This weekend I was on the way to meet my mother for lunch, then an afternoon ballet. I was reading Americanah on the subway platform and kind of chuckled to myself at a great part. I noticed a guy coming toward me out of the corner of my eye, and I assumed the neutral please-don’t-talk-to-me invisibility cloak posture of a New Yorker completely immersed in my book and not looking to start a conversation.
“You’re a little thicker than the girls I usually date,” he said without preamble or introduction, “but you have such a pretty smile I had to say hi.”
I looked up for a moment while a blizzard of angry things raged in my mind, trying to decide what to say, but settled on an expression of clear disgust and offense, shook my head, then returned to my book. I hoped he got the message that he was out of line and not worth my time to talk to, but I doubt that nuance got through. A train pulled in at that moment, so I didn’t get to hear if he called me a bitch, but I pointedly walked to a different car from him and experienced the usual fuming of mistreatment coupled with weird thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have smiled though.”
I posted what he said on Twitter, and I was relieved when a very dear friend of mine responded, “Why do people think that is at all OK to say to another?” His incredulity reassured me, that it wasn’t just a fat girl taking something too personally, but I kept asking myself really, how else are you supposed to take that kind of thing?
Later this weekend and in subsequent conversations about Beyoncé’s amazing Super Bowl half-time performance and the powerful messages in “Formation,” I saw a constant barrage of dismissive comments about her body and appearance. Some said she’s too old or too heavy to be dancing the way she was, others said her style of dance was too sexual to convey the message (that powerful ownership of sexuality is a very part of what a radical and bold message it is), others said if she was trying to engage people in the Black Lives Matter movement, she should have worn a less provocative costume so they’d take her seriously, and on and on. It was so much surface, so much missing the point, so much of the same type of sentiment that asks why she can’t “do something” with her daughter’s natural hair, and in addition to being totally exasperated with the state of race relations in America, I was stunned that even Queen Bey can’t escape this crap.
It may be the age or weight I am at, but I’ve noticed a dramatic uptick in guys saying weirdly specific and unflattering things about my body as if they were making observations about the weather. Sometimes they even try to volunteer it as a compliment like, “Your weight doesn’t bother me” and smile like they expect to be congratulated for their open-mindedness. When confronted with my hurt feelings or the fact that it’s not something I was looking for an opinion on, they become even more self-assured, “Well if it bothers you so much, you should do something about it,” never recognizing that it was their unsolicited objectification that was the problem, not my body or my feelings about it.
Here is a sampling (really a drop in the bucket) of comments and topics about my body and appearance that have stuck out over the years:
- “You have a nice big ass for a white girl, I like it.” – 7:30am on the sidewalk by a guy in a suit
- From an overweight boyfriend while we were eating pizza: “You are curvy enough, you don’t need to eat the cheese and get fatter.”
- “You’re not fat, you’re just like big.”
- From another overweight boyfriend, when I was 20 pounds lighter than I am now: “You’ve gotten so fat I can’t even see you as a woman anymore, let alone find you attractive.”
- Taking photos of me in unflattering positions or outfits, “so you can see what I mean” when he criticizes my appearance.
- “I am actually okay with your weight, except your arms.”
- Repeatedly asking me why I groomed a certain way and not another (this fixation is part of why we never went further).
- On a first date, asking if it was my natural hair color, if I whitened my teeth, and asking how regularly I got my nails done (never – I do them myself).
- “Have you ever been so attracted to someone’s personality and you wish so much that you could love them, but you just like can’t because you’re just not attracted to them?”
- Guys who I was not attracted to interpreting every invitation as a date and trying to politely reject me by asking if I could bring my best friend too.
- Online, sending messages that were a detailed appraisal of my appearance, followed by, “So what would you do if we were together right now?”
- Well-meaning guy friend, “I think if you lost maybe 30 pounds, he wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with you, and then he’d be less weird about dating you.”
- Former shitty friend, “You should see if your insurance covers gastric bypass surgery, I think you’d be surprised.”
- Same former friend, “It must be hard for you, for guys to see you like you’re just a ditzy, bubbly blonde with big boobs and no brain.”
- Former friend yet again*, “Well maybe if you lost weight and had some more confidence in yourself, you could date guys more like us. You know, even like… white guys.”
- From a different friend, “It must be nice not caring about guys finding you attractive, you can just enjoy yourself.”
- “I like your dress. Did you lose weight? You look better somehow.”
* Seriously, she was kind of an awful person and said a ridiculous amount of unkind things, but this was the moment I decided I didn’t want to be her friend anymore.
