I have a pair of black jeans that I wear on the days that I want my stomach to seem smaller. They come right up to the top of my waist, and have a set of ‘corset’ buttons running from waist to stomach. Everything gets sucked in; rolls of flesh are shoved down and to each side, my waist appears tiny in comparison with the rest of my body. My stomach doesn’t appear flat, of course, because that is impossible - but it is presents as lesser, rounded but not bulging. It is contained.
Every time I wear them, I end up with red welts on the soft flesh of my belly where the buttons dig in. They are so tight on my hips they restrict my movement. I can’t wear them to work because I can’t sit in them for too long; I can’t wear them anywhere that I might need to walk a distance because striding is impossible. They are painful but I feel powerful – I am doing my very best to display the correct volume of curves. They are one of the last remaining forms of punishment I use on myself.
I commute to work four days a week, an hour on the train each way. Some weeks, my body aches by the end of it - not from the hours spent sitting, but from trying to make myself smaller. The trains on my line are always full at peak time, and the seat next to mine is always one of the last to be filled. Most of the trains on my line are newer models, which means that I fit easily into the seats – but often my thigh or hip juts out to the side, my arm falls just over the invisible line.
I’m conscious that some passengers feel I am a nuisance; they don’t want any part of another person’s body in what they have deemed their space. They don’t want their thigh to touch someone else’s, don’t want their coat to brush against mine, don’t want to have to put energy into thinking about providing comfort or space to someone who dares to be larger than them. I have done this to myself so I must pay the price.
I take out my phone and tweet about body positivity as I fold into myself. One arm usually over the other, or shoulders hunched in. Legs slammed together, hips swivelled to one side, body pressed as far up against the window as possible.
There are times when I try to stay defiant, let my body relax, allow my leg to touch theirs. Sometimes, this works – the person just shuffles slightly to accommodate us both. Other times, there’s a huff, or they bring down the armrest in the middle - a silent statement that comes down hard on my hip. I fold in again.
There are six garbage bags full of clothes strewn through my house, and I’m pretending they aren’t there. I walk past them all the time, sometimes move them from one side of the hallway to the other, shift around when cleaning. The clothes in the bags span a few years of purchases: some fit, some don’t. Those that fit are too colourful, adorned with ugly patterns, cut terribly, too baggy, too cheap, sourced from the lone racks at the back of stores. I’ve grown out of the rest, and some never fit in the first place; they were two or three sizes too small and hung on the back of cupboard doors as ‘inspiration’.
The clothes have been shoved away during cleaning sprees and days when I love myself. Shops have started to cater to my body type now, I am no longer a non-person.
I am slowly trying to find out who I am when it comes to fashion, to develop a style. I want to be able to walk into a store and say: oh, that’s not quite for me, instead of mainlining for the racks that might hold one or two items in my size.
But I can’t seem to take the bags down to my local charity bin. Fat people are taught to hold onto clothes, for when you become your ‘real’ self, recipes to get you there, rules to navigate society without causing offense. I have no interest in wearing any of these clothes again, but some part of me seems to think that I might need them. That all the plus size stores will close, that the body acceptance movement will be buried, that I won’t have the money to afford the unspoken tax on plus size clothes when the seasons change. The tax that means an item in a size 10 will be 20% cheaper than its size 22 counterpart, the tax that means plus size labels can charge far too much – because they know we have to pay it.
I am frustrated with myself. I have let go of so much, but these clothes continue to gather dust in black bin bags in my hallway. There is a disconnect between what I know I should – and can – do and what I put into action. I can’t clamber over all these fears and leave them behind; not quite yet. I am angry and I want to move on, but I am stuck, waiting.
In a recent article for the New York Times, writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote about the moment that she tried to stop dieting: ‘But when I did, I realized I couldn’t. I didn’t know what or how to eat. I couldn’t fathom planning my food without thinking first about its ability to help or hinder a weight-loss effort.’
This isn’t where I tell you about all the diets that I’ve been on, because I am terrible at dieting. It is one of my ‘failures’ as a fat person: the inability to stick to a diet for longer than a few weeks, refusal to try methods like diet shakes or lemons or steamed green vegetables or starving myself to the point of fainting. I am the worst nightmare of medical professionals (‘would you like to see a dietitian?’).
But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every fad diet that has rolled in and out of style over the past two decades. That I didn’t spend hours writing down everything I had eaten each day in a calorie counting booklet, or made charts of projected weight loss as a teenager. That I didn’t obsess over what I referred to as a ‘lifestyle change’, that I didn’t try to give up carbs or reward myself when I didn’t eat cake that was offered to me or keep a secret folder on Pinterest of ‘weight loss recipes’.
In the present, I don’t consciously practise any of those techniques. I try to eat what I want, when I want, and my guilt around food is far more rare and fleeting. But, Brodesser-Akner’s words hit me right in the guts because I can’t seem to stop thinking about food. I can still tell you the calorie counts of most basic foods, I still subconsciously make deals with myself (if you eat salad or soup for lunch, you can have chocolate later), I still occasionally swivel a packaged food in my hand to read the dietary chart. I am trying not to care.
Being a fat person, or perhaps being me, requires a lot of research. I used to look up menus ahead of going out to dinner with friends to figure out what the least offensive dish was – the food that wouldn’t draw attention to my size, to my assumed eating habits. These days I order anything I like, but I still often look up the venues ahead of time: is there an image of the cafe layout online? Will I be able to easily walk move through the restaurant, or will I have to suck in and shimmy sideways and embarrass myself? Are there stairs, and how many? Do they have chairs, or high stools that I will have to balance on precariously while my hips scream?
I map out journeys that require walking with other people; between pubs, from their house to the tram stop. How far is the walk? Are there any steep roads on the way there? What shoes am I wearing? Think of some conversations that will favour the friend I’m walking with, so that they do most of the talking. Don’t feel bad when they move easily up the hill – they don’t carry my weight. Try not to suggest an Uber or the tram, because it is too obvious. Pretend that my body moves just like theirs.
In an interview with Lindy West, fat writer Roxane Gay said: ‘If I was conventionally hot and I had a slammin’ body, I would be president.’ She wasn’t joking, it wasn’t deadpan. I think all fat people have had a similar thought; perhaps not president, but just, something better. Even now, at a point in my life where I am doing exactly what I want, that thought still creeps in sometimes: how could things have been different?
I am slowly discovering that I can do things that I thought weren’t possible for my body. When I work with it, it is incredible; it can do intricate yoga poses and walk for hours and swim and lift and carry all of me: strong. When I work against it, go back to ignoring its signals, detesting it – it becomes stiff and uneasy, difficult to manoeuvre. I try not to think about how much earlier my body and I could have been working together.
There are still days when I see a thin woman on the street and don’t catch my envy quickly enough. I have worked hard to dull it, to remember that all bodies are good bodies, to stop myself from hating others for the flesh that they were born with. I try to stamp out the paranoia that they are looking at me too, victorious. And I try to remember that if they are, it is their flaw, their lesson to learn - not mine. Empathy, empathy, empathy.
I no longer believe that becoming thin would make me a real person. It is powerful to come to that understanding; to realise that you don’t need to change your entire physical being to find yourself or be respected or be really and truly alive. But it’s hard to let go of a lifetime’s worth of lessons that should never have been taught, no matter where they came from. I am relearning how to eat, how to listen to what my body does and doesn’t want, how to wear jeans that fit my body instead of contorting it, how to walk through the world facing forward instead of looking down.