Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Do I Look Fat?

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.


  1. Ok so I've been thinking about this because (a) I think you're being too hard on yourself and (b) I couldn't work out why I thought that.

    I'm not sure I've figured it out yet but I think it comes down to a problematic idea (in society, texts) about an equivalence betwen fatness and pregnancy. I'm only thinking about this becuase of a conversation I had with my phd supervisor (yes, Neil - but I thought that soemone reading this might not know me so I should write who he was!) about Judy Blume's 'Forever', in which a so-called fat teenager hides a pregnancy, which she can do "because she's so fat". There was an idea here about the fatness and the pregnancy being somehow substitutable for each other and the more we talked about it the more we thought of instances in 'the real world' where this happened. The idea of 'losing the baby weight' after giving birth is one of them, but also people's inability (sometimes) to distinguish between 'fat' and 'pregnant'. And these two things CAN look like each other but, for me, this is the crucial difference: they may look the same but they are not the same.

    So maybe your collegaue was a little unkind putting you on the spot asking 'do I look fatter?', maybe she was just having a bit of fun in telling people a secret that, for her, had been visually present even though it wasn't revealed, and maybe you could have responded differently if you hadn't felt so blindsided. But, for me, what the exchange comes down to is the unhelpful and I think disingenuous-to-women, if not outright misogynistic, myth that there is an equivalence between fatness and pregnancy because, sometimes, they look the same. This undermines both pregnancy and fatnessas well as the non-fat non-pregnant woman: it produces women's bodies only in terms of size (as opposed to, say, individual choice, function or motherhood), which produces them only as what others see, not what they feel like to the body/person or what they are doing for, to and with them.

    I don't know that this will necessarily make you feel any better about what happened but there's a silver lining regardless for me because it's making me think about these issues, which I wouldn't have done otherwise so thank you. Plus, your friend is really happy about being pregnany so hurrah for that too!


    1. Ha Jess I wouldn't have known it was you if you hadn't named Neil!

      Great points as always. You're right, it doesn't really make me feel better about it, but it is interesting nonetheless. And very relevant: I assumed, on reflection, that J was rather enjoying putting people on the spot because she thought, probably accurately, that people would be noticing that she was 'fatter' and be too polite to say so. So much as I occasionally enjoy acknowledging someone's obvious confusion over my gender markers, and bringing attention to it (yes, there are a few mean-minded advantages to being trans!), I thought J was enjoying subverting that narrative of fatness, ie. "so, you think I'm fat, right? SURPRISE! I'm pregnant!" But as enjoyable as that may be, it's not actually subversive: in fact it reifies the equivalence between fatness and pregnancy, and indeed the misguided notion that a non-fat, non-pregnant woman is "normal".

      Also, I love how you link that to the idea of choice - because of course, fatness is bad, and nobody would choose to be fat, but pregnancy is a kind of chosen fatness, and it's ok. As long as we're choosing fatness, and as long as it's the good kind of fatness, it's ok. Except, as you say, the second the pregnancy becomes a baby, at which point one must lose the fatness instantly because it's not the good kind of fat any more.

      And yeah, she does seem really happy. And I don't begrudge her her bit of fun! But it did make me think, and perhaps overthink - and there's nothing I love more than a bit of overthinking :-) Thanks for your comment Jess!