Monday, July 23, 2012
Another day outside of the box marked pretty
Yesterday I was working for a festival for which I’ve been volunteering for about eighteen years. The work is of the type most often done by men but because of the lefty, hippy vibe of the festival we have a good number of women on our crew. For those of us who’ve been working together for a while there’s a certain comfort level and a certain amount of ribaldry. Yesterday, however, was different for just one short moment. Yesterday I was doing what I do best and reminding some men on a parallel crew to wear sufficient sunscreen when one of them, whom I had only met that morning, said “I’d like it better if you put it on me.” I laughed at him, as though it were a ridiculous notion.
But my internal monologue was more like “What the fuck? That is so inappropriate! And who does he think he’s kidding, obviously he wouldn’t want my fat self to rub anything on him. Why the hell didn’t I even say anything? I’m not a teenager anymore I should have told him that his joke was uncool.”
For me, it was a humiliating and infuriating experience. As a feminist I was pissed that he felt so at ease using that kind of faux flirtation with me when I know to the marrow of my bone that I could never feel safe making the same joke to a man I didn’t already know well. For a woman to make that kind of a joke is to risk that she will be taken at face value and be presumed to have consented to some degree of intimacy, for a man it’s just another day at the office.
As a survivor of sexual assault and harassment I was dismayed and distressed to realize that I still feel like I can’t say anything when some guy’s comment crosses a line. My overriding instinct is to treat it like a joke and keep my true feelings to myself.
But the worst part was the feeling that he was unintentionally driving home the fact that it was patently ridiculous that he, or anyone else, would ever find me attractive enough to actually mean a comment like that.
This is messy stuff. When I’m sitting with friends and they’re talking about how often they get catcalls on the street I commiserate with them but in my head I’m thinking, I almost never experience that now because I am one of many invisible fatties. It is a twisted emotional mess to both revile the street harassment that so many women must deal with while simultaneous hurting because you are far enough outside of “acceptably attractive” for anyone to feel inspired to harass you.
I don’t want to be harassed or otherwise subjected to the unsolicited advances of men. At the same time I have yet to succeed at not caring if I am attractive to others. When I look at myself, and see myself only through my own eyes I see beauty, strength, and style. When I imagine what others see I see lumpy and ill-fitted, or maybe even nothing at all. For that is what so many of us fat-enough fatties* seem to be, flat out invisible.
But this is what it means to be living in a sexist and misogynist culture. We learn to care too much about how sexually attractive we are but if we are “attractive enough” we are subjected to objectifying and dehumanizing behaviour and expected to be grateful for the compliment. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, either way you finish each day feeling a little less than you were before.
This isn’t even really about being fat. It’s about anyone who feels like they’re outside of that little box marked “pretty”. And if someone does show interest, no matter how offensive, we are expected to fall over with the joy that someone has deemed us worthy of such double-edged praise. We’ve all heard it, “What do you mean no? You should feel lucky that I showed any interest at all!” to which we all want to respond, “You should feel lucky I didn’t kick you in the face.” But in reality we are far more likely to just turn away, feeling angry and humiliated eventually turning it all in on ourselves.
I don’t know what to do about it. All I know is that one fairly innocent joke sent me into a tailspin of emotions and nothing about that is okay.
*I say fat-enough because I recognize that there are many who are bigger than I am who face fat-phobic harassment on a daily basis. I am speaking from the perspective of someone who's fat enough to be invisible and have real problems finding clothes but not fat enough to be shown outright contempt when I'm out and about..