Aubrey Gordon on Dealing With Aggressive Fatphobia
"The simple act of walking down the street in a fat body called up a deep rage in a perfect stranger."
I am walking home from work when I catch a stranger’s eye. She stares openly, slack jawed, looking my body up and down, over and over again.
“Excuse me,” she shouts. “Are you big enough yet?”
I keep my head down, eyes fixed on the pavement, walking swiftly, willing the moment to pass.
“Is everyone else seeing how fat this bitch is? Look at her!” She points at me, searches the faces of passersby. I do not respond, nor does anyone else. I walk faster, face searing red, wishing the world away.
Even in my silence, she is provoked, voice transforming itself from a shrill shout to a bared-tooth snarl. “How do you let that happen? Can you even hear me? I deserve an answer!” My heart beats heavy in my throat, stifling any response I might muster.
That evening, I struggle to concentrate or relax. My heartbeat shakes and clatters like a paint mixer in every inch of my skin. I am hopelessly vigilant, distracted by some complex calculus that might help me predict or prevent this stranger’s return. What little sleep I get is restless. The next day, I tell my boss I will work from home. I do not tell her why.
For months, I cannot think about what this stranger said—I can only feel it. I remember her constantly. Shame fills my body like a water balloon, fragile in its fullness. The simple act of walking down the street in a fat body called up a deep rage in a perfect stranger.
Our encounter took place across the street from my office. In the afternoons following, I catch myself staring out my window at the corner where it happened, remembering it like some fever dream. I become a knot of muscle memory, with tense forearms and fists, calves flexed and ready to run. Before I leave for the day, I check out the window again, scanning the street for her.
I stop wearing the dress I wore that day, first hanging it in the back of my closet, then giving it away a few weeks later. Its bold, magenta knit draws too much attention to a body that cannot keep me safe. I begin wearing baggy, nondescript clothing. Plain jeans and oversized black tunics. Long sleeves and large coats. Long necklaces over high necklines. But even with my new wardrobe and protocol in place, it happens again.
After a late night in the office, I walk out to my car. I hear light, shuffling footsteps behind me. At the end of the block, I check furtively over my shoulder. There, a sallow, older man is measuring his paces behind mine, stretching behind me like a shadow.
At the crosswalk, I look back again. His eyes are fixed on me.
“No one will ever love you,” he says, voice loud and tone plain. “Not looking like that.”
I walk faster, feeling for my keys inside my bag. I look back over my shoulder again, glancing back at him. He does not look away.
“No one will ever love you,” he says again, louder. The faster I move, the swifter his gait, and the louder his voice, this ghostly prophet following me between warm and distant streetlights.
My feet move quickly, keys locked between my fingers as makeshift brass knuckles that I know I will never use. I look again. He is still following, watching me closely, face slowly twisting into a mask of a grimace.
I round the corner. He matches my pace, then says it again, louder still, “No one will ever love you.”
I break into a run, sprinting to my parking garage, running up the stairs past the too-slow hydraulic elevator. I take the stairs two at a time, heart pounding in every inch of my skin, breath strangled by the certain danger behind me.
I start the car and drive out of the parking garage as fast as I can. I make quick calculations about what will keep me the safest. Hiding in my car would make me a sitting duck. Driving further up in the parking garage and waiting for him to leave would only trap me. I decide that the only way out is through this—through him—and I speed down the concrete ramps to the street below.
When I reach the exit, I nervously scan the sidewalk for my phantom aggressor. He is gone.
I drive home as quickly as I can, heart still racing. When I finally reach my street, my breathing slows enough to catch up to what has just happened. Suddenly, when I catch my breath, I am overcome. My tears come in waves, stronger each time, until I can hear myself wailing.
I am not humiliated or ashamed. I am terrified.
All my precautions failed. There is nothing I can do to stay safe. However I dress, whoever is around, I am always vulnerable. My body makes me a target.
Over time, I come to accept that there is nothing I can do to control these moments of unbridled aggression. I tell myself that these two strangers made their own decisions about what to do when they saw me. I tell myself that they alone were responsible for their own behavior, although I cannot quite believe it yet.
I do not tell anyone what happened until finally, weeks later, I work up the courage to disclose these moments to thinner friends. When I tell them, I am met with the reaction I fear: a battery of questions and rejections, a hypnic jerk that keeps them from settling into the difficult truth of things. What were you wearing? Did you say something to him? Did she look like an addict? Was he homeless?
