Unzipped (Or, The Scene We Need to Talk About Before We Talk About My Body)
from My Mad Fat Diary
Every fat person I know has watched this scene and left shaken, their body rippling with this impossibility, this dream/nightmare made flesh. Then stripped. Then discarded so easily. We gather in circles on the floor of someone’s living room and talk about how the show left us feeling like demons possessing our own bodies. How we were able to put words to what’s haunted us since we heard our first fat joke, since we first prayed that we might shed our skins like snakes or wrap ourselves in cocoons and come out with wings or at least smaller fresher bodies that let us live this life more easily. More fully.
I bring up My Mad Fat Diary in counseling appointments when I try to explain who I am to therapists who still delicately suggest that weight loss will improve my mental health. I bring up this show when I tell people why fat isn’t a curse word or an insult and, if I want, I can use it as a descriptor for my body. Because it’s my fucking body. And I have to carry it around with me until I die.
I don’t know how to write about my body. After a few decades, it still feels like a test drive more than anything, a stranger who lent me their skin to sleep in ’til I find a place of my own. The curtains are sun-stained. The corners hold onto dust. The cushions aren’t the right shape. I don’t like to sit alone with my body, listen to what it has to say, close my eyes, breathe in, expand my lungs, my stomach, my sides, take up even one more square inch than I have to.
My therapist once taught me an exercise to find calm in times of panic: close your eyes. Imagine a line tracing your skin, starting from the top of your head. Let it outline your entire body—down your head, around your ear, over your shoulder. Now trace your thumb. Now your fingers. Back up the arm, down your torso. Ideally, you travel around your entire body, a chalk outline. A frazzled silhouette. When you’re finished, you are calm. In theory.
I get it. I do. I know the trick. It’s a distraction technique, something to give your anxious mind a break, a focal point in a storm of chaos.
But this particular focal point? It’s its own storm. Thinking about the outline of my body makes my skin ripple, a lake waiting for the rain to stop. My body’s line is never smooth. It curves, juts out, traces the rolls on my torso and mocks me. Your chalk outline will be misshapen, it says. Yours will be ugly. Don’t get murdered—the outline will be fat, just like you. I worry about the jokes my mortician might crack about my body. Will she be stunned if I don’t die of diabetes? Will she take bets on whether or not my body carries the trademark signs of fatty liver disease? Will she whisper diet tips to my corpse?
Once when I was little I saw this guy on a talk show who said his wife was getting too fat. Naturally, he wanted a divorce. The talk show host and audience didn’t like this. The audience pelted a chorus of boo at him. The host made him wear a fat suit for a day and documented it. I remember too much about that random five minutes of television. Especially this: despite the dirty looks and rude comments strangers made about this man’s not-body, he smiled. Sure, he was probably uncomfortable and smiled, as many people do, through the awkward, but I think deep down it was something else. He knew that at the end of the day, he got to take off that body. Put down the fat suit and never think about the ordeal again. I don’t even remember if he forgave his wife for being fat after it all.
Time for a joke: inside of every fat woman is a skinny woman waiting to get out. I imagine her clawing on my intestines like a model on a spelunking trip gone wrong. But if a skinny girl ever took residence in my body, she’s long since vacated. Maybe she burned up in stomach acid. Maybe she found my interior decorating disgusting or at least distasteful. Maybe she got bored when I stopped denying my jealousy of her, whispered how I felt as I did things I was taught only she could do (I sent my body soaring through rain forests, worried that the cables weren’t strong enough to hold all of me up in the air. They were. I carried my skin and bones through slimy pre-Inca trails in Ecuador, up the dusty red stairs of Masada. I have the audacity to wear bathing suits in public, each time resisting the urge to bury my body under layers of clothing, sand, or ocean). Maybe she fled before dawn like a jilted lover.
I miss her, sometimes, this other girl I could have been. I try not to, but maybe I have to grieve her, and to grieve you have to be honest, right? To be honest about having a fat body is a complicated act. Impossible, even. I am impossibly at odds with myself.
Some people are so generous that they don’t see body size. You’re not fat, they croon, a saccharine chorus that reeks of contradiction as only moments before, those same folks let out an I ate cake earlier and I feel so fat, or maybe more of an Ugh delete that picture I look fat. And they are fifty, maybe a hundred pounds lighter than you. They don’t know. Or they do. It doesn’t matter. A slap in the face is a slap in the face.
I often think about the shape of my body, how my curves (as some people nauseatingly call them) do not play within any normal scope of the line. My profile is more like little half-crescents. The shadows of leaves during an eclipse. Hesitant scrawls of a pen. Whoever drew my schematics had a shaky hand.
I catch myself evaluating my reflection as I walk—do I look slim today? Can you tell that my stomach is more of a mountain range than the plains I grew up in? Have you, like me, checked for other fat people in the room? Have you, like me, ordered us in terms of size? I know I shouldn’t, but you have to understand that my whole life I’ve been taught to admire, adore, even prioritize the people whose small smooth bodies effortlessly float into a room. Even gravity backs off for a moment to catch a glimpse of them. You have to unlearn those priorities, even when you know you’ll be unlearning for the rest of your life. But before that, you have to see them honestly in the clear light of the day. No matter how shameful they are.
Remember five minutes ago when Netflix released Insatiable? It’s a fun show that highlights all of the destructive lies I’ve been told about my body. All you need to know about Insatiable is this: it’s about a fat girl who becomes thin, and through her thinness, exacts revenge on everyone who ever hurt her.
