Self-Portrait © Jen Davis
I’ve been fat all my life. Not always the kind of fat that threatens people at airports or amusement parks, but definitely, undeniably fat. The kind of fat that can euphemistically be referred to a zaftig in Yiddish, kräftig in German, or chubby or big boned in English. The kind of fat that can still keep up with you walking around town and maybe borrow your oversized jumper when it’s cold and we’re walking home from a party, but only if it’s cutely oversized on you as a thin person and then fits me ever so snugly as a fat person. The kind of fat that can no longer be wishfully thought of as just baby fat, a phase I’d grow out of — I’m 28, it’s okay, this isn’t baby fat.
A few weeks ago, I was in New York City visiting my parents. My mom goes to the gym every day, counts calories, and is a big fan of Weight Watchers. She’s 63 and rejoiced in telling my multiple times that she has lost 6 pounds since Christmas. She looks great, and for whatever amazingly angelic miraculous reason, she’s never critically commented on my weight. After our joint spin class together, drenched in sweat and having burned thousands of calories, I exhaled in a moment of frustration „why doesn’t this do anything for me?“ My mom immediately responded „you’ll never be skinny. You’re just not a thin person.“ She’s right. And despite being in my late-20s and a full-on queer feminist killjoy, it sometimes still bothers me. My thighs are massive and solid. My stone hard and amazingly round ass gets me up and down the five flights of my altbau apartment building day in and day out. I cycle all over Berlin. I swim four times a week. I can run 5k at the drop of a hat. But I’m still fat. I always have been, and I most likely always will be. But writing that doesn’t eradicate the 20-something years of socialization that pounded into my head the idea that my fatness is bad. It’s not just bad—it’s undesirable. Uncool. Unpleasant. And most unequivocally unsexy.
My earliest memory of realizing that my fatness rendered me undesirable was on a canoe trip during the summer after fourth grade, one of my many summers at Camp Eagle Island, an all-girls summer camp literally on an island in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. The place was essentially your North American Isle of Lesbos, replete with rugby playing butch counselors who went by camp names like Timber and Sparrow and who spent their time away from camp studying at the women’s colleges in Western Massachusetts. Anyway, we were on a canoe trip up the lake and I must have been ten years old. It was dusk and we were pulling the canoes in for the night when someone told us to look up at a shooting star and make a wish. I don’t remember ever having seen a shooting star before, let alone in the rural woods of northern New York surrounded by dreamy dyke counselors and all my camp friends, so the moment was quite magical. I specifically recall following the star’s trail in the sky and wishing to myself that I’d one day be skinny and have a boyfriend.
I cringe at the memory. What a fucked up conflation in my tender, prepubescent, baby mind of compulsory heterosexuality and thinness as singularly signifying desirable. Socialization is a real psychological and psychosomatic beast.
Fast-forwarding 18 years later, I do have a boyfriend, I’m still not skinny, I’m a queer hard femme dyke, and I live in Berlin, a city known quite well for its queerness and known less well for the queer scene’s glorification of masculinity and thinness. I’ve dated a handful of people over the years, all masculine, all thin. I wonder how this reflects my internalized notions of what is desirable, how to offset my fatness and femmeness in a way that makes my queer relationship less threatening to my community, and to the heteronormative world beyond. A psychoanalytic analysis of this consideration could go very, very deep, I’m sure.
As I mentioned, I now have a boyfriend. We’ve been dating for over a year and I’m happily in love. He is sweet and body-positive and respectful. He listens to the critical thoughts I share on inhabiting a fat body, and seems to care. I remember early on in our relationship though, I had such doubts, because I always have doubts; my walls are high and my defense is strong, especially dating thin, masculine queers. I remember the exact moment I realized one of his closest friends, someone he deeply admires, is a fat femme whose fatness is political. I remember feeling some sort of relief in knowing he socializes with fatness. That I didn’t have to be the first one to tell him it’s a thing, a political thing, and a difficult thing.
There isn’t ever a single moment in a sexual relationship where I’m not considering how my body and its size affect the desirability of my partner toward me. Dating involves so much consideration of sexual capital, and if you’ve been granted any, navigations of how to yield it and wield it. Sometimes, as a queer fat femme, I think about monogamy—a concept in my community that is sort of frowned upon—as a comforting insurance that you’re desired. The thought of sexual desire as abundant is a real fucking privilege. I have reservations about the concept of dating around, reservations that stem from the internalized socialization I fight every day that tells me my body is undesirable. The unattractiveness of dating around because of internalized shame re: my body as not desirable. What does it even mean to date around? Aren’t I supposed to be lucky if I get one date?