The more we talk, the more my straight-size friends reach for any reason to push this information away, excuse it, make it somehow logical, expected, routine. Because to them, this unprompted behavior is unthinkable. Like men hearing about the pervasiveness of catcalling for the first time, thin people cannot quite reconcile the differences in our daily lives. It is too distressing to recognize that their fat friend lives with such a dramatically different reality. And it is too alienating to acknowledge the simple fact that their bodies have spared them from a tumult they never imagined. It is illogical. So, to them, it is impossible.Named for catcalling, fatcalling comprises the unending stream of comments, judgments, and commands that inundate the lives of fat people, invited only by our bodies passing into a stranger’s field of vision.
The world of straight-size people is a reliable one. In their world, services paid for are services procured. Healthcare offered is accessed. Conflict arises primarily from active decisions to provoke and is rarely—if ever—prompted by the simple sight of a stranger’s body. The biggest challenges with anyone’s individual body are their attitudes toward their own skin, not issues of security, dignity, or safety from bodily harm.
But for fat people, the world we walk through is unpredictable and unforgiving. Even walking down the street becomes complicated, uncertain, unsafe, as we pass through the gauntlet of a Greek chorus singing our tragedies back to us. No one will ever love you. Can you hear me? I deserve an answer.
Strangers’ interjections about my body, my food, my clothing, and my character are a daily feature of my life as a very fat person. The fatter I become, the more jagged the remarks, a razor wire drawing a ragged cut through the day. At size 20, the comments were insistent and pushy, often offering “helpful” advice on diet and exercise, or on how losing weight would help me “land a man.” At a size 26, they began to curdle, souring into strangers spitting their disdain on the bus or at a street corner. And at size 30, they became menacing, a chorus of grim reapers foretelling my death, ferrying me across the river Styx.
This phenomenon became so prevalent that I began to shorthand it to friends as fatcalling. Named for catcalling, fatcalling comprises the unending stream of comments, judgments, and commands that inundate the lives of fat people, invited only by our bodies passing into a stranger’s field of vision. Like catcalling, fatcalling is fully unearned, uninvited, and counterproductive, and it becomes an exhausting fact of life for those targeted by it. It is a well-known phenomenon, especially among fat activists and very fat people. In 2015, photos of a fat man dancing went viral on the notorious trolling site 4chan. “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week,” the caption read. “He stopped when he saw us laughing.” Author and fat activist Lesley Kinzel faced strangers in a Home Depot parking lot shouting “Damn, bitch, you are huge!” Even Vogue has written about the ubiquity of fatcalling.
Like catcalling, fatcalling sometimes masquerades as a compliment but quickly sours. One fat teen shared their story in curriculum from the anti–street harassment organization Hollaback:
School had just gotten out and, just as I did every other day, I met my girlfriend to walk her home. Holding hands, we passed one of the busiest buildings where a [guy] with a bunch of his [friends] whistled and called out to us, “Nice! How can I get in on this?” I called back, “Lucky for us, you can’t.” At this point, about four large high school boys came towards my girlfriend and I. I could feel my heart rate skyrocket. The one who I told off continued, “Whatever. You’re just a fat, ugly dyke, anyway.” They all laughed and I could totally see one hungrily staring at my girlfriend. I pulled her closer and we walked home without another word, but that didn’t stop them from shouting at us across the block, calling us dykes and sluts.
Psychologist Jason Seacat conducted a study to determine just how frequently fat women felt judged in the world around them, asking fifty overweight and obese women to write down every instance in which they felt judged or insulted as a result of their weight. On average, the women reported three incidents every day.
Some of those involved inanimate objects, like turnstiles and bus seats that were too small. But many involved interactions with other people. One woman said a group of teenagers made mooing noises at her in a store; another said her boyfriend’s mother refused to feed her and commented that she was so fat because she was lazy. Seacat was inspired to do the study after watching a group of teens at his gym loudly harassing a fat woman, who eventually gave up and left the gym.
Like catcalling before it, fatcalling is rarely about compliments, attraction, health, wellness, or any other benefits to the person being harassed. As Lesley Kinzel puts it, “public harassment by a stranger isn’t about making you feel good. It’s about putting you in your place, and reminding you that as a woman, your social purpose is to look appealing to guys.”
But despite these clear lines between our experiences of catcalling and fatcalling, my thin friends still struggle to grasp the latter. And there are so many similarities between these twin phenomena.
Like street harassment facing thinner women, fatcalling is also rooted in a deep sense of entitlement to others’ bodies—an entitlement that is affirmed in nearly every aspect of our culture. Women’s bodies are always at men’s disposal, there to comment on, to ogle, to touch, and to take. Women are expected not to “provoke” men with our style of dress, expected to take men’s constant come-ons as compliments, because boys will be boys. Women carry mace, learn self-defense techniques, develop networks to notify other women of men who assault and sexually harass us. Catcalling, like assault and harassment, are facts of life that we’re expected to account for in our daily lives. And we do, often as a matter of survival.
Excerpted from What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon (Beacon Press, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.