Large parts of the way I see myself have always been tied up in my size. Now, as a new professional, that trend continues. I work in California, the land of the [stereotypical, media version of] beautiful. Living here has convinced me that I was raised and lived the first 23 years of my life in the land of trolls. In the Midwest everything is fried, you don’t have to beg for a side of butter, and you drink carbs for breakfast. I love every piece of it.
Reflecting on my size is a relatively new experience for me, largely started by Fatness Fiction itself. When Ellise did calls for ideas and experiences, I realized how much I had to say about growing up and living my life “thick.” And I realized how empowering it was to name those experiences and own that identity. I am no longer mortified when someone calls me thick, or a man traces my stretch marks with his fingertips. I am whole.
Still, being called fat stings. I work on a college campus in Southern California, and it was the day after move-in day when I learned that fat is the worst thing some of these folks can imagine. After confronting an intoxicated student for trying to sneak past security into an event, he asked, “What are you going to do, sit on me? You fat liberal bitch.” It felt like a kick to my sternum. Tears stung in my eyes and overflowed but it wasn’t sadness, it was rage. How dare he? But I spent my walk home wondering why the word “fat” had so much power over me. It’s used as an adjective, but it’s more properly used as a noun. I am not fat; my identity and self is not tied to my weight. But yes, I have fat.
If you haven’t read Hunger, Roxane Gay’s newest book, you’re missing out. Gay opens up about the trauma that she knows is the root of her fatness, and the years of self-loathing that came from that toxic combination. The book gives folks a glance into the daily life of being a fat person: Will a chair break underneath you? Will someone unthinkingly request you to do a task that you likely can’t do without breathing heavily, much to your horror? Will random people offer you unsolicited (though apparently well-meaning) advice about how to manage “that”?
In Hunger, Gay talks about the traveling that she does as a speaker and author. I began to think of the job search process that so many of us, particularly in Student Affairs, look so much forward to. For fat people, let me be painfully clear: job searching is hell. This is coming from me, a size 16 woman, who many people may scoff at and insist is not “Plus-size.” There is plenty of privilege in me being a size 16, and I honor that, but believe me when I say I never thought about my size more than when every part of me was under a microscope for potential employers.
First, there is dressing this body. Plus size items are often hard to find (despite the fact that 67% of women were considered plus size (defined as size 14 and up) as of 2016—check it), and even if you get lucky, sometimes they’re really, really expensive. Now imagine needing multiple pieces of clothing to successfully make multiple outfits. Now imagine that this clothing likely needs to be “business professional” so you better make sure your navys and blacks and greys match so you don’t look like a fool. Eye roll. Let’s say your pockets were deep enough for all this. Good for you, girl. You’ve been saving for this day. So you put on these clothes and WHOMP you look like you’re wearing a potato sack. No shape, no tailoring to your curves—better find a good tailor or YouTube some sewing lessons. Or worse, you put that new top on and it fits your over your chest (win!) but you could hulk out of it if you sneezed because the biceps and shoulders are so tight. But if the blazer fits?! YES. But the pants don’t? What other store sells that exact shade of navy? Oh, and don’t forget to find shoes that match but aren’t miserable. This is labor. This is painful. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve cried in a dressing room and then had to hand work-style clothes back that I swore (and hoped) would fit in a mainstream store. My point in all this is that it’s not a financial or emotional walk in the park to dress a “fat” body.
Then, there is moving this body. So much about movement and transportation is taken for granted. That’s tied up in power, ableism, and the insistence that every body should be one way. Fat people navigate a world that is literally not built for them every day, and it’s anxiety-inducing. That anxiety can be exacerbated when fat folks do not have control over their circumstances. Again, this brings me back to the Student Affairs job search process. Flying—and being uncomfortably confined to one seat—is something that many fat people absolutely dread. But if you want that job you better believe you’re getting on that plane to go to that On-Campus Interview. The car ride from the airport to the hotel or dinner, the next obstacle (you better hope they don’t drive a Honda Fit). Eating meals and potentially having to politely request a table rather than a booth (or vice versa) based on space needed. Having an employer tell you that your tour of a campus will be on foot (yes, in those awful shoes), and you’ll be answering and asking questions during that tour. These are all these that folks have mentioned in various spaces as being frustrating, discouraging, and sometimes humiliating parts of the job search process.
Being a fat professional in any field is tough. In some ways, fatness is the last frontier of “acceptable” discrimination. It may be outright, it may be backhanded, or it may be well-meaning, but it’s discrimination all the same. Recent studies have shown that fat bias in the workplace is real. We’re assumed to be lazy, incompetent, and lack self control (because if we can’t put down the donuts, who’s to say we’re not going to ruin the entire company, am I right?). This bias runs so deep that fat people, women in particular, make less money than their thinner counterparts.
The idea of being fat it so awful that many companies incentivize weight loss. While I know that the idea behind this is to save the company money and time due to the health issues sometimes tied to weight loss, these programs ignore the realities of many fat people. For many, fatness isn’t a choice. I don’t know a single fat person that wakes up and says, “Shit, I really just can’t wait to gain a few pounds.” Fatness is a matter of genetics for some. I was never, ever going to be a size 6. I’ve been thicker since I was younger; single digits just weren’t in the cards for me. Fatness is a matter of health obstacles (both physical and mental) for others. Hundreds of medications include weight gain as a side effect, for example. Being fat is a matter of access, too. Access to nutritious food or the time and money to go to the gym are not privileges that everyone has. When we label fat people as lazy or stupid, we ignore all these realities.
But despite all of this bias, these assumptions that we’re less than, the sometimes-impossible task of feeling good in those suits, fat people are succeeding. We’re hard working. We’re compassionate. We’re ass-kickers. We’re worthy.
Bailie Whittaker|@berryalexandra|Higher Education and Student Affairs Professional