A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a couple days at a retreat center high in the Cascade mountains of Oregon. On the morning of my departure I packed my belongings into my car so it would all be taken care of and I could enjoy the rest of the day without worrying. The parking lot was sunny and bright and I found myself quickly feeling overly warm in my long sleeve thermal shirt. For the rest of the day I would either be indoors at the lodge, in the sun on one of the lawns or porches, or soaking in one of the geothermal hot springs on the property, so I decided to ditch my heavy shirt.
Breitenbush one year ago today! Sept 26, 2015. How convenient. photo by Marshall Kirkpatrick
I walked the quarter mile or so back through the cool cover of the forest in a sleeveless tunic and a skirt made of sweatshirt maternal. The canopy cover of firs and cedars made for a much cooler climate than the sun drenched lot, but I was comfortably enjoying the late summer breezes dancing over my bare arms. As I walked back to my tent to pick up my day bag, the ravens called to each other overhead sounding more like monkeys than birds.
As I was walking, a couple of women approached from another path and we intersected at a little crossroads in the forest. I’d exchanged brief pleasantries with one of them the previous evening in the line for dinner.
“Oh my goodness look at you in that tank top just strolling along looking happy as can be and here we both are all bundled up and we’re still cold!!!” One of them exclaimed. “How can that be?”
Both women were smiling broadly at me, wearing puffy down-filled winter vests over sweaters, yoga pants, and boots. I’m pretty sure one of them had earmuffs and a scarf. I only mention because it’s relevant to the story that both of them were also very thin. I probably have more body fat on one arm than the two have on their bodies put together. They were probably in their mid-fifties, and both looked like they could grace the cover of a mainstream American yoga magazine.
I smiled back and replied, “It’s probably because I have more body fat than you do. It’s a natural insulator!” I’m pretty sure I patted my tummy proudly when I said this. It was a big moment for me to get to talk about my body fat in a nonchalant way as a potentially good thing.
No Loitering. photo by Marshall Kirkpatrick
They were stunned. Eyes wide and mouths agape for just long enough for me to register. They looked like I’d said “because I ate your grandmother for breakfast!” One of the women quickly recovered and exclaimed “It must be all the purple keeping you warm!”
It’s true. I wear a lot of purple. It gets a lot of comments. It’s something I do to remain visible in a world that wants to keep fat ladies like me in the background, if we dare to show up at all. On that day I was purple from head-to-toe. Purple hair (ultra violet), glasses (plum), shirt (raspberry), skirt (lavender), and shoes (maroon). I laughed along, and said something like “sure, we can go with that.” One of them half tittered and half mumbled something about how interesting that other theory of mine was as they continued on down the main road toward the lodge. “Yeah,” I called back. “It kept my eastern European peasant ancestors alive over many winters!” But they were gone.
Tramp Harbor Dock. photo by Marshall Kirkpatrick
I was immediately struck by the fact that they were so incredibly uncomfortable with me acknowledging my fatness, by daring to speak of it, in a matter of fact and not at all apologetic way, that these women felt compelled to change my story. Fat is so vilified in our culture that these women couldn’t simply acknowledge what I said with something like “oh that makes sense” and move on to another subject.
I think it’s possible that their own fat-phobia was exposed to them in that instant in a way that they never imagined. Everyone knows that calling a woman fat is the absolute worst insult possible, so to have accidentally caused an actual fat woman to acknowledge her fatness is potentially horrifying. How cruel and thoughtless! It disrupts the “I’m a good person” narrative. But the fact there wasn’t a trace of shame in my voice when I talked about my fat body with genuine pride and gratitude for keeping my core temperature warm in a chilly forest was probably incredibly disorienting. I chalked up the women’s shock to their own enculturation; the same enculturation we all receive about fatness in our society and walked back to the lodge to meet my friends.
Later that afternoon, my friends and I sat at a picnic table on a deck eating our lunch. The deck was packed full of happy people enjoying the sunny day and the potato soup, homemade bread, and artichoke dip. I noticed some folks standing by our table and sure enough, it was the same two women from before. There was plenty of room at our table, and they were standing right in front of the open seats, but they weren’t quite looking at us. “You’re welcome to join us!” I said, and they both smiled gratefully and sat down. We made introductions around the table and chatted about how wonderful this place was, where we were from, other places like it we have visited, regular retreat center meal talk. We wished each other well at the end of the meal and parted ways.
The whole series of interactions puzzled me for a while until I had a chance to share my story with someone wiser than me. My counselor. We cringed together while I half shouted about how they were so uncomfortable with fatness that they had to change my story. My Story! We celebrated how comfortable I was talking with these strangers about my fat body. But I was still puzzled about why they shyly chose to eat lunch with me after such a weird exchange just a few hours earlier. I asked my counselor about it and she replied, “It’s because you saved them,” she said. “Something in your interaction freed them.” Tears sprung to my eyes. If that is true, and I like to think it is, there are two massage therapists, one in Northern California, and one in New Jersey who have unraveled a little bit of their fat-phobia because I showed up and told a story about my body and my fatness. With pride.
Purple Soap! photo by, you guessed it, Marshall Kirkpatrick
Walking through the world in a body like mine and being visible and unapologetic is a political act. Every time I show up in a space and demand to be seen, whether it’s through purple hair or allowing myself to take up space in a world that wants me to shrink into myself. I have the potential to change the way someone sees fat bodies whether it’s their own or someone else’s. It’s not something I asked for but it is something I’m willing to accept if I have to. I sure do look forward to a day where I can acknowledge my fatness to an average person and not see that look of horror pass over their face. I look forward to a day that simply acknowledging my body as it is isn’t a radical act. I look forward to a day when no one wants to change the story of anyone else’s body. Until that day, and after I will own my story. And all the stories of my body and what it’s like to it’s like to live here.