Why the sexual harassment of fat people reaches a different level of offensiveness.

We were trading catcalling and harassment stories.

A group of smart, thoughtful, lively, funny women had gathered, as many women do, for a moment of catharsis and commiseration over the ways in which our bodies are taken from us, little by little, with stunning regularity.

One woman’s coworker had asked her out three times, unswayed by her declination. Another waited at a bus stop when a man, unannounced, wrapped his arms around her from behind. Gross, everyone agreed. Me too.


The stories gained momentum, building to purging crescendoes of laughter and irritation. This is how we unburden ourselves. This is how we loose tension back into the world that foisted it on us in the first place.

When asked about my own experience, I shared something about an acquaintance making a graphic pass at me months earlier.

“He kept telling me how he wanted to hold my arms down while I struggled to get free. It was gross.” I shrugged it off.

Friends’ responses sharpened. What had been lighthearted release turned to vigilance and concern. This moment, with this acquaintance, had felt routine to me. He was not the first man to tell me about a rape fantasy, and he wouldn’t be the last. I had assumed it was just a particularly unsavory version of a kind of harassment we’d all faced. Other women at the table assured me it was not.

Afterward, a friend asked why I hadn’t told anyone sooner. Just as she’d been surprised by my experience, I was surprised by her question. The answer felt so evident. Like many women before me, when I share stories of harassment, catcalling, unwelcome advances and violence, I am met with pushback.

Unlike other women, however, there is a common misconception that my body cannot be desired, because I am fat.  And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Fat people date, marry, hook up, get lonely, and get laid just like anyone else.

Yet still, we are regularly depicted on screens and pages, by media and loved ones, as undesirable and undesired. Those depictions give way to a belief that fat people are isolated, unloved, desperate, voracious. Grateful for what little attention we get and forever longing for more of it.

So when we are harassed, catcalled, and assaulted, I’ve noticed that those moments are supercharged with entitlement and violence. Those who harass us are emboldened by the belief that we’ll be flattered, relieved, or honored by the attention. Their expectations have been skewed by a culture that tells them to indulge in any impulse, disregarding any want that is not their own. A culture that tells them they are entitled to nearly any body they claim. A culture that tells them so many of our bodies are disposable, accessible, and theirs for the taking. A culture that tells them fat girls are easy — they want you more than you want them.

And when we don’t, they lash out.

A man asked me out years ago. I declined gently, in the way that so many of us do — a survival skill to avoid violence. My heart raced, straining against my ribcage as I gingerly chose my words. "You’re so sweet. I’d love to. I can’t."

Still, he became agitated, asking why. I told him I was queer. I didn’t want any part of him or the picture he painted me into. Still, my rabbit heart wouldn’t stop thumping. Still, it stung. Still, I cried.

Image via iStock.

It felt so familiar. As a fat woman, the messages I receive about sexual harassment are cruel and constant.

Be grateful for the attention you get. Even if it’s violent. Even if you don’t want it. Did that person really want to rape you? Really, you? Because we still think of sexual assault as being driven by desire. And who would want such a wretched body? Of course it gets violent. Of course we don’t tell anyone.

Recently, a friend told me over cocktails about the umpteenth time a man made an unwanted pass at her. "I’m so over it," she said. "I get it, you’re into me, move on." I related to her irritation — like her, I have felt the frustration of so many strangers’ entitlement to my body. As women, it seems that our bodies are always public property, there to be grabbed, judged, claimed, conquered. Her frustration I understood — I feel it too. But her boredom and disgust stung.

Her body is held up so often as an ideal. Her skin is the shape of desire. When strangers and acquaintances see that silhouette, they approach her, almost reflexively. She constantly spends time, energy, and effort making sure she can stay safe. She does not know when a spurned stranger will turn violent.

She longs for a day uninterrupted by a stranger’s assessment of her body. So do I.

But where she is sought after with lust and attraction, I am expected as a convenience, readily available. I have shirked my responsibility to have a desirable body, so I am an easy mark. The men who approach me believe I will not resist, and I will not report. I will not be afforded the thin, flimsy veil of courtship. They will speak to me of violent desires, the darkest corners of their intentions.

After all, who would want to rape a fat woman?

My friend has become exhausted with the value of her body. I am terrified with the debt of mine.

Harassment of fat people is so much more than sexual and deeply different from the harassment faced by thinner people.

Strangers on the street regularly approach me to tell me that I’m fat and how not to be. Sometimes, they tell me that I wouldn’t be fat if I were a better person. Some shout that I shouldn’t show my face in public. Others rage at having to see me at all.

The message is clear: Whoever you are, my fat body is more yours than mine. Fat bodies are always someone else’s property, open to prescription, lecturing, anger, pity.

Street harassment, catcalling, and sexual harassment don’t impact just one kind of body, though.

Street harassment happens when a stranger makes a pass a fat person then laughs derisively. It happens when trans people are asked what’s in their pants. It happens when people of color are told to "go back to" another country, regardless of where they were born. It happens when women in headscarves are accused of terrorism.  

To dig up the roots of this violence, we can’t just listen to the stories that sound like our own. We have to stretch beyond our own experiences and listen to the stories that are unfamiliar to us. Our safety depends on it.

Family

Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

Democracy
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