As I’m getting out of my Jeep in the YMCA parking garage yesterday, I notice a man I don’t know walking toward me, looking at me with an unpleasant, even hostile look on his face.
I’m alert, a little rattled, and confused because he’s looking right at me, but initially I think it has something to do with parking.
So I quickly glance – I’m within the lines, no one was behind me as I came in the garage so I know I didn’t take someone’s spot, no one’s parked next to me so I know I didn’t hit the car beside me with my door.
When I look back at him, he’s now four feet away moving toward his car, and I realize his eyes are focused on my mid-section, then my legs, then my chest, then an arm. He’s just scrutinizing my body with a look of disgust. It’s blatant.
And it dawns on me that this unwanted episode has something to do with my body not pleasing him.
I’m a large woman in nylon lycra work-out pants and a tank top. My shape is a little on display, not that looser fitting things are going to hide much. He might make out the terrain of my cellulite if he looks close enough.
And suddenly my chest is pounding and my survival brain kicks in. Get away quick. No, don’t run. Don’t look back. Stairs, not elevator.
I start to walk quickly away toward the stairs and the safety of the Y lobby. But as he drives past me to go out of the garage, his window is down and he puts on his brakes to say, “You know, you’re one special lady… just one fucked up lady,” and drives away.
I do take the elevator after all because I’m so rattled that I don’t trust my legs on the stairs, and end up on a short ride with an older woman dressed mostly in purple and florals, including an audacious hat, with librarian glasses and her lipstick is bright pink. She has no idea what has just happened, but is charming, asks me if I mind riding up a floor before I go back down – “Take a little ride with me, dear?” – and chats about the weather – floods and humidity and oh the sunshine we’re having.
Her parting words are “You’re delightful, such a good attitude for a young woman. Good day now.”
It’s not about my body this time, but my escaping him and meeting her, conversing, and then leaving her on the third floor of the garage all happens within the course of a minute’s time, and I have some serious emotional whiplash going on.
. . .
Forty-five minutes later, I’m ending my swim after laps and laps of replaying the incident in my head, trying to focus on the purple lady’s words, and trying to get a grip.
Half through my swim, my lane partner leaves about the same time a large man from the water aerobics class joins the lane next to me, salt and pepper hair everywhere. Pound for pound, we approximate one another. He’s not swimming laps, but is instead jogging in place in the water, and is apparently watching me.
After my final lap, I stretch my arms, and then as I cross under the rope from my lane to his on the way to the stairs to get out of the pool, I come up for air and he says a very enthusiastic “Good job!”
I’m surprised, because the pool is usually mostly quiet other than water sounds and he’s booming, his voice bouncing off the walls like sunlight off the surface of the pool.
I pull off my fogged goggles and look at him, and he’s beaming at me. “Oh, well thanks!” I say.
“Do you swim by time or by number of laps?”
“I… well, usually I tell myself I’ll count laps, but I lose track around lap seven or eight thinking about other things, and so I just aim for 30-35 minutes.”
There’s a long pause, and then he comes closer and says quietly, “You’re amazing. Maybe I too could swim laps.” He makes a questioning face and gestures to his body like Yeah? Do you think?
It’s a good body. Round, abundant, jubilant and full. I realize that no other body would suit the spirit he has about him.
I smile and say, “You could swim laps!”
“I could swim laps!” I hear him say to himself. And then again as I get out, “Thank you!”
. . .
Back at the elevator, now showered and dressed and headed for my car, I get in with a tall fit woman, polished, put together, retirement age. She asks which floor, and I tell her.
She presses the buttons and then turns to me, looks at my belly, touches her own stomach and opens her mouth to say something which I’m convinced, because I’ve experienced this before, is going to be about my “pregnancy.”
But at the last moment, she realizes her mistake, and makes very intense eye contact for a few seconds while pursing her lips and steadying herself, and then says a nervous, “So how have you been?” – as if we’re friends who just haven’t seen one another for awhile, and the elevator is a chance to catch up.
“Oh, I’ve been fine. How have you been?” I say, my head cocked to the side, curious about where this is going to go.
