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Why Being Fat Encourages You to Make Yourself Small

I recently watched the Hulu series Shrill, only to then discover that it was inspired by the book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. Both gave me a lot of food for thought, so this is the first of what might be a few reflections on it.

In case you’re not familiar with either the book or series, both are essentially about empowering fat women.

In the series, Annie is a young woman who happens to be fat, and as the short season (6 episodes) progresses, she becomes more confident and assertive.

Similarly, the book is about Lindy West’s own journey in life as a large woman, also becoming very outspoken against fat shaming and defending her right to exist as she is.

And both illustrate the strange phenomenon of how fat people try to make themselves small, something I could relate to.

If this concept is new you to you, West describes it well: “So, what do you do when you’re too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can’t with your body. You diet. You starve… you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.” (pp.12-13)

Staying quiet

One of the easiest ways of making yourself small is by staying quiet.

In the book, West writes: “In public, until I was eight, I would speak only to my mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing my face against her legs.” (p. 13)

But it’s hard to imagine this because by the time West wrote her memoir, she was far from quiet. And her current adult self is anything but silent.

From that perspective, the series does a better job, since you can see how Annie starts as a quiet, polite young woman. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you accept other people’s rudeness with politeness, that’s a way of making yourself so small that you’re essentially invisible.

You can see this right from the beginning. (Warning – a few very minor spoilers ahead.)

In the opening scenes, Annie spots an ad for a personal trainer in a café. She’s not interested, just amused by the photo, but then the trainer appears at her side and tells Annie that she needs help.

She says, “There is a small person inside of you who’s dying to get out…. You weren’t meant to carry around all this extra weight. I know I can help you.”

Annie’s response? An awkward smile and laugh before saying, “That’s very nice, thank you.”

But it doesn’t end there. The trainer presses her point, telling Annie she should give herself “permission to be well” and that she’d be pretty if she just lost weight.

Even then Annie doesn’t say anything negative in response. So another woman in the café calls out the behavior as crazy, except Annie brushes it off and claims it was cool and makes a joke out of it.

This is not being polite. This is accepting abuse without feeling like you can stand up for yourself, because you need to be small. It’s about feeling like you can’t be big and protect yourself.

Going along with what other people want

This relates to another part of being small, which is that you don’t express opinions or desires. You just do what other people suggest and want because making a fuss would, again, be drawing attention to your bigness.

Annie shows this most particularly in doing whatever her “boyfriend” asks. (I say this in quotes because he refuses to be seen with her – they just have sex.) This includes making Annie go out the back and climb over a fence so his roommates won’t see her.

Avoiding going out into the world

But one of the biggest problems is how your life becomes circumscribed. You worry about not fitting into airplane or movie seats, or how badly you’ll measure up in any kind of physical activity. You worry about breaking things and not being able to find clothes that fit.

As West wrote: “Over time, the knowledge that I was too big made my life smaller and smaller…. I backed out of dinner plans if I remembered the restaurant had particularly narrow aisles or rickety chairs. I ordered salad even if everyone else was having fish and chips…. I didn’t go swimming for a fucking decade.” (pp. 16-17)

Though to be clear, this doesn’t only happen if you have a larger body. In the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, we talk a lot about how being restrictive with eating also impacts your way of being in the world, since so much of what we do revolves around food.

In either case, it’s all too easy to draw a circle around yourself and be afraid to step outside.

My own experience

I could relate all too well to this. I’m grateful that I never had an experience like Annie’s, where some random stranger came up to me and told me I needed to lose weight, although that could just be due to where I lived. In a small town, very few people are total strangers, and during the years I lived in Boston, I excelled at making my life small.

For example, I remember times when I took the T, and I’d choose to stand, rather than taking up so much space in a seat I’d spill over into the next spot.

I also used to be very quiet. My voice is naturally soft, but even so, I rarely spoke up. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

At home, where I felt more comfortable, I might express an opinion, but not so much in other settings. This included when I started my co-op job and sat in the dark, literally. All the guys who worked there wanted to have it dark – this was in a room with no windows, so the only light was from computer screens and the doorway.

Even though I didn’t like it, I never spoke up. I was so happy when another young woman joined us a few months later and immediately said something, and the lights came on. But I never thanked her for it.

I didn’t even want to ask for help. I was so afraid of what other people would think of me. I remember my first time going to Haymarket in Boston, and when I came back, I got on the wrong green line train. I hadn’t realized the train had multiple lines. I only had a little cash on me, enough for two more tokens. I went back to Haymarket and by pure luck got on the right train and made it back to my dorm.

I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten it wrong – and yet still, I never asked anyone which train I should take. I can’t say exactly what I thought would have happened, or why it would be worse than being stranded, but somehow, it was.

Learning to take up space

I could go on, but you get the idea. It was only when I started changing my relationship to food and myself that I began to speak up more. I started having opinions at work. I finally began to feel worthy of taking up space, in every sense.

This is something both Annie and Lindy West learned, too, but at what cost? Why does it have to take so long, and so many years of just accepting whatever other people say? Is this something you’ve ever experienced?

Things like this are the reasons why I consider weight bias, like other kinds of bias, to be a social justice issue. And it’s why I hope that at least in some way, I can raise awareness and help others find their voice and confidence.

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