I decided to go with 7 for no particular reason. The fact that there are lists like these in the first place is a distinct function of the internet, I think, because it sort of flattens the world out and makes what happens to a person in Boise, Idaho correlate to what happens to a person in NYC or Albuquerque. And bloggers are, for good or ill, trackers and collaters of the zeitgeist. There are all sorts of lists-of-things-not-to-say to one group or another. Insofar as they provoke thought and real conversation, I’m inclined to think they’re a good thing. Anything that suggests ways to behave better seems a good thing to me.
But the subject came up in a conversation with another fat woman recently, and I’ve been thinking about it and the items that appear on pretty much all the lists.
“I don’t see you as fat.” This one is one of those things people who love us say to reassure us that our fatness is not getting in between our friendships, and that they see beyond our fat. Okay. Sounds fine when you put it that way. But it’s like saying to someone black that your friendship has erased her blackness, her life collective life experience, and, in a fairly profound sense, her person-ness. What is meant to be a compliment is, in fact, an erasure. Because, dear not-fat humans, fat is an integral, constant, pervasive, and life-shaping experience. Also, it’s playing on that sad/tired/dangerous old trope that our bodies are not our selves. Fuck you, St. Paul and the ancient Greek philosophers you rode in on.
“You have such a pretty face…” Either tell me I’m just plain beautiful or shut up. I’ve been told this at weights ranging from 150 to 250, always with either the implication or statement that if I lost weight, I’d actually be beautiful. Beauty is a complicated construct in the first place, but it unless a part is being complimented in the context of the whole (“X has gorgeous legs…” with the clear implication that the rest of X is also beautiful), the atomization of any human being’s looks is dehumanizing. Besides, on the pettiest possible level, many of the women who are widely considered Great Beauties have frighteningly scrawny arms, but no one ever says to them “You have such a pretty face; you’d be so beautiful if you just gained 10 lbs.” Because that would be insulting.
“I feel fat and ugly. I gained 10 lbs.” Okay, your body is blathering at you about the 10 lbs of weight it’s suddenly having to carry around and your clothes are suddenly having opinions that they weren’t having a month ago. I have no right to discount your experience. It is always disconcerting when our bodies make changes we weren’t planning on. But if you feel uncomfortable 10 lbs. over your happy norm, how the fuck do you think I feel every day when people stare at me because I’m 100 lbs over what they think I ought to be, when I always feel weird (and condemned) when I have to squeeze through/by people (I’ve caught enough glances to know this one is not made up), or they have to squeeze by me (No, darling, fat is not a communicable disease, rubbing by me in a theater is not endangering your caste/health/size). Your 10 lbs.–not so much. No one has ever been thrown off an airplane because of 10 lbs. And if you have actually gained 10 lbs and people in your life are expressing opinions about it, get new people in your life. Usually what our thin/thinnish friends mean when they talk about “feeling fat” is that they are in a cruddy place in their lives that is bruising the hell out of their self esteem, and, culturally, talking about feeling fat is one way to embody that sense of depression/anxiety/discombobulation. I need to acknowledge and affirm your feelings. You need to stop talking like you understand what it’s like to be fat. Please.
ANYTHING about how we eat, dress, or exercise. ANYTHING. Unless it’s to say we have on a great outfit, or the color of our sweater is doing fabulous things for our eyes, or our slip is showing. You know, specific, ordinary, even practical stuff you’d say to any not-fat person. You can ask if you can have a bit of our yummy-looking cake. Normal close friends do that. You can talk about a great new exercise class you’ve found, but don’t evangelize it. If we’re interested, we’ll ask. Otherwise, stick to talking about how much you like it.
There are always exceptions. Someone once told me that I don’t move like I’m fat. I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and been cheered by it for decades. I finally figured out why it was actually a compliment–she meant that I don’t move as if I’m weighed down by my body (courtesy, I suppose, of an actual heavy-duty skeleton and genetics that gave me fairly hefty muscle-mass to begin with), and that I therefore don’t move like I’m either ashamed to be alive or in pain. Some of us can carry weight relatively comfortably, some of us can’t. I’m pretty sure that’s an accident of genetics.
Since that particular friend was a recovering anorexic, I was more inclined to talk about this stuff with her–weirdly more comfortable. But then, this was decades before the pro-ana movement, and she, in particular, had not been one to believe her anorexia made her a superior human. Courtesy of a drug that has saved her, after trying pretty much everything else, from crippling clinical depression, she’s now fat. There is black, razorish irony in knowing that she now has to deal with all the shit doctors give fat people BECAUSE she chose to save her own life. It’s not an irony that lands on her, though.
“You’re not fat.” Uh, what? A) I live in a culture that tells me CONSTANTLY that I am. B) I buy my clothes in plus-sizes, which is kind of a bulls-eye indicator. C) are you saying that if I were fat, we couldn’t possibly be friends? People who believe they’re not particularly bright should probably be told that they are, that there are different kinds of intelligence the ETS couldn’t care less about testing for. People who believe they deserve lesser lives/rights/love need to be told why that’s not true. But people who KNOW (notice here the difference between “believe” and “know”) they’re fat do not need you, even if it’s meant in kindness, to tell us that we’re delusional. Fat people, at least the ones I know, tend to be remarkably aware of the realities of our bodies. Oddly enough, being fat translates into having fairly thin skin for a huge list of reasons, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s just agree that it’s because our psychic skins get a lot of wear and tear; we get rubbed the wrong way a lot.
I know it seems like there are daily New Rules for speech. You know why? Because there are. Those new rules can certainly go too far–there are always absurd, isolated examples–but they’re there because the language is reflecting things the culture is trying to learn, things that can make the culture better, kinder, more decent. So the fact that you’ve said any of the things I’ve listed or any of the things in the articles/blogs above to a friend you love madly doesn’t matter. We love you, too. We forgive you, too. Sometimes over and over and over. So now that I’ve told you what I’m hearing, what the words are actually saying that you heart did not intend them to say, you can maybe stop?