“Can I get your number?”
I was cautious. He was persuasive, his eyes bright and warm as we spoke.
“Aren’t we having fun? Don’t you want to see me again?”
We were, and I did. I had just moved 3,000 miles from my hometown, eager for a fresh start away from the high school where I’d been one of few queer kids, and one of fewer fat kids. I moved as far as I could in search of new people, promising new relationships to develop outside of the heat and pressure of my hometown.
It had been one week since I’d moved, and the full reach of my decision hit me in waves. In my search for anonymity, I’d instead found isolation in a state where I didn’t know a soul. I was adrift at sea and desperate to find a harbor.
Here, in a college bar in my new city, a lifeline appeared. I smiled nervously, wrote my number on a cocktail napkin, and handed it to him. “I’ll call you,” he said. My skin warmed. Here was my harbor.
I smiled again as he crossed the bar, traversing the waves of patrons to return to his group of friends. When he got back to his table, he was met with a chorus of shouts and laughter. One looked over at me, then another, then a third. They stared openly, unconcerned with the expressions on their faces, bold with disgust and fascination. After staring at me, they high-fived him. He looked back ruefully.
The reality of what had just happened sunk into my skin, then bones, then marrow. I felt my body saturate with shame, expanding as it did. I was monstrous in my size, made bigger by humiliation. My weight made me a wager.
My body was the setup, my loneliness the punchline. The joke was simple, but I wasn’t in on it: Who could possibly want a fat woman?
Your mouth is thick with honey and
Crowded with bees
I imagine myself a sapling, then
A flush of shame for thinking so small
It’s been 12 years since that moment, but it still aches in my chest. I still feel the heat behind my eyes, the promise of sharp tears rubbing red eyes raw. I still feel the renewed nausea when he pushed me back out to sea. It was one moment in a long line of important, constant lessons about being fat and being loved.
That moment echoes every day. I hear its echo in snide remarks about thin people with fat partners, and how long their relationship will last. I hear it in nervous jokes about losing weight to prevent divorce. I hear it when family members tell me what a catch I’d be if I just lost weight. Every day, the specter of its memory is visited upon me. Every day, someone says something about how impossible it is to desire a fat person, much less love one.
Later that year, friends congregated in the campus dining hall. “I’m just here to hang out. I’m not eating,” one offered up, unprompted. “I’ll never get married looking like this.”
Can I get your number?
At work, years later, a lesbian colleague looked at a magazine article about newlywed gay couples and heaved a belabored sigh. “I wish they wouldn’t show the fat lesbians,” she announced. “Some of us are fit. How did she land a wife, anyway?”
Aren’t we having fun?
Last month, a man sent me a message on a dating app. “Why are you sabotaging yourself on here?” Confused, I asked him what he meant.
“Picture three seems included solely to negate the cuteness of pics one and two. What’s your play?” The first two were photographs of my face. The third was my body.
Don’t you want to see me again?
Fat people are reminded every day that we are objects of fear and revulsion. When we dare to aspire to love — real, reciprocal, respectful, deep, boundless love — we are slapped back. Our most human want is met with a seemingly impenetrable wall of harsh stereotypes and unforgiving attitudes.
Fat people are expected to be grateful that anyone wants us — even if that desire shows up as sexual assault or abusive partners. We are subject to humiliation for daring to express our interest in someone else. Those who fall for fat people learn to hide their feelings after years of being told their desire isn’t real. We learn simple lessons: that bees sting, that fire burns, that open affection cannot be trusted, and that love is not for bodies like ours. If we are to be fat, we cannot also be loved.
At night, I feel this
viscous space between us
I am a dark forest and
fortunate to be so near a warm home
In order to come inside,
trees must be uprooted,
cut into pieces that make sense,
sanded down to something
you can use
The outside can never come in
Last spring, I spent an afternoon working in one of my favorite coffee shops. A young man took his seat a few tables away, his body thin and muscular under a crisp patterned shirt and peacoat. His face was angular and handsome, blonde hair bright in the afternoon sun.
I didn’t take note of him at first, losing myself in the music in my headphones and the work on my laptop. Struggling for the right phrasing of an email, I let my eyes wander. As they did, my eyes met his. He was staring at me. Startled by such sudden intimacy, I looked back at my screen, fixing my eyes there. When my eyes moved again, he was still staring. Uneasy, I got up to refresh my cup of coffee. When I returned to my table, he was watching me again, his eyes tracking my movement as I walked through the shop. His stare was unselfconscious, open and bold.
