On Being Lane Bryant Fat
There was an amazing This American Life episode that aired earlier this month called Tell Me I’m Fat, centering around 4 stories about how people have dealt with being fat and the obesity epidemic more generally (hat tip Becky Jaffe).
And I plan to respond to all of them in turn, but let me mention right off the top that I didn’t think I had much to learn about this topic, but I learned a lot about this topic from listening to this episode, which was both empathetic and deep.
The first story could have been about me, almost. In short, it was about a woman who spent a bunch of wasted time in her youth worrying about being fat, then eventually she realized she was always going to be fat, that she was sick of apologizing for it and going on diets that didn’t work, and she came to terms with being fat. She owns it. Good for her.
What especially made me nod along was her talking about how she’d prefer the descriptor “fat” than the alternative, “overweight,” which is both a useless euphemism and a judgment, that it was somehow a temporary problem that would soon be fixed. Fuck that.
Oh, and also, she works with Dan Savage, and she called him on his fat shaming. I have always wanted someone to do that.
The second story was super sad, about a woman who was fat at some point but lost a bunch of weight by taking diet pills – basically speed – and found love and a good job by slimming down. She is now married to a man who admitted on tape that he wouldn’t love her if she were fat. She has a job which she claims she needs to be skinny to keep. She’s still taking (black market) diet pills. I am absolutely terrified for her.
The third story was what hit me. It was the story of a very fat woman of color, talking about just how hard it is to be that large. I really do get a lot of what she’s saying, but the more I think about it the more I realize I don’t get it, actually. I mean, I’ve been to restaurants where the chairs have arms and define a butt size that is simply smaller than mine. I have needed to ask for another chair. I have been extremely uncomfortable in an airplane seat.
But I’ve never been unable to fly, nor have I worried about chairs breaking beneath me. This woman does worry about this, and researches restaurants before she goes in case she cannot be accommodated. It’s a different level of humiliation and isolation. Where I feel annoyed that subway seats are too small, she is truly removed from the realm of normal.
She has a name for people like me: Lane Bryant Fat. I’m the woman who, increasingly, can find cute clothes to wear, who can talk about being fit and fat, and who can find company in a larger and larger adult population of women of size 22 or thereabouts.
She’s right, I don’t feel like a freak anymore. When I go to Brooklyn, I actually feel very normal. Even when I was in Paris I didn’t stick out very much, which was certainly very different 20 years ago.
And she’s also right that Lane Bryant Fat women don’t really get here or care about her. When I pass by people as large as she is, I do not regularly relate to them. On a normal day, some little voice inside me, some mean part of me, says, at least I haven’t let myself go that much.
Considering how hard I know I’ve tried in the past to change, you’d think I would be more enlightened about this issue, but until I heard this radio segment, I had never examined my own, internal version of fat shaming. Shame on me.
The last segment was about the Oral Roberts University effort in the 1970’s, I believe, to make its students lose weight as a graduation requirement. This resonated with me deeply, because it was a large scale version of what went on within my home as a child. For a time as a tweenager, I wasn’t given my allowance unless I’d lost enough weight each week. It was cruel, humiliating, and it imbued me with a shame that lasted longer than I’d care to admit.
This was a breakthrough, this radio program. I am so very glad this conversation has begun, and I’m so very glad it included these multiple voices, but it’s really just the beginning.
For example, here’s the thing I’m grappling with right now. I’m living in fear of becoming (type II) diabetic. I’m absolutely high risk for it: my age, my genetics, and my weight all point to it. The only thing I have going for myself is that I exercise regularly, which reduces the risk, but not entirely. So I’m on the lookout, and I’d like to think I’m prepared.
But part of that preparation includes being willing to have gastric bypass surgery, which has become much safer and is an almost miracle cure for type II diabetes. It is, in fact, the treatment of choice according to some international experts.
But at the same time, it’s a diet surgery, and if I underwent the procedure, I could expect to lose a lot of weight. For someone who has spent 20 years establishing a (Lane Bryant) fat identity, it’s actually really confusing to imagine opting for the knife. I’d feel like a turncoat.
Which isn’t to say I’d refuse it. I’ve already checked that my insurance covers the surgery. For BMI up to 40, it covers it if diabetes is present. But given that my BMI is actually above that, I could get the surgery now, without needing to “be sick.” I’m confused by this, and I don’t think I’m alone.
So what about it, This American Life? More episodes, please!