By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
One of my favorite t-shirts reads “Fat, Gay, & in the Way” in glittery gold letters set against a lovely dark shade of blue.
It is a comfortable jersey, so I wear it quite a bit. The lettering isn’t easy to make out so people often ask me what it says. This gives me numerous opportunities to say, “Fat, Gay, and in the Way.”
And then I have numerous opportunities to watch their smiles dim and their eyes dart back and forth as they try to figure out what to say to me. Should they agree with me that I’m fat? Will that offend me? What does ‘in the way’ mean?
It is one of the few times people seem relieved to talk about my gay identity.
I’m a fat woman. There are lots of reasons why, but it shouldn’t matter. I am ‘in the way’ because I deserve to take up space. I’m not obligated to make myself fit, whether it be into cisgender heteronomative standards or my weight.
I grew up a pretty scrawny kid, a combination of genetics and poverty dooming me to a life of unpredictable food sources. Sometimes the gambling gods sent us lots of food and sometimes, nothing. But, I was definitely skinny.
In 4th grade, we had to create food diaries. Several times during that project I ate a handful of stale popcorn for breakfast with a glass of water. My teacher was more concerned with counting this as a starch than in making sure I was being fed at least while I was in her care.
In 7th grade, I begged my parents to sign us up for the school lunch program. The bullying in the lunchroom was intense, so I tried to take something from home as often as possible. I knew the other kids who ‘took’ their lunch and felt safer sitting among them.
That’s what led me one morning in eighth grade to stand in our living room comforting my sobbing father because there was no food in the house and the lunch program tickets had run out. The money had run out or, more precisely, had been spent on gambling and alcohol. But I was comforting him because that’s how it worked when I was a 13-year-old. I made do; I made my parents feel better, and I made sure to not overshare with extended family because I knew they wouldn’t actually help us.
In ninth grade, I realized no one in my household liked yogurt or granola bars so I added those to the weekly shopping list and ensured myself a consistent, if boring, lunch for the entire school year.
Once I began earning my own money, I realized that cheap junk food was another way to fill the meal gaps. I bought generic spaghettios, powdered soup packets and big bags of pasta with my paychecks.
At the end of my freshman year of college, my father criticized me for gaining the fabled “Freshman Fifteen,” and I felt shame, even despair. It took me years to acknowledge that this had been the first time I had access to decent meals three times a day for more than eight months. Sure, I ate my share of junk food, but I was secretly enamored with the balanced meals and the daily salad bar.
Most people would say that they just wanted me to be healthy. But healthy would have been easier to achieve if those same judgemental people had acknowledged the addictions, untreated mental health issues and violence that haunted my family for generations. What if they had simply noticed that we didn’t eat every day and that our access to other health resources was precarious at best? I call bullshit on anyone deciding what is healthy for other people without asking them, even kids.
A few years ago, one of my niblings (nephew/niece + sibling) was quite distraught about calories, particularly the calories his sister was eating as a snack. I asked him what the worst outcome could be and he blurted out, “She’ll be fat” and then quickly covered his mouth with his hands as he looked at me. I assured him that being fat isn’t even on the top 20 list of worst things that could happen and reminded him that I was fat.
He stared at me; my heart broke for him as he struggled with this internalized fatphobia and his love for me. I can’t undo those messages that still torment him, but I can be present, be in the way with my fatness as an adult who resists these distorted messages and the lasting harm they inflict on kids.
I’m now a fat adult whose family has regular access to food. Being fat is not a state of sinfulness or shame. And even though I shared examples from my childhood, it isn’t simply a legacy of growing up in poverty. It is my armor, my body’s protection doing the job that so many adults in my life failed to do.
I occupy this space and fill it with my intersecting identities as a queer, disabled, white, cis woman who is fat and in the way. That’s how I get my needs met and stand in solidarity with other bodies that don’t fit the conventional status.