“Acceptable” and Fat Phobia

“I’m a part-time fatso – Fat one minute and just a big boy the next. Jerked dizzyingly between genders, between ways of difference, I’m never sure whether I’m going to be acceptable or not. Even while I am working like crazy to make a world in which we’re all acceptable no matter what size we are, I am sometimes, even still, reduced to asking for a Coke just to see for sure what gender someone thinks I am” Bergman 142).

The above passage is from S. Bear Bergman’s article Part-Time Fatso in which they discuss how their “fatness” changes based on which gender they are perceived to be. When Bergman is perceived to be a woman, then they are fat, however, when they are believed to be a man they are simply a “big boy” despite their actual weight never changing. It is through this example from their own life and experiences that Bergmen discusses the ways in which gender norms affect perceived fatness. Women, confined but certain standards of beauty (which often means thinness) therefore are held to stricter expectations of weight, and less allowances for “deviant” weight (i.e. not thinness) are made. However, for men, it is an unstated expectation of society that they are supposed to take up space. Men are supposed to be big, muscular, and tall while women are supposed to be petit, caring, and take up as little space as possible. Due to this base expectation, it is more normal for a man to take up more physical space which pushes the line of “deviant” weight or fatness to a further extreme than with women. As someone who then oscillates from being perceived as a man and as a woman, Bergman oscillates between being fat and not being fat. 

The expectation that women are supposed to take up less space and be thin leads to much regulation of their bodies and body shaming, such as is prevalent in diet culture. This is what Bergman is referring to when they say they are, “even still, reduced to asking for a Coke just to see for sure what gender someone thinks” they are. This is because when a waiter reads Bergman as female, and they ask for a coke, the assumption the waiter makes is that Bergman is fat and therefore as a fat woman must be on a diet and actually have asked for a diet coke, or that they should be drinking a diet coke instead in an attempt to lose weight. This does not happen when a waiter reads Bergman as a man because as a man, Bergman is not fat. 

These behaviors are based on incredibly ingrained fatphobia within our society, which takes a heavy toll on everyone, fat or not. In Bergman’s case, though they discuss a lot of their experiences explicitly in the article it is the phrase in the above excerpt that reads, “I’m never sure whether I’m going to be acceptable or not” that sheds the most light on how fatphobia affects them. Bergman uses the word “acceptable” not accepted. This is a small difference, simply the difference of an end suffix but the implications are different. The word accepted would make the sentence mean that Bergman does not know if they will be accepted by the people they encounter- this is a judgment made by the other people and does not question Bergman’s innate value. However “acceptable” implies the ability to be accepted and questions whether it is possible for them to be accepted, which questions an innate aspect of Bergman themself. By not knowing if they will be acceptable, there is an implication that one’s level of worth is dependent upon if one is perceived as fat or not. While this is not true it is a rhetoric that society perpetuates and that many of us, myself included, have unwillingly taken to heart and are working to undo. 

Woven Memories

In one of Shani Mootoo’s interviews, she was asked, “Would you say that to some extent you are writing your “selves” into being?.. Audre Lorde refers to the ‘‘telling’’ of experience, and part of Lorde’s meaning in that phrase is the ‘‘telling’’ or the ‘‘relating’’ of parts of oneself in order to share the experiences”(110). While Mootoo sidestepped this question in the interview, the concept of being able to write or tell oneself into being (or part of oneself) is very evident within Mootoo’s novel, “Cereus Blooms at Night. In Cereus Blooms at Night the main character, Mala, goes through extreme trauma throughout a significant amount of her life, starting from when she was a child. We see Mala deal with this trauma in her own way, often secluding herself into her mind and into the past, “fortified by the night’s display she wove memories. She remembered a little and imagined a great deal”(Mootoo 142). Memories are usually things that we think of as set, of things that happened in the past which are then unchangeable as a whole, however Mala “wove her own memories” implying that she was able to manipulate strands of her past memories like threads along with new imagined events to create new memories for herself. Mala draws within herself to create a version of her life, a version of her younger self, Pohpoh, in a new narrative, with a new ending. Mala “thought harder of Pohpoh… I, Mala Ramchandin, will set you, Pohpoh Ramchandin free, free, free, like a bird”(Mootoo 173). Mala thinks another Pohpoh into existence by telling and retelling herself the stories of her youth until she cannot distinguish her original memory from her woven memory, the created existence within her own mind. Through these woven memories of her own design, Mala creates a separate Pohpoh and lets her free. Pohpoh’s freedom, her happy ending, is soaring in the sky, away from the rocks that strangers threw at her, the bullies, the whispers of people who knew what her father was doing and did nothing, and most importantly far above her father’s reach and control.  This Pohpoh was one that Mala created a happy ending for, a happy ending that involved her (Mala) saving herself (Pohpoh) by finally freeing Pohpoh.

