I remember the lines. You remember the lines. Team captains dividing us into the more or less worthy as we stood waiting for our doom. Nervous laughter accompanying some of the choices. The smell of perspiration pervading the gym as tension mounted and fewer of us remained to be chosen. No one wanted to be last. It was embarrassing enough to be among the last few. We would sell out our best friend rather than be chosen last. We promised God anything if only we would not be last.
Sometimes the worst happened, and I would be the last one chosen. In that position I was supposed to act “cool,” as if it didn’t really matter to me. Over time, from this and other similarly humiliating experiences, I learned to conceal my emotions almost totally. What I still haven’t learned is to reveal my emotions–even to people I love. I learned the lesson all too thoroughly that at any moment my feelings might be used against me: any show of vulnerability brought inevitable attack and ridicule.
Years later, as an adult, I still face versions of “the lines” when I am in public. Most recently–and blatantly–when I began riding the bus to UCSC I soon noticed that I was the last person people would sit by as the bus filled up. At first I thought maybe i was paranoid. But day after day I watched as people consistently avoided sitting next to me until there were absolutely no other seats available. One day people chose to stand rather than sit by me. When finally a person (most often another woman) did sit beside me, they often turned outward to face the other side of the aisle.
I cannot feel natural when I’m in this situation. My throat tightens until I am almost incapable of speech. I hardly dare to breathe, and my entire body tenses with the effort not to touch the other person or take up too much space.
What, I wonder, do they fear–these people who avoid sitting beside me? Do they fear contagion? Guilt by association? Might others suspect them of collaboration? Or am I supposedly so disgusting that they can hardly bear to be that close to me, and dare not risk touching me lest I rub off on them?
What is this crime I am guilty of? What kept me from being chosen for teams and causes people to avoid me on a crowded bus? What condition could be so vile that otherwise polite and courteous people will not speak if forced by circumstance to share a seat?
My crime is that I am a fat woman in America–for in America that has indeed become a social crime. Our only redemption is to be perpetually starving fat women. Then we are permitted to exist (although strangers, not knowing we are suitably starving, may still not sit by us). If, however, we do not stay on probation (diet), and choose to eat normally–especially in public–the harshest penalties and judgements are directed our way. The rationale goes something like this: we take up too much space, use up too many resources, and are just plain selfish. Also, we’re lazy or we would have exercised ourselves thin by now. Naturally, if we cared for ourselves we would have become thin, so we must also suffer from low selfl-esteem. We must be shamed into dieting for our own good. Few question either their assumptions about us or whether dieting is beneficial.
If it is a social crime for women to be fat, for men it is a misdemeanor. In spite of our efforts as feminists to change our position in society, we are still supposed to be decorative, whatever other qualifications we may possess. Men continue to be judged more by their accomplishments than by their appearance, although certainly the media “hunk” is gradually changing this.
Nevertheless, it is women who bear most of the burden of looksism and fat-phobia in our society. While fat women receive the harshest penalties for not conforming to the standard of thinness, most women do not feel that they fit the stringent qualifications for beauty in this culture.
For this reason I no longer fool myself into thinking would be bursting with self-confidence if I had not grownn up fat. I grew up believing that all thin women had life easy and must realize how fortunate they were. During the last few years, however, I’ve discovered that they are nearly as insecure as I am. Even those few women who have achieved the ideal body are not secure, as they fear that only through constant starvation and exercise can they keep it.
As I listened to other women in body image classes talk about their own strained relationship with their bodies, I realized that this is an issue that affects every woman in America in a profound way. That women are the primary contributors to the $33 billion a year weight loss industry is powerful evidence of the fact. Imagine if American women put that money into ourselves, the environment, or the feminist movement!
In the past few years, I have started down the road towards making peace with my body. Rather than seeing her as merely an object that I-the-mind must control, I view her as a person I am developing a relationship with. I no longer starve or abuse her. In return, she has shown me that she has many abilities I had never thought to discover, and is capable of experiencing pleasure I had never dared dream of. I am beginning to approach her with some affection, and our relationship improves daily.
Still, I must coexist with her in a world that hates us both–her for being fat, and me for allowing her to be. It takes only a moment on a bus to bring me back to the feelings of two decades ago, in a school gym class waiting to be picked for a team. So I work to create a world where anyone would be proud and grateful to sit beside me on the bus. For I am fat, and I am not going away.
This first appeared in Matrix Women’s Newsmagazine in 1991.
Tapati McDaniels is a freelance writer who started a forum designed to meet the needs of former Hare Krishna devotees at http://www.gaudiya-repercussions.com.
She is working on a memoir and her personal blog can be found at http://tapati.livejournal.com.
- Connecting The Dots: Patriarchy Across Cultures (Intro.)
- (1) Living in the Material World
- (2) Summer of Transcendental Love
- (3) All Things Must Pass
- (4) Over The Rainbow
- (5) Magic man
- (6) I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
- (7) I Will Lay Me Down
- A Lifetime Commitment: Initiation
- From Generation to Generation
- No Turning Back
- Vegetarian for God
- (8) What It’s Like To Sing The Blues
- (9) When the Levee Breaks
- I Have Won
- (10) Hard Day’s Night
- (11) Family Affair
- (12) Cat’s In The Cradle
- (13) Smiling Faces
- (14) Kung Fu Fighting
Tapati’s Body Image Workshop: