For Us By Us: Exploring Fatness and Desirability as a queer African woman
At the intersection of race, sexual identity, and class
At the intersection of race, sexual identity, and class
Presents were a rare occurrence in my family. Gifting, in material terms during special occasions was uncommon. However, my earliest memory of being offered gifts as a child was when they were offered as an incentive to lose weight. My mother would often promise me a new phone, or a new game, or dolls if I came down to the size that was deemed acceptable to her. In an effort to please, and fulfil these desires, I would try to put away daily meals; I starved, not only in hunger but also in the desperate need for the affection I felt was reserved for only thin children. Still, I would not lose enough weight, and I would not get any of the proposed gifts. I knew that my mother was jealous of all the other mothers who had thinner children. I knew that she longed for us to look like our neighbours, who were stylish as young girls and could fit in most of the attire marketed towards our age group. Even now, I feel like my fatness eclipses all other accomplishments in my mother’s eye. Still, my fatness is objectionable to her.
I remember bringing friends home after university, and her commenting that my friends were all big now. Since I made a conscious effort to go after friendships with people who looked like me, at the time, I received that statement as a total compliment. However, the world has never provided a safe space for big girls like me. Evident in bridesmaids being expected to lose weight for their friends’ weddings, in fashion shows and runways filled with size four women exclusively, generally speaking, thin girls’ friendship groups consist strictly of thin women, and fat women are expected to force our way in or pander to please their ideals of what friends should look like. Exhausted with trying to fit in, I am now resplendent in standing out and having friends who take up space.
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Fatness has always been a core part of my existence. In high school, I got compared to anything and everything, mainly large, black animals. I have had people compare me to hippopotamus’ (who are the cutest by the way), gorillas and elephants alike. I was aware of my grotesqueness in every sense of the word, and I despised myself for it. People would speak to me like I was dust beneath their feet and it was deserving because I existed in a fat body. Asides being offered presents as an incentive to lose weight, I had relatives who would rub their daughters’ desirability in my face. In trains with little brides, my dress would be easily identified as the biggest. I began to loathe weddings and any outing that would require measurements and being judged in the presence of many. Sometimes I would break down in tears over countless statements made towards me, knowing that my only comfort would come from my mother wrongly claiming that they were trying to help.
People would encourage me to look ‘better’, so that I could finally be treated as a human being. Then they would say they did this for my health, while my mental wellbeing suffered under daily judgement. My doctors ‘recommended’ several practices – ranging from starvation to strenuous, unhealthy daily exercises – and the word ‘obese’ was violently thrown at me, weaponised to illicit the inevitable emotion of shame they knew would follow. They would suggest enforced food deprivation, encouraging my parents to seek out, on my behalf, strict schools that would ensure the goal of thinness.
I understood very early on that any person who failed to conform to society’s ideal of a worthy body would be effectively punished until they bent into submission or withdrew from social gatherings completely. Romantically too, I was made to believe no options existed for me, in a fat body. No man would want to be with a fat woman, except they were ‘forced’ into doing such – force usually meant if the man in question was also undesirable (due to reasons such as looks, class, ability, etc.). And even if any man felt moved to be romantically attached to me, there was no question as to whether or not he would cheat. In fact, I was readily prepped by family members for such an occurrence to happen in my older years.
At a point in my life, I had only ever encountered thin brides, thin love interests, thin happy people. Nearly every show, music video or organised activity was filled with only smaller people. If fat people were deemed fit to be present, it was only to be the butt of the joke. In Marvel’s 2019 EndGame, Fat Thor is displayed as a gross, destitute version of his previous glamorous character. In fact, his fatness has seeped into his behaviour such that he has no goals or hopes of still being a hero. Rather than be concerned for his depressed state, which is due to their loss against Thanos, the other Avengers make him out to be a less-than. In HBO’s culturally-acclaimed series, Sex and the City, a core character named Samantha adds weight because she has been neglected by her boyfriend and she is suddenly unattractive to the point where her closest friends cannot stand the sight of her. All around us, the media reinforces that visibility was only ever afforded to the desirable.
All of this contributed to me having little to no social skills, a depleted sense of self-worth and a hankering to be a people pleaser. I thought that I was only worthy in service of people, effectively fulfilling the mammy trope that I could not even begin to comprehend at that age. During slavery and subsequently Jim Crow, mammies were larger black women (mainly dark skin) who were committed to the service of white families, even at the expense of their own. Their only gratification came from doing labor, and they did not have sexual agency except when they were over-sexualised as caricatures, with physical depictions of large asses and even larger lips by white people. Martin Lawrence’s character in Big Momma’s House is a shining example of this, of how society does not see fat women as sexual outside of our fetishisation or as commodities for the labor we provide, for example, people often alluding to fat women being able to cook and look after the family.
It is mentally dilapidating to understand how often society punishes you for your identity, then also makes fun of you when you become the very thing they have ascribed you to be. I was taken advantage of, countless times, at first physically and then sexually as time went on. Till date, I have a polarising fear of someone taking pictures of me unknowingly, as my high school crush did so during church, then gleefully showed me the badly-angled views of my back rolls and my panties peeking out from underneath my skinny jeans the next week. I had never been more mortified. So used to being rejected, especially by the opposite sex, as are a lot of fat women, it never occurred to me that a boy would ever like me for whatsoever reason. In an article for EveryGirl, Beth Gilette explains that there’s a stigma around finding a plus-size woman attractive, as men (really, people in general) have been conditioned by media and society for generations to think that thinness is what is beautiful. This is what they see, read, and hear, so attraction to a fat person is a deviation from the norm, which people often find difficulty in admitting.
At sixteen, someone I had been infatuated with for going on three years had to be confronted (by me) before he admitted that the only reason why he had never dated me – by extension, be seen with me in public – was because I was fat. Existing as a person who people cannot be seen out with is a total mind-fuck. As I taste the tips of desirability, as an adult who is becoming more comfortable with their body, I am still floored at the ways in which I am approached romantically, sorely different from my thin peers. There is hardly any intentionality in the way I am ‘asked out’, most men want to put in the barest minimum and receive everything I have to offer. They expect me to jump at their proposals of (mainly sex), because they believe that the privilege would be all mine. Their attraction to me is a favour and by all means my responses must reflect that.
Even within the queer community, I feel unwelcome. It should be a safe space, but I am largely aware of the community’s strict aversion to non-thin bodies. Most of the lesbians I know, masculine or otherwise, are dating thin women. I identify as femme and femmes are expected to be dainty, prettily dressed and soft-spoken. In fact, majority of what we regard as femininity is reserved for thin women. Fatness, tallness, queerness, and ones gender identity automatically reduces their proximity to what is regarded as feminine. It was easy for me to reject the construct when it came to understanding gender identity as I had never felt any connection to the theory as a whole.
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My immediate community of friends, family and acquaintances are not the only guilty parties, strangers too, empowered by the media and societal ideals, have been as quick to cut me down, though they don’t even know me. I remember that I have had things shouted at me as I walk in the streets. Market violence aside, I have heard yells of “orobo” (fat person) while trekking on my dad’s office street. Most recently, I had just finished setting up some NYSC documents at a café and was making my way back to my car. A keke rode by, filled with passengers. The driver shouted, to the hearing of the entire street “YOU TOO FAT!” multiple times. Incensed, I screamed curses at him and then opened my door. Ironically, most people looked at me oddly for responding.
I have come to understand that society expects fat people to be dehumanised in silence. They expect us to take the insults, the shaming and all the pain and be content with it as our lot. When you fight back, they are confused. Interactions like these engage a very important yet highly neglected theory: how would the many instances of violence in fat peoples’ lives be different if someone stepped in? How my relatives might have responded if my mother chose to shut down their constant barrages instead of letting them tatter my self-confidence like attack dogs. What difference it would have made if my doctor was chastised by his superiors, or how silly the keke driver might have felt if a passenger had interrupted and asked him to drive instead of talking. How would society’s engagement of fat people drastically change for the better if people felt like our pain was worth paying attention to? Disrespect would become way less casual or normalised.