While Mootoo may not have written one of herself into being in Cereus Blooms at Night, or at least refused to speak on that, her character Mala thought and told a version of herself, Pohpoh, into a new being in the freedom both parts of Mala desperately needed. 

Like and Not Like

In the Autobiography of Red, Geryon travels with the boy who broke his heart, Herakles, and Ancash to take photographs. One of these photographs is titled: “Like and Not Like – It was a photograph just like the old days” (143). The on sentence description of the photograph directly following its title is noticeable because it only repeats half of the title itself. If the photograph is about being “like and not like” then why would the description only say that it was “just like the old days”? As the title offers both likeness and unlikeness there is an unspoken implication that continues the description. It was like the old days, and it was not. If one applies the title of the photograph as a lens to its description it is almost as if it adds the additional words “and not like”; becoming “the photograph was just like [and not like] the old days.”

What is both like and unlike the old days in this scene is Geryon himself, and his relationship to Herakles. “You love him? Geyron thought about that. In my dreams I do. Your dreams? Dreams of the old days…. When I- knew him”(144).  It is these last few words, in which Geryon uses the word “knew” and as such creates an explicit statement of the past tense. The dash between I and knew in Geryon’s speech is also noticeable, denoting either a moment of simple pause or emotion in which Geryon is being thoughtful, and therefore specific with his word usage. Geryon pauses while speaking to show the importance behind the word tense of “knew,” as he discusses his relationship with Herakles to Ancash. Geryon is pausing on the word because he is admitting that he no longer knows him; that the version Geryon misses and longs for is one that now only exists in his dreams. The Herakles in front of Geryon now is like the Herakles from the old days, as they are the same person, but also not like the Herakles Geryon knew and loved. 

It is an important distinction that Geryon draws for himself in this scene, for the first time, between his past relationship with Herakles and his present one. The heartbreak that ended his relationship with Herakles is still with Geryon, prominent in the ways that the two interact prior to this scene. When Geryon looks at Herakles it is him looking at the boy he used to know and love. However, in the above scene in the photograph Like and Not Like description Geryon admits to himself that the “old days” are gone even when the feelings of them linger. It is possible for this time to be both like and not like the old days, for Herakles to be like and not like the past version of himself, and for Geryon to be like and not like his younger self. This speaks to an overall narrative of growth, not only for Geryon and Herakles but in general. It is freeing to look at your past, carry it with you, but to not be defined by it. As an individual, we are each always like the former versions of ourselves, but we are also each always growing in both good and bad ways, and becoming “not like” our old selves. It is possible to be both “like and not like” at the same time; we are beings of “and” not “or.”

Memories of a Body

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (Winterson 89).

In the above passage from Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body the Narrator (who is nameless and genderless) is talking about their intimate relationship with Louise. At the beginning of this passage the words, “written on the body” immediately grabs the reader’s attention as a repetition of the title. This passage offers one answer to what is written on the body; “written on the body is a secret code”. The most obvious interpretation of this would be physical marks, not words and letters specifically, but scars, freckles, and stretch marks which adorn the skin of the Narrator. However, it is also possible that this “secret code” is not written in any physical mark but rather is a metaphor for an internal self that the narrator keeps “rolled up away from prying eyes” meaning that they do not readily share their interior thoughts and feelings with others. Following this vein of thinking then, what is “written on the body” can be viewed as a reference to the memories of the body, which together speak more towards the being of the Narrator than physical marks. The inclusion of the phrase “Never unfold too much, tell them the whole story” implies a level to which it is possible to keep something hidden away in some small corner that is only accessible if the Narrator allows it. This supports the idea that the secret code is not physical but a metaphor for memories and thoughts, which are internal and able to be hidden. That is until Louise at least, “I didn’t know that Louis would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book”. Louise, unlike any of the other romantic panthers of the Narrator who would have also had access to the Narrator’s body, created the desire within the Narrator to share parts of themself with her, not only their body but their memories and thoughts to the point where they become an open book. 

The notion that Louise is able to bring up memories of the Narrator is woven through the format of the book. Written on the Body is not written linearly but instead jumps around in time as the Narrator relives different memories about past lovers which are brought to the surface by a thought or action of Louise. Memories are more meaningful than physical marks on a body, which dies, decays and changes. Louise’s own body is fighting against her. However, the memories of Louise linger with the Narrator after her body is absent and continues to invoke emotions within the Narrator.