Saturday, June 11, 2011

Love, Friendship, and Other Natural Disasters

I've been watching a lot of Glee lately, (who wouldn't; it's girl fabulous) which has been making me think a lot about relationships and the ways that my size has influenced them, both explicitly and subtly.  This is the subject I've talked about least, the one that's hardest and most painful to explain, and so it's the one that I think I need most to delve into.

First off, when it comes to romance, being fat is a lot like being gay.  I know that sounds weird, but hear me out.  A gay man or woman never knows whom they can hit on safely, not for sure.  Gaydar helps, as does internet dating, and society's gotten a lot more liberal.  Still, if a gay man hits on the wrong guy he can still face anything from vehement, cruel rejection to physical violence.  Lesbians have it a little bit easier, but still can easily lose a friendship over a misplaced advance.

When you're a fat girl, and especially when you're a fat teenage girl, asking a guy out is a similarly dangerous proposition.  There is only a small chance he'll accept  your offer.  There is, of course, the possibility that he'll reject you gently, but it's much more likely that he'll act like you just offered to show him your communicable disease collection.  It's like, in the act of asking him out, you have somehow belittled him or insulted his manhood.

Further, many boys and men start from the assumption that all fat girls want to date them.  Fat women are seen as sexually promiscuous and predatory, while at the same time ugly and gluttonous.  For example, while I do love Glee, in Special Education Puckerman bribes Lauren to join New Directions: in return she demands a carton of Cadbury Cream Eggs and seven minutes in heaven with him.  While I like their later portrayal of her, I found that particular bow to stereotype really jarring in a show that works so hard at creating a inclusive and tolerant image.  It's an image we see a lot of; the fat, hopeless woman who's chasing inappropriately after a man who doesn't want her (that Puckerman is impressed by her kissing is the one redeeming feature of that interlude).

In any case, because the men who buy into this stereotype believe that fat women are sexually voracious and indiscriminate, they assume that any fat woman they meet would jump at the chance to be involved with them, much like some straight men think that every gay guy they meet wants to sleep with them.  These men don't wait for us to ask them out; they insult and abuse us proactively to prove that they're too "manly" to be interested in a fat girl.

These factors shaped twenty odd years of my romantic life.

As a little girl, I always dreamed of having a boyfriend, of holding hands, and dancing in the rain, and having him tell me I was beautiful.  I had my first "boyfriend" at six.  We played Star Wars - he wanted me to be Princess Leia in the bikini.  I didn't know what a bikini was, but I was fine with it.  It was fun.  My second boyfriend was the summer I turned eight.  We went to summer camp together, sat beside each other on the bus, and kissed under the water in the pool, where the counselors couldn't see us.  It was harmless and innocent, and it made me very happy.

When I got back to school that year, my thyroid had stopped working, and I had started gaining weight. Suddenly my boyfriend wasn't talking to me anymore; really no one was.  I went from being a little odd, but fundamentally pretty and likable to being called "Flabby Abby" and beaten up regularly.  Once, some of the boys cornered me in the coat closet after school and made me lift my dress.  Then they rubbed themselves against me and ran off, leaving me feeling scared and ashamed.
At the end of that year, my Mom switched me  to a small Catholic school. I didn't have many friends, but at least bullying wasn't tolerated.

I wasn't as lucky with middle school; I spent it at a boarding school where I was punished for not wanting to spend time with the other children, who teased me relentlessly.  At one point, a boy cornered me on the way to class and told me to ask him out.  Knowing he was messing with me, I refused, but he wouldn't let me pass.  He repeated his request several times, and eventually I got exasperated and said "Fine, whatever!  Will you go out with me?"  He then mocked me for asking him; it didn't matter that I'd refused him point blank several times; he just wanted something to hurt me with, however flimsy and ridiculous.  That's merely one example of the kind of harassment that went on daily, and the staff, instead of protecting me, treated me just as poorly.

In high school, I never had a single date.  I wanted so much, so incredibly much, to have someone tell me I was pretty, to have him hold my hand and walk down the hall with me, the simple things.  No one ever did; eventually I made friends, and I tried to be grateful for that.

For the first couple of years, I did my best to seem asexual, wearing jeans and dark T-Shirts and, despite a few crushes, staying away from boys fairly completely.  Not only did I feel like this was the safest thing I could do, I felt like I didn't deserve to wear anything pretty.  I felt like only thin girls were allowed to wear pretty dresses and feminine colors, and that if I did so, people would make fun of me.
Worse, I felt like they were right, like I didn't deserve to feel pretty, since I knew I wasn't.

Acting changed all that.  When I transferred to GHAPA (now GHAA) I learned that I could wear any clothing I wanted to as long as I seemed asexual in other ways.  I joked around, was friendly to everyone, and did my best to seem like one of the guys.

The only exception to this was when I had a crush on someone.  At that point, I either became a giggling wreck, barely able to talk to the person in question (this was occasionally disastrous, since the guy in question was inevitably uninterested), or subsumed the crush into a friendship from which I could safely (and hopefully discreetly) pine after him at my leisure.  While that's entirely as pathetic as it sounds, I've actually had some great friendships start that way.  Notably, my best friend in high school and college was a  guy who I completely adored until he told me he was gay (and after that as well, although in a different way).

