiences.
Start there. Reach out. Listen closely, even when it’s difficult.