When I started reading this book, I didn’t think I’d relate to so much of it. I knew it was about her body as a “woman of size,” and I knew a bit about Gay’s history as a victim/survivor of sexual violence, but I’m neither of these things, so was surprised. I thought this book would be difficult to read due to the subject matter, but somehow, she accomplishes the impossible and writes an accessible, honest, brave and powerful story of healing. She tells a devastating, unvarnished account of trauma and the lifelong fallout of those events, but leaves you with a sense of the power of healing and hope.
She breaks down the daily, constant insults she must endure as an obese woman, from the thoughtlessly inhumane to the intentional cruelty of disregard, and shines light both on herself and how it impacts her, and the rest of us and how far we all have to go to become better humans.
I absolutely used to be someone who was very judgmental about body size and shape, who thought people should or should not wear certain clothes based on my snobbish and arrogant perspectives on what “looks good” on bodies that aren’t mine. I was someone who has lived her life as a very fit person, whose body has served her well, who condescended to those who couldn’t perform at my level of athleticism, who thought that being strong and fit and looking a certain way meant that I was inherently a better person.
My evolution on this topic was slow and I can trace it back to making the mistake of assuming that a person’s size was aligned with a person’s athletic ability. This burned me several times while playing sports, when I’d underestimate an athlete’s abilities due to her body shape (e.g., “Oh, she’s kinda big, there’s no way she can move all that fast”). I penned a patronizing, misinformed letter to the editor of a local paper, attributing obesity to a weakness of character, inability to take personal responsibility, lack of self-control and assigning blame to our culture of excess (not entirely wrong, but mostly very ignorantly wrong). That was when I was in my twenties.
In my thirties, I continued living in my identity as an athlete, more capable and able-bodied than most, but I began to more clearly see that I didn’t like a lot of the people around me who shared this arrogance. I didn’t think it was particularly nice to talk about and evaluate other women’s bodies meanly, I was no longer absolutely sure that I was a better person than someone else because I was better at a sport than they were, or even better in a particular competition. I didn’t like it when people talked about Michelle Obama’s arms (or mine), ignoring all her professional accomplishments. I began to doubt the framework of my identity, because it was weak and immature to begin with. People I worked out with would tell me how “skinny” I was and then become offended when I didn’t thank them. “That’s a compliment,” they’d say, when I didn’t acknowledge their unsolicited opinions on my body. “That’s for me to decide,” I’d mutter. I’ve honestly never wanted to be skinny, I’ve always really liked my body. I’ve never wanted a different one. But over this decade, I started to see the people around me differently, and because I was a lot like those people, I saw myself differently, too.
Now I’m in my forties, and I continue to evolve as an adult human, and I’m both ashamed of things I’ve said and done and proud of my growth. I have more work to do, as Gay’s book clearly points out, because I, too, grew up in a culture that values a very narrow range of acceptable bodies which is even narrower for women and tinier still for women of color. In fact, a lot of the feelings she shares about how she’s treated and the discomfort she feels are aligned almost perfectly to how I’ve felt as a Black woman in a white world. It’s just a different type of privilege and it’s also based on fear, fear of being fat, fear that one will be treated the way we treat fat people, fear of losing position in the social hierarchy. This fear is so powerful that it’s hamstrung many women in our culture, who focus far more on striving for some unattainable, unrealistic physical ideal than on being free. Gay internalized all the direct and implicit messaging around being fat, denying herself pleasure, deciding she didn’t deserve to enjoy things others enjoy because of her size. She’s simultaneously proud of her accomplishments, of her intellectual capabilities, her strengths as a friend and colleague, the strength of her body. This isn’t a contradiction. She, like all of us, is complicated.
I know I’ve looked at a fat person with open disdain, wanted them to know that this is how I saw them. I know this says far more about me than them. I know that fat people aren’t angels – they’re people – and that I sure as shit am not an angel, either.
This book has made me aware of the immense privilege I have in walking through this world as a “normal-sized” person. It’s an eye-opening, impressive, accessible book that everyone would likely benefit from having read. There are absolutely difficult parts of this book, when I would literally turn my head while keeping my eyes on the page, because I wanted to look away but knew that I shouldn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t. I needed to hear her story and I’m grateful she took the risk of opening herself up to write it. I don’t think I could ever be that strong.
PS – This is my first review, so I look forward to getting better at this…