Gareth looks up from her crochet project just as the train pulls into the Brooklyn Jay Street station, where she must get off and switch across the platform for the A train to Manhattan
“Yeah, that’s right, get off the train, you fat bitch!” yells a man sitting nearby. He looks to be in his 40s or 50s, dressed in jeans and a leather coat, possibly drunk but not obviously so. His words hang in the air like a noxious gas. A woman nearby gasps, clearly offended. An older man with white hair and a friendly, wrinkled face shakes his head silently. Two school kids in puffy jackets muffle their giggles with their hands.
Gareth has heard this kind of thing so often that the effect is dulled at first. Later she will relive this moment in her head many times over, articulating the multitude of sassy responses she could have spat back, but ultimately this reflection will do nothing except give her the sharp stab of familiar pain. It is loneliness so deep that she must turn it into anger in order to survive.
Gareth is my best friend, and, yes, she is obese by clinical standards. She is also brilliant, kind, popular, magnetic, and in a loving relationship. She dresses up to go out on Saturday nights, dances her ass off, gets the occasional free drink from a hopeful guy. She is a powerhouse at the office, blazing through her daily tasks with efficiency and conscientiousness. She is an activist and an actor—mentoring a little girl with AIDS, marching in prochoice rallies, writing and performing monologues in off-Broadway productions.
This is not a woman who has “checked out,” contrary to what so many people assume about those who are fat. She doesn’t sit at home and lament her size. She isn’t passive or embarrassed. She certainly isn’t lazy. She spends her time trying to make the world a better place and figuring out how the hell she fits into it.
On paper, she is a perfect girl.
To the ignorant, naked eye, she is flawed.
Sizeism remains the only truly socially acceptable form of discrimination on the planet. We see living in a fat body as an insurmountable disability. Nearly a decade ago, the feminist therapist Mary Pipher wrote that “fat is the leprosy of the 1990s.” Today fat is the death penalty of the 21st century. [Most women] can’t imagine being lovable at that size, applying for a job at that size, even living at that size. When I asked 14-year-old Manhattanites how their lives would be different if they were fat, they were struck silent. After a few moments, one responded, “I would be dead.”
Paradoxically, we as a society make it a catastrophe to be fat, but we have little awareness of the pain of a woman like Gareth’s internal world. We dramatize fatness through news segments on the obesity epidemic, but our awareness of the emotional and psychological pain of fatness remains virtually nonexistent.
By Courtney E. Martin, from the book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body