Discover more from Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book
Are you free, or are you just meeting expectations?
Beyond the Book: On fatness and autonomy.
I’m not doing a Behind the Book today because this is on my mind instead and I want to write about it.
Yesterday I was reading this amazing thread by the amazing Marianne Kirby and as she was talking about her days working at a plus-sized clothing store and, the general assumptions that people have that fat women don’t want or need workout clothes and how that assumption can cut fat women off from important aspects of public life and activity, I was plunged back into far back memories of my own.
I, too, worked at a plus-sized clothing store back in the day - about 20 years ago. I remember when we got our first shipments of workout clothes - leggings, sports bras, and sooo many track suits (it was the early 2000’s and track suits were all the rage).
In an industry filled with shapeless flower printed muumuus, women were immediately drawn to the brightly colored, and often more shapely, workout gear. You could see their eyes light up with excitement. You could see them planning what they would do in these new clothes.
Some women happily snapped up the clothes. Some, who seemed just as excited about them, did not.
The women who bought the workout clothes were shopping alone or with other fat friends. The women who did not buy them were shopping with thin friends, or more often - their male partners.
Time and time again I would see a woman gravitate to the workout gear and just as she reached out to grab an item I’d hear her partner say something dismissive or derisive like, “what are you going to do in those, eat fried chicken?” or “I don’t even know why they make workout clothes these big anyway, it’s obvious y’all aren’t working out.”
The woman would chuckle self consciously and put the track suit back on the rack and head back to the floral prints.
As I reflected on this in online discussion with Marianne, I remembered how it was even worse when we got sexy underwear in stock. For the longest time, the underwear you got at plus-sized clothing stores was all full coverage, utilitarian, beige blandness designed to hold you together and that was it. But we got these stretch lace panties in and they were so different. Low waist, sheer and sexy. All in bright colors.
As women made their way to them, their partners would laugh out loud. Some would run right to the panties, unfold them, hold them up to the light, and exclaim loudly, “comeon - nobody wants to see that.”
Women who shopped alone bought them in multiples. Women who shopped with their fat friends would excitedly recommend colors to each other. They were always running out of stock - especially in the largest sizes. But I can’t remember any women who shopped with their male partners who bought any.
These recollections brought up so much to me. Yes, it definitely brings up the obvious - dudes suck and a lot of them are abusive as fuck. A lot of dudes - even dudes partnered with fat women and many who are fat themselves - think that it’s perfectly fine to treat fat women like shit.
But what really struck me, especially in context of Marianne’s thread (you clicked on the link up top and read it right? Please do.) is how much control these men, and society at large, likes to hold over fat bodies.
It is not just male partners who are openly hostile when fat women decide to wear clothing that differs from the floral-printed tents that their mom wore (and I’m not disparaging floral-printed tents. My own personal aesthetic is “if I can’t comfortably slouch in it, I won’t wear it”). Magazines have countless articles about what fat women should and shouldn’t wear. Fat women are often mocked by thin women for wearing clothing that they don’t deem “flattering” (i.e. “fat disguising”) or fucks with their preconceived notions of fat women as sad, invisible homebodies or nurturing, cuddly mother surrogates (note: we also can’t be too “sloppy” looking lest we become the full embodiment of laziness and self-indulgence that so many thin people fear lurks deep inside of them). And some fat women police each other, judging their fellow fats for having the nerve to wear an item of clothing that they wouldn’t. Even those of us who have managed to personally reclaim some of our own freedom of choice when it comes to how we dress, will still place limits on that freedom - deeming some women “too fat” for the freedom that our “body positivity” has provided for us.
These clothing choices weren’t threatening to these men because they had different ideas about style; they were threatening to these men, and so many others, because of the behavior these clothing choices represent. Fat women who wear workout clothes might want to go to the gym or for a hike outdoors. Fat women who wear sexy lingerie might want to hit the club or go on a romantic date and expect an actual orgasm during sex. Fat women who wear clothes that show off their form may want to go out in the world feeling beautiful and confident, and may want to be seen by others as such.
