“The Dozens” is a game most Black folks probably remember playing when they were younger, though some of us may have referred to it by a different name. The rules are pretty simple and straightforward. Participants take turns insulting one another, usually surrounded by a crowd to egg them on, until one or the other gives up. Jokes can touch on, and usually do, how smart you are, how well you dress, how good you are in and out of bed, your appearance, and yo’ mama. Most often, comments tend to take on the tone of the underlying systems of oppression that make the jokes funny, i.e. misogyny, colorism, classism, queer/trans antagonism, and so on. The game necessitates that you have a quick tongue and be imaginative in your ability to insult others.
While the origins, history, and purpose of the game are varied, the impact on the losing participant tends to be the same – an intense feeling of embarrassment and shame. A feeling many of us come to know all too well, all too young.
You So Fat . . .
My fat body has always made me a target for ridicule, the punchline of other people’s jokes. Though I quickly learned to shrink myself, to silence my voice and to make myself smaller for protection, my weight made it nearly impossible to truly be invisible. I was the fat, glasses-wearing, sacrificial dork upon which safety could be built for others unwilling to be pushed to the margins of the “out” crowd.
My fatness instantly made me an island of one in all the ways any noticeable difference paints a bullseye on your back amongst children stretching towards any semblance of survival.
My daily schedule was filled with fat joke after fat joke from a variety of folks all seeking to outdo the previous amateur comedian. And while I would sometimes try to play the game, I was never equipped with enough verbal slights of my own to wade above the waters.
Plump. Large. Chubby. Big-boned. Heavyset. Obese. Chunky. Husky. Each, a synonym for fat. Each, a new wound to my body and mind.
Every time these words were invoked in a new joke – always worse than the one that had come before it – the images that people had of me burned brighter in my mind. My fat body meant that I was lazy, sick, inhuman, and lacking any worth. I grew comfortable in this reality, knowing that it could always be worse, and from this comfort, bore my hatred and shame of my body.
What is Body Shame?
Body shame is a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know that your body is wrong. Or rather, because society tells you that your body is wrong.
We are constantly surrounded by images and messaging that tells us that fat bodies are a mistake of appetites too large, bodies too sedentary, food too flavorful, and so on. From unrealistic determinants of health and national billboard campaigns shaming children for their size, to deceptive self-love body image campaigns developed by the very same companies that prey on our lack of self-esteem, the message to fat folks is clear – we are the problem, not society’s disgustingly narrow view of what a healthy, beautiful body can look like.
Games like “The Dozens” and other forms of comedy that rely on jokes that punch down instead of up reinforce these messages and create a system of body terror that holds us captive in our bodies and stifles our ability to thrive and move towards body liberation. They keep us from inhabiting our bodies in ways that affirm our fundamental right to define who we are on our own terms.
I Love Food. And Food Loves Me. How I Fought Back.
I love food in the way you love anything that can never express verbal disappointment of you or your body. As it was for many Black Southern folks, my love for food was one of the many ways I learned to survive – and eventually, to love my fatness.
Despite their criticisms of my relationship with food, my family made home-cooked meals that were one of the few things that held me together and made me feel loved in the face of constant emotional and verbal violence. Despite our issues and very real conflict, a good cookout at the right relatives’ house would always bring us closer together, turning the worst of enemies into the best of friends while plates were plenty. And when I knew I could not rely on people for comfort, greens, chitlins, and sweet cornbread were always there in abundance.
As I grew older and bigger and my relationship with food more complicated – disordered eating primarily manifesting as avoidance – I went from watching and occasionally helping my family to prepare meals to being solely responsible for my own nourishment. And with the support of friends experiencing similar difficulties, the process of cooking shifted into a sort of meditation, allowing me to block out the constant insults from peers, media, and family, and to focus on the grumbles of approval and soft humming of desire from my body that helped me to be better in tune with my needs.
Feeding my body slowly turned into feeling my body as it became full, tracing my stretch marks that told a story of growth, expansion, and resilience. Rubbing my thighs together and jiggling my belly in the all too familiar dance of a happy stomach became a beautiful ballet of moving from fat to FAT.
The shift wasn’t immediate, nor has the self-assurance been constant, but I’ve learned to be gentle and compassionate with myself. My body has become not something that I am ashamed of for being too large, too much, but something so magnificent, so beautiful, a sprawling galaxy so large that I am forever finding wonder in its existence and smiling at its mystery and movement. Feeding my body, loving my body, was not only an act of survival, but also a movement towards fighting body shame. A movement that I’m learning new choreography for every day.
[Headline image: The photograph features a mature black man at the right of the frame. He has short black hair and a black mustache, and he is smiling and looking off to the side.]