This article was originally published on EverydayFeminsim.com and is republished with permission.
I wasn’t born fat.
I came into fatness as a teenager. This was in part because of medication that increased my water retention drastically and in part because puberty gave me huge breasts, with a belly and thighs to match.
And I was lucky, in some ways. My mother was also fat, and my father didn’t shame us for it, so I wasn’t raised with a disgust of my padded curves.
Still, I’m not immune to the messaging on television or on the street, where my body taking up space has always been seen as a threat and something to be ashamed of.
So I learned, over time, how to perform the dance of the “Good Fatty” — the fat person who will never be truly socially accepted, but who at least publicly flogs herself for the sin of her excess pounds.
The Good Fatty comes in many guises, though the one I encounter the most often is the performative, apologetic, trying-not-to-be-fat Good Fatty.
The Good Fatty is the one who acknowledges and accepts their othering, both by the people in their personal lives and the professionals they interact with. The Good Fatty is influenced by the medical profession, the corporate world, and the advertising that seeps into our lives.
The Good Fatty is the fatty people will tolerate. So being “good” has become a survival strategy for many fat folks, myself included. But it’s also a strategy we can learn to leave behind for other forms of self-preservation.
Here are some of the lessons I internalized about being a Good Fatty –- and how I’m beginning to unlearn them.
1. Good Fatties Exercise
I want to start by acknowledging that gyms and exercise classes are not always financially accessible, never mind fat-friendly. Trainers and fellow gym goers can make the experience of exercising in public totally humiliating.
I personally no longer go to a gym because I had too many classes where the trainer singled me out to shame me. One time, I was in a yoga class, and I was unable to do a particular position as deeply as other members of the class because I have a severely injured knee.
Rather than work with me, the class instructor singled me out as a demonstration of how to do the position wrong. She forced my body into the “right” position, exacerbating my injury in the process, all because she felt it was just my being lazy. Frankly, whether that lack of flexibility had to do with my fatness or my injury shouldn’t matter.
When fat people are depicted in the media, we’re almost always eating fast food and lounging on a sofa or in front of a television — the symbol of gluttony and laziness.
Consider Jabba the Hutt, Fat Bastard, or almost every role Melissa McCarthy is ever allowed to play. That constant message comes through in how society treats fat people in real life, including in the names we’re insulted with: pigs, whales, and heifers.
Fat people often end up feeling like we need to justify our existence by saying, “But I’m active! Here’s how much I exercise each week.” It’s like we owe people some sort of breakdown of our activity in order to be considered valid.
Some of us are able to be active, and some of us want to be active, but not all of us are capable. Not all of us want to be.
Slender people are allowed to enjoy video games as much as going to the gym, and their bodies aren’t considered indications of how healthy they may be.
Not only that, but only being viewed as “acceptable” in your body because of how active and healthy you’re perceived to be is ableist. Only finding a “fit” body beautiful or valuable, and fetishizing the ability to exercise, tells us as a society that people with disabilities, health conditions, and who aren’t capable of running a six-minute mile aren’t worthy of respect.
And that is total bullshit.
2. Good Fatties Eat Right
Fat people often won’t eat in front of others or will go hungry in order to look “good” eating the “right” foods. This is all so we’re not policed in public. And we are policed in public. Constantly.
I remember one time eating pizza with my now ex-boyfriend, who was slender, toned, and attractive. I ate one piece of pizza, maybe two, while he gleefully ate the rest of the pie. But I was the one who got dirty looks and head-shaking disapproval.
I’ve had people tell me to go for the salad when I’m ordering my food, as if they have any right to tell me how to eat or have any idea what my habits are. I’ve had servers ask me if I’m sure I want dessert.
Going out for a romantic meal can very quickly degrade into a triggering experience where I can’t even taste my food because I’m so self-conscious of the stares.
The worst part is, I know that many of these people feel they’re “helping” me by discouraging me from eating “bad” foods. They just don’t realize that the result is now, I try not to eat in public at all.
When fat characters in media use food as a type of self-harm, I can understand why people would feel pushed to step in and stop us from making “bad decisions.” But how a person’s body displays fat is not indicative of their relationship to food.