While there are many reasons for why we wear what we do - be it comfort, necessity, personal preference, budget and more - we cannot deny that what we wear on our bodies has always been political. What we wear when we are out in the world sends a message to the world, whether that message is the one we intended or not and whether or not people have a right to care about what that message is. What threatened these men and so many others was that these clothing choices signaled to them that fat women wanted to exist in and interact with the world in a way that ran counter to what they had deemed appropriate for fat women. Fat women who dressed outside of what was expected were signaling that they felt that they were entitled to the same participation in public life that thin women were and they didn’t care if you saw them doing it.
The ways in which the clothing choices of fat women are policed is one of the many ways in which a fat-hating and fat-fearing world seeks to control our entire lives. The fatter you are, the more control society feels that it has the right to hold over you. The fatter we are, the more we are told that we don’t have the right make financial choices for ourselves, medical choices for ourselves, political choices for ourselves and more.
This all has me thinking of the irony that these same men who would work so hard to maintain control over fat women’s bodies would also in the same breath use fat women’s “lack of self control” as justification for their manipulation and derision.
The truth is that women are only seen to be exercising good “self control” when the choices that they make line up with what patriarchy prefers.
I’m not a very reactionary person, and the point of this is not that all fat women must dress in opposition to what the patriarchy deems appropriate for fat bodies. I reserve the right to wear shapeless sacks until the day that I die because I like them. This is not about the freedom to “look good” - it’s about the freedom to exist in the world however the fuck we want and participate in public life however we want, with the understanding that we don’t have to meet any externally placed standards on respectability or desirability in order to do so. But this all has me thinking about the notion of self-control, and how often people use the idea of self-control to control us.
If our sense of self-control can be stripped from us when we make choices that challenge societal norms, is it ever really self-control?
There are so many reasons why people are fat. There are many reasons why people are not. Many of us are fat because of a combination of factors within and without our control. Many of us will stay fat for a combination of factors within and without our control. But within whatever amount of control we have, when we dare make choices that do not align with patriarchal ideals, our right to self-control is revoked and we are deemed broken. Our visible fatness is a status unimaginable as something that any reasonable woman would be able to stand to exist in, let alone a choice she may make of her own free will. So if we are fat and continue to be fat in the face of societal scorn, we must not be able of making good decisions for ourselves or we must lack the ability to overcome our base urges that are obviously driving us to eat mounds of cake 24 hours a day.
Dressing how we want without apology does not change the systemic ways in which fat people are controlled and oppressed. It does not make people in our lives less abusive, it doesn’t force establishments to accommodate our bodies, it doesn’t force doctors to set aside their anti-fat bias - but it does challenge some of the justifications given that makes those who seek to control our lives so comfortable with their abuse. And it battles the gaslighting that tells us that we are being helped, not controlled, that can keep us from seeing how widespread, systemic and unjust that abuse is.
When we dress how we want and signal that we want to move through the world as we want, we signal that we feel we are deserving of an autonomy that the rest of the world feels that we haven’t earned. And that threatens the idea that autonomy is something to be earned at all.
If we would dare live our lives as we choose without approval and advocate for the right of others to do the same - even if we haven’t struggled to “earn it” as so many others have - what does it say for all of the other justifications used to keep people of all shapes and sizes in line? If you spent years dedicated to hating your body into a shape that would give you permission to move through the world with a semblance of freedom and respect, what does the existence of unapologetic fat women say about all of that hard and painful work you’ve put in? What does it say about how free you actually are?
Anyways, these are the thoughts that have been running through my head the last 24 hours or so. I am so glad now to be partnered with someone who glories in my freedom and empowerment, but I’ve absolutely been in relationships where the size and shape of my body was used to control me - and I still live in a world that likes to praise me when my fashion choices are “flattering,” and scold me or offer me dieting advice when they are not, and seeks to control many of the choices I make for myself using the size of my body for justification.
If you are fat, what are some of the ways in which society tries to control your body that you perhaps haven’t thought of before? What are some of those means of control that you have internalized? Leave them in the comments below.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this newsletter and want to support my work, please consider subscribing here:
Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.