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The Pain Of A Large Woman In A Small-Minded World

Author Roxane Gay is pictured on  Nov. 16, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Matt Sayles/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Author Roxane Gay is pictured on Nov. 16, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Matt Sayles/AP)

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Early in "Hunger," her unsparing memoir about the cause and effects of being overweight, Roxane Gay writes, “I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation. I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals … I (want to) believe that my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.” But, as she confesses, “What I know and what I feel are two very different things.”

In this she is not alone. While the Fat Pride movement has been useful in bringing larger bodies out of the shadows and hopefully lessening the self-loathing that afflicts many overweight women, it’s disingenuous to suggest that many people are happy about being obese. Few of us love a body that’s a source of joint pain and fatigue, anxiety about quite literally fitting in (to subway benches, theater seats, clothing, airline seatbelts), and public humiliation.

However, what we love even less is the unsolicited commentary of others, even when well-intentioned. As Gay notes,

“When you are overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record … People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body … Regardless of what you do, your body is the subject of public discourse with family, friends, and strangers alike. Your body is subject to commentary when you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your unacceptable weight. People are quick to offer you statistics and information about the dangers of obesity, as if you are not only fat but also incredibly stupid, unaware, delusional about the realities of your body and a world that is vigorously inhospitable to that body.”

Most overweight people will tell you that when looking at pictures of themselves, the primary thing they see is their size relative to those of others in the image. And if they can pose with someone larger than themselves, so much the better.

Such unkind and stupid thoughts are mortifying, especially when they reside in the heads of people who are themselves overweight. They make us both perpetrator and victim. But we have them because the reflex to judge others by their poundage is thoroughly internalized, not just externally imposed.

Size isn’t the only punishing metric we routinely apply to each other and ourselves. It’s just the one that’s still socially acceptable. And as with so many of our customs, this one is rooted in commerce. Social anxiety fuels economic growth. The U.S. cosmetics market alone was expected to exceed $62 billion in 2016. The advertising business and entire industries that they serve — health and beauty, apparel, diet products — both build and rest on an ideological foundation of a false meritocracy, one in which the “merits” of beauty and wealth are extolled, even though they are largely unearned and unworthy of automatic admiration.

Size isn’t the only punishing metric we routinely apply to each other and ourselves. It’s just the one that’s still socially acceptable.

This is not a screed calling for us to look and feel our worst. To the extent that makeup, fashion and, yes, weight loss efforts manifest and celebrate fitness and diversity, I’m all for them. But in our culture, we have a tough time distinguishing between self-expression and conformity, between self-care and self-loathing. That’s why in the U.S., overall spending on purely cosmetic plastic surgeries and minimally invasive procedures came to $16 billion in 2016, up by 16 percent over 2015 and 25 percent over 2014 rates. It’s why cosmetic surgery apps like and Mod your Bod — which are designed to help you digitally morph your physique to visualize the new and improved you — are installed on our children’s phones.

We don’t openly blame the homely for their unfortunate looks or condemn scarred people for their injuries. But because some chronic health problems are correlated with obesity and impose an economic toll, we feel entitled to flog others for being fat. As Gay notes, “There is certainly a very small grain of truth … in this frenzied panic. And also, there is fear, because no one wants to be infected by obesity, largely because people know how they see and treat and think about fat people and don’t want such a fate to befall them.”

That fear of being the mocked rather than the mocker has contributed to the election of a president who has built his personal brand on juvenile jabs at the less-than-conventionally perfect. But until all of us — even those who are unnerved by such crude and un-presidential behavior — are able and willing to excavate and expose the cultural mores that Trump’s tapping into, the shaming and ridicule will continue.

Roxane Gay has used her own pain and insecurity as an impetus to be kinder and more knowledgeable about others. “Living in my body has expanded my empathy for other people,” she writes, “ … has forced me to be more mindful of how other bodies, of differing abilities, move through the world.”

She may not be a cover girl, but ultimately, isn’t she the sort of model we should emulate?

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery. By day, she leads the product innovation team for C Space, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company.

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