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I was talking to a coworker about how I was sore from the gym yesterday– an idle, casual hallway conversation since she’d noticed me limping a little as I waddled down the hallway with stiff calves. I’d already started to change the conversation when she did it. The thing I’d somehow completely forgot that people casually say to fat people.

“It’s so good that you’ve decided to go back to the gym. I mean, you have such a pretty face!”

And I just sort of stopped and stared at her, my face likely very clearly conveying a level of “what the fuck did you just say?” that was appropriate to my feelings in that particular moment since she quickly backpeddled. But the deed was done. I had been the receiver of the fat backhand.

It's kind of like this, only you're not allowed to actually get upset about it.

A quick Google search will give you tons of ladies who share similar stories. And the total kicker is the way it’s worded; it’s obviously supposed to be a compliment. See, this one feature on you is just so attractive! If it weren’t for that other bit of hideousness, why, you’d be gorgeous.

Backhanded compliments are like that. They’re one part insult one part faux compliment, all wrapped together in such a way that it’s hard for us in that moment to think of a way to express the offense we’re feeling. We’re bred by social norms to respond positively to compliments and to flat-out ignore rude side comments. If they’d come right out and said “Hey, fucking fatty! Lose some pounds and get off the street, you whale!” They’re already violating the social rules of not being an asshole. You’re then given “permission” to tell them to go fuck themselves, or that their mother seemed to like your rolls just fine last night.

But the backhanded compliment, whooboy. As I learned it’s something I still struggle with, despite how much fat positivity has become ingrained in my everyday life. I was stunned in place. I made a little more small talk and eventually just wandered off, because I had no idea how to deal with that sort of insult. It’s such a genuine one, too. One of those where they legitimately believe they’re paying you a compliment and seem upset, offended or confused by the concept that you didn’t take it with the heavenly glow they bestowed it up on you with.

Because what it is, really, is they’re pointing out a bit of the ugly underbelly of those societal norms we all love to hold onto. That there’s a general assumption that we as fat people simply never get complimented. That there’s nothing on or about us to compliment, so by golly those fatties ought to be grateful when we compliment them in a  helpful way. Throw them a little crumb, let them know that their face is pretty and if they just lost that weight then you’re sure they’d get the guy they want/fit into “normally sized” clothes/look great in a swimsuit/meet whatever goal they clearly wouldn’t be able to meet as a fat person.

Aw, c'mon, it was a compliment! I called you pretty! Wait, is that mace? AAAH!

And the really crushing thing about it is it isn’t done from a place of willfully shaming, it comes from a place of genuine consideration. And that’s so much harder to combat. So much scarier. Because now we’re not just lashing out in anger against someone who broke the rules, not just being a dick to someone who was a dick to us first. Now we’re actually getting at the meat of things, actually working with contradicting some of those automatic thought processes that people hate changing.

In point of fact, as I sit here now I can think up half a dozen great replies.

“I’m actually fine with how my body looks, too. I just like exercising.”
“I like it too. It matches the rest of me.”
“Thanks, but what does my face have to do with me exercising?”

Et cetera, et cetera. But in that moment no words came. Just shock, and a brief bit of inner flailing at how our cultural norms, especially office cultural norms, were telling me how to do deal with this situation. It was a pretty big wake-up call for me and something that took me a good while to dissect.

I later went back and had a conversation with the coworker who essentially expressed embarrassment by what she’d said. That she hadn’t really realized what she’d said and how it would’ve sounded until it came out of her mouth and she apologized.

But it really is amazing how much damage a simple backhanded compliment can do and how powerless it can leave you feeling.