I’ve worked hard to gently remind friends it’s problematic when they talk about how they’re “naughty” for eating dessert. That speaking that way belies moral judgments about food that are hugely destructive for people, like me, who have been receiving toxic messaging about food since school.
Fat people are not required to be utilitarian about our food, just as our bodies do not indicate we are without restraint.
3. Good Fatties Diet
Fat people often feel pushed to try new diets, sometimes highly risky ones, in order to appear like we’re “behaving.”
I recently had my psychiatrist passive-aggressively threaten to take my medication away if I didn’t look into the crash diet she felt I should be on – even after I explained that as a struggling anorexic, extreme diets are pretty bad for my mental health.
When I gently told her I felt restrictive diets tended to tie into my eating disorder, she got defensive, insulting my intelligence and asking indignantly, “Well, don’t you want to lose weight?”
Fat people struggling with eating disorders are often ignored, because in order to be diagnosed with anorexia, for example, you have to be underweight according to your BMI.
Other indicators that you’re starving yourself – such as a drop or sudden height in energy levels, dangerously low blood pressure, and hair falling out – aren’t always recognized as serious red flags.
Even when they are, there’s often a lot of pressure to lose weight at any cost.
Virgie Tovar put together a special report on fat patients and medical care. One of the horrifying things it highlighted was how often serious medical issues go undiagnosed because fat people are regularly told any and all health issues relate to our weight.
We are often refused comprehensive care because of our weight. This leads to fat people being stigmatized for not being healthy while simultaneously being bullied when we do seek medical care.
Some fat folks I know, including my mother, refuse to go to the doctor at all anymore because it doesn’t feel safe. That needs to end -– and this fixation with diets as a cure-all is one step in that process.
When I push back against health professionals suggesting I engage in crash diets for my “health,” I’m not only protecting myself and my health, but confronting those professionals about their unexamined fatphobia.
4. Good Fatties Dress Impeccably
I don’t go grocery shopping anymore. I actually pay a premium to have someone else do it.
Because of my social anxiety and depression, I’m not always up to dressing in anything more complex than leggings and a sweatshirt.
But the Internet has shown me what happens to fat women who don’t do their damnedest to look “pretty” when they leave the house: they end up with the world laughing at them on People of Walmart or similar.
I’ve been terrified to be in public dressed in any way other than impeccable high femme, complete with pink lipstick and sharp eyeliner.
Fat people often feel like we have to dress well, maybe even better than most people, because we don’t want to be seen as “slobs” for wearing sweatpants outside.
Clothing with a stain on it means something different for fat folks, who are stereotyped as “slovenly” and “lazy.”
That said, it’s exceptionally difficult to dress well when even clothing buyers can’t find fashionable threads in plus sizes to buy.
Fat femmes are often called upon to be mothers and caregivers in our communities, so I suppose it doesn’t surprise me that the only clothes we can find that fit are the uniform of the 1950s housewife.
Meanwhile, many fat clothing stores charge a premium for relatively low-quality goods, something they can get away with as we don’t have many options.
Thankfully, there are some choices now that aren’t retro, on the verge of falling apart, or uncomfortable. I still feel some pressure to make sure I have makeup on, but at least I feel better about tossing on a maxi dress on days I can’t be bothered.
5. Good Fatties Don’t Show Too Much Skin
I didn’t grow up being terribly self-conscious of my body. As I mentioned, my mother is also fat. And while she didn’t walk around the house naked, she also wasn’t horrified if I popped into the bathroom to grab something while she was taking a bath.
I ended up becoming goth in school because Hot Topic was the only place I could find clothing that fit.
Over time, I became more and more ashamed, as my peers wore short shorts in the summer and I couldn’t because I would get chub rub. I would be confronted with the very real pain that comes from not covering up those jiggly bits. It would be years until I bought a bikini.
Fat people (and especially fat femmes) are often under pressure not to show “too much skin,” visible belly outlines, or god forbid, a two-piece bathing suit. We laugh at the image of the fat plumber, bending down and exposing his butt crack, but we know that finding jeans to fit wide hips often means running into the same problem.
I used to wear cardigans in the summer because I was afraid to show my upper arms.
It’s not just our own self-confidence that holds us back, either. We’re told that our bodies are unprofessional, that we smell weird, that we’re disgusting for wearing a bathing suit.
