Growing up fat, I learned 1,000 ways to make myself smaller. Yes, to run in the mornings, to side-eye sweets, to eat my vegetables. But it was not just about losing weight. I learned to avoid situations where my body might garner unwanted attention. I spent my time in the back or corners of rooms. I spoke softly, walked quickly from place to place and opted to stand inconspicuously by a wall even when sitting in a chair was a reasonable option. The constant awareness that I was taking up too much space — space that belonged to other people — tailored my movement and mannerisms to make me into the perfect fat person: quiet, undemanding, out of view and complicit in my own censorship. I afforded others the courtesy of not reminding them that fat people existed.
When I arrived at campus last fall, this hadn’t changed. In fact, my fear intensified as I considered the logistics of showering in a public space and eating food in front of others, as I realized that I didn’t always fit into the desks and chairs provided and that I wouldn’t be able to hide myself as I had done previously. At Brown, I constantly dread encountering or returning to a space that cannot accommodate my body. I am scared, always, of not only being in such a space, but also of being unable to adjust the situation to divert attention away from my body. The worry that I will draw too much attention to my fatness — the fatness that I feel is eternally reviled and judged — is always there. While the physical aspects of this inaccessibility are important to address, the cultural component is just as vital to our health and well-being as students at Brown. Reinventing the culture surrounding fatness costs no money and no logistical restructuring, only mindfulness and a willingness to question what we’ve been taught.
The repulsion to fat bodies is fluid and impermanent, dependent upon the current social landscape. Fat people are reminded constantly that we are fit for little more than the cruel character archetypes we see on television. We are the class clowns. We are the Disney villains. We are the sidekicks. We are the face of the corpulent, greedy, gluttonous analogy for those who love money and power too much. We are the “before” and never the “after.” We are caricatures for unpopular politicians. We are hedonistic, reckless, two-dimensional, and we exist only as comedic devices or beasts to ignore uncomfortably. Yet the truth is that fatness is not monolithic, neither in appearance nor in spirit. Fatness is diverse, and fat people who embody these stereotypes do exist. But we are wronged when we are forced into these archetypes and not allowed the complexity afforded to people who are not fat. There are infinite ways to live as a fat person, and there is no one way to become fat, let alone one way that merits the shame and disgust imposed upon us.
Fat loneliness is pervasive, insidious and deeply familiar. Fat people are dehumanized and desexualized, much preferred unseen, unheard and removed from romantic and sexual contexts. As one might suspect, these slights on our humanity and self-expression, alongside our trepidation in navigating the campus, at such a critical juncture in our lives do nothing but harm us socially, academically and often physically. The omnipresent and oft-unspoken belief, even here, is that fat people cannot be trusted with full autonomy, for if we cannot be trusted with our bodies, how can we be trusted to act correctly in other situations? The distaste for us is assumed, if not explicit. For us, it has become increasingly obvious that most objections to our appearance or lifestyle come not from a place of concern for our health, but rather offense to the notion that we do not exist in a way that most have been taught to find aesthetically pleasing or even generally acceptable. It is this barrier, along with our physical ones, that keeps us from complete academic fairness, and it is the unwillingness of others to question internal biases that deprives us of the love and respect of which we are just as deserving as anyone else.
Our fatness, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not an aspect isolated from prejudice and social justice. Our fatness exists in the racialized fetishization of black and brown women. It exists in the intra-community devaluation of fat gay men. It exists in the withholding of independence from fat disabled people. It exists in multiplicity and it exists largely because our society allows it. It is far more comfortable to view fatness as a character defect rather than to confront one’s prejudice and consider that it may in fact be tied to more striking systems of disenfranchisement. Objection to fatness is often quiet and, at face value, often seems justified. There is a cycle of doubt particular to fatness that forces us to question our self-advocacy: Am I the one who’s wrong? Do I have the right to complain about the seat sizes? Does my existence normalize unhealthiness? Am I really worthy of the love and acceptance that I claimed I was? It is this downward spiral that propels us back into our fear, our loneliness, our self-loathing.
Thus comes the time to examine myself — the time to question my own self-censorship, my desperate need to play roles I do not fit, my hesitation to express that I have inherent worth. To exist unapologetically as a fat person, to promote self-love and self-acceptance, is to exist bravely. It is imperative to reclaim my right to space — not more space than others, but enough space to exist freely, the space that others are granted and the space that fat people fearfully avoid. Part of this rests on the shoulders of fat people to leave the safety of silence and take up self-advocacy. Another part requires the effort of our peers, an effort to reevaluate their understanding of fatness and the ways they may perpetuate a culture that damages us. This, currently, is my hope for Brown: for us to be mindful of fatness and the ways we interact with it. It is one step of many in the commitment to social justice, a step that helps our campus become as safe, enriching and just as possible.
Mathew Slade ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.