“Damn, heifer…” As I exit an upscale supermarket last week, my body size is apparently so remarkable that it is mentioned, if barely audibly, by the store’s security guard.
I should be horribly offended. Right? That’s what my friends say when I recount the incident to them later. “What did you DO?” they ask, wide-eyed and furious by proxy. And though I appreciate their outrage, the truth is that I did nothing. But my lack of response, contrary to what one might think, didn’t stem from feeling intimidated or embarrassed. Actually, I felt little at all, and I consider my indifference the proud result of therapy, practice at loving myself, and ironically, weight gain.
The background to this story: I’m fat. Noticeably fat. I’ve been fat all my life, and to varying degrees. At the moment I’m the fattest I’ve ever been. Yet at the fattest point of my life, I’m actually the most at ease with my body. Many years and pounds ago, especially as a college student, such a comment would have slain me. Despite the fact that I was quite physically fit and a size 16, I would have wept all day if someone noticed that I was fat in any way at all. I was struggling to conform my body to someone else’s expectations, and the inevitable failure to fit them left me gutted. But paradoxically, now so many sizes larger, I’ve grown to love myself, to glory in my size and my body. I am a person of noteworthy size, so how can fault the security guard or anyone else for noticing this as an empirical fact? My fatness is a part of who I am, along with a bunch of other obvious traits like my dark curly hair and my 5’4” frame. I feel no shame at saying that I’m fat, and I chuckle aloud at times when it’s countered with “oh, you’re not fat,” – because what’s actually meant is that the listener likes me and can only understand that term to be negative. “No, actually,” I carefully protest, “I am fat, and it’s okay.”
"Me at age 21, size 16: at the beach in a tanktop and shorts because I didn't own a bathing suit at that point."
That being said, it’s obviously not okay for the security guard to compare me to an animal or imply that my body is inhuman and invalid. There are plenty of days where I speak up, especially in solidarity for those who strive to find a voice against such aggressive, sizeist idiocy. My favorite response is to giggle and wink. You wouldn’t believe how completely deflating, unnerving, and effective unexpected laughter can be.
But quite frankly, some days it’s hot. And your arms are full of tasty things for a party you need to get to. And as much as it would be lovely to change the world’s view on fat bodies one security guard at a time, ultimately it’s the view that I have of my body that matters the most. And with that, I feel it’s quite alright for me to take my delicious party goods and just keep walking, not missing a step.
I’m glad the security guard noticed that I’m fat, as that means they’re still employing security guards with eyeballs. As for his unsolicited choice of words? Every time I walk away from that kind of confrontation without a second thought, I feel I heal that frightened, insecure 20 year-old with my genuine nonchalance. It’s too late to recapture the years I spent hating my body and myself by extension. But it’s never too late to move forward, which for me means loving who I am and living joyously.
So what if I giggled and winked to myself as I walked down the street?
"Me age 21, size 16: smoking a cigarette to curb my appetite. It was a substitution people applauded at the time.
About Leah Sweet:
Leah Sweet is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Parsons, the New School for Design. She stands behind the notion that socially just design can empower marginalized communities and works to convey this message to her students and the university community. Her research interests include religious ritual in contemporary art and how art history intersects with fat studies, an emerging interdisciplinary field that takes body size as the primary focus in how societies define, construct, and represent bodies and identities. Her forthcoming article is entitled "Occupying Space: Making Room for Fatness in Art and Design Studies."