Prom night was a misery and a disaster.  No one asked me, but I wanted so much to go that I asked an acquaintance from GHAPA to go with me as a favor.  Being there, on a night that was supposed to be special and romantic, with a guy who not only wasn't interested in me, but wouldn't even dance with me was deeply hurtful and humiliating.  In the end, we left and went for a long walk.  It was one of the worst nights of my life.

People, adults who were trying to "help" me, told me that if I didn't lose weight, I'd never find anyone, never be happy.  They acted like my weight invalidated everything else about me, rendered me worthless.  In four years of high school, only one person ever said otherwise, a teacher at GHAPA named Holly.  She told me "your weight isn't why no one will date you", and I was hurt and confused.  Of course it was!  Now I know she was right, of course, or at least right that it wasn't the whole of the problem.  Some of my problem was that I believed I was undesirable, unlovable, and pushed people away so they wouldn't hurt me.  However, I didn't believe that without reason - almost every other person I met reinforced it, whether through cruel mockery or with the best intentions.

College changed things a little bit, although not much.  Until my sophomore year, I still wasn't dating.  However, I did have a large, interesting circle of friends.  I fell in and out of "love" every other day.  For most of my freshman year, I was completely smitten with Jamil, a close friend who lived down the hall from me.  He and I spent all of our time together, and though we never even kissed, it felt a lot like having a boyfriend.  He was the first guy who knew I adored him and was ok with it, even though I never told him and he didn't see me that way.  I'll always be grateful for that.

Then in the fall of my Sophomore year, while working as Art Show Co-Chair for John-Con, I met my first real boyfriend.  He was a friend of my co-chair's boyfriend, and we four started spending a lot of time together.  At first, we were just fooling around, but eventually we started dating in earnest.  I was in love with the idea of being in love, and though he wasn't really my type, I felt amazingly lucky to have a boyfriend at all.  After all, I was just a fat girl.  Boys drove by me and yelled "whale" out the windows of their cars; who was I to be picky?

In the end, I did fall in love with my boyfriend, a fact which had terrible repercussions.  I made a long series of bad choices based on my steadfast love and my deeply held belief that he was the only man who could possibly want me (a belief he explicitly reinforced).   My father died when I was nineteen and, terrified of losing him as well, I followed my boyfriend out of state, leaving college behind.  For twelve years, I stayed with him in an increasingly toxic and abusive relationship.  My weight was a fetish for him; he objectified my body, encouraged me to gain weight, and ultimately threatened to leave me if I had a gastric bypass done.  When he drank, he called me names, accused me of "lowing" or "braying" like an animal, and hurt me both physically and emotionally.  For months at a time, we fought every single day.  He treated me like a burden, and told me that no one else would ever have me.

I was terribly, terribly lonely.  I thought about killing myself.  Often I locked the door to the car while driving, not to keep people out, but to stop myself from impulsively opening it on the highway and letting myself fall.  Despite all of this, I married him, believing that I could never expect better than this; after all, I was fat.

In the end, I found the courage to leave him partially because a friend of mine flirted with me, made me feel like a girl that someone might actually be attracted to.  Most men won't flirt with a fat girl, or if they do, it's in a way that's very explicitly a joke; this friend flirted with me just like he might have with any other girl.  It wasn't that I really expected to get together with that friend, although I had a terrible crush; he was seeing someone by the time I ended my marriage, and I respected that.  It was more that he showed me that my husband wasn't the only man in the world who could see me that way.

Leaving my husband was a revelation; I went online, and there I found dozens of men who were more than happy to flirt with me, chat with me, and date me.  I wasn't in high school anymore, and I knew I had a lot more to offer than a pretty face on a fat-girl body.  At first, I thought I would never  want to be seriously involved again.  I enjoyed dating; I wasn't afraid anymore, and even the bad dates increased my confidence.

I swore I'd never settle down unless I met a man who was smart, funny, geeky, kind, creative, and able to laugh at himself.  I thought that, for a girl like me, that would be a pretty tall order to fill, and I was fine with that.  My motto became Dorothy Parker's famous line "It takes a damn good man to be better than no man at all."

Imagine my surprise, then when I met a wonderful man who had all of those qualities and more.  He had also survived a bad relationship.  He didn't want me because I was fat, or need me to become thin; he wanted me for myself.  We've been together for almost three years, and I couldn't be happier, but my weight still makes me feel insecure.  On bad days, I wonder why he's with me, when he could be with someone thinner, more conventionally pretty.  Even on good days, it can be hard to feel pretty or sexy.

Of course, it's not just romantic relationships that my weight effects.  Every time I meet a new person, I feel the weight of our society's expectations and prejudices.  Some people never judge me for what I look like, and for them I am indescribably grateful.  Others are wise enough and fair enough to look past their initial mis-perceptions, to give me a chance to prove my worth, and over the years, many of these have become dear and wonderful friends.

Still, some people will look at me and never see any further than the size on my dress label, no matter what I do.  To them I say this: You lose out.  You are less for not knowing me.  You are less for not knowing all of us, the fat girls and guys who have to struggle every day just to get a fair shake.  To paraphrase Dr. King, you are less for allowing yourself to judge us based on the size of our waist instead of the content of our character.  We are as varied and precious as humankind itself, and while you don't have to want to date us, we do deserve your respect, your consideration, and your friendship.  Who knows; maybe if you try, you'll even deserve ours.