"Sweetie, no!": the heartbreak of "you're not fat"
In passing, I mention to you that I’m fat. Your response to this truth is concerned, insistent, sometimes frenzied. Sweetie, no! You’re not fat!
You mean to convey so much in that denial. You’re not terrible. You are not irresponsible, not to blame, not worthless, not sad. You are not the worst case scenario. You are redeemed. You are my friend. I still love you.
Sweetie, no! is a benediction, a rosary to recite to ward off the worst possibilities. Because when I say I’m fat, it begins a domino effect. Because you’ve been taught that if I am fat, I cannot also be desirable. If I am not desirable, then I cannot be beautiful. If I am not beautiful, I cannot have worth. So you object. Because, understandably, it hurts you to hear your friend say she doesn’t have worth.
But that isn’t what I said.
In that moment, you infuse my body with attitudes and assumptions about being fat. And those conflations are so common, so routine, so ubiquitous, that you can’t hear what I did say.
Your panic and discomfort sit heavy on my shoulders, the alarm ringing in my ears. It’s disappointing. Over time, denials like these become exhausting, even frustrating. Because every sweetie, no! denies an important truth about my experience. When I talk about being fat, I’m not admonishing myself for the failure of my size. I’m not saying I’m not beautiful or desirable or worthy.
Fat is a fact of my body. I wear a size 26. My body is soft and wide, gentle and rounded. My BMI categorizes me as “obese.” These are facts that are not in dispute.
When I say I’m fat, I’m asserting an important part of my experience. Because the world treats me differently as a fat person. Strangers criticize my body, some hurling names and insults at me as I walk down the street. Family members recommend surgeries to change my body. Doctors refuse to treat me, and show their deep bias against fat patients when they do. TV shows, magazines, newspapers and movies all affirm that people my shape and size are worthy of ridicule, derision, berating and humiliation. My death is seen as impending, earned, deserved, a punchline.
What I have, in the face of all that contempt, is the simple ability to describe my own body. You’re not fat denies me even that. It drives such a distance between us. You’re not fat takes away my ability to name that experience, and to remedy it. Sometimes it’s you’re not even that fat. What kind of treatment would be acceptable if I was?
You know me as a strong, resilient, sturdy person, and I know you as the same. We have worked together through our most difficult moments. We have found strength together when it felt like the whole world was falling down around us: through job losses and breakups, family crises and health scares. I know your strength and you know mine, because we have laid out our whole anatomies for one another. We have measured one another’s muscle, skin and bone, coming to know it through exertion and vulnerability. We know all the parts that constitute one another, and the exquisite strength we’ve each built over time.
But when you say you’re not fat, it feels like you think I have to be protected from the truth of my own body, as if I’m so fragile that I can’t handle anything but a lie.
You know me so much better than that.
Still: sweetie, no!
When you tell me I’m not fat, it keeps us from connecting. If you can’t believe that I’m fat, or can’t allow me to believe it, then neither of us can discuss the truths of our bodies, and the ways they are received. It erects a wall between us, immediate and forceful. If I can’t name my body, I can’t name the response it receives. If I can’t name its response, then I can’t name my own hurt, anger, frustration, isolation. And if I can’t name that to you, my dearest friend, then I cannot want more. I cannot dare to expect an uninterrupted day, a walk free of the threat of jeers or slurs, a Thanksgiving without public insult, a friend who can embrace my body as an important part of the person they love. I cannot make the daring request that these simple needs be met. I cannot ask for better.
I know you want better for me. And I know you can help get it.
I need you to take the risk of loving me, and to take the shaky step of extending that love to my body. I need you to ask me how I feel about being fat, rather than assuming that I wear my body as an albatross or scarlet letter. I need you to disentangle the scripts you’ve learned, the toxic attitudes that thicken our air. I need you to unmoor fat from terrible, unwanted, unloved, unlovable. Let its anchor be the people you know and love.
I need you to think of me when you think of fat. I need you to see all of me, including my body. I need you here with me, shoulder to shoulder, when the world rejects my fat body like an organ transplant, systemically and fully. I need you to hear the way my body is discussed insistently as a threat: epidemic, disease, war. I need you to hear the heady mix of venom and pity when people talk about bodies like mine. I need you to help end all of that. I need you to make room to talk about bodies — mine, yours, anyone’s — in positive, or even neutral ways.
But I know that’s too much to ask.
So today, just let me describe my own body. Let me say my own name. Let me claim my own living skin and beating heart. Let me name the body that brings me to you. Do the simple work of silence.
Like this piece? There are more like it, including What it’s like to be that fat person next to you on the plane and A call to action: your fat friend is going it alone.