My Broad Exploration of Sizeism
by Tosha Yingling
Boy was my face red. My face is always a little red; I’m a big girl so all these layers are bound to generate heat. Usually I have enough makeup on to turn a blush tone into a flesh tone, but today I’m at the beach, and I didn’t bother putting on anything that would make me seem unlike the normal beachgoer. It’s a tough decision to choose between the foundation designed to make me feel beautiful (despite my weight) or the concept of fitting in by not wearing a full face in the middle of the ocean. It’s the same decision I had to make when I chose a swimsuit for the season; I could’ve walked onto the beach in a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt but instead I took the brave route, wearing a trendy tankini that fit, and dare I say, flattered: no cover-up, no tee-shirt, just me. I chose to look normal, even though when I try to find a bathing suit in 3X, it’s evident that I’m not. Wearing jeans on the beach would just draw more attention to my abnormality or, God forbid, my dimply arms: I can sacrifice my dignity with a two-piece more willingly than I can sacrifice the comfort of normitivity. Unfortunately, I am not part of the in-group, and finding a bathing suit for one day at the beach was a complete carnival, resulting in me picking the best option from an exclusive group of moderately-fashionable circus tents in tacky colors and tropical prints. With this catastrophe on, I had to practice holding my head up extra high, especially with the challenge of looking semi-attractive without relying on my makeup on my hands. I found that all it takes to deflate this false confidence is one little kid telling his mommy to look at that big girl, and the year-round blush that I had planned on blaming on sunburn, grew even redder. I’ve gotten used to being the big girl, but it’s moments like these that sneak up on me and sting my jaded interior. I know that I won’t always fit in the desks at school, and that boys will usually go after my friends before they come up to me, and that I can’t skip wearing a cute outfit in exchange for a pair of sweatpants. I’m more than aware of all these things, probably more than what anyone with a healthy BMI could ever understand, but I still feel the weight (pun intended) of fat discrimination bearing down on me and it’s heavy. It presses in on all angles: from society, from institutions, and even from within myself.
Society has never accepted my size. Going out in public has always demanded an unusual amount of strength to get through the most menial tasks, complete with “[pulling] my shirt surreptitiously away from the bulges of my belly” (as though I could hide in this skin) and feeling my “cheeks burn hot” when I notice someone’s abrupt discovery of my size (Murray, 2004). Little boys at the beach have always pointed at me and told their mothers to look, lest they miss out on the phenomena of a fat chick, so rare to an inexperienced young boy. It’s easy to dismiss the genuine awe of a child staring at or commenting on me but it’s the little boys that grow up and still find it necessary to point and stare that really get to me.
I know my body projects an image of an unhealthy, lazy, and diseased woman in our society, but the toughest pill for me to swallow, the one thing that gives away the fact that I’m not normal more than any other dimension of my weight, is the fact that I am seen as asexual and undesirable. Reading Samantha Murray’s article, “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman,” echoed my experience at the beach: if a fat woman somehow overcomes society’s aesthetics and is able to feel confident and sexy, it is often short-lived due to a comment or action that makes her feel as though she is completely undesirable. In Murray’s account of the “Rodeo,” this theory is best exemplified in an act that degrades fat women by turning them into “ridiculous creatures” incapable of being attractive or sexy; the Rodeo is an act involving a man seducing a fat woman and bringing her home, only to literally ride her like a farm animal, documenting the humiliation with pictures and the company of friends (Murray, 2004). Though not to this extreme, there have been countless times that I felt sexy or beautiful only to have those feelings morph into shame or embarrassment; this metamorphosis in my emotions can result from my crush telling me pointedly I have such a pretty face, or when I feel good about how I look in my new swimsuit, only to hear one little boy’s comment that makes me feel elephantine all over again. As Murray also points out, sexual acts like the Rodeo and Feederism (a sexual fetish that allows men to watch fat women eat excessive amounts) turn sex with a fat woman into something “kinky or strange,” further instilling the idea that fat women are not capable of being seen as “normal” sexual partners because of their strangeness. Feederism also enforces an unhealthy stereotype that implies that all fat women are excessive eaters and gluttons. Upon careful recollection of my own eating habits, it is clear to me that not all fat women overeat. There are some genuine cases of women gaining excessive amounts of weight because of thyroid problems or hidden doses of steroids in medications. The idea of fat women who are unmanageable and lacking self-control does not always apply but the over-eater is a dominant caricature in our society. Portraits like these turn fat women into asexual sub-humans who are unattractive, undesirable, and failures of femininity because of their failure to seduce a man (the ultimate signpost of femininity in a heteronormative society operating within a masculine/feminine gender binary).
