public property

It’s like a hilarious joke, or something. One of the things that used to make me angry when I was fat was that my body was considered public property. That I had a very visible and distinct physical characteristic which people felt the need to comment on. As if the fact of my fat and my size needed to be acknowledged, strangers felt it was important to demonstrate their powers of observation, helpful assholes felt it necessary to remind me of my great and space-hogging size and how offensive it was to right-thinking people. That when someone would look at me, you could almost hear them measuring out my width in inches, comparing it to their own width, breathing a sigh of relief when they assured themselves that they may have Figure Flaws, but at least their figured wasn’t that flawed!

I felt as if I could be seen from space, sometimes, and everyone in it, and that they had all commented at one time or another. That it was a fact which followed my form, that I would excite commentary wherever I went all across the world because my body was out of the ordinary. Extraordinary, extraordinarily interesting, something that no one could keep from noticing, even if they politely refrained from commenting which sometimes seemed to have been a herculean task, and I got sick of it. I got sick of sticking out in a crowd in all directions. I got sick of having a very specific physical characteristic. I got sick of being looked at. It was my dream and my hope and my wish to lose one million pounds and sink back into the crowd. To look normal, for a given value of normal. To be so ordinary-sized that no one would ever find it necessary to compose a remark which pointed out my characteristics of ordinariness. Water is wet, the sky is up, you are regular-sized.

No one talks about normal-sized bodies, am I right? I’m not right. Everyone talks about bodies, everywhere. Everyone’s body, it turns out, is ripe for discussion. But if you’re not fat, the social barrier of politeness that keeps some people from commenting  (because it is rude to note that someone is fat), is suddenly gone, and they can talk freely and openly about the size of your arms and the width of your hips and the shape of your thighs. They can tell you, “My, you’re getting so skinny! You’re getting too skinny! You’re SO SKINNY!” in that mock-horrified kind of way that is supposed to indicate concern and admiration and jealousy all at once, and you are meant to be flattered. It is so great that you’re skinny! You want to hear more about how skinny you are! I will tell you all about how skinny you are!

It’s like a hilarious joke, because I wanted so badly to be skinny, without thinking what that meant, and now I’m too skinny and trying to gain some weight back, and I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to act like it is The Greatest Thing on Earth that I am small. I don’t want to talk about my body, I don’t want you to comment on my body, I don’t want to be looked at and judged and measured inanyone’s head. I don’t want someone to say “You’re SO SKINNY!” and then see them do the calculations in their head, trying to decide if I am as skinny or skinnier than they are.

Also hilarious, possibly ironic, definitely hypocritical: I do it myself. I do it constantly. I spend so much time looking at other people’s bodies and trying to superimpose myself over them, to see if my outline matches theirs and I can finally see how I might fit into the world, when I look at them. That is how much space I take up? Okay. But the difference, I guess, is that I would not go up to that woman and say YOU ARE SO SKINNY. Maybe she’d take it as a compliment. Maybe it’s not wrong to take it as a compliment, when someone feels compelled to remark on your body, and maybe I am being too sensitive, too easily offended, too annoyed about the implied message, that it is so great to be thin to the point where your bones are visible, that scrawniness should be admired, and that my body is absolutely yours for the remarking upon. The next time someone says YOU ARE SO SKINNY, I will say “Oh my god, I know! It is SO GREAT! Doesn’t EVERYONE wish they were AS SKINNY AS ME?” And with my luck, they will reply, “Yes.”

photo by tombothetominato

10 Replies to “public property”

  1. My late husband was 6’4″ and 145lbs TOPS. He taught me that any comment beyond “you look great!” is just not helpful. No, he didn’t play basketball, no, he didn’t play the piano, but yes, he would reach that thing that you somehow got on the top shelf.

  2. Funny how curiosity and observation – generally such GOOD forces – can become intrusive and unwelcome when wielded without care.

  3. This is why I generally stick to hair and shoes when I’m doling out compliments. Nobody minds being told their hair and/or shoes are fabulous.

  4. Seriously! Whatever happened to a simple “You look fabulous!” accompanied by a big happy-to-see-you hug?

    …Unless maybe the person in question drastically deviated from their normal size/shape for no apparent reason, and you’re a close enough friend so you can politely inquire in a discreet setting whether anything is wrong. And if you’re not that close to the person, you can always ask a mutual friend who is.

    But then on the other hand, did the person who said “you look so skinny” know you had gastric bypass (or the band or whatever the thing you had done was called)? Because then maybe they thought that was the best compliment they could give because you wanted the skinny outcome very much?

    I dunno, people are weird.

  5. I went through a rough period a few years back, 2001 to be exact, where my marriage imploded and my dad passed away within a six month period. Though I *tried* to eat, I couldn’t – everything tasted like sawdust and my nerves were so shot, I couldn’t keep a lot of stuff down. I dropped down to 104 (I’m 5’4″) and looked like Skeletor.
    I received more rudeness and unwelcome comments from so-called “friends” and my own family – it got to the point where people were whispering about eating disorders and drugs.
    It amazes me what people think is acceptable to say to another person and how quick they are to jump to (usually incorrect) conclusions.

  6. It’s very strange. People didn’t comment too much about my size (to my face) when I was heavier. When I lost weight, they unreservedly said it was great (including the “too skinny”). Except for a few people, who timidly asked if I meant to lose weight. Which made sense, since I could have had a wasting disease. But I knew a man who lost weight, and nobody assumed it was a positive development. Everyone thought he 1) had cancer or 2) was cheating on his wife. And openly asked him about it. No “you look great” for him.

  7. Remember: People think they have to say something. People with unusual names get dumb comments on their unusual name, people who are expecting get dumb comments on that. Someone who heard I had a Ph.D. said, “I guess you think you’re smarter than everyone else now.” Whatever. People don’t realize that they can just not talk if they’re going to say idiotic things.

    For the record, I looked at your Flickr photos and think that you’re too cute, too adorable, and too stylish. :) If you think you are too thin and need to gain some healthy pounds back, fine, but don’t do it in the hopes that people will shut up, because they never do.

  8. Just wanted to say, that when EW finished I was sooo sad, but that now I think it may have been for the better if only for the amazing quality of your writing now (though you were always great!). I don’t know if it’s because you have less restraint here or what, but I think you are an amzing writer and you seem to be shining right now.

  9. As always a great entry. I never though about this before. Just one hour ago my collegues and I were commenting on a very skinny woman at our work area. So I guess I am guilty of this judgement. When I got skinny, I did notice when and if I was the skinniest in the room. I certainely was never the largest. People commented which usually made me happy. But then I gained some poundage. When people make the comment oh your so skinny I feel as if it is empty. That it was coming out of obligation.
    Thanks for the thought provoking entry.

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