Anyone who looks at me can see that I am fat, yet even calling myself fat and not being embarrassed or ashamed of that simple fact is less ordinary than we might think. Stigma is attached to being fat. Everywhere every day we encounter messages about weight and dieting and by implication the undesirability of fat. So, fat activists some years ago began to talk about and write about “coming out” —
“Unlike the gay body, the fat body is always already out. The fat body is of course hypervisible in terms of its mass in relation to the thinner bodies that surround it. As Moon suggests, the fat body displays ‘‘a stigma that could never be hidden because it simply is the stigma of visibility’’, and asks the question ‘‘What kind of secret can the body of the fat woman keep?’” — Samantha Murray
To come out as fat means to own it without apology or defense. It means owning my body as my own. It means surrendering the idea that the “real” me is thin and one day I will find the right diet or pill or potion that will release me and make me that “real” me. It means confronting inside myself the internalized fatism and stop hating my body. It means resting quietly within myself.
Coming out as fat is not the same as coming out in the LGBT world. Because fat is visible and it is no secret to anyone who sees me that I am fat. In the case of fat, it is not a statement to the world, to my world, so much as a statement to myself, reflecting acceptance in myself of my body.
But as a fat woman, in order to be good, I have to feel bad. In order to feel good, I have to be bad.
If I want to be perceived as good, I, and fat people in general, must present myself as the Good Fatty, the fat person who accepts the socially dominant viewpoint that my number one goal in life is losing weight. All I have to do is talk about trying to lose weight, about my desire to be thin. I can say I have lost 10 or 15 or 30 pounds and I will be praised for my efforts, even if it is a lie. The Good Fatty is apologetic for being fat and is in a perpetual state of trying to become thin. The Good Fatty doesn’t’t threaten thin people because she tells them she is engaged in the same struggle to subdue her body that they are. The Good Fatty is apologetic for her fat, as if she must ask forgiveness for committing an aesthetic crime with her too-muchness or must do penance for taking up too much space. She doesn’t complain that very few stores carry clothing in her size. She accepts as just that she pays more for her clothing, health care, and seats on airplanes. Because she knows she deserves it. She accepts without protest the “helpful” advice and criticism she receives from others because she is trying to become better, to become thin. She swallows her anger because she knows it is all her fault, that she has failed, and is getting what she deserves. She manages her fat identity by covering, by accepting that she should not be fat. She tries to cover her failure by always being in the process of trying to change, a perpetual state of atonement for the sin of being too big and too much. She can be good so long as she feels bad.
But suppose I want to feel good, not bad. What then? Suppose I call myself fat. Not curvy. Not Rubenesque. Not zaftig or plump. Fat. I call myself fat. Just by calling myself fat, using that word unselfconsciously and without shame or apology, is to move away from being the Good Fatty. Just by calling myself fat, I break a taboo.
But what else? Embracing myself as I am. Coming out as myself, a fat woman who is simply who she is, what she is.
I made the decision over 40 years ago to stop dieting, I never talked about it with friends. I wasn’t dieting but I wasn’t willing to be public with having stepped out of being good, of forever being on the way to being thin. Being the Good Fatty is acting as if I embrace body hatred, dieting, guilt and shame so that I can at least be on the fringes of membership in the “normal” world. I can be good only by feeling bad. By feeling bad I can in a way be normal, be like other women. So stopping dieting is not coming out. It is an act of rebellion, to be sure, but the rebel is always defined by that against which she rebels.
Coming out means being willing to be bad. It means letting go of the fantasy that there is a thin person inside waiting to get out and that she, not this fat me, is the real one. Coming out is to stop pretending to be trying to lose weight when I am not. Coming out means stopping defending how I eat or my health. Coming out is letting go of shame and embracing the body I have. Coming out is accepting myself, all of myself, fat and all. I can’t be good, be the way I am expected to be and do all of these things.
Perhaps the hardest thing, the most difficult part of coming out as fat, of leaving being good behind, is to really inhabit my fat body. Unconditionally. To love myself, my body exactly as it is, and not withhold that until I lose the 50 or 100 or however many pounds stand between me and being “normal”. No more apologies. No more mute acceptance of dieting advice. No more feeling bad because I take up space. That is the path to feeling good. It leads through a mountain of unexpressed rage and anger at having tried so hard for so long to be good, at having felt guilty and ashamed and bad for being too much.
Therapy with a therapist who does not equate health with weight can be invaluable in the journey away from self-hatred to self-acceptance and love.