Otherwise known as, Was-I-Just-In-A-Sitcom? or How-I-Totally-Failed-To-Be-A-Fat-Ally-And-Was-Subsequently-Really-Bloody-Ashamed-Of-Myself.
Recently I worked at a place from which I've been absent for three weeks. It was lovely to see some people (and not so lovely to see others!), and I had a lot of catching-up kind of conversations with both people I'd call friends and people I'd call colleagues. I had one such conversation with a woman which was interrupted when I had to go do some work (shocking), and when I next saw her she said "So, Ollie, do I look fatter to you?"
Now I had actually noticed that she looked fatter to me, but not being one to make personal comments about other people's appearances ("you look hot!" being the obvious exception), it wouldn't have occurred to me to mention it, particularly since one never knows other people's feelings about gaining or losing weight, and the last thing I want to do is perpetuate the myth that being thin is good and being fat is bad. I never say to someone "Have you lost weight? You look great!" and I also try to avoid simply saying to someone that they look great when they have actually lost a ton of weight, because I have no desire to add to the (no doubt) enormous amount of 'praise' they will probably be receiving to the tune of "you look so much better now than you did before, when you were all fat and stuff." Even if I didn't disagree with the general gist of these statements, I always think, what if this person has lost a ton of weight through illness? An eating disorder? Grief? What if it's accidental weight loss, and the person has no desire to hear about how good they look now compared to how they looked before? I like to live by "do no harm." Perhaps the person in question has been trying to lose weight, and has succeeded, and feels beautiful. That's their choice, and if that's the case then good for them, but you can't know that kind of information by looking at someone, and I'd prefer not to run the risk of hurting someone's feelings or perpetuating damaging myths about fat, so I keep quiet.
"So, Ollie, do I look fatter to you?"
All my care and consideration and nuanced understanding of fat-hatred flew out of the window, and I failed to do anything but stutter like a teenager. There were other people around. Perhaps if it had been just the two of us, I'd have been brave enough to simply say "yes, you do." Or even, since the thought had crossed my mind, "yes, you do. Are you pregnant?" which was the obvious (and in fact, correct) assumption. But in my rabbit-caught-in-headlights state, I couldn't possibly mention pregnancy (what if she wasn't? doom!) or simply answer the question J asked. All I could do was fall back on hateful, sitcom style 'jokes', like "this sounds like a conversation I don't want to be having!" and "oh, look, I've just got to go and do some work over here ... ". Pathetic. It sounds like I have noticed that J's gained weight, and I think that's bad, and I'm too polite to tell her so. Perhaps that's what I do think, in my heart of hearts, if in the heat of the moment that's my reaction.
The three or four other people who were around were laughing at my discomfort, at my awkward jokes, and it felt like forever before J relented and told me that, since we'd seen each other, she'd had a successful twelve-week scan and was happily pregnant. The discussion moved on to the others recounting how they'd noticed her changing shape and wondered, but after offering the appropriate congratulations and follow-up questions, I had backed away.
I felt totally blindsided by this. In a way I almost resent J for putting me on the spot like that. It rather looks like the whole point was to force that sitcom-style interaction where the worst possible place to be is on the receiving end of a woman's question "Do I look fat?" But I can't blame J, because it's on me that I failed the test. It's on me that, despite my feelings about this issue, when it came down to it I didn't put my money where my mouth was. Instead of saying yes or no, as if no value judgement was attached to the answer, I perpetuated all the things I hate about fat narratives. I appreciate that it may seem like small beans in the grand scheme of things, but these small things add up to bigger things. And anyway, no matter how small it is, it's still called 'failing to be an ally' and I still am, subsequently, really bloody ashamed of myself.