This is, in part, a matter of privacy. What information do we have the right to keep to ourselves? What boundaries are we allowed to maintain in our personal lives? What do we have a right to know about the lives of others? When do we have a right to breach the boundaries others have set for themselves?
People with high public profiles are allowed very few boundaries. In exchange for the erosion of privacy, they receive fame and/or fortune and/or power. Is this a fair price? Are famous people aware of how they are sacrificing privacy when they ascend to a position of cultural prominence?
There are many ways we have surrendered privacy in the information age. We willingly disclose what we’ve eaten for breakfast, where we spent last night and with whom, and all manner of trivial information. We submit personal information when registering for social media accounts and when making purchases online. We often surrender this information without question or reflection. These disclosures come so freely because we’ve long been conditioned to share too much with too many.
– “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories,” Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
Two essays in Bad Feminist struck me regarding their usage of ‘publicity’ as a concept: the one above, largely in conjunction with our expectation that celebrities come out, and that this affects positively the safety of non-celebrity closeted individuals; and one regarding the public debates regarding women’s bodies and the laws that cover them. Notably, Roxane Gay is also a big woman, as I am a big woman, but her discussion of weight largely dealt with the identity politics of that and how a drive for safety motivated her weight gain, that bad things do not happen to big bodies. Identity politics here means: when you pick up fiction that involves weight loss as a plot device, what size is the author? Does that matter? She’s as carefully evenhanded there as is she is throughout the rest of the work, but I thought it odd that despite her making public her experiences at fatcamp, despite the coverage of the publicity of embodiment for women and queer individuals, that weight and public perception wasn’t addressed.
Part of that is perhaps that talking about a fat body being a public matter seems mega-duh. If you’re big, ain’t no disguising that.
I have lost 95 pounds since 2012. 70 more to go if the body of my dreams could be a number; 50 and the doctor would never bring it up again. Lindy West described a ‘coming out’ moment for weight, which is powerful to hear, if you can get to that point in This American Life‘s podcast regarding it. When she says it, it comes off initially as if it should go with an angry gesture of the arm:”I’m fat“; before her voice wobbles and softens, “I’m fat.” West meant that there is a kind of virtue to being big but always trying to lose a bit more of yourself – you get praise for it, your corpulence is acceptable if temporary. So long as you can make it clear that you don’t mean to be this way, it, perhaps you, become something like an elephant in the room. And that creates an interesting paradox: at the same time that a fat person feels that fact about themselves to be so patently obvious as to be painful, they are always worried that it will somehow be brought up as a label for them. The way I felt is like it is something true about me that I cannot bear to have revealed. “I’m fat,” soft and wobbly.
That strikes me as an interesting conceptual issue regarding publicity.
There’s a snarl in me when it comes to weight loss. For so long, I resisted any serious effort, and I did so because of the public humiliation involved. Very little in the world encourages a person to be big. There are certainly reasons to gain weight, or reasons to have inappropriate relationships with food, but almost nothing paints the Rubenesque form as desirable besides Peter Paul Rubens.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
Here a very subtle sneer. “That’s nice. Have you published anything?”
“Yup.” I offer up my abridged CV.
Suddenly they stand up a little straighter. A light goes on in their eyes.
A moment earlier they were talking to nobody, a nothing, but now they’re speaking with somebody, a person who matters.
“Wow,” they say. “That’s amazing.” And sometimes: “I always wanted to write a book.” And sometimes: “I have a great idea for a book.” And sometimes: “Maybe you could help me write my book.”
This dynamic awakens a ferocious dormant animal, a snarling girl with a big mouth, too smart for her own good, nothing to lose, suffering privately. She’s me at fifteen, more or less. When she is ready to stop suffering privately, she’ll become a writer.
Oh really, she says. Now I matter? Wrong, motherfucker: I mattered before. (Also: Nope, can’t help you write a book, best of luck.)
She’s a little trigger-happy on the misanthropic rage, this snarling girl.
– The Snarling Girl, Elisa Albert
Albert captured it so well. Snarls abound in me. I snarl in certain intellectual bravado contests, and I snarl at apparent instagram success, fuck you and your Hampton house, and I snarl whenever I plan out my meals, whenever I step on the scale, whenever I inch towards a dear goal I inch towards through small, consistent sacrifice. Like its mammalian upper-lip origin, it’s all about defense: I snarl when my value, my right to inhabit a certain territory, is questioned. The thing about losing weight is that what you want is public, you want a body that will at least not incur negative behaviors particular to weight, and ideally garner wanted attentions. But it ain’t a one-and-done affair. If you’re big enough that it matters, it’s going to take a while – everyone you know suddenly knows something about you. You want to be thin. You want to capitulate to a particular bullshit standard, my snarling girl says. Everyone I know would know that I want them to like me better than they do, for reasons that any Disney film will pantomime are foolish.
And to make matters worse, I want it, for reasons I think are foolish. I’m not unhealthy. I have impeccable blood pressure, have lifted weights, ran, stand for four hours a day, walk at least 5000 steps a day at work and above 15000 on the weekends. My body works. There are more delicate health issues that weight loss would prevent as a long-term practice, but in effect I am able.
Still, I measure out my meals into two-cup portions, vegan, chock full of those vegetables I never bothered with while I watched my indecently thin father eat chips and cookies all night long. I exercise. I feel guilt whenever my weight swings upwards, or I eat an unplanned cookie. I pat my collarbones all day at work. Is the bone more visible. Is there less than there was before. I’d love to be beautiful. Everyone wants that, and I do, too, and I know better. That, too, is about publicity, but it’s not about how my body is or is not public; it is about how a public value contrary to my big body somehow migrated inside it. The snarl in me is not always the right response, but it is a response that takes my worth as unquestionable. Lindy West’s coming out is a restatement of that. Fat, and not changing. Fat, and fine. Sometimes weight loss seems like a devil’s bargain between valuing what you want and valuing yourself. Get what you want – if you change yourself. Stay the way you are – and remain removed from what you’d like to be, perhaps the instrumental goals a different size could offer.
Body positivity has things to say about this. I’m not the only big woman in the world. Baby, it’s just a jot. So it is: no conclusions, but Gay’s book was deeply thoughtful, with one obvious gap to me, and that made me think. Now there’s another gap here. Isn’t that what it’s all about, collarbones?