Monday, June 21, 2010

An (Unsent) Angry Letter To My Choirmaster

Dear [Choirmaster],

We've known each other for just a little less than thirteen years. While we've never been particularly close, I think you know by now that I usually appreciate your sense of humour, and I'm reasonably sure that whatever your faults are, they probably don't include a tendency to be intentionally cruel to people. This is why—for now, at least—I am trying very, very hard to give you the benefit of the doubt.

But it's difficult. You see, yesterday you made a fat joke for the second time that I can remember in the past few years. You brought up that old e-mail forward about funny announcements in church bulletins, repeating a few that you remembered to the general amusement of almost everyone present. The first one you recited was the one about the Weight Watchers meeting, which asked the participants to please enter the church through the big double doors.

Oh my, how clever. The implication of the joke is that the people who are trying to lose weight are so huge that they can't fit through a normal-sized door. Why is this supposed to be funny? You may have seen me frowning and shaking my head just after you recited that joke; whatever you may have thought about that, if you even noticed, I can assure you that I was trying my hardest to hold myself back from making a fuss about a comment that had just deeply hurt and insulted me.

Because you thought that particular joke was so funny, I suspect that you don't understand why I didn't laugh at it. Perhaps I can explain it. Being human, I suspect that you probably have at least one major insecurity—or at least, you had at least one major insecurity at some point in your life. Now, imagine that this one big thing that you're so insecure about is something that is currently despised by "all right-thinking people", whoever they are. Imagine that this thing about you that makes you insecure about yourself is blamed for all sorts of things, from health care costs to pollution to poverty, and that people who have this characteristic of yours are commonly stereotyped as being lazy, stupid, greedy, smelly, dirty, sloppy, selfish and obnoxious. Imagine that you've been told by your doctor that because of this characteristic, you'll probably die at a horifically young age of at least half a dozen painful, embarrassing and/or expensively-treated diseases, syndromes, and disorders, even though you presently show no sign of ever actually developing them—oh, yeah, and that you're ridiculously ugly because of it, too. Imagine that although you can't prove it, you suspect that this characteristic has been the reason why you've been passed over for jobs you wanted that you knew you were more than adequately qualified for, and that you know from personal experience that this characteristic has probably significantly reduced, if not downright eliminated, the possibility that you will ever share your home with anyone but a few cats. You see, no matter how great a person you actually are, nobody can ever be attracted to you because of this one terrible characteristic—and if they are, they're probably desperate or some kind of crazy fetishist. People like you, the narrative goes, are unworthy of another person's love.

This is my life as a fat person. Because of these experiences, I have exercised myself into exhaustion, then berated myself for being weak, fat and useless because I couldn't keep going. I have starved myself to lose weight, to the point where I felt dizzy all the time, had a constant headache, always had hunger pangs and even experienced several skipped heartbeats per day—some of them quite violent. (Fortunately, this resolved itself once I realized that I actually had to give my body the nutrition it craved.) This is actually why I seldom eat at parties; in my self-starvation days I messed up my metabolism so badly I can't eat unless I feel some measure of hunger, because if I do…well, let's just say that I regret it very deeply within an hour. To this day, I still fight against the urge to deny myself food; more often than not, I fail. Although I regularly wake up at 6:00 in the morning, I may not actually eat anything until 3:00 in the afternoon, and even then, I'll feel guilty about every bite. I'll be hungry hours before that, of course, but because I can so visibly stand to miss a few meals—I do.

In a normal-sized person, these would probably be major warning signs of an eating disorder; in people of my size, however, they are generally considered to be the necessary actions of a penitent fatass who wants to become a real person and not remain a stereotype and scapegoat for all of society's current ills. I have been taunted by total strangers, had rotten food flung at me from a car while the occupants of the vehicle mooed at me, been shamed in the grocery store for the one bar of chocolate I bought along with a basket full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and whole-grain bread, and even been called "a freaking tub of lard" by one person who I had previously thought was my friend—all because of my socially undesirable size. I have hated myself for my size and for my inability to shrink myself. And to top it all off, clothes shopping is a ridiculously humiliating and frustrating experience; even the few, usually hideous, things that are made in my size aren't generally made for my shape. More than once, I've wondered when the few companies who make clothes for fat people will just throw up their hands, say "Screw it!" and just start making burqas for all of us, because (as everyone apparently knows), nobody really wants to look at a fat person, and fat people don't deserve nice clothes anyway, so they may as well just try to hide us as well as they possibly can. The way most dresses for fat women are designed, they're halfway to it already.

And you know what? My experiences are hardly unique, and compared to some other fat people, I've actually had it pretty easy. Think about that for a moment.

Considering all this, a joke about Weight Watchers members having to enter a building through a large set of double doors has a very different meaning to me than it probably does to you. People don't join Weight Watchers, or do other things to reduce the size of their bodies, because they're happy with themselves and their lot in life. They do it because like me, they have experienced a lifetime of discrimination and hatred, and they just want it to stop. Just because I've decided to try not to abuse my body through starvation anymore, it doesn't mean that I don't understand the goal. And before you say I'm taking this too seriously because it's just a joke, and these aren't real people, just remember—I've had serious comments like this directed at me all my life. I am under no obligation to interpret them as "funny" just because they come from you.

By the way, this wasn't the first time I've heard you make a comment that showed a surprising amount of disdain for larger people. Back when [our other choir] was looking at the possibility of having the women purchase those blouses and skirts of ours, it was mentioned that the company that made them kept clothing up to size 28 in stock, and you laughed and said, "that's a two-person tent!" I normally wear size 24, and believe me, that's close enough to size 28 that not only did I feel hurt and insulted, but I felt a bit humiliated as well. You might as well have said, "Wow, anyone who needs to wear clothes that big is absolutely huge! Isn't that hilarious? Let's laugh at them!"

Before that evening, I had never expected that level of casual cruelty from you.

I will do my best to forgive you for making those jokes, as insulting as they were. Through our long acquaintance, you've been nothing but kind to me when dealing with me directly, and I appreciate that. Still, if it ever seems like I don't completely trust you, or if I'm a little distant in my actions towards you, this is why. I know that you can't be totally clueless about the presence of fat people in your life; I know you're even friends with a few of them. Yet you still seem to think that it's perfectly OK to make fun of fat people as a group, whatever you may think of us as individuals.

Please stop making fat jokes. They're hurtful and insulting and not really all that funny.


1 comment:

  1. With some editing for length I would have sent it anonymously... I'm sure you're not the only large person in the congregation. Folks who make jokes like this - along with black jokes, gay jokes, etc. need to be called out (nicely). A church esp. is no place for stuff like that.