“Fat is Contagious”
This incredible article, “Fat is Contagious,” was written by Kim Brittingham and originally featured on FreshYarn.com. We are so glad to be able to share it with you here. Kim’s memoir, Read My Hips, will be out in 2010. We can’t wait to read it, and we welcome your comments and insight on her article.
I ride the public buses of New York City nearly every day, to and from work at least. Overall, experience has shown me that most riders prefer to sit rather than stand — that is, unless they have to sit next to a fat person.
I’ve been on buses that filled to an inhumane capacity, with commuters packed in like desperate refugees or sows to the slaughter. Still, the seat beside me remained empty. I once watched a woman tolerate being wedged between a foul-smelling man with roaming hands and a perspiring giant with a hairy armpit an inch from her face, yet she staunchly refused to collapse comfortably into the seat available at my side. To be fair, she might’ve been enjoying the feel-up, but judging by her expression of disgust and the dirty looks she kept shooting at me, I think not. Why wouldn’t she just sit? And what had I done to deserve the evil eye? Had I contaminated an otherwise perfectly good seat by situating my deadly girth beside it?
Some people don’t even bother to be subtle. One woman attempted to sit beside me and made a big show of squirming uncomfortably before crossing the aisle in a noisy huff. She sat beside a sympathetic stranger with shaking head and rolling eyes, to whom she churlishly complained, “Some people got a lot of nerve!”
Hey, listen — I can understand how the seat beside a large person might be viewed as less desirable than one beside a slimmer person, for reasons of bodily comfort. A tiny person might leave the seat-seeker more room to move in their own space. Oftentimes I, too, will choose to stand when I see an open seat between two people that looks like it won’t comfortably accommodate my large body. I simply don’t want to be squashed in the middle. What I don’t understand, however, is when seats are at a premium and very few people will suck it up and sit next to me in a seat on the aisle — that’s right, an aisle seat where there’s no wedged-between factor. Even I find it infinitely more comfortable to sit in an aisle seat beside another large person, with one of my ass-cheeks hanging over the side, than to stand for forty blocks and be jerked clumsily to and fro in high-heeled boots.
When it isn’t adults refusing to sit beside me, it’s their children, children of four and younger already imbued by the media or their parents with the unarticulated but unmistakable code that fat people are bad. Bad, dirty, poor, stupid, sick. I’ve watched, saddened, as children twisted and whined at their nannies’ sides when it was suggested that they take a seat beside me.
Sometimes I actually get to witness the process of this unfortunate indoctrination. An as-yet untainted child approached the empty seat beside me and climbed guileless into it, grinning, all cheeks and Chiclet-teeth. Her mother snatched her away and suggested that she sit over there instead. When the little girl asked, “Why, Mommy?” her mother was dismissive and uneasy. While my hips and ass may be wide, trust me — they’ve never bled so far outward that I couldn’t accommodate the feathery body of a three-year-old at my side.
The way people act, you’d think fat was contagious.
Over time, I couldn’t help wondering what other riders were thinking when they chose not to sit next to me on the bus. At that moment of decision — to sit or not to sit next to the fat girl — are their thoughts crystal clear, like typewriting across their brains? You don’t want to sit next to that fat woman, because a) she might smell like bratwurst, b) her excess sweat will rub off on you and stain your good blouse, or c) it’ll be a lot less comfortable than standing. Or are their thoughts more like a swirling purple vapor of vague collected precepts? Fat…bad…icky…undesirable…avoid…stand.
One afternoon I was inspired to launch an experiment; to engage in an act of performance art, of sorts. I created a fake book cover with my home computer. Some rectangles of color here, a change in font there, a borrowed bar code, some clip art of a cartoon fat woman on a shuddering scale, and voila! I’d churned out a highly convincing non-fiction book jacket. I wrapped it around a newly purchased biography, and after a little tugging and folding and fun with Scotch tape, I held the book out before me. My heart swelled at the sight of it, my cheeks grew warm. My God. It looked so real.
As I ride up, down, and back and forth across Manhattan, I work my way through Fat is Contagious (or rather, whatever cleverly cloaked tome I’m currently reading), one twenty-minute ride at a time. Even when I appear completely engrossed in its pages, I’m aware of the dozens of people who strain their necks doing double, triple, and even quadruple-takes to read and re-read its cover. Wherever my book is in clear public view, someone inevitably notices. Some people appear absolutely stunned, mouths comically agape; still others can’t conceal their absolute horror. Many look just plain dumbfounded, a little goosed perhaps, and undeniably confused. I’m telling you, the looks alone are priceless. Pure entertainment.
