"If I weren't fat, I would be the president and director of NASA."
Last night, feminist writer Roxane Gay spoke these words to a crowd of admirers in Los Angeles. (She was only half-joking, but the starry-eyed audience laughed explosively nonetheless.) Gay, the writer of acclaimed must-read Bad Feminist, is currently on a book tour promoting her most recent publication, a memoir titled Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. The 320-page read is an intimate and beautifully crafted account of Gay's personal relationship with her body—from the public objectification of it to her own personal struggles with weight and self-acceptance. It is her belief (and others agree) that fat bodies are so intolerated—so feared—in our culture that those who inhabit them must work exponentially harder to achieve the same success as a thin person. Hence Gay says she would certainly hold NASA's highest position if it weren't for society's perception of her frame. With the best-selling author's brilliance, she might be right.
Gay is comfortable calling hers a "fat" body. It's a word that many Americans avoid at all costs, opting for euphemisms like "plus size" and "overweight" to soften the reality. According to Gay, our aversion to the word reflects a broader view of fatness itself. Gay receives daily commentary on her body, both from family members and strangers, as if, because she's fat, her body doesn't belong to her and is instead up for public discussion. Onlookers like to criticize that she's unhealthy, a bad example for younger generations, and a leech on our health system. "Which they say while smoking a cigarette," Gay says calmly.
People see how fat people are treated and think, I don't want anything to fucking do with that.
Though some of these harsh comments are a product of pure "cruelty" and "bullying," Gay is sympathetic to the fact that much of fatphobia stems from, as the suffix suggests, actual fear. Gay says that when women criticize her body, she knows that under the surface, it's because they too have fallen victim to the beauty standards set by patriarchal society and are anxiously trying their best to measure up. "I feel sad for them," Gay says.
In the end, no matter who's doing the criticizing, the reason people "fear" fatness is clear to Gay: "People see how fat people are treated and think, I don't want anything to fucking do with that."
Today, the media is making more of an effort to feature body diversity in its images (it's something we're also trying to do at Byrdie), but Gay says that the "body-positive" movement is also imperfect. "All the body-positive Instagrams I've seen are of women who are like a size 14," she says. Gay challenges us to make bodies of all sizes visible, even 400-pound bodies—and not in the graphic, dehumanizing way that, say, TLC's My 600-lb Life does. People in fat bodies can be desirable, she promises, and it's important that the public knows that. It might even reverse some of the fear.
Want more from Roxane Gay? (Answer: You do.) Pick up a copy of her new book below.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Next up, read about why I can't relate to 99% of the activewear industry's ads.