Reflecting on my privilege in these moments is knowing that at the end of the day, I am shielded by class. These insults were thrown at me while I was on the street walking to meet vehicles. I think of the fat women who face this sort of violence countless times every day. I think of the fat women who might board these kekes and be confronted by such drivers. I think of how often the burden of social anxiety brought on by weight keeps me in bed and yet these women have no such luxury of sleeping in to avoid judgmental society. I think of how buying well-fitting Western-tailored clothing, which became a huge boost to my self-confidence, is also unattainable for these women.
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Western clothes in larger sized are not readily available, one would have to reach the very back of markets before coming in contact with people who stock fat sizes. Meanwhile, big-brands charge objectively more for fat clothes and in return, burden us with burlap sack fashion.
For Nylon Mag, Bailey Calfee sorts through retailers who stock plus-sizes for both genders. It comes as no surprise that some brands (such as Old Navy) are charging more for just the women’s plus sizes, and not the men’s. The retail misconception, which argues that more fabric should mean more money, becomes null and void once we recognise that even straight sizes differ from one another, for example, a size 4 is bigger than a 2, and a size 6 is bigger than a 4, but the price for all of them is exactly the same. Thus, the argument holds no weight unless people start paying for fabric variations among straight sizes as well as in plus sizes.
I think about the fat women who are not ‘well-shaped’ and how often fat people are blamed for their disabilities. A 2008 study by Yale reveals delves into the mistreatment of fat people by health care professionals and how we are often denied equal access to health insurance as a result of weight or BMI exclusionary tactics from insurance companies; fat people are effectively made to believe our weight is the cause of any illness we might have in life. I think of how often we are misdiagnosed and mistreated by our healthcare providers. I think of how studies have shown that people who are less desirable are less likely to find work and more likely to receive higher prison sentences.
I think about how desirability determines or takes precedence on just about everything in this world, and how severely I am lacking in this area. I worry about my fat brother, by extension fat children as a whole growing up in the age of internet bullying, harassment and social ostracisation. A report from Nationwide Children’s states that fat kids who are victims of weight-related teasing or bullying are 2-3 times more likely to report thoughts of suicide or to engage in self-harming behaviour, such as cutting. This is an alarming statistic. Even fat children are not safe from weight-related attacks, from peers or guardians alike.
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Every good thing I feel about my body, any positive thought about my looks was something I had to give myself. Asides from my sister’s constant support, there was no sudden affirmation from society that made me who I am. There was no partner who poured their endless love into my body, and there was definitely no support from my immediate family when they realised I had made a choice to start enjoying my body, rather than spending every waking moment in fear of the word fat. Even if everyone else hated my body, I was determined to take intentional steps towards doing the opposite.
Unfortunately, loving oneself does nothing to shield from the societal repercussions and systemic injustices that come with living in a fat body. We have been groomed into hating our bodies; into comparing ourselves to smaller women, into hating larger fat people. We have taken on several ‘diets’ that range from dropping an entire class of food to only eating within a small window. Society has long since turned weight, and hating fatness or fat people into a currency, and the billion-dollar weight-loss industry booms off our insecurities each day.
I can encourage you to show kindness and all other pretty, flowery affirmations, however, I would like to instead challenge straight-size people to confront fatphobia, in all spaces. Fat people already do every second, so the onus would be on you all instead. Discuss why your friendship group is all thin women and how you could actively support a fat friend. When the people around you comment on or make a fat person feel ashamed, do not stay silent. Straight-size men, stop approaching fat women as mules, instead, take the care you would when talking to thin women, add jara and give it to us as well. Give labor to the fat people in your life, rather than always expecting it from us.
Featured Image Credits: Instagram/Tabria Majors
Chiamaka Ejindu is a fat, dark-skin woman committed to liberation for all marginalised people in every sense of the word. Tweet her @AsChiWasSayin to hear her wisdom on body politics (disabled or otherwise), sexual health and mental wellness.