I’m not going to lie: I’m kind of bored of talking about bodies. I’m bored of debating who is allowed to wear a bathing suit and where and when, and asking myself if I’m bikini-ready (I’m not bikini-ready). I’m bored of reading online posts about body positivity that are followed by endless comment sections of cruelty and ignorance. I’m bored of picking up magazines that sell me empowerment on one page and then sell me a thousand products on every other page to make me better, thinner, prettier, sexier (within approved non-trampy limits, of course) and more worthy than I am right now. I’m bored of explaining, over and over again, that it doesn’t matter how a woman dresses or adorns her body, no one gets to assume it’s an invitation to demean, mock, or hurt her.
Bored is, perhaps, not exactly the right word. Exhausted, maybe? Angry, too. Disappointed. Frustrated that here we are in 2017, with no flying cars and I would still be better off if I was thinner, and/or had a penis. I’m tired. Tired of trying to exist in a world that would really prefer I didn’t, at least in my current imperfect, chubby female form.
Let’s be clear: I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m big, yes, but not so big that people are often intentionally cruel to me (dismissive, at times certainly, or “helpful” with their advice on what I ought to do differently to “fix” myself) but I’m rarely treated as poorly as many big folks are with outright scorn, taunting or abuse. I’m also solidly middle-class, have no visible disabilities, I’m cisgendered, heterosexual, and I look like I’m probably 100% western European (I’m not, but looking this white and blonde is a pretty huge hallway pass as we all know.) The only way my life could be more privileged is if I was wealthy and a man. In other words, I’m aware that my experience is modulated and made easier by virtue of my position in the world – a black, queer woman with the very same body shape as mine would undoubtedly experience far more discrimination and just plain rudeness than I will ever know.
It’s also a bonus in my corner that I actually enjoy all those “girly” things that the world wants me to: I love dressing up, wearing high heels, and I could spend an hour looking at makeup at Sephora and still not be able to decide exactly which shade of lipstick is just right. I like push-up bras and shaving my legs. I like reading Vanity Fair for the political articles AND the fashion spreads, and I believe there is really no such thing as too many earrings, shoes or purses. You get the picture.
I accidentally fit the mold the world has for me. (We could easily have a debate at this point over whether or not my girly inclinations are a product of my in-born personality or my culture and environment, but that’s a bigger tangent than we have time for today and the end point is still this: I like the way I am. I enjoy being the person I am. I do not feel that my role has been foisted upon me, or that I am forced to falsely stick to a female narrative that is not authentic. So, nature or nurture? Moot point, to some degree, though an interesting question all the same.)
But if I had short hair, or dressed in a “masculine” manner, or hated carrying a purse, or refused to shave my arm pits AND I was ALSO chubby, would the world be as kind to me? I think we all the know answer to that.
The point I’m making here is that most of the time, I am afforded a great deal of respect despite my body by virtue of all the other ways that privilege expresses itself in my life – which is to say, in almost all ways.
But I’m not immune to it. I still live in this world, am still pushed and pulled by the culture that I exist inside of, am still influenced by all the ways I am told every day that I’m not quite right. I can recall with horrifying clarity every comment that has been made about my body – from a boy in my junior high school calling me a battleship with his arms held wide, to a close friend who once advised me that perhaps the solution to an unrequited crush was simply that I ought to lose weight (as though I did not already spend most of my life at that point with highly disordered eating patterns aimed at that one primary goal.) I remember being told, in a sympathetic tone – as though to protect me from hurt – that certainly the man I was sleeping with at one point in my early 20s was taking advantage of me and didn’t really like me – because I was too fat for any other answer to be rational (I was maybe a size 14 at the time, at most.) When I was pregnant, a well-meaning but clueless member of the extended family took to calling me the House, because I was “as big as a house.”
I could go on, all day long. Couldn’t we all?
And perhaps I am fair game to criticism. I opened the door myself, after all: I’ve been writing about my body for years, in newspapers and books and blogs and magazines. I’ve told strangers about its size and shape and the food that goes into it and the workouts it does and the sexuality inside of it and the way it has informed my personality and how grateful I am for its strength and imperfection and how good it feels to finally take a breath and just … be … friends … with it. And before that, I was always the first with a joke, a comment, an invitation to observe on my body as though it were a thing separate from me.
But …. I’m rambling on, aren’t I? And if I’m so bored of talking about this, why am I?
A few weeks ago, I came up to an intersection just as the light turned yellow. There should have been time for me to go through long before it turned red, but a pedestrian stepped out into the crosswalk way too early, forcing me to hit the brakes. As a result, the nose of my car blocked a portion of the crossing. With another car tight behind me, I couldn’t back up.
The group of pedestrians eyed me from the curb as they waited for the walk sign. I felt bad, knowing they’d need to scoot around the front of my car, but it was that or hit the jaywalker – and I think I made the right call there.
When the walk light flashed, two 30-something men stepped off the sidewalk first and made a wide berth around the front of my car. I made eye contact, shrugged a little, and mouthed “sorry” to indicate that I knew I was in their way.
They were well-dressed. Clean. Tidy hair cuts. Good looking. I assumed (ironically, based on appearances) that a modest level of politeness and civility would force a nod in my direction. At worst, they would just ignore me.
Instead, one of them waved in the direction of my car and its offending position in the crosswalk and said, loudly and scornfully: “Fat bitch.”