“Good! Oh, I’m good. You… must’ve swam today?” My hair is wet.
“I did. Laps. How about you?”
“The cardio thing.” She makes a weight lifting motion. “Swimming terrifies me. Even now, I feel a little nervous thinking about swimming.”
And then we part ways, no goodbye.
. . .
Yesterday was strange in the sense that so many strangers interacted with me in a short time span. Perhaps it’s due to being at the Y, a place about bodies where folks think of themselves as a community of sorts. Most folks who are there at 10am are retirees, mothers with children, and occasional students – people who aren’t in a rush, but are looking to connect.
But yesterday was not strange in the sense that people frequently talk to me about my body.
In some circles, my body renders me utterly invisible. In others, just the opposite; I become a spectacle that needs noticing and commentary.
Some of this is no doubt my body’s inescapability. Culture places a lot of attention on bodies, and particularly what a large body means about someone’s character, worthiness of love, ability to be successful and so on. You only need to look as far as the title of the show “The Biggest Loser,” with its horrible double entendre.
As someone who is somewhat active in public, I look like a rule breaker – doing things I shouldn’t be doing or which folks assume my body isn’t capable of. Running, swimming, lifting the occasional Labrador at work, or hiking.
Or alternately, I appear to be trying hard to lose weight and so folks think I should be congratulated and cheered on – a phenomenon that happens most every time I run in my neighborhood. One day I was running on the bike trail when a silvered man yelled from his nearby bench, “I see you, Baby. I see you! And I’m proud of you, baby.” Another time, a guy on a bike said as I ran, “Some of them other ones need to be doing that too!”
Some of it seems to be tied to who I am. Frankly, people just talk to me – in general, anywhere I am, about all sorts of things. I come across as approachable, and among other topics, for whatever reason commenting on my body doesn’t seem off-limits.
From the time I was young, nearly every extended family visit was punctuated by someone commenting about perceived weight loss since our last visit or alternately, an adult passive-aggressive conversation about other bodies which are unhealthy, the obesity epidemic, how much someone is eating of this or that, or whether men are attracted to girls who are chubby.
Friends’ children or children I taught in art would ask me why my belly is so big, because they have no filters, and because they are genuinely curious about the world.
Multiple grocery clerks have asked about my due date or commented on my third trimester.
And I have beloved friends who ask for a table and not a booth when we’re out so there’s no risk of not fitting, or have their eye to other accommodations.
In some ways, feeling on display is difficult. I never know when I’m meeting someone new if my body has secret meanings to them that I don’t know about, or whether I’m being accepted as I am. In classes in school, I would frequently be underestimated by professors or peers, just to later blow someone’s mind with the quality of my work.
In other ways, I’m so utterly grateful for those close to me who are bold – who can be radically fat accepting, name my body for what it is, and insist on my belovedness without it being contingent on changing my size, shape, or weight.
On days, this is hard, because the word “fat” has been such a stigmatized, demonizing word – though this is changing, becoming like “nasty woman,” a term of empowerment. And while I seek to reclaim “fat,” the truth is that I still carry baggage and pain from its old connotations. Fat for so long meant dismissal, exclusion, under-estimation, judgment, shame, and all manner of character strikes against me. It’s meant all manner of folks narrating to me what I should or shouldn’t do, can or can’t do, telling me my body was made for this (childbearing) or wasn’t made for that (yoga), or giving me permission to do or not do something.
I’m not offended, and other than freaky hostile experiences with strangers, I’m to a place that I don’t mind as much. I get it. I am also deconstructing. And I genuinely appreciate the care and love offered by well-meaning others.
But the fact that the meaning of my body is communally constructed and people are so free with me is in part why I write here too.
This is a way of advocating for myself, but also for bodies like mine and other bodies that are unconventional by society’s standards. To name the lies circulating in our culture about bodies like these is a powerful act of resistance, agency, and autonomy. And to be proactive about body politics is an act of confession that my life is worthwhile and I get to take up space in the world. I am a body that is made to exist and be loved.