AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF FATNESS
Looking forward to the 2 Fish Combo and side of hush
puppies I walked into Long John Silvers, where my mom
would also let me order a side of “Crumblies®,” the pieces of fried
batter that fall off the fish in the grease
which, off menu, they’d let you order for 50 cents.
I was jumping up and down, waving my arms, shouting, “Mom,
she is so fat!” I repeated it. According to my mom,
I was practically dancing, pointing at a woman
eating the same combo. My mom struggled to stop me, but couldn’t
find a way to explain, quickly, why “fat” was an insult. Given that
I had a pretty bad stutter, there’s some chance the harassment
was extended by the difficulty of both “em” and “ef” sounds.
Instead, she explained the inverse:
“From my daughter, this is a compliment.” I was truly
happy; my mom so sorry. The woman smiled, said it was clear
I meant well. I got quiet, knowing, from my mom’s face,
I had done something “wrong.”
As we ate she explained it was fine
for me to feel excitement but it was not fine
to describe people’s bodies to them.
I might have made the woman very sad, she said.
It seemed to me, then, that if you liked
someone, you would be delighted
when there was more of them. My happiest cats
got fat and we said “look how fat you have become, Butch,
we love you.” Why else did we spend our lives
(the life a small child can imagine) in others’ arms
as often as possible, our bodies curled around them?
Maggie Nelson throws her hands in the air and celebrates fatness
for a brief paragraph of The Argonauts, which I read on the long train
from NYC to Montreal. It made me, at first, cry,
in the most normal way, deciding whether to want the kind of love
it represents, one where two people become an actual unit,
everything they encounter forming a new private world.
I had interrupted my reading to write many drafts
of the same love letter on that train, all unsendable—I wanted
so badly both to have such a you to address.
The first attempts all failed to get started:
Dear . . . . dear,
even there I stop. I have never sent you a letter, so “Dear Danny” is too intimate . . .
But I had a plan in mind: I was only reading The Argonauts
because the letter’s recipient just had, and, following Shklovsky, I’m
always looking for something to replace love.
I tried again.
With each letter, it became clearer
1. that I knew I was not loved in return, 2. that I was “better
off,” 3. that I wasn’t prepared to gush about
The Argonauts, a sus book, so 4. I came back
to it and to my feelings
when Nelson turns, briefly, to fatness.
She talks about fatness purportedly to add
to the complicated set of ways one might feel
“at home” in one’s body. She says:
It feels important to pause and pay homage to the fact that many of
the many-gendered mothers of my heart—Schulyer, Ginsberg,
Clifton, Sedgwick—are or were or have been corpulent beings.
But Nelson is quick to exclude herself
from this list, not just by fact of her thinness, but by its
essentialness: “having a small body,
a slender body, has long been related to my sense
of self, even my sense of freedom.” This is quite strange,
even if she”s offering the fact by way of apology.
I think Nelson brings up corpulence for a lot reasons—
not just to cope with her own
mother, and her feelings re: thinness, but also
to note how the demand for “body positivity’ can be fucked.
And to recognize a queerness in fatness, that a queer space
or sex would understand the body and its charms better:
when I first read Gertrude Stein’s Lifting Belly,
the other students were shocked
not by the cunnilingus, but by the fatness of a belly
that needed to be moved out of the way to get to the clit.
It was the most erotic description of sex
I had experienced, and became somewhat constitutive
of my sense of it: I find myself disappointed
to learn many bellies don’t need to be lifted,
even if some will permit you to
overeagerly lift the mons pubis.
By the fifth draft, the letters were addressed
to myself: it became clear that this was a diary. As such
it turned to my own body:
When I have been small I have been obsessed with looking at
myself, literally pulling the loose sacks of skin where fat used to be
up to photograph them, then to decide whether, if I encountered
these sacks on someone else, I could still be attracted to them.
I wonder if Nelson doesn’t account
for her interruptive love of corpulence
because she’s thin, and
because “fat,” among other categories
(like “woman” or “poor”) can sometime be used as an excuse
for oppressing others; I fear here, for example,
that my temptation to write
about my own body, to the extent that it has been or will become fat,
is another way to, as Nelson does at her worst, misguidedly cling
to whatever small piece of myself escapes power.
