Yesterday, after a rousing lunchtime ZUMBA! class with my dear Travis left my workout clothes unwearable, I was forced to bike my way home in my rather tight, denim pencil skirt. It must be noted that when I am bike riding in a skirt all of my almost non-existent modesty goes out the window. I love when the wind blows up a billowy skirt, or I get the chance to, as I did today, show a little leg. As I started my ride home, I passed three college students: two very thin girls, maybe 19, wearing distressed short shorts (the ones with the pockets sticking out the bottom) sitting on a curb, and a muscular boy, probably around the same age, working on the gears of his bike which was turned upside down near where the girls sat. As I approached these three young people they openly stared at me, and as I rode by one of the girls whispered something that made the other two giggle. I knew they were laughing about me. What they were saying I couldn’t hear, but all of the sudden I felt very self-conscious about my chunky girl thighs working so strongly to pedal my bicycle.
I have been lucky enough to be a victim of fat hate infrequently in my life. My brother’s best friend growing up would most unmercilessly call me “Whale,” a name that resurrected itself in middle school when I sat in front of a boy named Zach who would say it under his breath when he was feeling surly. But that was the worst of it until I got to college. One day while walking to class I was talking with a friend when a man yelled something out a truck window and then sped away. My friend instantly grabbed me, pulling me into a tight hug, and whispered in my ear, “He's a jerk,” at which point I registered that what had been shouted was, “LOSE SOME WEIGHT, BITCH.” I didn’t cry. Well, not then. Not until I got to class and sat in the back of the room silently weeping. Eventually I excused myself, and my darling teacher, Angie, followed me. When I told her what happened, she hugged me saying, “People are so cruel.” Aren’t they just.
Most of my discomfort as regards these fat hate stories is less that they happened at all and more how passively I let them happen, how easily I let those people make me feel bad about my body. Now granted I felt pretty terrible about my body before they said anything. I did think I was whale, and I did think I was a fat bitch, but you know what? That doesn’t matter. Nothing will ever, EVER give another person the right to make judgments about my body, whether you are my best friend or a stranger in a truck. I wish I could go back to that day so that I could stare at his car speeding away and flip him the bird. I wish I could turn around to Zach, slap him across the face and say, “If you call me that again, I will kick you in the nuts.” And I wish I HAD, in fact, kicked my brother’s best friend in the nuts the very first time he thought it appropriate to address me by such a cruel nickname.
In many of my fat acceptance books, women claim that if every time they were fat shamed their response was to hide in their rooms they would never leave the house. And I want to have this IAMFATGETUSEDTOIT attitude, but the truth is, I felt a little broken by those kids today. And I continue to feel broken by that one random stranger. It is of course laced with, “How DARE you,” but there is still all that deep, internalized, terrible shame.
But this is not to say I won’t fight back. In a brilliant essay by Lesley Kinzel in the book Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere, she talks about being catcalled while wearing a bathing suit and crossing the street to her local beach. Her response is this:
“Given the choice between restricting my movements and being assured of never being catcalled again, versus going out shamelessly and risking (or demanding!) attention—I will gladly take the latter. I like being visible. Even when I become a bull’s eye upon which the insecurities and savagery of others are exorcised. Even when I lose time processing and remembering the emotional risks I take just by being myself, time I would have otherwise spent relaxing in the sunshine. When I began my self-acceptance process, I decided first off that I never want to feel afraid of what those people—those who would mercilessly catcall me from a moving car, for example—might think or say about my body again. I never wanted to avoid life out of fear. And I’m still there, still fighting to be fearless. So I say fuck those people. I’ll be on that beach tomorrow, and this weekend, and for months to come, and if they don’t like it, good. I’m glad to displease them. They cannot stop me.”
This is the price we pay for not hiding. This is the price we pay for being visible. Am I going to hide because those dumbasses don’t want to look at me? Because they are somehow OFFENDED by me riding my bike, wearing my brightly colored helmet and GOD FORBID being fat and free and happy?
No. Fucking. Way.