My first bit of unwanted attention in 2011 came last night—happy new year!—from a stranger on the subway. Transcript as follows: "Hey, fatty. Fat fat. Fat booty, fat pussy, I see your fat underneath your clothes, you're fat, I see it. Fat fat fat fat fat."
There was only one other person in the subway car, and the perpetrator had earlier made a point of yelling across the car that "as long as you're with me, you're 100% safe" (perfectly standard behavior for a man who isn't a threat, right?), so I knew not to escalate the situation. At the next stop, I waited until the train doors were already open before striding toward the door, so that he would be less likely to follow me out. He didn't, and that was that.
Except it wasn't. I had no idea how to internally react, even if externally I handled it just fine. My first words to myself were of self-assurance, even if now I wish I could say they were of something closer to anger. The immediate thought process: 1) This is a crazy source, not a trustworthy one; 2) You were sitting down and wearing baggy clothes so he couldn't tell what you looked like anyway; 3) You are well within recommended height-weight guidelines and are emphatically not fat.
This is all fine and good for not allowing myself to use a stranger's comments as an excuse to spiral into disordered eating ("I need 2,100 calories a day to fulfull my body's energy needs--but the dude on the Q train said I was fat, so no breakfast for me, mkay thanks!"). But the fact that my first thought was not upset but reminding myself that I wasn't fat--as if his assault would have been justified if I were--made me think about the power of that word as an admonishment for existing.
That man wasn't yelling at me because of my weight; he was yelling at me because it was New Year's Day and here he was, drunk or high on the subway, skin weathered by years of hard work, unclean, unshaven, and alone, and here is this woman about his age whose hair is in a French twist and who seems like a nice friendly girl because she hasn't had a day's hard work in her life, look at that fair skin, and is that fucking glitter on her eyelids, and she had damn well better learn her place. And whether he consciously knew it or not, he chose to put me in my place with the #1 word that is anathema to women in our culture: fat.
The F-word is anathema because we let it be anathema. We let that word become the biggest insult a woman can hear--I know plenty of women who might doubt their intellect, but none of them cower from the word dumb as they do from fat, even when the former is a greater fear than the latter.
I'm already conscious of trying not to attach negative judgment to the word--if a woman complains to me of being fat, my response, verbatim, is usually "I'm not going to hear that." It doesn't matter if the speaker is overweight. It's a lose-lose scenario, but part of why it's exactly that is because if I were to say, "Okay, you're fat," I would feel like I were telling someone she was all of the things that our culture mistakenly associates with that word--even though I don't believe those things myself. I'm just as unable to truly divorce the word fat from all of its illegitimate siblings--like lazy, poor, uneducated, damaged, self-hating, unprofessional, not to mention ugly, asexual, and unattractive--as the believers who came up with those associations in the first place.
All this is retrofitted reasoning, however. Fat activism was not on my mind in the moment. On top of my self-assurances of being not-fat was a foggy awareness that I was supposed to be having exactly this reaction. I called a friend after I left the subway, and as the words tumbled out of my mouth I found myself becoming more hysterical than I'd initially felt--my voice rose in pitch, the rumblings of indignation changed to a tightly wound self-pity. My friend said, among other things, "That's crazy; you're not fat," and while that was what I wanted to hear, I also felt frustrated that it was what I wanted to hear. It wasn't safe in that moment to say anything back to that man, but I hated that even after he was out of sight, my trembling self-doubt gave him exactly what he wanted.
I was playing the part of the wounded, insecure woman; the supporting role would go to the angry, outraged feminist. But the fact is, both of those were roles; truthfully, I just felt muddled. The word fat is so loaded that I couldn't sort out my authentic reaction to hearing it used as an assault weapon pointed directly at me. Yes, I did immediately reassure myself that I wasn't fat (and I'm not proud of this reaction), but I assure myself of that literally dozens of times a day (which I'm not proud of either). I never really felt angry or outraged or scared; instead, I felt nervous before he said it and numbed thereafter.
What I wish could happen, to me and anyone who hears that word used as a weapon--whether it's as friendly fire from a well-intentioned but misguided family member ("If only you'd lose a few pounds," a mother says), as training tactics ("Melt off that ugly fat! Feel the calorie burn!" yells the Spinning instructor), or as a plain old attack from a sad loner on the subway--is not numbness but neutrality. To react as if one heard not "You're fat" but "Your feet are a size 9! Size 9 size 9 size 9!"--a statement of fact that is either truthful or isn't, and if it isn't can be dismissed with no questions, and if it is true, is a matter between you and your doctor.
I've spent a lot of time trying to recognize that I don't need to artificially manipulate my weight, and I've been somewhat successful at that. And I've spent a lot of time trying to accept my body even in the places where it truly is chubby--recognizing that my little beer belly is the result of a lot of good fun and isn't something I'd trade in for a smaller belt. And I've spent just as much time questioning why it all matters. What I haven't done yet is truly try to not let that word--the fat word--have any sort of stigma within my own mind. And maybe my muddled reaction is testament to being farther along in that than I recognize; I don't know. I want to stop being afraid of not just adipose tissue, but the word itself. Those three little letters carry too much weight.
Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty.