How your fat friend learns to disappear.
I didn’t expect to snap at such a good friend. There was so much I should’ve told him, and I didn’t. It brewed for years, bitter as oversteeped tea.
We’d been talking so often — three, four, five times a week, for three or four hours at a time. His heart had been shattered, and he was wracked with hurt even years later, fresh as the day it happened.
We’d been talking over the same few questions for weeks that turned to months, months to years. Meanwhile, my life was changing shape, its new contours emerging from a murky before. So many things were happening, and there was never room for them — only for him.
I had only just realized how frustrated I’d become when the phone rang.
“She just texted me,” he said, launching in as soon as he heard the click of my pickup. “I don’t know what to do.” My brain, buzzing and popping with the overcharged electricity of irritation, suddenly burnt out.
“How are you,” I said sharply, voice shaking with irritation.
“I’m a little messed up,” he answered.
“No, you ask me.”
The floodgates opened. I loosed a torrent, my frustration finally boiling over. Nearly everything in my life had changed, I told him, and he hadn’t even asked.
So many things were happening, and there was never room for them — only for him.
I had never gotten so angry with a friend, never snapped like that. My reaction had been mystifyingly disproportionate, uncharacteristically harsh. I sat with it for days, replaying the call over and over, its invasive species overgrowing my molding mind. It took me weeks to diagnose my downfall.
He hadn’t asked. But even in years’ worth of lulls in our conversation, in all our interstices, I hadn’t spoken up, either.
Despite my best intentions, I so easily slid into a role that was laid out for me. I became a vacant vessel set aside for others’ use, ready to be filled and emptied at will. In this friendship, I existed nearly exclusively in service to my friend. If he needed to empty himself, I was there to catch the fullest parts. If he needed filling up, I was brimming with his heart, his needs, his wants, and none of my own. I had made myself into a vast emptiness, only and always to be filled by him.
I had slipped into the role of the Fat Friend. I was a plot device to further someone else’s story; the road for others to walk upon. Even in my own life, I made myself a footnote.
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I learned to be the Fat Friend over so many years. I learned it from the only fat women I’d ever seen on screen — the ones who acted as midwives to thin women’s pain. Whose only motivation was straight desperation, longing for thin or muscular men as a punchline. Whose only path had been worn down by the heavy footfall of so many fat women before them.
The fat women in comedies who only offered punchy one-liners and snappy comebacks, but rarely had lives of their own. The imagined fat women in Norbit and Road Trip, whose voracious desire made them a punchline, who taught me that no personal life at all was preferable to one that was ridiculed so openly. The empowered fat women in movies like Pitch Perfect, who made sharp jokes and showed so little vulnerability, so little reflection of anything human. The fat women on screen who only and always acted as ushers to thin people’s lives, feelings, needs — the realer stuff that was only afforded by smaller bodies. Movie after movie showed fat women written to be the background, our presence only justified by the glorious foregrounding of thin leads.
The fat women I knew and loved, who learned to live as ghosts. Whose lives could not be imagined, only papered over. Whose brightest moments were in desperation. Whose hearts were laid bare under glass, there to be examined and analyzed, but never to be touched, never held. The fat women who disappeared into wallpaper, plain as gesso — a colorless texture to serve the pigment that would follow. Never the star, never a subplot. Empty as a galaxy and desolate as a desert. All object, never subject.
This was what I had replicated in myself, and in one of my dearest friendships. I had become all emptiness so that my friend could become fragile in his fullness. And because of that, neither of us knew how to support one another anymore.
But I didn’t just learn all of that in the past, or from ill-intentioned bad actors. Even today, the role of the Fat Friend is reinforced at every turn, even by those we love. Fat people are so often expected to perform for the thin people around us.
Whether they intend to or not, many thin people’s beliefs about fat people set an impossible trap for us. Fat people are supposed to be ashamed of our bodies. That shame is meant to be a gift, something to be cherished, believed to provide the motivation we need to lose weight. When our bodies don’t change, we’re supposed to be more ashamed and more motivated than ever.