Fat bitch. Oh lord. The oldest, quickest, laziest, way to put a fat girl in her place. It’s insanely effective. When I was younger, a comment like this would inspire only stunned silence and embarrassment, along with a jack-rabbit heart rate and a bright red face.
But I’m not so young anymore. And not so scared of rude men.
In the millisecond after “fat bitch” echoed out, I knew I could ignore it, or I could engage. Ignoring it was so tempting. This bullshit is boring, right? I’m over it, right? I’m too old to get phased, right? It’s just some douchebag jerk who will never change, so what’s the point, right?
But I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore the frustration that still, always, forever, my body and its shape permits people to speak to me a way they might not to others. I couldn’t ignore that his words made me feel ashamed and small – like everything else good and decent and positive about me had disappeared – and then enraged that I allowed myself to feel ashamed and small. I couldn’t ignore all the times some entitled jerk – or a well-meaning friend, even another woman – had belittled me intentionally or accidentally with careless, callous words. I don’t want to make a mountain of a molehill but this molehill – this particular fat-bitch molehill – pissed me off. It pissed me off enough to not, this time, be quiet.
So I waved at him, and smiled, and yelled out my open window: “NO, THANK YOU, I DON’T WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU!”
He faltered, a visible hesitation in his stride. His friend barked out a laugh.
“What did you –“
I cut him off this time.
“THANK YOU!” I yelled, grinning and waving. “NO SEX, BUT THANK YOU!”
He was well past my car now, but he slowed, and turned around to look at me. The sudden flare of rage in his face made me realize I might have pushed it too far.
I had done the unthinkable, the unpardonable, the most dangerous thing: I had embarrassed a man when he was trying to embarrass me. I had put him in his place, when he was trying to put me in mine. I had not lowered my head when his words clearly told me I ought to.
For a fraction of a second, I cowered. I almost let the smile fall, almost turned away. My heart was racing and I was praying the light would change so I could just speed off. But I stared back. Smiling. Unmoving. I like to imagine there was a glint in my eye, something steely and determined but that’s probably too poetic for an event that lasted no longer than a handful of seconds.
His buddy yanked at his jacket sleeve, as though to say “leave it, let’s go.”
Instead, he paused, pointed at me and yelled – in the grand tradition of assholes everywhere: “STUPID CUNT.”
Before we go any further, let me just say I know this word is loathed by most women. I actually don’t hate this word; at times, I really quite like it. This word – like slut, or bitch, or even fat – has a power behind it, most often used negatively. But it’s not in itself a bad word, and in the right hands, in the right moment, in the right context, it can be powerful in its own way.
But this man did not mean it in a powerful way. He meant it to be degrading and to make me as tiny as possible: to diminish me down to one body part. One stupid body part, at that.
I smiled at him. I smiled at him as calmly and beautifully and peacefully as one can possibly smile.
And I yelled back: CUNTS AREN’T STUPID! THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL!
I wish with all my heart I could take credit for these words, but I can’t. Last year, I read about a woman’s experience with a group of cyclists on a narrow farm road, in which one of them yelled “stupid cunt” at her as she drove past. Later, seeing them in the next small town up the road, she approached them to talk about it, and to call out the man who had shouted at her for seemingly no reason. The interaction ended with her walking back to her car and then, over her shoulder, yelling this phrase. I was so inspired by her bravery in facing them down that I told myself the next time some creep called out “stupid cunt” I would blaze forth with this same reply: THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL. Fabulous, isn’t it? Because it’s true. They are magical. So I’d saved it in the mental pocket reserved for comebacks and there it had sat until this moment.
CUNTS AREN’T STUPID! THEY’RE FUCKING MAGICAL!
The man in the crosswalk glared at me like he wished I was dead. A fat bitch, stupid cunt, daring to yell back at him? About the magic of vaginas, of all things? It seemed just then that anything could happen, that he might hit my car, hit me, lose it entirely – but after a few endless eternal seconds, he turned and stalked off.
The light changed and I drove away.
I would like to say I drove away empowered, but I didn’t.
I drove away sad, and shaking, scared by the hint of violence and by the look in his face, by the sudden breach of conflict in an otherwise calm and normal day. I drove away thinking what a small incident this was compared to the acts of aggression and violence perpetrated against “the other” every day. About how people live this way, attacked, ALL THE TIME, every hour, every day, because of how they look, or how they dress, or how big they are, or who they are holding hands with when they walk down the street, or the colour of their skin.
And I couldn’t help but wonder how the entire episode might have played out if I had been thinner, prettier, younger? Would he have circled the nose of my car and used it as an opportunity to hit on me instead? Would he have simply forgiven me my vehicular transgression and carried on with a smile and nod? Would the moment have reinforced my notion that the world was fundamentally good and kind because it was good and kind to me? What if, on the other hand, I had been another skin colour, or had been wearing a head scarf, or had been fatter? Would he have tolerated me even well enough to limit it to just those few words had I been less privileged and less powerful?
I’m bored of talking about bodies. Of talking about how our bodies permit us – or limit us – to exist in the world in particular ways. I’m bored of asking myself if I have permission to wear a certain dress or to behave a certain way. Because we shouldn’t still be talking about it. Because we should be past it now. We should be past “fat bitch” and “stupid cunt.” We should be past telling people what to wear and how to cover up and what they are allowed to do and not do because of the size of their hips. We should be past all of these things because there’s so many other bigger battles that need fighting in this world.
But we’re not past it.
So I guess I keep talking about it, after all. Whatever else I am, I’m not quiet. Not anymore.