Sometimes, reflecting on my twenty-eight years of life, I’m amazed I’ve never been arrested. One time in a bar, a man told me, “You know, if you covered up your tattoos, took out your piercings, and dyed your hair back to normal, you might actually be pretty.”
You might actually be pretty.
Why yes, sir. Let me rush right the fuck out and change, just for you.
I do a daily tightrope act with my appearance. The dyed hair and body modifications are in my life simply because I like the look of them. It’s not to appeal to a certain kind of guy or to fit in with a lifestyle or subculture. I just plain think I’m prettier this way. It makes me happy. The end.
But it’s not the end. I worked in a craft store for five years, subjected to almost daily commentary from people who thought they were cute or funny (You look artsy! You must be an art student! Well you’re ready for Halloween aren’t you?), that it was their right to express their opinions about me, to me. They took umbrage when I didn’t react like I’d been waiting all my life for them to come along and set me right. I’ll talk about how i got my hair this color or where I get my work done, but the why isn’t any stranger’s business, and I’m under no obligation to answer just because they had the gall to ask.
After helping one customer in particular, the woman thrust her hands on her hips and announced, “Now I need to ask you some personal questions.”
I was naturally reluctant, but I was on the clock so I shrugged. She continued, lip curling in disgust as she gestured at my face. “What does your mother think of… all of that?”
Her bluntness shocked the truth out of me. “My mother’s dead.”
With normal people this would be where someone chokes on their own foot and walks away ashamed, right? Not this lady. “Well she’d probably be really disappointed in you.”
The rest of her diatribe, which lasted a good three minutes more, was lost in the sound of my pulse rushing through my ears, and the sympathetic/mortified looks of people within earshot. If this had happened in a TV show I’d have questioned its plausibility, but there I stood enduring a total stranger telling me how little my dead mother must have loved me. Again, I’m amazed I’ve never been arrested, but it seems my temper has a kill-switch that keeps me from bludgeoning offensively rude people to death.
In the plant/animal kingdoms, bright shiny things are often representative of poison or danger. Those red toads? Poisonous, or pretending to be. The shiny leaves? Poisonous. Tropical animals have got it figured out. But people are attracted rather than warded off. I had to put my hair in a bun in the middle of a store once because four people had already grabbed my arm to talk to me about it. Most comments are harmless or admiring, and though I feel like a bitch for being completely devoid of gratitude for these validations, I’d prefer not to be bothered. I actually kinda dislike the attention.
With people who have known me enough to witness any weight loss or gain, this overflows from discussion of my modifications to talk of my figure. No matter how proud I am of my careful eating and diligent exercise, I can’t help feeling like I’ve undergone some mystical Beast-to-Beauty transformation; people gush over how wonderful I look, and the implication is that I did not look wonderful 80 pounds heavier but they were too polite to say so. It’s a struggle to take compliments as they’re intended, especially when they seem thoughtlessly backhanded.
Confession: I’m guilty of doing this to others. It’s hard when you haven’t seen someone recently to know what to talk about, and a compliment seems a natural icebreaker. It gets them talking about themselves instead of forcing me to talk about myself, and in spite of my curmudgeonly attitude toward compliments I just want to make someone else feel good about him/herself. Regardless of good intentions, I’m feeding the mentality that looking great is synonymous with being thinner. I’m inadvertently implying that there’s something inferior about overweight people, and it’s something I’m working to police out of my conversations.
Golda Poretsky of BodyLoveWellness offered advice in a Persephone Magazine article about dealing with positive comments about your body, “Say “thanks!” and move on to other things. It’s really not your job to educate anyone about weight bias nor answer any questions about weight loss.” I’ve applied this across my public interactions; It’s also not my job to educate people about my hair, tattoos, or overall appearance, especially when they’re being particularly intrusive (like interrupting an anniversary dinner at a very nice restaurant, thanks).
Reading Shannon Chamberlain’s “I Was Once Obese” on Slate resonated powerfully with me, especially the following excerpt:
I’m now at a weight where my daily life in the world has changed. When I was in my middle state of moderate obesity, I rarely got a nasty comment on my appearance. I used to think it was because I wasn’t all that fat. Now I know that, as with other bright, round objects, nobody wanted to stare directly at me. Men now feel comfortable approaching me in coffee shops to suggest that if I only lost 20, I’d be hot. Drivers who cut me off when I’m riding my bike shout “fat bitch” with some regularity. I hate it and find it encouraging at the same time. Finally, my fat doesn’t make me invisible. It just makes me fat.
She’s precisely right, by my experience. Being a size 12/14 is harder than being a size 22 was. My breasts are too big for bras from Victoria’s Secret, but too small for Lane Bryant. I can often fit in the largest sizes of stores like Charlotte Russe and Forever 21, but when I’m shopping I’m uncomfortable, like everyone secretly thinks I’m too fat to shop there. Are people thinking ugly things because I’m not skinny, but wearing ‘skinny’ jeans?
I’m lucky; this self-conscious voice is quickly drowned out by a chorus of dismissal, but as referenced in Part 1 not everyone had the nurturing into self-confidence that I did. At this point I strive to be the best me, not someone else’s idea of beauty. I have dark days, backsliding into self-vilification, but overall I’m empowered and confident in my ability to control my own appearance.
Mr. “You-Might-Actually-Be-Pretty” got me thinking of South Park’s “The Ungroundable,” in which the Goth Kids dress in Gap clothes and the girl goes from being “goth girl” to “fat girl.” Is my ‘alternative’ appearance shielding me from more comments like Chamberlain experiences? Would becoming ‘conventionally’ pretty make my weight my most defining characteristic? Each step closer to media normal brings more complications. I’d conservatively estimate the amount of sexual harassment I endure has quadrupled since I got below 200 pounds. Some days I’m terrified to lose more weight; being ‘prettier’ has only led to more uncomfortable compliments, more pushy guys in bars touching me without invitation, more women touching my hair and tattoos like I’m the Please Touch Museum.
I’m conflicted. I want to continue my progress for my own benefit. Weight loss reduces knee, foot, and back pain. I’m stronger and more flexible, better at yoga and dance and running, and less likely to die first in a zombie apocalypse. I want to be the size 8/10 so I can find more clothing I like. I want to run a 5k and do fancy pick-me-up-and-swing-me-around swing dance. I don’t want the number of creepers who follow me down South Street on a night out to increase, because the frequency is already frightening.
In our society, it looks like weight loss has drawbacks. A quick Google search reveals abundant discussion on how sexual assault and harassment can affect weight gain/loss, with victims psychologically ‘wearing weight as a shield.’ People subconsciously put on weight to protect themselves from sexual harassment, so what happens on the other end of that? In a culture that teaches, ‘don’t get raped,’ rather than, ‘don’t rape,’ is there a correlation between losing weight and ‘asking for it’ with one’s appearance? Because, as UnWinona was told in a terrifying example of harassment, “It’s not [a man’s] fault I’m pretty.”
Are women forced to choose between fat-shaming and slut-shaming, forced to pick the lesser of two evils? Should I sacrifice physical health and wellness for emotional comfort and the illusion of safety from a decrease in street harassment? Is it any wonder that people are so obsessed with weight and body image when it has such a direct effect on our daily lives?