Fat-phobia and sexual harassment
A personal essay
TW: Fat-phobia and misogyny
I was often told growing up, by adults, peers and strangers alike, that I was mature for my age. Emotionally, mentally and physically. I was warned that as someone who looked much older than my years, I would have to be wary of not drawing attention to myself. That I would need to try not to be too suggestive, to not do anything to make myself stand out when travelling streets alone.
It was explained to me that my voluptuous (fat) figure gave me attributes that were appealing to men of all ages, and that I needed to be cautious and careful of strangers.
It was drilled into me, a slow and subtle accumulation of (mostly) good-intentioned warnings, that my body was a problem because it was desirable.
And yet, those same people - adults I looked up to, peers I wanted validation from, and strangers on the street who felt compelled to give me unsolicited advice - also told me that my body was utterly repulsive.
And why? It was too ‘voluptuous”. Too big. Too fat.
Those curves, rolls and pouches of fat that made me so desirable to men who were two, three, perhaps even four or five times my age, were the same pieces of my body that merited ridicule and disgust.
From family members, I’d hear “You’d be much prettier if you just lost a few pounds.”
From my peers, I’d be met with mocking “You’re so fat,” jokes, each with their own imaginative punchline.
From strangers on the street, cruel whispers and aghast stares trailed me like a cloak of shame.
It was there, in that strange paradox of fatness, considered at once completely desirable and utterly undesirable, that I found myself endlessly suspended by society for my entire adolescence.
It seems an impossible contradiction, doesn’t it? That a body can be both desirable and undesirable, worthy of being both looked upon and hidden away, tempting to touch and yet considered repulsive to the senses?
As it turns out, it’s not a contradiction at all. Because, both of these ideas, both of the messages I received throughout my formative years, held one distinct commonality: a woman’s body, a fat woman’s body, a fat Black woman’s body, is worth nothing more than what an onlooker deems it to be.
It holds no more value than its objectification.
It is an object, and nothing more.
And this societally held view that a fat body (particularly a fat body of a woman who belongs to more than one intersection of marginalisation) is nothing but an object, bestows a strange and dangerous amount of power on individuals who want to use these so-called ‘objects’ for their own gratification.
Those who wish to harass, bully, hypersexualise and demean fat bodies feel completely within their right to do so; because they have been taught, just as I was, that bodies like mine mean nothing. And that doing harm against them warrants no retribution or justice.
Fatphobia (as both the fear of fatness and the prejudice towards fat people, which has become so ingrained into our society) is one of the few forms of discrimination that still goes unchecked by our laws in the UK.
Not only does that put fat people at higher risk of harassment in general, but this paradox of being seen as both hypersexual and unworthy, emboldens people to feel safe in sexually harassing us more openly, loudly, and violently.
Fat women are seen, in many ways, as the ultimate sexual entity – somehow a person and yet an object, with many hypersexualised features to satisfy the impulses of cis-het men, but with such low desirability outside of sex that they surely crave and attention from any person who crosses their path.
So, what happens when we turn our harassers down? What happens when we stand in our power, demand the respect that we deserve and reclaim our identity as a human being and not just an object for sexual gratification?
I cannot explain to you how delicately I have had to toe the line over the years between expressing my discomfort/ setting my boundaries around being sexually harassed by strangers on the street, and doing so in such a way that will soften the impact of my rejection for my harasser.
As a woman, rejecting a man is turbulent enough: men can react violently because their ego is hurt by rejection. But, when a fat woman rejects a man, his ego and pride aren’t just hurt – they are deeply, badly wounded. After all, fat women are supposed to be easy targets - desperate to receive sexual harassment as a form of validation, because no one is supposed to want them, right? The blow of my rejection, as a Fat Black woman, is so deeply felt by those I rebuff, because they view it as a personal affront to their own desirability. Their personal insecurities roll out of them in a wave of anger that is so volatile, so uncontained and hysterical, that I never know how it will hit me.
Sometimes, it’s just an angry look or a muttered word. Other times, it’s a full on verbal assault of ugly and abusive language. And in those occasional, awful circumstances, it can turn physical.
So, whether it is catcalling/ fat calling, verbal abuse attempted solicitations, indecent exposure, being followed or touched without consent, I’ve always been aware that it is best
to tread carefully around how I react to public sexual harassment, and indeed, any form of VAWG.
And that makes me so incredibly angry.
Why must I live in fear simply because society refuses to recognise the worth of my body, of my very existence, simply because it is shaped differently to the so-called ‘social ideal’?
My body is worthy, because it is mine. I am worthy because I am a human being, just like anyone else, and deserve to be treated with the same equality and level of respect that any other person would expect to be treated with.
You are worthy, because you are a beautiful, unique individual, and your body helps you to be that person.
We are so much more than bodies to be objectified.
I refuse to stay suspended in the space between hyper-sexualisation and invalidation I have constantly been placed within by the systemic fatphobia, racism and sexism that exists within our society.
We deserve better. We deserve to be respected. We deserve to feel safe in our own bodies, and our own neighbourhoods.
And we will continue to voice that right until we are finally heard.
Hi, I'm Jade! I'm a fat, Black, queer Body Positivity Advocate, Spiritual Life Coach and Creative. I share most of my work, thoughts, and experiences on my Instagram profile, @bodiposipoet. But I also run a self-development community group called A Safe Space to Grow, and a campaign for #reclaimingbopo, which can both be found on Facebook and Instagram.