Funny fat people squeeze their way into the tight pigeon hole of stardom by fulfilling fat fallacy. There is a sense of security and empowerment in the notion that when we’re in charge of the fat joke, it’s ok for the audience to laugh at fat bodies. Similarly, I learned that to survive the playground bully calling me fat, all I had to do was laugh with them, making it possible for me to be in on the joke rather than the victim of it. I latched on to being the proprietor of laughter, getting to the fatty punchline quicker than my enemies. My biggest hit as a 12 year old chubby girl was making a funny face where my double chin multiplied into 12. While I never wrote a joke, I could always make a whole room laugh at my body as a caricature of fatness, so that my audience could be comfortable with the “elephant” in the room.
Garnering laughter for positive attention kept space between me and harmful insults, but they both shared my body as the punchline. Coming into fat-acceptance consciousness often stares directly into the face of learned coping skills. Once one realizes that telling self-deprecating jokes feels just as shitty as being hurled insults, the laughter loses its feeling of security. After the laughter fades, a more serious fat performer is left standing under the proverbial limelight sans jolly material. The audience is uneasy if and when they realize they are laughing at the body and not the joke.
Healthcare starts with a focus on height and weight. It’s the first recorded stats after a baby is born. There are no less than one thousand reasons health is focused on thinness as a virtue, so it’s no wonder that thin people (and some fat people) see fat people and wonder, “What went wrong?” The assumption is made that everybody, especially women, is working to attain and maintain “health.” Health is in quotations because “health” is usually a code for “thinness,” as BMI and the social constructs it inspires dictates. Those who haven’t reached their “healthiest” peak are constantly pressured to present and perform.
Natalie, the plus size influencer and fat activist that makes up Nataliemeansnice, recently asked her audience, “Can you imagine being as unbelievably talented and having such an incredible career and list of accomplishments as Adele does and all people can talk about is your weight?” When fat people are surrounded by comments about how proud spectators are of Adele’s weight-loss, it serves as a reminder of how much weight conformity and thinness is valued over anything else. “Good for her,” comments are made from an assumption that Adele’s thinner body is not only an improvement of her health, but also an improvement of her overall wellbeing. There is no proof that either of these assumption are true. Adele has not made her any comments about her weight-loss and she does not owe anyone an explanation. The only thing these assumptions do is inform the fat people who hear them that you can have more Grammy Awards than your fat arms can hold, and people will still praise you more for becoming thin.
Even when I was holding a big foam finger to my fatness, I knew I had other talents that were more impressive than simply living hyper aware of my “shameful” body. However, no matter how I packaged my skills, like singing or making art: unless I was exclaiming that I was doing it in spite of my fatness, my audience would tell me how brave I was. Which was also to tell me, “you’re so brave for not waiting to lose weight before doing this publicly.”
The demeaning undertone of calling a fat person “brave” is unintentional, based on one’s own relationship with their body and the virtue of thinness. Since healthcare in the United States relies on weight being maintained against the Body Mass Index, we are conditioned to believe that those who fall outside the chart are doing a poor job with their health. When a thin person who values thinness sees a fat person, their internal bias informs them that this fat person has already failed at something: Attaining thinness. I’m using the term “internal bias” because most fatshamers lack the intention to hate or harm fat people. However, unintentional bias like this can act as an insidious undertone in communities, causing real harm to fat people in a systemic way. We should be encouraging to call out internal bias by its true name: Sizism.
Fat folks who don’t care to conform to thinness are pushed into harmful, hateful stereotypes like “lazy” and “careless.” If a fat person wishes to be taken even remotely seriously, they must be well-groomed, reserved, and working towards “health” as others see it. If a fat person wants to be respected, it seems that they must let the world know they are aware of their fatness as a problem.
I find myself working several times harder as a fat person than many of my thin counterparts to shed the lens of failure. When I was bullied in grade school for my size, I learned to find personal pride by finding value in myself that wasn’t informed by how I looked. I threw my heart and soul into vocal training. I enrolled in a tech school to get my cosmetology license. I ran for president of an extracurricular program and won the election. When I graduated high school, I finished with three degrees in my hand. These documents served as an exhaustive list of qualifications on why I should be respected. On paper, I was no less than perfect.