It’s not the fact that she’s humiliated for daring to ask her crush out for coffee (he’s so attractive and he wouldn’t even think about dating a fat girl). It’s not that she gets harassed (and then punched) by a drunk dude invading her space. It’s the after. After her jaw is wired shut for three months and she loses around a hundred pounds. Because after that, after she apparently doesn’t eat (For three months? With no consequences other than magical thinness? Even the show’s catchphrase is skinny is magic), her world opens up.
It reminds me of the years I wasted waiting for my life to start. It’s the fat girl timeline—when you’re fat, you have to wait until you lose X amount of pounds to start living. It’s not even about improving the quality of your life; this is literally about living any kind of life. Don’t believe me? Ask one of your (probably very few) fat friends.
And believe you me, this isn’t a rule we impose on ourselves. This is what society tells us in television shows where thin folks don our bodies like a fucking prop.
This is what our parents tell us when we have the audacity to vocalize hunger. When I was little, my abuela would give my friends twice the chocolate I got because they can afford the extra calories. Later, in high school, she told me no one will know you’re fat unless you wear tank tops and I clung to sleeves even in August for ten years. She bought me my first waist trainer, encouraged me to only drink liquids on certain days of the week, asked me when my thyroid medication would make me skinny. Once, she berated me for eating too many grapes.
This is what our best friends tell us in the hush of their bedrooms when we complain that rom com heroines never look like us. You just need to do some crunches so your stomach isn’t so soft. My best friend in middle school stole her mother’s diet books and coached me through my first deep dive into deprivation. I remember peeling breading off of chicken nuggets. I remember giving her my carbs—any noodles, rice, or potatoes were foods I didn’t deserve. I would stare at my government-subsidized lunches and watch them dwindle until all I ate each day of eighth grade were a few bland bites of soggy green beans. But I soldiered on until my mother found out, because at thirteen I was still very actively invested in unzipping.
And every thirteen-year-old knows that the thing about unzipping is this: it’s like the sword in the stone. Only the chosen can move this miracle. Precious few are worthy. Not everyone has this sacred power, this skinny destiny.
My body needs to be recalled. My body needs to be cut, chopped, trimmed like a paper doll so paper clothes fit. Or maybe my body needs a butcher. A knife to hack into it. Hang me up on a hook and do your best.
That was a hyperbole to help me confess: not a day goes by when I don’t wonder what my life would be if I were thin.
Because the thing is this: I want to fit in.
But don’t misinterpret that because I promise: I don’t want to be skinny.
But often, unwillingly, when I’m curled up in the corner of my bed and think about who I could have been: I do want to be skinny.
However (and this part is important): I don’t want to get that horrible surgery where they staple your insides or shackle your stomach like you committed a crime, so your meals become little thimble-sized wells, a half a sip of tea and a bite of spinach before the stomach doth protest too much.
Carrie Fisher didn’t get those surgeries but she had to spend time at fat camp. She did interview after interview and these late-night hosts and news anchors were so focused on diet tips and workout advice that they forgot to ask her about acting, about the impact of her character on the world. Even Stephen Colbert said I heard they asked you to lose weight.
She said They did. They always do. They want to hire part of me—not all of me. So they want to hire about three fourths. I have to get rid of the fourth somehow. The fourth can’t be with me.
She said I went to a fat farm, where they harvest fat and I imagine a slaughterhouse. I imagine some smiling camp counselor with a machete. I imagine Princess Leia sacrificing slices of her body to the skinny space gods. I imagine them weighing the slivers like so much lunchmeat. More, more, I hear them say, and their voices aren’t cruel at all. They want to help her. Don’t you want to look attractive as you fight for intergalactic freedom? Don’t you want to be slim enough to board the Millennium Falcon? Han and Luke won’t fight over some space cow, darling. I wonder what parts of her she had to leave behind. And sometimes I wonder if all that dieting and weight loss and weight gain might have had anything to do with how her heart gave out on that airplane.
Ursula did, though, didn’t she? She conjured a thin girl out of the nothingness because she knew the body she needed to steal Eric’s loving eyes from Ariel’s mute (but leggy) body. The second it was done? The second she could? Back to fat. Like peeling yourself out of a pair of tights after a long day. Like unbuttoning pants after a particularly delightful meal. She let herself out. She ripped up that thin girl body and did you see how it shred and fled into the air like so much cheap confetti?
What a fat goddess.
Some people say you’re not fat, you have fat, as if I put my body in a cart while buying groceries and forgot to keep the receipt. People like to say I lost weight like it was something they misplaced, forgot, meant to grab but left on the hood of their car as they drove away. Now, so cool and casual, their body just happens to fit a little better into that pair of jeans, an airplane seat, planet Earth.
I’m one of those people who identifies as fat. I have to. I have no other choice, because every other word feels like a thinly veiled betrayal to my own flesh and bone. I have carried this body with me long enough to drown in it. Maybe I have. Maybe I let something take me when I should have fought back.
Now, let’s talk about my body. Because I have to make a decision. I can implode with daydreams of unzipping, waste my time and energy brainstorming new ways to cut myself down to size. Or, I can allow myself the anger I’ve earned at everyone who would let me implode, who whispered those daydreams as lullabies in the first place.
Or, I can work on growing into someone tall and strong and a little less afraid of herself. I spent so long worrying about the things I might be pulling into my own orbit, but lately I’ve been wanting to learn how to use my gravity.
Maybe there’s strength in never learning how to shrink yourself.
|Copyright © 1999 – 2020 Juked|