I learned the quiet heartbreak of losing someone who truly understood what it meant to live in a body like mine.
I was 18 the first time I met a fat sister-in-arms. It was my first semester of college, and we immediately gravitated toward one another, buoys in the choppy waters of an unfamiliar sea.
That year, we became closer than either of us expected. Both of us had been the fattest kids in our high school classes, held at a distance from classmates by virtue of our bodies. We’d both hoped college would be easier, but most of the time, it felt familiar: the desks that weren’t built for us. Classmates who stared openly at our bellies and thighs. The lengthy diet talk amongst classmates, bemoaning the fat on their slight frames, a hundred pounds lighter than our own. Professors’ penchant for using obesity as a metaphor for capitalism and excess. Our bodies were always unwelcome, a stand-in for some pandemic or a terrifying future.
In the face of all that, we made a radical decision: We decided to like each other, and we decided to like ourselves. We became two of the few fat people who no longer feared our own skin. There was such reckless joy in our time together, such fearlessness in our hearts. We learned of our thirst for understanding only as we slaked it.
Our bodies were always unwelcome, a stand-in for some pandemic or a terrifying future.
This was when I learned to love and admire bright and shining fat people, the ones who vibrated with joy, who refused to reject their bodies as character flaws or moral failings. The ones who resisted diet talk, the conscientious objectors to bemoaning their thunder thighs and bingo wings, their rolling bellies and wide hips. The ones who wore clothing that was bright and tight, or billowing and dark — whatever they felt like wearing. The ones who happily, loudly loved their size. The ones we were becoming.
These, I learned, were my people.
When we returned for our sophomore year, she told me the pressure had become too much. She feared for her partners’ shame, feared for more bullying from her tough love parents, feared for the jeering her thinner friends had to endure when they spent time with her.
So she got weight loss surgery.
I told her I was happy for her, and I was. She’d made a decision about how to engage with her own body. We’d often talked about how often our bodies were taken from us — from unsolicited diet advice to fatcalling, unwelcome comments about our orders at restaurants to bullying in the name of “concern.” Thinness was the only way she could truly end all of that.
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But her body wasn’t the only thing that changed. As she lost weight, so much more fell away. She gushed over her new straight size clothing, and relished the femininity she was now allowed by those around her. Her attention drifted to thinner friends. She grew out her hair and dyed it. At her thinnest, she started talking about how much she hated her thighs, even at the smallest they’d ever been.
That was how I lost her. She disappeared into the warm sunlight of thinness. I returned to the role I knew best: the fattest student in class. And I learned the quiet heartbreak of losing someone who truly understood what it meant to live in a body like mine.
There’s a quiet adjustment of expectations that comes with being very fat. You learn that you’re unlikely to be welcomed where your body can be seen: in sports, acting, sales, communications, politics. You might apply for a restaurant job as a server and be offered one as a dishwasher. You might audition for a play and be redirected to join the crew.
Sometimes people tell you kindly, sometimes cruelly. Sometimes you find out by seeing another fat person rejected in public, sacrificed as an object lesson. But no matter where you go, someone is always there to teach you a mandatory lesson: that your success will always be contained by others’ willingness to see your body.
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In recent years, a handful of fat people have slowly but surely chipped away at the stone walls faced by fat people who want to be seen, who want to ascend to the heights normally reserved for those who have earned visibility through thinness. As an adult, I’ve seen two women my size become household names: actor Gabourey Sidibe and plus size designer Ashley Nell Tipton.
As a fat woman, these two had not just been breaths of fresh air, but indicators that more might be possible. That people who look like me could find their way into places we weren’t expected, and often weren’t welcomed. That people who looked like me belonged in front of the camera just as much as behind it. It is extraordinarily rare to look up to someone with a body like mine. It is rarer still for those women to be lifted up in media. That moment — of seeing and knowing bodies like mine in media — became a fleeting one.
