So the gentleman who owns the store next to my office stopped me on the street as I was walking back from getting coffee, ostensibly to apologize for calling me Sarah as I walked into work that morning. I said, “Don’t worry about it. Everyone always calls me the wrong name. Usually Sarah or Rachel. All those Old Testament wives.” I went on my merry way but he stopped me again. He had something else to say. I think it’s important that I preface this story by saying that this guy really was not trying to hit on me, which in some ways makes it all worse. Okay, I’ll continue. Here’s what he said.
“You know, actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you. You, I think, are the perfect image of a full-figured woman. I’m just wondering what you think about that. Do you feel good about yourself?”
Now, this dude says awkward and strange things to me and my co-workers all the time. He’s a lonely divorcee who owns a suit shop that never gets any business, so Lord knows what thoughts twirl around his brain all day while he’s surrounded by all that linen and no other humans. But, this was beyond the standard unusual comment. He seemed earnest, like he wanted to learn something about body confidence. I was taken aback, and not super interested in having that conversation, so I tried to end it and leave.
“Um, yeah, I’m pretty confident in myself.”
“That’s good because, you really are perfect exactly how you are and I know a lot of men put pressure on women to lose weight and be skinny, but you really shouldn’t change. You’re like a perfect image of a full-figured woman. I know you’re married, but I hope your husband feels so too.”
Ladies, we’ve all been here, right? In one form or another? We’ve all found ourselves confronted by a man who feels entitled to comment on our bodies even when it’s inappropriate, back-handed, and unprofessional. I meant it as a compliment, they say when we call them on their behavior. And the little feminist pixie that lives inside me turns red and screams because she’s too exhausted to take the time to educate this ignorant man on why it is inappropriate to comment on the body of a person, pretty much ever, but especially when that person works next door to you. And that pixie is also frustrated because she knows that this man really does believe he’s being noble, and perhaps in a twisted way he is. He sees the pressure put on women to be skinny, lose weight, please a man, and he is making a statement to a woman who does not fit that mold to say that she is perfect the way she is and should not succumb to that societal pressure. So how can I be mad? But I am. I am mad. The pixie is mad. Because even though he meant it as a compliment, it made me feel like shit. Which then makes me feel like a failure because it feels like a test as to whether or not I truly have body confidence and when given that test I failed because on the inside I totally collapse as if I’m twelve years old all over again and just got called chubby on the playground. So I’m mad at the man, I’ve failed my inner feminist pixie, and I’ve reverted to the child I was when I was bullied. I don’t have the fortitude to make this a teachable moment. I’m too sad. Now do you see why it’s basically never a good idea to comment on someone’s body? Hot-button is a phrase that doesn’t begin to paint the picture.
Just when I start to think, hey, I think all this body confidence I’ve been working on is really paying off. I’m starting to feel like a confident woman. Not a fat woman, not a curvy woman or a skinny woman or a woman on a diet. Just a woman. Cool. It’s nice to just be a person.
And then, poof.
Along comes a well-intended old man to remind me that no, you are not just a woman. You will never be perceived as just a woman. You are a “full-figured” woman. You are pretty—for a curvy girl. You will never just be pretty. You will always be pretty with a modifier.
I feel so average sometimes that I actually feel invisible. It’s appropriate that this whole confrontation began because the man got my name wrong. It happens ALL. THE. TIME. I usually have to meet someone at least three times before they remember me—not remember my name, remember me at all—and when they finally do remember me they then get my name wrong. Sarah, Rachel, Heidi. These are names I’ve been called this week alone. Everything but Rebecca, who is invisible. I’ve tried to embrace it, my average-ness. There’s a benefit to disappearing into the wallpaper. You get to see very interesting things when people don’t really know you’re there. I also always know that when I have an instinct about something I’m probably right because I’ve learned that part of being average is having unextraordinary opinions. If I think something, chances are thousands of other people have thought it as well, so I’m not alone in my ideas and can generally trust them to have some backing. I’m not an outlier. I’m not an iconoclast. I’m not a trailblazer. I’ve embraced the benefits of being ordinary. It’s led to me being a strong administrator and a creative writer. I like being an invisible pair of hands that makes cool things happen from behind the curtain. But then conversations like this come about and make me feel like the only things that do make me visible are things that are negative. Like being “curvy” or “full-figured.” What does that even mean? The world around this issue is changing a little bit. But not really. Not really. Plus-size models are still plus-size; they’re not just models and I’m not sure they ever will be. They will always be models with a modifier.
The emotional waves settle. My head comforts my heart and I accept that perception is reality. I can’t control how people perceive me therefore I can’t control their reality. I can only control how I perceive myself, so my reality is that I’m just a woman. A woman who struggles from time to time with body image, but is mostly over it. A woman who struggles every day with eating healthy. A woman who runs marathons and loves dance parties. Who is on Weight Watchers but loves carrot cake. Who has a husband who thinks I’m pretty. Period.
I know how much privilege I walk around with as a middle-class, able-bodied, cis, straight, white woman. Crossings like this remind me that what I experience in micro-doses once in awhile, minority groups experience daily and in much more aggressive doses. It’s not right. Perhaps I’ve even been that well-intended person asking someone a question about their life experience that has the affect of making them feel small. I’m going to use this experience to remind me of that, and to remind me to always treat people like people. Not like plus-size people, or disabled people, or ethnic people, or gay people, or trans people. You breathe oxygen and are carbon-based? Cool, then you are people. No modifiers.