Perfection is something I’ve been practicing and performing as an indicator of my worth since I stopped telling self-depreciating jokes about my weight. I don’t speak without being certain that I’m well-informed because many people link fatness with low intelligence. When eating in a group, especially around new people, I’m hyper vigilant that the food on my plate is well balanced because many people link fatness with gluttony. Whether health studies or social constructs are recognized as classist and fatphobic, many fat people learn to play the part of the “Good Fatty” to protect themselves from criticism because no matter how talented we are, there is no escaping thinly-veiled fatphobia masking as health concerns (pun intended.)
Sometimes, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that my personality and strengths are a reaction to abuse. My eternal need to achieve is because I see my value through my accomplishments, which have to outshine others in order to been seen before my fatness. Dedication to peak perfectionism has reared its ugly head in ways I didn’t anticipate, too. I am committed to being the perfect friend, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter, the perfect student, and the perfect employee. Anything less than perfection feels like a big fat failure, because my productivity and how I can be of use to other people informs how valuable I am. Each time someone accepts a piece of what I have to offer, I feel rewarded with approval.
Understanding that fat people are often painted like failures regardless of any of their hard work is not to say that being a high achiever as a coping mechanism is bad. Coping is a way to heal, like a bandaid protects a wound. There’s a voice in my head (re: my therapist’s voice) that reminds me that being committed to being a good friend is a positive trait to put energy into. However, there are times when an obsession with perfection that’s fueled by running from failure has turned positive traits into harmful addictions.
With no exaggeration, I’ve been so distracted by the need to be perceived as successful to others that I burned myself while cooking a four course meal for a large dinner party I felt I needed to host. I didn’t realize I had permanently scarred myself until the next day. I’m embarrassed to say that the burn felt like a trophy of what I’m willing to do to love those around me. It’s proof of how hard I worked, but I also now realize that it’s also a piece of me I’ll never get back.
The need for fat people to fulfil a lifelong quest to collect accolades or use humor to be in control or is exhausting and violently tolling, even if it can also feel rewarding. I’m quick to write stories about my resiliency as a fat person because maybe it will offer a piece to someone else’s puzzle in their own advocacy and self-discovery. I stand with open arms willing to give pieces of myself away because giving benefits whoever is receiving and it represents their approval of my high worth. If I am useful to others, there is a hope that a part of my personality will take precedence over any misconception about failure that is tethered to my fat body.
There are positive stereotypes about fat people, particularly fat women, that we hear about far less than the negative ones. Positive fat tropes are born out of actions fat people take to be valued. Fat women are often the emotional sounding board for their friends and loved ones, often welcoming and warm-hearted, and often open books about our struggles to build community and camaraderie. Fat women are healers. Our need to use humor to be accepted by others was just one way we proved variance in fat stereotypes. It is but one facet to a history of fat nurtures taken for granted.
I often dream of a world where my wheels don’t always have to be turning at full speed to prove that I’m not failing. I have wondered what it would feel like to stand still and breathe in success in the moment, rather than continuing to push forward towards a new achievement. I wonder if I stop climbing towards greatness, I will also lose all the worth I’ve built up. I feel conditioned to consistently and unrelentingly work hard be seen as successful, even though it’s rarely a compliment I receive from the thin people in my life. I hope for experiences where I feel wanted and adored without having to give parts of myself away to be worthy of it.
I like being the serious friend, even if it’s emotionally heavy sometimes. I like working towards awards and high ratings. I like being the smartest person in the room. I like feeling worthy in a way that highlights the things I’ve worked hard for, even if it exhausted me to do so. By recognizing the amount of energy I use in my quest for knowledge or greatness, I can hold boundaries in how much I give away to others. I can know to check-in with myself to make sure I didn’t give too many pieces of myself away in order to feel purposeful. I can also make sure that when I’m useful to someone else, they appreciate it instead of expect it. Knowing some people will always see me as a failure simply because I’m not thin has also helped me recognize how privileged I am to have the affordability to hold virtue through other classist structures, like academia and the arts.
The strengths and accomplishments I’ve harnessed as an entertaining, funny, smart, fat woman were built from trying to prevent the pain of disrespect. Being an accomplished person is still a complicated mess conceived from a need to be valued by others. As a serious fat person, I’m not as easily likened to a punchline. I am in control of my own narrative in a way that feels important, even if there’s more dismantling ahead of me. At least now when I tell a joke, no matter how cheap, it’s one I find funny, too.