I’ve been violently threatened for posting a photo on Instagram that showed my belly. But when I’ve chosen to wear baggy clothes to cover up, as I’m told so often to do, I’m accused of being frumpy and “not trying hard enough.”
Strangers delight in our apparently imminent death by heart attack while simultaneously sexually harassing us. It’s a cruel fucking world, especially when other women are the ones to tell us we should lose weight to be attractive to our husbands.
If we do rebel against these norms, any skin we show is sexualized because our bodies are fetishized. We’re told we’re glorifying obesity for not hiding every stretch mark, often by the same men who send us dick pics.
The idea that fat girls are easy, and therefore desperate, permeates the way people interact with us. We’re expected to be open to sexual harassment, and then threatened or insulted (often about our weight) if we turn those “advances” down.
It can feel like an impossible balance to strike, being just pretty enough, but not too pretty — available, but not too available. I used to care a lot about these things, and worry if my skirts were too short, my neckline too low.
Then I became a porn star and made money for being naked. Now I’m out of fucks to give on whether I should wear a tight skirt or not.
Being in porn also gave me a platform to feel like the sexualization of my body could be on my terms, and that it pay me for the privilege. The adult industry may not be good for everyone’s confidence or boundaries, but it definitely helped with mine.
6. Good Fatties Are Funny
As a humorless feminist and professional killjoy, the assumption that I will be funny (or worse, jolly) has long irritated me.
Fat people are often under pressure to have a “sense of humor” that pokes fun at ourselves and our bodies. And I sure do hear a lot of jokes at my expense. If I never get clapped on the back and told “it’s just a joke” again, it’ll be too soon.
When I was recently googling examples of the relationship between fatness and comedy, for example, the search term “fat people funny” led mostly to videos of fat people falling for the Internet to laugh.
Somehow, it’s really hard for me to laugh.
Self-deprecating humor is certainly a popular method of coping with marginalization, but when it feels like the rest of society is laughing at you more often than with you, it’s difficult to not take that personally.
My body is not a punchline. My lovers are not here to be ridiculed. I am a human being, and I shouldn’t have to prove that I’m able to laugh off your abuse in order the make life easier for you.
It’s also worth noting that being fat and funny is far more acceptable for male folks than it is for female folks. When male comedians lose weight, audiences question if they can still be funny, while when female comedians lose weight, they gain popularity and status.
It’s no joke: fat people, especially fat women, see a negative impact on their salaries and career opportunities when fat. No wonder so many fat female celebrities are still considered an abnormality, and many (like Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell, and Margaret Cho) end up losing weight in order to have mainstream success.
More Radical Reads: F!CK Flattering: Why I Wear What I Want and So Should You
Being a female “good fatty” often means living your life to please others, striving to gain approval and love by being the right thing at the right time. I’ve stopped pushing myself so hard to be an acceptable fatty.
To make a point about the absurdity and body policing of the “good fatty/bad fatty” tropes, I did a photoshoot where I ate fried chicken with candy all over my body, embodying the “bad fatty” in lingerie and horns. It’s become one of my favorite photos.
To seek validation from society is to chase a carrot that is perpetually out of reach, and I’m not going to run myself ragged trying anymore. I’m still fighting a battle with anorexia and healthy, regular eating. It’s made far more difficult when I’m shamed for eating at all. But I try to remember that every time I overcome my fear and do eat in public, it’s a revolutionary act.
Rather than trying to make myself smaller, more consumable, and prettier, I’m going to take up more space and allow myself room to breathe.
If that makes me a bad fatty, well, hell has all the best musicians. So I’ll bring my dancing shoes.
Kitty Stryker is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a fat activist and porn’s riot grrl, bringing discussions of consent culture and feminism to the forefront of her work as a performer and producer. Particularly interested in the intersections between explicit materials, politics, and ethics, Stryker has written for Harlot, Mic, Buzzfeed, XCritic, the Guardian, and more. Follow her on Twitter (NSFW!) or read her writing at KittyStryker.com.
[Feature Image: Photo of a person of size who has their back to the camera. They have light skin and are wearing a white bra and underwear. Behind their back they’re holding a cupcake.]
I have a psychiatrist who respects me and asks if I want to weigh myself or not. He has never fat shamed me. There are better doctors out there.