“You’re so lucky.” I want a euro for every time I’ve been told that in my current relationship. When your partner is masculine and thin and everyone tells you he’s hot (I wonder how many people tell him I’m hot?) and emphasizes how “lucky” you are to be dating him (I wonder how many people tell him he’s “lucky”?), what are they saying? When other queer feminists tell me this in the queer bar, what do they mean? Do they mean that because I’m fat I should be single or dating someone less attractive because logic, obviously, would say that I’m undesirable of the sexual capital that his masculinity and thinness generates?
I mean, I know I am lucky, because he is terrific. Because he listens and makes me food and goes with me on silly errands to look at weird things and brings me flowers and scratches my back and likes my mustache and thinks I am cute and intelligent and lets me know, and, and, and, and. But I’m pretty certain this isn’t the data the luck analysts at the bar are considering when announcing their theories on how in gay hell I came to be in this relationship. Pure luck!
Another thing: the word slut does not apply to me. I can’t use it. I have no capital to spread as a slut living in Berlin—when I hear the word used by other queers, especially femmes, I’m not sure whether to cheer on their confidence or check them on their privilege of being able to boldly assert that their sluttiness is not just a theory but in fact a practice that is exercised week after week in party spaces, online platforms, at the bar or whatever other space sluttiness can be embodied and practiced. I realize that I, too, am entitled to claim and own the label, but asserting my sexual capital vis-à-vis the label of slut, as a fat person, takes a lot of emotional work to undo years of socialization that have rendered my body and my identity undesirable. Even in the queer feminist use of the word slut, it’s still difficult to pronounce my body one that is capable of engaging in sexual abundance, because while I firmly believe that I am physically and emotionally capable of such a thing, the reality remains that there isn’t a huge market for investors into my sexual capital in a place like Berlin. I’m not seeking pity in this statement; I’m just reporting the lived-experience based facts.
My subjective experience of fatness doesn’t just engage with desirability politics, it also has a load of respectability politics to consider that thin people probably don’t have to worry about in their daily lives. Like, for example, how I always try to take the elevator when I’m late to my university seminars, because showing up to a class five or ten minutes after it has begun, and trying to silently enter the room whilst huffing and puffing because I just climbed five flights of stairs is a whole different experience as a fat person. I still can’t explain this to my thin, queer, feminist, cis-man classmate, who insists we “not be lazy” and take the stairs every time. Fatness never gets to be turned off; fatness never gets to hide; fatness never gets to be ignored.
Writing this is simultaneously liberating and also terrifying. These are things I’ve never articulated to anyone, experiences of socially prescribed shameful Otherization that I learned to keep deep inside of me, because if I had a problem with my body then it was my responsibility to change it. (Neoliberalism.) Inevitably, I anticipate well-intentioned friends to respond with compassionate prodding, wanting to know why I’ve never shared my “experiences” with them. It’s like recently when I told my dad that I’d experienced homophobia and been kicked out of places for my queerness, and he wondered why I hadn’t shared this with him before. It’s easy: why would I share something you can’t relate to and instrumentalize my own complex emotions of anger, embarrassment and pride as a teaching opportunity? Fat people are conditioned to be silent; making a scene is exactly what you don’t want. A lot of the time, I’m silent about my body, my fatness and my internalized issues of undesirability. It’s fucked up, but I repeat my refrain: socialization is a beast. Just because I’m not telling you this all the time doesn’t mean it’s not there. I’m not required to be the tokenized spokesperson of what it’s like to be in my plus-sized body.
I’m pretty sure my fourth grade self would be in awe of my 28 year old self. My weight, my body, and my appearance continues to inform my person every single day. Socialization is a beast, and fatness is a never ending psychosomatic reality in my life, affecting everything I do and most acutely informing the ways I perceive myself as a sexual being, in particular the ways in which I perpetually underestimate my sexual agency and capital. I’m now an empowered, intelligent, happy person, but I’m also an angry one; existing at the axes of social and structural oppressions can do that.
I will most likely never strut into a bar and work it like I’m the hottest thing since sliced bread. My fatness precludes that, and I’m not interested in putting myself on display for majority-thin audiences. I can’t undo the 23 years of body-shame I experienced before finding out that being a fat, femme queer was a thing and that I wasn’t alone. I won’t gratify you with a concluding statement that comforts you and lets you know that despite all this, I’ve overcome the struggle and love my boyfriend and my life now, so you can continue to ignore my fatness as a non-issue the next time we meet, because that’d be a lie. At the same time, I don’t seek your sympathy. Don’t pity me, but do check yourself. And let me take the elevator. And adhere to a truly queer politic that seeks to disrupt the ways in which neoliberal demands are reconstructed in our communities through the normalcy and acceptability politics that center masculinity and thinness as the unnamed neutral and desirable ways in which to have a sexy body. Thanks.