Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Don't see me

Yesterday, May 15, it was 86 degrees - totally wrong for Portland at this time of the year, and an awful reminder of what is coming (just in case anyone from Texas or Maryland is reading this, yes, I know I am a complete wimp). I spent most of the day in an air conditioned office, so I didn't really cotton to what was going on until I left at around 5:30. I was dressed in a long velvet skirt, a long-sleeved, black-knit top with one of those little sweater 'camisole' type things over it and knee-high leather boots. I felt certain that I was going to die.

I picked a sucky year to gain 70 pounds - the Crusade Against Obesity seems to be approaching some kind of orgiastic climax, for I don't remember feeling so many judgmental gazes before, even when I weighed 50 pounds more - either that, or I just got used to not being conspicuous for my size and now I am more sensitive about it.

It's such a luxury not to be conspicuous. Tonight, I went to the movies with a group of thin friends. One of them wanted the aisle seat, so with a sense of great dread, I sat down next to her, hemmed in on the other side by another friend, who shifted her tiny frame over into the side of the seat closest to me and leaned her head on her hand, elbow on the arm rest nearest my seat, for most of the duration of the 2-1/2 hour film.

I guess that means my efforts succeeded. I fit into the seat like a cork. Crossing my arms, mummiform, over my body, I was able to avoid getting into anyone else's space. I didn't feel entitled to 'spill over' onto the arm rests. I felt both terribly bodily uncomfortable and terribly ashamed. I don't think for a second that my friends would have begrudged me the space if I had made it clear I needed it, and a year ago, 70 pounds smaller, I wouldn't have questioned my right to use those arm rests - because it was clear that I didn't have to use them. The thing that feels shameful (and I know there's no reason it should be shameful, any more than it should be shameful for a very tall person to need more leg space when he/she sits anywhere) is the necessity.

My friend J. got really angry one time when she heard a fat friend of ours make the standard joke about having 'plenty of padding' if she fell. J. said that it's exactly the opposite. Fat isn't numb, external padding; it's YOU. If you are fat, there is more of you to hurt. If you're fat, your flesh is more obvious, its movement is more visible. It jiggles - it rolls. It takes up space and gets in people's way. It keeps you from neatly dealing with your limbs when you sit down - no leg crossing, no arm crossing. You just have to sit there with all of it out there, spilling over the edge of the seat, vulnerable and unprotected.

When you walk, the fat doesn't stay compactly knit to your musculature; it swings from side to side - it ripples. If your shirt hits right at your waist or just below, watch out when you reach up or bend over for something! - your fat might ripple coyly out from under, and instead of slipping neatly back into place, as it does when there are no rolls to get caught on, the shirt might just stay there, the fat peeking out for the world to see and to scorn. So you perpetually tug at the hem to make sure it stays down - a stock fat girl gesture - another thing to see and scorn. Fat can make you feel like you are wading through waist-deep water in a long, heavy, cotton dress. The sheer drag factor of the stuff is astonishing.

After I lost the 120 pounds in 2005, I bought and attired myself entirely in those sausage casings that pass for 'normal'-sized American women's fashions. Everything I wore showed my body, and I wanted it to. I wanted credit for what I'd done - I wanted the big payoff for becoming acceptable. I wanted people to see me, and to have the pleasure of not being instantly categorized, at first glance, as beneath notice. Now, 70 pounds heavier, I am wishing I could find something, ANYTHING, that is both beautiful and completely concealing.

I looked around at all the plus size sites, and every one of the dresses I saw was a tradeoff - disguise the fact that you are concealing the belly by revealing the arms - - disguise the fact that you are concealing the arms by revealing the legs. If I could choose my ideal attire right now, I would have a gorgeous, deep blue silk dress with a red muslin underlayer and a rounded ballet neckline - a long dress that flutters in the movement of the air, with 3/4 length sleeves, a skirt that drops at least to my ankles and a loose, flowing shape that my rolls can shift around under without being observed.

The movie I saw tonight, with my slender friends, was partially set in India, and I was thinking how much, with a few modifications, I would LOVE to dress like an Indian woman, or a woman from one of the more progressive Muslim countries. Salwar kameez rock my world - - those loose, flowing pants and long, dress-like tops with their long sleeves and gorgeous fabrics are fan-fricking-tastic.

I remember reading an article once in college, written by an American Muslim woman student, about her decision to wear hijab. I've never been a great advocate of any cumbersome, mandated dress code for women (and yes, I know we have one of the most draconian ones right here in the U.S. - I don't like it either), but I found her arguments compelling. If you don't want your body judged, and to be judged on your body, you cover it up, well and thoroughly. She felt a great sense of freedom in not having her body scrutinized all the time, evaluated primarily for its beauty or lack thereof and admired or scorned. It was nice, she said, to opt out of that. It freed up a lot of mental energy.

I remember, 70 pounds lighter, when I started getting really into my appearance, just how bottomless the task was. There was always something that needed to be 'managed.' The most attractive way to sit - the smoothness of my legs - the neatness and softness of my feet - the prettiness of my toenails - whether or not a little bulge appeared at my waist when I sat - how to sit to conceal it if it did - how well my bra fit - were my nipples showing through? Am I going to be wearing a bathing suit? Better make sure to mow and edge. These shoes make me look so tall and thin, but they are crippling my feet and making me walk funny. Oh god - what's going to happen when this guy sees me without my makeup?

I know, I know, I know that there is no magic form of dress that will free women from the consequences of an almost universally sexist world view. The women who wear hijab in many of the countries where it is either traditional or mandated are often just as relentlessly and compulsively groomed as American women underneath, and in many cases, the grooming is as much a gesture of independence as donning hijab was for the American Muslim woman who wrote that article I read in college. I guess what it boils down to is having a choice, and trying desperately to make the one that will give you the most latitude to be seen as you want to be seen, and not simply shunted into a category and treated accordingly.

It's a vanishingly rare thing for a woman to win this game. If you are sexually attractive, your sexual attractiveness limits how seriously people will take you. If you are not, people may not even so much as SEE you when you walk by, and they certainly won't give a damn what you have to say or offer. For most of my life, like most women, I've run from one side of that equation to the other, always looking for relief, and I've never found it. I want to be invisible again, the way I did when I weighed 311 pounds. Of course I know it won't make me any happier than being thin/visible did, but it will make me a hell of a lot happier than being fat/visible, as I am now. This time, though, I want to be wallpapered in something pretty.


Blogger Fatslayer said...

What a fabulous post - so insightful, perceptive and honest. I'm sad to say that I actually looked forward to getting older so that I could exempt myself from the dating meat market - it was just exhausting to try to meet the standard, and I was glad when I could shut up shop (so to speak) and just accept that for the young hot guys I simply wasn't on the radar screen.

There's something positive and reaffirming about invisibility!

7:49 AM  
Blogger Kate Harding said...

There are so many things I want to say about this post (which I really admire, although it makes me sad), but I'm only on my first cup of coffee, so I'll go with something so trivial it borders on missing the point: Zaftique (dot com) has TONS of dresses that cover pretty much everything without being frumpy. Almost all of their "tradeoff" dresses also come in long or 3/4-sleeve versions.

6:44 AM  

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