SUZANNE HARRINGTON: The bigger you are, the more invisible you become

I CAN’T be bothered to be part of Ryanair’s stop-whingeing stealth ad campaign — other than to thank the world’s least loved airline for not making me sit next to my arsey teenagers while crammed in those tiny, tiny seats.

No, let’s talk instead about fat. Not almond butter or coconut oil — actual body fat. Ripples and rolls, stretched and sagging blubber.

We don’t have beautiful words to describe body fat — the tabloids have hijacked “curves” to describe size-eight celebrities — so when it comes to properly fat people, we have only words that sound ugly. Blob. Lump. Blimp. Gutbucket.

What if you are very fat, and wish to travel by air but cannot afford the extra space of first class? The author and cultural commentator Roxane Gay used to buy two seats, after years of bearing the not always unspoken displeasure and disgust of fellow passengers seated next to her.

Even that didn’t always work — flight crew would routinely stumble and fuss over what to do with two boarding passes and one fat body. She carries her own seat belt extension. She has come to expect hostility and lack of understanding.

Gay has just published Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body, in which she outlines what it’s like to live in an “unruly body”. That is, a body which is super morbidly obese, or very fat, as it used to be called, while such fatness was still rare. When being super fat made you a circus act, and when fatness was generally associated with good cheer.

Then too many people got too fat, so we changed our attitude towards fatness, and towards the people whose bodies don’t chime with our unforgiving beauty ideal. Roxane Gay writes with anger and clarity about how the bigger you are, the more invisible you become; that in order for women, especially, to be seen and heard, they need to take up minimum physical space.

Think of all those Hollywood lollipop ladies, with normal sized heads balancing on tiny hungry bodies.

Gay’s book has been well received, because the reason Gay is so fat is that she was gang raped by teenage boys when she was 12. As a result, she began eating her feelings, eating to make herself into a fortress of fat so that nobody would want to hurt her again.

We are entirely — and rightly — sympathetic with Gay’s body, “a cage of my own making”, because she has a reason to be so fat. An excuse, a justification. We can therefore empathise, rather than judge.

Gay tells us exactly what it is like to inhabit a hugely fat body, from being shouted at in the street to the shame of flimsy chairs. She takes us there, so that we can see through her eyes how the world reacts to fatness.

But what if you are fat because you are poor? Because you are overfed and undernourished? What about ordinary fat people who don’t have a voice?

Lazy, ugly, stupid, undeserving. Really? Still?


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