Once in a while I receive a smile, but I’ll never know which ones are pitying my perceived stupidity, or, like a particularly handsome man peeking over the top of a Wall Street Journal with a knowing twinkle in his eye, seeming to congratulate me on a cleverly-executed hoax.
On two separate occasions, I spied women sitting opposite me jotting down the title and author on the back of a phone bill or a drug store receipt, scrawling hastily between surreptitious glances from beneath an overhang of hair. I wondered: were these women seeking to learn which trendy nutritional supplement would protect them from the perils of infectious fatness? Or were they burning to write a venomous letter to the author, verbose in its feminist ideologies?
One day I overheard a young woman on the bus phoning a friend, making no special effort to keep her voice down.
“Cheryl, it’s me. Listen. I’m on the 79 bus and I’m sitting across from this woman who’s reading a book called, Fat is Contagious, How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make You Fat. No, I’m serious. Yes. I know it’s mind-boggling. Should I ask? O.K., well, can you check Amazon for me?”
One middle-aged man sat beside me, took one good look at the book cover, and literally ran to the back of the bus!
After witnessing a wide variety of entertaining reactions to Fat is Contagious, I finally received one concrete answer to my original question: What are people thinking when they choose not to sit beside me on the bus? I got an answer that was true, uncensored and specific. One woman responded out loud on behalf of everyone who’d ever intentionally avoided, snickered or sneered at a fat person, giving a real voice to so many of those riders still tethered to the handrails in standee silence. And ironically, it all happened before I’d even managed to pull Fat is Contagious from my messenger bag.
I’d just finished a long day of jury duty and all I wanted was to head home and lose myself in a good book. I climbed onto the bus and sank into a seat on the end of a row of three. A statuesque, capable-looking woman with skin like bittersweet chocolate sat on the other end. I was rummaging in the bag on my lap when I heard a belligerent voice spit, “Excuse me!”
I looked up to see another woman glowering down upon me. I’d classify her as “an older woman,” but she had the sort of haggard features that often make you believe a woman to be older than she actually is. She was tiny and slight in an oversized coat that hung heavily from her narrow shoulders. Her skin appeared tough and slightly yellow, and the auburn hair that showed from beneath her woolen cap looked brittle and lusterless. She scowled at me through Coke-bottle glasses. I had no idea what she wanted.
“Yes?” I asked.
She pointed to the middle seat. A fringed triangle of my shawl had fallen into it. I reached down to lift it into my lap and she quickly snapped, “Oh, never mind!” She turned to the woman on the other end of the row and spat, “If some people won’t lose weight, they should have to pay for two seats!”
To this cranky little woman’s dismay, she encountered no support.
“What are you talking about?” the seated woman replied in a melodious Caribbean accent. “There’s plenty of room for you in that chair! And what are you saying, lose the weight? There’s nothing wrong with this lady! She’s just fine the way she is!”
Two plump women sharing a family resemblance and identical ponytail holders sat snugly against one another in seats across the aisle. Their eyebrows shot up beyond their bangs.
“Oh no she di-in’t!” they chorused. “Did that lady just say you need to pay for two seats? Who the hell she think she is?”
The self-righteous little woman (I’ll call her Ms. Hostility), sensing her viewpoint was unwelcome in the back of this particular bus, moved towards the front. Seconds later, it seemed she’d engaged a stranger in conversation about me, or they with her, because I heard Ms. Hostility argue, “Well she should want to lose the weight, for her health!”
Here I thought I’d been minding my own goddamned business. But just like that, my weight had become the sizzling debate-du-jour on the M15 bus from Center Street.
All right then. If the idea behind this woman’s confrontation was that all fat people are hurting themselves with their poor habits, and further, that society should step up and stop this mass self-destruction by any means necessary (including malice masquerading as tough love), then why aren’t more combatant, public transportation-loving women hovering over slender people on the bus and berating them for the cigarettes in their shirt pockets, the martinis on their breath, or the excessive stress lingering on their furrowed brows? Why haven’t these crusading souls made it their business to fight self-destructive habits across the board? Why aren’t bus riders asking other bus riders outright if they have regular check-ups and health screenings, and glaring down their noses at those who answer in the negative? After all, it’s about helping people recognize what’s best for their health — right?
