Tonight I listened to the latest episode of the podcast This American Life, titled “Tell Me I’m Fat.” The host, Ira Glass, features writer Lindy West in Act 1, whose latest book “Shrill” is something I can’t wait to get my hands on.
I put on the podcast for background noise while I cleaned my kitchen, but I found myself leaning against the counter, nodding my head to everything that was said within the first five minutes.
Until a year or so ago, I would not have been able to say the word “fat” out loud without crying, and I certainly would have never used that word to describe myself. As West suggests in the podcast, fat people shy away from the word because we are desperately hoping people won’t notice that we are fat. This fear is why I refused for so long to eat in public spaces, why I am constantly aware of my surroundings and the most accommodating exit path out of a room, why movie theatres (despite working for numerous film festivals) can be scary, and why, even though I love swimming more than most things, I essentially abandoned that passion from the age of 12 until now. It’s why fat people often overcompensate when trying to ensure other people that they’re morally good folks with good intentions. Fat people work so hard to accommodate or negate other people’s horrible feelings towards them and their bodies; it’s debilitating, and so very, very real.
When I started to tackle the mountain of dishes in my sink, the podcast still on in the background, I realized that this is the first year I haven’t cried while on a birthday shopping trip. When I was younger, my well-intentioned mum always took me out to buy a new outfit, and I always ended up hot-faced and in tears, sitting in the changing room and feeling a burning hatred and disgust towards my body, furious that these feelings were so easily thrown in my face by stores that refused to carry my size. Shallow as that might be, wearing clothes that make you feel good is a luxury held over the heads of fat people, especially young ones. It is scary to think back on the impact those experiences had on my daily life and on my mental health – I really did, as West says in the podcast, feel like I was ‘trapped in a body that was ruining my life, a body that I had been given as punishment for being a moral failure.’ I have avoided shopping around my birthday since I was a teenager, because I honestly felt like those feelings were never going to go away, that sitting in a dressing room with my chest tight with anxiety and my cheeks streamed with tears was always going to be my reality.
But having opened myself up to the word fat has welcomed healthy, supportive relationships and opportunities into my life. For the first time ever, I feel like I have a fat community. I have friends who encourage me to pursue hobbies like hiking and swimming, while offering compassion, care and understanding that sometimes the hurtful and hate-filled perceptions of fat people engaging in these activities make participating hard and triggering. I love that a good friend of mine texted me this evening and asked how many people had already shared this podcast with me. Embracing the word fat means that my media diet has shifted, and I now have access to representations and information that allow and encourage me to (finally) live my life.
I realize now that talking about being fat in an open and honest way allows people to care for and love you as you are; that embracing the word does not have to be an isolating experience; that saying the word with confidence gives others confidence that there is nothing wrong with you. Being honest about my body and how it moves through the world allows people like my partner to surprise me with a birthday shopping trip to the States, a road trip dedicated solely to seeking out stores that make shopping an enjoyable experience for fat folks. Not hiding the fact that I am fat gives allies language to use when people ask why that shopping trip was such an important and special gesture.
There are still tears, and bad days, and bad people, but it is so liberating to strip that word, that weapon of choice, of its power.
I wrote the above after listening to Act 1 of the podcast. Then Ira Glass says between Acts 2 and 3, to ‘grab a twinkie’ during the break, and I realize that talking about fat, even if I’m okay with the word, is still so uncomfortable for most people, even people who think they’re helping by dedicating this week’s episode to the plight of fat folks. I think it is especially nerve-wracking when the topic of conversation blends fat and concepts of health.
I’m not going to touch on how fucked up Act 2 was. Virgie Tovar does an excellent job of this in her article, which you can read here.
I am working as an underwear model in two days, and this podcast is stirring up a confusing mixture of confidence, anxiety, fear, and resurrected old traumas. Fat people have to work so hard to better their environments and communities, to construct safe spaces and increase media representations, all while wading through chest-deep fatphobic bullshit that ebbs and flows throughout the day. It is exhausting. I am exhausted. Do your fat friends a favour and, with or without twinkies, because no one should give a shit about what your snack of choice is, give Acts 1 and 3 a listen – Act 2 if you’ve got your intersectional feminist hat on. Act 3 is especially important, as Roxanne Gay talks about the intersections of race and fatness, the subcultures of fat, and issues within fat politics/the body-positive movement.
I think the podcast is still worth listening to because the unfortunate reality of fat politics is that there is so little material out there, even when something is only half-good, we need to hold onto it and use it to start important conversations.