Backslash Magazine: You will be judged by the size of your jeans.
This was the third in a three-part series regarding America’s disjointed body image and the creation of the improbable standards many young women find themselves confronted with everyday. It was published in Backslash Magazine (print and online) in 2011.
The world is full of sad realities. Barring some tragedy, you’re going to outlive your dog. Odds are, you’ll have roommate issues and the nice boy in your math class won’t love you no matter how many times you let him copy your homework. MapQuest doesn’t come with an “avoid the shady part of town” option and people may have assumptions about you based on your BMI. Simply put, you will be judged by the size of your favorite jeans.
I’ve ranted a bit about my disapproval of our media’s detrimental effects on the overall body image of American women. I’ve even talked about how we’re living in a state of contradiction; where the ideal woman presented in fashion spreads is getting thinner while the average woman is getting larger and more unhealthy. It’s effected our children – 42% of girls from first to third grade report wishing they were thinner, and at least half of all teenage girls have tried to control their weight through dieting, and it’s no secret that it continues to effect women into adulthood, no matter how successful, independent or secure they may be in themselves.
So how do these factors change how we relate to one another?
The only way to know is to have been on both sides of the fence – both overweight and on target. The story of Alice McAllister*, told in her own words, both touched and rattled me. She ended high school at a size 24, and despite being “hilarious, bitchy and sexually brash,” as she describes herself, she was still vulnerable to the hurtful things that people would say. Teenagers would accost her from their cars as they drove by and strangers would approach her and tell her not to concern herself with her looks and that she would lose the weight when she was ready.
The summer before her junior year of college, she was ready, and she discovered after losing 100 pounds exactly what people think of those who are overweight. Walking through the world as a size 10 for six years has given her an objective view of “what the world thinks of fat people.” In her own words, she can now “reap the benefits of a society set up to punish fat people for the unforgivable crime of eating too much.” She “didn’t discover that thin people drink cocktails and dance when fat people get off the bus,” but gained membership in a club where people are treated better and have rights to a new social world that includes romance.
Ms. McAllister admits that she lost the weight to reap these benefits, but found herself angry and bitter that she had to in order to join what seems like the rest of the world. She wonders about those who are kind to her now – would they have been the ones whispering cruel jokes? She asks “who can be trusted?” My friend Eliza* wonders the same thing.
“Customers treat me differently,” she says to me of her retail job across Skype. “It’s hard to explain. People are surprised to discover I have certain interests – like if I like anime or stuff like that. Stargate. My love for Tom Jones.” I asked her if she thought people viewed her likes as more acceptable now, and she shook her head, thinking for a moment. “Not necessarily. More like they expected it more when I was heavier.”
Eliza, like Alice, lost over a hundred pounds, though her motives were rooted in health rather than social interactions. She finds herself now with people who think she “doesn’t look like” she should have the interests she does – but what exactly does a Stargate fan look like? Is it intrinsic in human DNA that a scifi fan be overweight? As she speaks to me from a hundred miles away, I feel my heart break for her and her anger. Eliza was always an amazing person – funny and wonderful to be around with a knowledge about literature that would have made me envious from the day I met her if she hadn’t been so endearing and confident in who she was, what she liked, and what she thought about everything. It kills me that she had to lose weight for others to see that.
“Just because I lost a ‘person’ doesn’t mean I’m not the same person.”
Maybe I agree with her because, to some degree, I understand.
I went home last summer more like a wounded animal than a college student – death, desertion and stress had all but broken me, and I’d worried myself into being physically ill for a long period of time. As I pulled myself together, I took a long hard look at myself and my life and decided it was time to start being the person I wanted to be, which included weight loss, an injection of self esteem and finding my voice again.
It’s funny how the weight loss is the factor people care about. Between September and November I lost 30 pounds and regained my health. I had more energy and was having more fun than I’ve had since high school, but as I started meeting new people, I realized something – they were being nicer to me, girls wanted to be my friends and guys wanted to date me. People who had known me since I was six didn’t recognize me and Eliza was sitting back, watching and waiting to say “I told you so.”
It makes me sad to look at these three accounts and realize that this is how the world works – that we look at the size of a person’s jeans before we consider their merits as a human being – that we strip overweight individuals of their humanity to some degree, and make decisions about what people like or dislike based on the way they look. It breaks my heart that we are these people who judge books by their covers. It’s no wonder that children want to ensure they are thin and that girls will go to extreme, unhealthy measures to stay in the “skinny club.”
If there’s one thing I think Alice, Eliza and I can agree upon, it’s that we all hope we stay fat** on the inside.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the bitter.
**I hate the word fat with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.