As with fucking women. I have failed to finish
this many times, getting stuck on the question
of whether, like Nelson’s paragraph, this is about my love
of others or of myself, and if the latter, what shape I am.
Nothing about my size has been interesting
except its changes: once, I found myself small
for a year or two, on account of anxiety-induced IBS.
I quit fainting and started shitting, then started fainting
from fear of shitting, and so I quit eating much from fear
of both fainting and shitting, and everywhere I went,
friends asked: “What is your secret? You look amazing.”
In those moments, I thought, what a way to die, the body
deciding not to turn food into self, the self becoming
“beautiful” for there being less of her, to be prettier
every day until one day, so pretty, the great relief of collapse,
not the whiteout of a panic attack, but the permanent one,
where you never have to go to a party again. I saw my mom
get this kind of thin once, too: the years where she had cancer
removed, among other surgeries and ailments, still working
the many jobs she worked so that I, I suppose,
could sit at home and grow softer, but
you will not be surprised this was not an easy time for her
to eat. I heard the compliments: how did she lose
the weight, friends and family wanted to know? I remember
somewhere in these years going with her to shop for a new
swimsuit, feeling sad she took a smaller size than I did:
our souls are eaten away so early that we are jealous of our mom’s
weight loss due to cancer in the swimsuit aisle.
Still, the hesitation here is that, for some reason, Nelson’s
comments “hurt my feelings,” as if
I were there in the book, too. So I wanted to write a poem,
a love letter to softness that would be different, I thought,
but could not write it for inability to describe myself.
Such that I started to feel, about the question of whether
the pounds I’ve gained back merit talking about,
the same way I feel about whether the women
I’ve loved render me gay enough to talk about that, too:
this is what “bi sexuality” feels like—you know it’s not queer
when the vernacular for your sex life
doubles down on the binary—
a dull canceling out. It’s a word
I’ve permitted myself only because it’s abject (“adj.
(of a person or their behavior) completely without pride”):
to say “queer” is to claim something, to say “bi”
is to apologize. I am sorry. As with weight: “No,
I don’t want to go to that store, they refuse
to stock pants I can get my thighs into, I can
still comfortably ride an airplane, please don’t
‘reassure’ me that I am ‘not fat’ just take me
to the store that has pants for all of us, the queer
bar but for jeans.” What I am trying to say is,
basically, that an average self-described “bisexual” is a person
whose traits have not risen
to the dignity of a self and so require
other evidence—queerer, bigger desires.
A desire, for example, for a better interlocutor
for my body—someone eager to pick up
not just my belly, but the pieces, not just
of myself, but of the things I am reading, and
of the memories grafted
onto them: for example, to write to someone
who would want to hear how, in trying to finish
this, I read a 2014 “scientific” study that concluded
that, because “compared with heterosexual women
. . . lesbians and bisexuals had increased likelihood
of being overweight at age 18 years and maintaining
overweight status during adulthood,” they had found
“a need for interventions for sexual minority
women” (the study found that gayness
was protective against obesity for men). Truly:
the scientists want to “intervene” with teenage
women who like women to warn them
that they are more likely to become fat. When I
was seventeen, I went to a gynecologist
for a recurring yeast infection that turned out
(after six months of incredible sexual pain)
to have been repeatedly transmitted by the then-
boyfriend, and the doctor noted I had checked “bisexual”
on the form. “I have to warn you,” he offered,
“that you’re at much greater risk of contracting HIV.”
“That is not true,” I said. He repeated: “I’m not
homophobic—this is me trying to better treat gay
patients, ” in Indiana, he specified, where many doctors
still pretended gay people didn’t exist. “I understand,”
I said, “But I listed the number of sexual partners
and their genders. I’m not sure how my unrequited love
for my friends is likely to lead to infection.”
He also, I might note, recommended
I lose about 20 pounds:
“You should be careful, is all I’m saying.”