When I lamented that I couldn’t find interesting, intelligent guys who could hold a conversation, that same awful friend said, “There are some guys who are into your body type, there are online communities and stuff for them,” referring transparently to chubby chasers. I clarified that I didn’t mean men didn’t find me attractive, but that I struggled to find guys with a point of view. “Well I’m sure they’re out there,” she said snidely, “but maybe they’re busy talking to someone else.”
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946, oil on masonite
What’s especially frustrating is that I don’t judge people by their appearance. I recognize that physical attraction plays a part in forming a romantic connection, but (with no offense intended to anyone I’ve dated in the past who might read this) that’s never the thing that sets stars in my eyes for someone. One of my dearest friends from college said once that he didn’t put much stock in women’s appearances because, “everyone gets busted up when they’re older anyway, so I’m trying to find someone I like talking to.” He made me realize how incredibly shallow it was to desire someone for the symmetry of his features or the conformity of his stature to the male ideal, instead of really listening to his words and finding the beauty in his mind. My friend said he preferred women who spent their time reading books and pursuing interests to those working out every day or obsessing over their appearance, and he sent me a quick calculation he’d done of how many books a woman could read in four years instead of the 90-minute dolling-up routine most of the girls in my dorm did before going out. I can’t remember the exact number now, but at the time I was stunned, and I wished so earnestly that the world had more people like him in it.
But women’s bodies and appearance seem up for critique and because it’s generally accepted that people can’t necessarily control how talented, intelligent, funny, kind, or interesting they are (I’d argue that they definitely can) the discussion seems to focus on what they can buy or do to improve themselves at a surface level. I think it may be a product of the combined effects of the diet and weight-loss industry, the constant stream of articles about juice cleansing or purifying to lose fat, the media tropes about women constantly dieting or getting a revenge body to get over a break-up, the cultural expectation that women must spend hours aggressively working out in a gym to be healthy, the assumptions guys make about women’s bodies and what’s normal based on watching too much porn, some baffling success in response to negging, constant media critiques of women that include their appearance, or any of the plethora of other messages that guys pick up in a day telling them that it’s okay to openly criticize a woman’s body and treat her like an object whose value is based primarily on her appearance, still, in 2016.
I used to believe that all the comments I got must be because I invited them by calling myself fat or sharing too much about my diet or exercise, so I’ve tried to stop talking about my appearance except to occasionally accept compliments that aren’t also back-handed and insulting. I’ve realized how many of my friendships relied on the dynamic of me being someone’s fat or nonthreatening friend, and I also saw how many people in my life unequivocally equate being overweight with being inherently unattractive and in turn, a lesser person. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard men call Hillary Clinton ugly or fat or shrill or make fun of her hair or clothes or how she’s aging at length before even beginning to talk about her politics, and seriously, that’s just not okay. (If any candidate should be bashed for appearance, we all know it’s that slimeball creep Ted Cruz.)
Tamara De Lempicka, Young Lady with Gloves / Jeune fille en vert, 1930, oil on wood
In WASP etiquette, it is considered gauche to talk too much about a person’s appearance, complimentary or otherwise, because it is objectifying and belittling, not to mention boring to be so shallow. The polite way to point out someone’s weight loss is not at all, or if you feel compelled, say, “You’re looking so well” and if they want to talk about it, let them, with the understanding that only insecure and immodest people actually will. Sadly, now that we live in the age of victorious before-and-after pictures and people posting videos of themselves doing pull-ups on the internet for fitspiration, this bit of decorum has become antiquated. People seem to feel it is their duty to weigh in on others’ appearance and proportionality, and while they would never speak about other physical differences or disabilities in this way, like lamenting someone’s “great personality” being let down by how short or tall she was or what a small nose or large mouth she had, somehow fitness is still up for critique and discussion, presumably because it is something people – and especially women – are supposed to feel bad about and, most importantly, control.
As one particularly chauvinist friend put it when complaining that his hook-up was disappointing him, “A girl’s body is her currency, so yeah, if you’ve got an inferior product maybe you need to do a little more to make it worth my while.”
I don’t know how we get past this point, but it is revolting and distressing in so many ways. Even if people catch a hint and stop saying it to my face, I know they still think it. Whenever I hit it off with a guy, I wonder now if he’s trying to talk himself into settling for me, or if he’s thinking the subway guy’s first part of the sentence before coming over to say hi. I am deeply suspicious of compliments from men or mystifying statements like, “Remember, you really are beautiful.” It shouldn’t be so hard to love people for who they are, instead of what they look like, but it seems to be getting worse and worse.
For now it makes me kind of happy to be single and know that I’m the only one who gets to see myself naked.