The Caribbean lady reached over and put a hand on my arm. “Don’t you listen to her,” she said in a hush. “She’s just jealous. She wants to be young and pretty, like you.”
I knew my new friend was right. I wouldn’t have traded bodies with that unhappy little troll for any amount of money — and I wanted so badly to tell her so. I was growing weary of taking yet-another-hit for the fat team in noble silence. I was tired of letting people skate by saying whatever they felt like about my private body any time, anywhere, in front of anyone — all the while, grinding my teeth on overrated grace and eternal forgiveness, replaying in my mind the old Mommyism that I shouldn’t lower myself to her level by being just as nasty. My ire was way up, and for good reason. I wanted to say something acidly clever, just plain mean. No, I’m not Mother-frickin’-Theresa, and here’s what I was thinking: I wanted to tell her she looked like a rat — a sickly, underfed rat crudely ejected from an overcrowded consumption asylum; a 19th-century trash picker just turned out of the workhouse. I wanted to rub it in her face that I was robust and pink and lusty, that I was luscious and plump and smooth as a peach, that I looked like a biblical cherub in the nude, and that she only wished she did. I wanted to tell her she was the last person who ought to comment on the state of a person’s health based on their appearance. I wanted to thrust a chubby finger in her face and force her to listen about fat Jeanette DePatie, marathoner, aerobics instructor, and producer of the fitness video The Fat Chick Works Out. Would Ms. Hostility be able to keep up with Jeanette DePatie’s video? I wished Ms. Hostility could meet obese Kevin Brown who placed 76th out of 173 competitors at the Ironman Triathlon. How well would Ms. Hostility compete beside Kevin Brown? What would she so authoritatively say about the health of Ms. DePatie or Mr. Brown if she saw one of them sitting on the bus?
Ms. Hostility certainly wasn’t the first person in history to suggest that fat people should lose weight for their health. Every physician I’ve ever seen and an uncle with only the best intentions believed the same, and told me so. But why should a complete stranger on a bus be so deeply concerned about my health? It’s as hackneyed an excuse as they come.
I decided against engaging Ms. Hostility in a debate. Part of me would’ve relished a cross-examination of her motives, but I was too tired to excavate, too weary to peel away the health argument and find out what bitter, ignorant, heartbreaking belief really lay beneath. I took the high road, but only by exhausted default.
The rotund sisters unleashed some verbal digs on my behalf. “You’re right, she is jealous,” they piped up. “Just look at her nasty, bony ass.”
With easy confidence, I assured them, “What she says can’t hurt me.”
“You’re beautiful, and they’re beautiful,” the black woman said, gesturing to me and the sisters. “I’m not very skinny myself, but I’m beautiful too.”
We all nodded at one another and smiled. “You look stunning. Tall, healthy.” I told the kind woman. “We’ve all got good, sturdy genes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
A growing crowd at the front of the bus forced Ms. Hostility back our way again. She hovered directly above me and glared, stubbornly avoiding the empty seat at my side. I decided to resume what I’d been doing when I was so unpleasantly interrupted the first time. I pulled Fat is Contagious out of my bag and with intentional drama, I widened my eyes mockingly and raised the book slowly, spookily in front of my face, floating it over my nose and mouth. Ms. Hostility and my allies all noticed this quiet, curious performance and leaned forward to read the book title. Suddenly, laughter and applause broke out from all sides. The quarrelsome Ms. Hostility made a sour face, turned on her heel, and spurned us for the remainder of the ride.
Ms. Hostility and I got off the bus at Union Square. We started moving in the same direction at the same time. Even with a bulky, heavy shoulder bag to bear, I passed her, walking at my usual clip — a pace that tends to be frustratingly fast for most of my friends, fat and thin alike. I wasn’t trying to outrun her. I didn’t have to. Perhaps her delicate, bird-like physique couldn’t support such a vigorous stride. I went about my business, breathing deeply the air of an unusually perfect day, my legs long, sturdy and sure, my head held high. I looked over my shoulder only once to see if I’d been followed, and I saw Ms. Hostility shuffling towards the doors of Barnes & Noble. Perhaps she was looking to read a copy of Fat is Contagious. For her health.