I remembered that stare. I knew it from the college bar. My face warmed with anticipated humiliation, mind bubbling and sputtering with all the judgments I’d heard about bodies like mine. How did she land a wife? I’ll never get married like this. Why are you sabotaging yourself? I had learned what came after stares like his. I knew my place. Flustered and frustrated, I left as quickly as I could.
That night, I recounted the incident to a friend. “Was he with anyone else?” No. “Did he say anything?” No. “Did he make a joke?” No.
“What if he liked you?”
I paused, stuck in a long silence, frustrated that she’d introduce this red herring. I was so certain I knew what happened. But this was a possibility I had never considered.
Despite having what was described as a “very pretty face,” I was constantly reminded that my body was impossible to want. Bodies were ranked, and mine steadily landed near the bottom of the scale — 2, 3, 4. The stranger’s thinness earned him a much higher ranking. I’d been told that I must always want strong, thin men like him, and that I must always regret the body that kept me from them. In the cruel calculus of dating and relationships, our numbers didn’t match.
But it wasn’t just him. I had learned that I was undesirable to nearly anyone. Desire for a body like mine meant my partners were irrational, stupid, or resigned to settling for less than they wanted. In the years since college, I’d dated a wide range of people with few physical commonalities. Whatever their looks, I couldn’t trust their attraction. I shrank away from their touch, recoiling from their hands like hot iron. I turned down dates, believing their interest to be impossible or pathological. Any intimacy required vulnerability, and vulnerability led back to humiliation.
This is perhaps the greatest triumph of fat hate: It stops us before we start. Its greatest victory isn’t diet industry sales or lives postponed just until I lose a few more pounds. It’s the belief that our bodies make us so worthless that we aren’t deserving of love, even touch. It’s the moment that our reviled role sinks into our bones. It’s when we reproduce it in our marrow. This is the photosynthesis of fat hate.
Some fat people isolate because we are told that we have not earned connection. Some accept abuse from cruel partners, believing ourselves lucky to have anyone at all. Some build whole lives as single people, slowly giving up on the dream of a partner who both likes us and desires us. And when we do, we’re mocked for our own loneliness. We succumb to the trap set for us, then are humiliated for tripping its snare. We are faulted for the conditions created for us.
But two-thirds of Americans are fat. We are hundreds of millions in the United States alone. And like any community, we are vast and multidimensional. Our lives take so many different shapes, blossoming into the most beautiful gardens.
Fat people live extraordinary lives, beloved by their families, partners, communities. Fat people fall wildly in love. Fat people get married. Fat people have phenomenal sex. Fat people are impossibly happy. Those fat people are living in defiance of the expectations set forth for them.
A wonderful fat friend of mine was married this summer, surrounded by her extended family and a community who loves her boundlessly. She and her partner are made for each other: funny, smart, astute, goofy. They have worked hard to take care of their friends and family, and now they work even harder to take care of one another. They draw out each other’s best selves and biggest dreams. Their lives are glorious and beautiful things, vibrant and beyond the reach of what the rest of us have been trained to imagine.
Their happiness was inconceivable to the young men who watched me in the bar that night. Their happiness was inconceivable to me in that coffee shop, years later. Our culture makes their happiness inconceivable to many of us.
Loving a fat person isn’t impossible. The trick is to build a culture that allows us — all of us — to believe fat love when we see it.
Allow us to believe it. We want to.
Start by loving a fat person. Start by learning her.
Her body may be war-torn, bruised from years of battle and abandoned because of its effects. No one quite knows how to clear the rubble. Let her guide you through foothills and rocky passes. This is the land where she lives, grows, takes refuge. This is where you visit.
Walk carefully through the fields of her body. Wars have been waged there, and lost. Even after all this time, mines rattle and tick beneath your feet. You will not know where they are buried. You can’t. Sometimes she can’t either.
Do not presume that your familiarity with her body is fluency in her heart. Her ribcage is cavernous and holds dark crevices, just like yours. You may not find your place quickly. Your shouts may only return echoes of those long dead.
Let her say what she means, and before that, let her discover what she means. Remember that maps do not chart her, poets do not describe her, her own mother will not speak her name. Speak her name.
In this quiet world, she has built a society — become cartographer, author, farmer. She has forged tongues, dismantled bombs, grown love where they lay.
Love her like you don’t know the way. Love her like you want to.