Sidibe and Tipton both announced this year that they’d had weight loss surgery. Some — mostly thin body positivity activists — have congratulated Sidibe and Tipton for what they see as positive choices to benefit their health. Others — mostly fat activists — have responded with frustration or anger at losing two of the very few, very fat people who have ascended such great heights. These losses cut deep — not because of their individual decisions about their own bodies, but because it reminds fat people of how we’re seen, and often, how we’re forced to see ourselves. The ways in which we are expected to sacrifice our bodies for the comfort of those around us.
I am reminded of all of that, and of what it means to lose someone you’ve loved and looked up to — the familiar drift of formerly fat friends into thinness. I’m bracing myself for the crash.
But the longer I sit with the reality of losing two icons that have bodies like mine, the more I think of my college friend. I think of the ways in which her mother’s cutting remarks whittled away at her sense of self, the fear of facing an airplane full of disdainful passengers, the exhaustion of fending off strangers’ comments on her groceries at the store. She was constantly pitted against her body, made to choose between cutting out a vital organ, or continuing to live the tiresome life of a very fat person.
Her decisions are her own, as all of ours are. But often, weight loss was posited as the only way out of the heavy rainfall that eroded her sense of self: first topsoil, then clay, then bedrock. In the face of unrelenting bullying and rejection from all sides, fat people are told our only option is to forsake the only bodies we have.
I wonder about my friend, and what her body looks like now. Whether it has found its way back to its old shape, as so many do, or if she has stayed thin. I wonder if her mother still speaks to her so dismissively and unkindly. I wonder if she still feels the warmth of thinness on her shrinking skin, slipping into a new life like a witness under protection. I wonder if she found love with those who used to hate her. I wonder if she is happy. I wonder if she’s found the acceptance she was looking for.
What is so often lost in conversations about weight loss surgery is the untold story of the constant pressure fat people are under to lose weight. Not just some weight, but as much weight as possible, as quickly as possible. And then we’re expected to lose more. For fat people in the spotlight — especially very fat people, very fat women, and triply for very fat women of color — that pressure warps and magnifies, fortified by so many people’s beliefs that we are entitled to others’ bodies, especially fat bodies, women’s bodies, and bodies of color.
Of course, all of us should be able to make whatever decisions we like with regard to our own bodies. And of course, I’m here for all of those choices. But for some of us, only one option is made available. And we are taught that it’s the only way to reclaim our own bodies, to succeed in our careers, to stem the tide of rejection visited upon us, and to gain the love and acceptance of those around us.
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I cannot claim to know the intricacies of Gabourey Sidibe or Ashley Nell Tipton’s life decisions. I cannot know how many jobs they lost for being too fat to be seen, and how that shifted their expectations over time. I cannot know how many colleagues spoke to them with syrupy concern or outright rejection. I cannot know the diagnoses or conversations with doctors that shaped their decisions. And I cannot — and will not — judge their decisions.
But I do know that the deck is stacked against fat people staying fat, keeping the bodies that have cared for us all this time. Our character, will, strength, worth, and health are all judged on the size of our skin. We are told that others’ behavior hinges on our size — that if we resisted our own bodies, they wouldn’t be forced to treat us poorly, mock us openly, or disregard our most basic needs. The only path to respect, we are told clearly and repeatedly, isn’t to request it from those around us, but to transform our bodies completely and immediately. For some of us, the only affirmation we receive comes when we lose weight.
The deck is stacked against fat people staying fat, keeping the bodies that have cared for us all this time.
As people living in fat bodies, our choices about our bodies are never fully our own — always swayed or sunken by the pressures of media, family, friends, doctors, strangers on the street. Everyone has an opinion on our bodies, and those opinions are asserted freely at every turn.
For very fat people, weight loss surgery is never as simple as a matter of health, and is rarely a decision offered freely to us amongst an array of options. Yes, I support the choices fat people make to lose weight. I just wish it weren’t the only choice available.