[TW for fatphobia and frank discussion of eating disorders]
I want to have a little chat-adoodle tonight about fatness and the oft-discussed but in many ways under-analyzed notion of “taking up space.”
This thought was sparked in me again for, I don’t know, about the billionth time tonight when I saw a graphic about how to be a good ally. I’m not going to share the graphic, as I personally found it a little triggering.
But what I can say is that the notion of ‘taking up as little space as possible’ was represented by a person hugging their own shoulders in an effort to make their body even smaller than it is.
My whole life as a fat, then anorexic/bulimic, then fat again gender-variant queer, I’ve felt the notion of ‘taking up space’ weighing down on me – pun very much intended – even before I knew there was a name for it.
My fat body was bad and ugly, and I should be less selfish, take up less space, disappear, if you will.
And I tried very hard to do just that.
Already at my full adult height of over six feet as a teenager, I remember buying women’s extra-small T-shirts that fit. I remember being praised by a healthcare worker for eating dry toast and consuming no liquid calories. I remember when I replaced the one cube of cheese with no cube of cheese. I remember working out up to eight hours a day.
I remember people saying I looked great! And no one was ever concerned that you could feel the back side of my collarbone. Because I was thin! Because I was so wonderfully thin!
My teenage mind had already very much so fully assimilated the notion that my little genderqueer ass needed to be just that – little.
There’s the thin privilege of androgyny. The androgynous body as depicted in both popular and alternative media is supposed to be unreadable, and curves, and fat, make a body much more readable.
And my fat teenage mind was already full of taunts. From peers, and family, and TV. Thinness was associated not just with beauty – no! But also with intelligence, achievement, desirability, and, perhaps most damagingly, with the very right to respect and love yourself.
Even my tall teenage mind told me I needed to shrink! My shoulders are stooped and my head lolls forward on my neck. If only I could shrink even further! All the way into myself!
I had already started to put weight back on by the time I entered university and became aware of concepts like ‘taking up space.’
Now, look. I get that it’s a metaphor. But it is a shitty metaphor, especially given the way that society treats people whose bodies literally take up more space than other people’s bodies.
And even in noble queer academic America (gag), let me assure you, people are still more than ready to make stupid assumptions about fat people. Like that we’re stupid. Or are just there for the free pizza. (An almost lifelong fear of people seeing me eat meant that I was never there for the free pizza.) Like we’re lazy and ineffectual. Like we won’t be good team members. And – GASP – might not like the tiny little chairs.
And then someone says something about someone taking up too much space and you just seize up inside.
Now please, don’t get me wrong. This is a metaphor I’ve used. Because it describes a real phenomenon that needs to be addressed.
But have you ever noticed how many people in a community meeting will be hugging themselves, pulling their legs up, doing anything they can to appear to be disappearing?
The last thing in the world you want to do is be perceived as taking up too much space.
But instead of talking about taking up as much space as you literally take up, we privilege the notion of taking up as little space as possible.
Repeatedly having this drilled at you is damaging to fat people. It is damaging to tall people. How do I know? Because it happened to me.
And, frankly, this repetition of the horrors of taking up too much space doesn’t stop at damaging people who literally take up space – which, for the record, all corporeal beings do.
The damage extends to those people with their legs up, hugging themselves, shrinking away. They try desperately not to talk because someone other than them gets too decided how many words they use and if they absolutely must speak, they hedge their statements, and speak very softly, trailing off, refusing to take the palpable risk of being heard.
I know this isn’t very post-modern post-structuralist post-post of me, but maybe saying something like “hey, you’re talking a lot/too much and it’s taking away from others’ ability to share” would be a hell of a lot better way to put this.
Describing oppressive behavior shouldn’t also require oppressive behavior.
Marginalized people are already told all the time that they’re taking up too much space, or taking up the wrong space, or just taking up space in the wrong way. And this metaphor fuels the privilege of being diminutive. Is that really something we need more of?
It’s a garbage metaphor, and I hereby pledge not to use it anymore.
~Big Mama Schlomo