One of the things in life I’ve had the biggest problem with has been criticism.
Sometimes criticism can be good; if I’m about to make a blog post and a friend points out that I used “your” instead of “you’re” (I shudder at the thought), or points out that my argument isn’t flowing correctly, or that a conclusion I reached is incorrect (and here’s the source that backs me up, mind. You wouldn’t believe the kind of hate-spam a blog like this gets on a regular basis) – this is the kind of criticism I’m grateful for. Often times improving requires a degree of criticism, after all. If I’m trying to improve my vocal range I’m not going to look for a friend who’s going to nod and smile and say I’m doing everything perfectly; I want someone who’s going to chastise me for not practicing enough. If I’m trying to accomplish a specific thing, criticism is important.
And really, that’s what I think most criticism comes down to. We believe someone is failing to accomplish something they are attempting. Most often when it comes to strangers in public, since we have very little else to judge them on, it’s appearance.
We’re critical of someone for having the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong body, or Cheesus forbid the wrong clothes on the wrong body. Since moving to Los Angeles and taking the subway to and from work every day I’ve gotten to hear a lot of different things about a lot of different people and it’s pretty disturbing. Not even so much because of what they said, but because I recognized some of my own thoughts mixed in and was immediately smacked with the reality that it’s absolutely none of my business. Who the fuck cares if she’s got a muffin top? Why does it matter if this stranger, whose space I will be sharing for a grand total of twenty minutes of my life, has shoes that I would never pair with those pants? Why do I care what kind of glasses they’re wearing?
Because subconsciously I assume they are trying to achieve something specific—public acceptability, and naturally that public acceptability would be through the filter of whatever I deem it to be, being queen of the world and all.
It doesn’t even have to be verbal; in fact, a lot of our policing behavior (things we do and say to encourage people to conform to whatever everyone else is doing) is communicated through body language. Because strangers are scary and confrontation is even scarier, nine times out of ten you’re just going to slide them a look and hope they get it. Or make a little scoffing noise and scoot over. I’ve absolutely done this, and it’s hypocritical as fuck of me. Because as a fat person this is something I deal with on a daily basis, and it’s been the cause of some of my deepest dips in depression.
Recently a photographer named Haley Morris-Cafiero did a project called Wait Watchers. She took photos of herself doing everyday things to capture moments when people were staring at her body in critical ways. This happens people with fat bodies all the time. People telling us with their eyes that our bodies are wrong, that they aren’t conforming correctly. Insinuating that something is wrong with you and you need to fix it, and we’re going to encourage that fixing by ensuring you’re publicly shamed whenever you go outdoors.
Looking through the photos in this particular project drew a kind of visceral reaction from me. I immediately tried to rationalize a lot of the stares in the same way I do when I’m on the receiving end of them. “They’re probably looking at someone else,” “I bet they just happened to turn in my general direction,” “Just because they’re laughing behind me doesn’t mean they’re laughing at me.” And sometimes that’s true. Every time I hear a woman laugh behind me and turn and catch her covering her mouth and staring at me isn’t an instance where she’s decided to mock my body. But enough of them are for me to seriously consider it. While the above may be rational explanations for almost any other sort of body walking around the streets of your city of choice, for me they’re like a fervent prayer. A sliver of hopeful denial that I refuse to let go of to keep myself sane and together.
Not all the time, of course. The fat acceptance community has done a lot to rebuild my confidence over the years, and I’m comfortable with myself and the way I present myself to the world. But that just makes it all the worse when these errant thoughts enter my head, when I give someone a look-over and inch away. When I make a degrading comment about someone else’s body or appearance even in a generalized kind of way. “I can’t believe anyone would wear aviator glasses. What kind of loser does that?” It’s not that far a cry from “What kind of lazy fuck lets themselves get fat? It’s your body, why can’t you control it?” True, one is a choice and one is just your body, but all kinds of things go behind choices, don’t they? What if they inherited that pair and they can’t afford another one? What if they belonged to someone important to them? What if they just fucking like aviator glasses? Why isn’t that okay? Why do I feel the need to pass some sort of judgment over them for looking unacceptable in public?
Putting down one group of people to uplift yourself or your own is never okay. “I may be fat, but I’m not that kind of fat!” is an asshole thing to do or think, just like any other kind of comparison that inherently makes someone else feel like shit for the way they look. It’s just not cool. So I’m just not going to anymore. Social conditioning is hard to work out of the system and I’m sure this’ll take me awhile, but being judgmental and critical of other people for how they look or dress or act or sound in public is just a dick move. It’s a part of us as a society deciding how people are and are not allowed to exist in public spaces, the exact thing I rally against people doing to fat bodies.
And I encourage anyone who has one of those internal judgmental thoughts to at least think over it before you say and do anything about it. Why are you having that thought? Why does it matter? Will this serve any purpose aside from making someone else feel like shit about themselves? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you should probably keep that thought to yourself. Your side-comment, glance or quiet snort of amusement may be nothing more than an aside in your day, but you have no idea how long you’re going to ruin someone else’s with it.