The idea that fat women fail femininity sometimes results in women’s over-compensation to appear beautiful to prove femaleness, and almost inherently, sexuality. For some women this over-compensation of beauty results from societal pressure, but for some, beauty rituals make the body acceptable to live in. Though its findings aren’t particularly surprising, a study published in the North American Journal of Psychology confirms that as a woman’s weight increases, her positive body image decreases (de Man, & Phillips, 2010). According to de Man and Phillips, this decrease in body image can be explained simply and is rooted in the way women are conditioned in their youth; girls are trained to see themselves as objects that are meant to be pleasing to men, something that fat women are not (de Man, & Phillips, 2010). Knowing that no matter what I do, I am not sexy because I am fat, I perform feminine gender roles to make myself feel more beautiful, even though sometimes this means debating whether I should give up my beauty ideals to blend in at the beach.
Growing up, my tomboy tendencies were frowned upon in a high school stuffed wall-to-wall with mini-skirts and neon makeup sets. I started wearing makeup and stopped wearing my hair in a bun my junior year, and though almost no one in the student body noticed, the change within myself was tremendous. As referenced in Murray’s article, I felt I was able to cultivate my body into something I found more pleasing, particularly because it pleased others. Though I was a fat child who never experienced life in a slender physique and was conditioned not to be confident because of my weight, getting tattoos and piercings, doing my makeup, and wearing my hair long has become a way for me to play up my socially attractive features and keep in touch with the rare fleeting glimpses of sexuality that I feel. Changing my appearance to suit my liking better has become a way for me to reclaim my body and turn it into something I can be proud of; it becomes a way to reconnect with myself by making my outer appearance reflect the confident woman inside. It’s almost a coping mechanism so that I don’t feel removed from my flesh by the shame and embarrassment that makes me feel like I should distance myself from my own body because I am fat. If I didn’t have long lashes or dimples, how could a fatty like me ever be considered beautiful in our society? I rely on these features to help me fit in society, and though changing the way I look to be more socially accepted is a complete hypocrisy from my beliefs about social constructs, it allows me fleeting moments when I can step outside of being abnormal; it allows me to be beautiful.
Unfortunately, in our society, overcoming the stares and tsks from people around me in addition to my own harsh critiques isn’t the only challenge I have to face because of my weight; it is institutionally damaging to be fat. While other forms of discrimination are illegal among employers, medical facilities, and private companies, “weight discrimination remains one of the most socially acceptable forms of discrimination” (Wang, 2008). Casting aside all the too-small theatre seats and the miniscule variety of swimsuits I have to choose from, I have never felt oppression from anything because of my size the way that I have felt oppression from the healthcare system. This was proven to me a year ago when studying for midterms was interrupted when I found a lump on my breast. After leaving the school’s free clinic, I had two additional lumps and an entire stock of tender lymph nodes that needed to be examined immediately. I also had no insurance, no way of paying for my emergency ultrasound and mammogram, and no way to pay for any potential treatments.
When my dad retired and my family was forced to look into private health insurance coverage, I was used to denying myself doctor’s visits when I was sick and trying to tough-out minor injuries, because all the private companies we looked into could deny my family coverage because my weight was considered a risk factor. Despite the fact that I was perfectly healthy with the exception of my weight and even fairly fit, I was still seen as too unhealthy to maintain my health. The most crucial injustice of the healthcare system is that being fat means that you are not human even to get treated for cancer, much less a sinus infection. This infuriating detail is the most dehumanizing thing about my weight. The disappointing aspect of my bulging belly and big butt is increased by the prejudice society has created around my doughy flesh and jiggley bits only to be carried over into my quality of life. I can stuff myself into that miniscule seat when I go see a movie, or wear a gaudy swimsuit to the beach, but when did it become okay for me to be considered too fat to live?
Fat discrimination is one of the biggest (again, pun intended) challenges in my life. It affects my relationships with men, the measures I take to be accepted, and even the equality I am granted in society. Trying to fit in, whether literally or figuratively, has become too great a challenge for me to continue to kid myself with the rigid concept of the norm. I am so obviously an outsider that it has become important for me to reclaim my title as the fat chick, because let’s face it: you can’t exactly hide fat to pretend to be a normal weight. Nothing irks me more than when a friend hears me refer to myself as fat and their gut reaction is to tell me, “of course you’re not!” I don’t need anyone denying that I’m fat because that’s telling me that what I am is wrong. Why can’t I be fat? It’s time for other people to reform their standards, because even if I do get on a treadmill tomorrow, this excess weight isn’t melting off in the next couple days. Scoffing at me in the street won’t make me skinny tomorrow and, hate to tell you, but it’s not a great motivator to help me lose pounds either. Instead of hiding in my skin, I’m going to reclaim it, and admit my ownership of my body. The mythical norm is one that is impossible for me to conform to so it’s time that I no longer try to mould my identity into anything other than what it already is.
Murray, S. (2004). Locating aesthetics: sexing the fat woman. Social Semiotics, 14(3).
Wang, L. (2008). Weight discrimination: one size fits all remedy?. Yale Law Journal, 117(8).