Fat people are supposed to be ashamed of our bodies. That shame is meant to be a gift.
We’re supposed to be stylish, upbeat, have witty comebacks for the endless wave of hate that comes our way, regular as the tides. We’re also supposed to be empowered, confident, let criticism roll off our backs. We’re not supposed to give in to detractors, even if our harshest critics are family, friends, partners, doctors. Even when they are omnipresent. Even when we are entirely alone.
As strangers so regularly remind me, we are supposed to know we’re going to die. We’re supposed to know it will be our fault when we do. Passersby become prophets, grim reapers mandated to tell our future in gruesome detail.
We’re expected to accept street harassment, diet talk, all manner of public discussions about our repulsive bodies. We are not to interrupt. Neither are we to talk about our experiences, lest we be told we’re “playing the victim.” If we give voice to our inevitable sadness or anger, we’ll become the self-fulfilling prophesy of the sad, isolated fatty. And we’re expected to reject our bodies at every turn. If we dare to broker a ceasefire with our own skin, we’re “giving up.” If we learn to love our bodies, we’re “glorifying obesity.”
So: be ashamed but confident, doomed but upbeat, abused but unaffected, unbothered by reminders of our own impending deaths.
But after all that, there’s no space left for fat people to be vulnerable, honest, to hurt, to fail, to succeed, to be whole. It leaves no room for our humanity. We must not only subject our bodies to public scrutiny, but deliver our confidence, our shame, our minds, our senses of self. We’re made to be used. So I made myself useful.
It’s no wonder we disappear.
I am so deeply sorry for so much of what has happened.
I am sorry for the orbit I knocked us out of, my friend and I. I made such a vast emptiness, created cracks he learned to fill. I am sorry for the crackling silence since then, the hot microphone in an empty room. I am sorry for not responding to the calls that only reminded me of the ways I didn’t know how to be whole, how to be both his and my own.
I am sorry that I recreated a thick outer skin for my thin friends that kept them comfortable in a rosier understanding of the world — one in which fat people were harbingers of a frightening future, cautionary tales for thin people’s benefit, or passive sounding boards for their lushly orchestrated lives. I am sorry that I kept so many thin friends comfortable in their own hatred of the little fat on their bodies, free to hate themselves, and free to make my body their collateral damage.
I didn’t know how to be whole, how to be both his and my own.
I am sorry that this friend is not the first to witness my disappearing act. I am sorry for the ripple of nothingness I’ve left in my wake, making myself the quiet buttress of thinness. I am sorry that I have told him and so many others “I’m fine — what’s happening with you?” so long that they learned it was my primary function. I am sorry that I believed first that my life wasn’t worth hearing about, then that it wasn’t worth living at all.
I am sorry that I made my friend my greatest escape.
I am sorry that I let my body be their fear, as it so often is with thin people. For so many thin people, fat must be a fear, never a reality. As a fat person, I have learned to absorb thin people’s insecurities and anxieties, staying silent about my own. I have learned that I have spent whatever capital I have, just taking up the space that my body occupies. I am not entitled to more — I have learned that no fat people are. Our bodies mean we are born to a debt that we must spend our lives repaying.
I am sorry for the ripple of nothingness I’ve left in my wake.
I want to learn to treat myself as someone who is as real as a thin person. And I want to create a bolder, brighter world for the fat people who follow: one in which we can fully emerge, embraced by ourselves and our loved ones alike. I want fat people to see ourselves reflected in the world around us in every walk of life, in every emotional reality, in the lives we long to lead and the lives we already do. I want to learn to build a world that strengthens and respects thin people by teaching them to see fat people fully as we are, not as we are imagined to be.
I want to learn a new language of friendship, and a new kind of fullness. I hope we can learn together.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including “To body positive friends who don’t wear plus sizes” and “A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone.” You can also support Your Fat Friend on Patreon.