When I was 21, something trivial happened to me that profoundly affected the way I see myself when I look in the mirror: someone made a fat joke about me. It was the first (and so far, only) time anyone had ever commented on my weight, to my face, in a negative light, and it’s played mind games with me ever since.
For extra credit in an English class, I had decided to participate in a Shakespeare festival at a community college theater. Since I didn’t want to take the stage alone to recite a sonnet or a monologue, my sole option was to partner up with the only classmate I had who wasn’t already signed up. She was an older student — probably in her late 30s — and she suggested that we do a scene from Macbeth. She asked if I was interested in playing Lady Macbeth, and I immediately said yes for two reasons: one was that I loved the character, and the other was because I had the perfect dress for the role.
I had originally gotten the dress for my junior prom; it was deep red with a zip-up bodice top; you know, not the sort of thing that I get to wear very often, but probably the single coolest article of clothing that I own (I still have it and have worn it maybe three times in my life). I knew it would be perfect for Lady Macbeth. Unfortunately, I hadn’t worn the dress since I was 17, and it didn’t occur to me that it may not fit any longer.
When I tried it on for our first dress rehearsal, the bodice wouldn’t zip all the way shut. The program’s director came into the dressing room and yanked the zipper while I sucked in my breath. My partner stood behind me and watched as the director struggled to close the back of my top.
“I’m not sure this is going to work,” the director finally said. “You’ll only be able to wear this if you let it out a bit.”
And then it happened. My partner snorted and said, “You mean let out the fabric or take in that skin?”
I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I whipped my head around and glared at her, stunned by what had just happened. A fat joke. She had just made a fat joke about me, practically to my face.
I went home after the rehearsal feeling like shit. I was angry at my partner for deploying what might as well have been the A-bomb of insults without any provocation and I was also angry with myself for caring about something so trivial. I wasn’t fat, and I knew that; I was, however, four years older than I had been the last time I wore the dress, and clearly, in the span of time between my junior prom and my junior year of college, my body had changed a little. That’s normal, with or without the dreaded freshman-15 that most people pack on at the cusp of adulthood.
I relayed the incident to friends and family, and they all tried to reassure me with variations of the same condolence: “Don’t feel bad — you’re not fat!” I appreciated it, but the more I thought about it (and this is especially true now), the more I realized that my weight wasn’t the real issue. Whether I’d been morbidly obese or dangerously underweight, she had made her little joke for one reason and one reason alone: to hurt me. In a society that instills unrealistic notions of beauty and body-image in women of all ages, she saw a weak spot and decided to take aim. And as much as I hate to admit it, it worked; I might have been mildly preoccupied with my weight as a teen, but that preoccupation blossomed into a full-blown obsession that day. And I hate it; I hate it because the fact that it hurts me shows that I buy into the beauty illusion just as much as anyone else, even though I like to think that I know better.
I still don’t know why she insulted me the way she did; maybe she was trying to be affable and failed, or maybe she resented me for some unclear reason, or maybe (and I think this is the most likely possibility) she was just kind of a bitch. I haven’t seen her since the night of the performance (I was ultimately able to squeeze into that bodice, by the way) and I have no real desire to get back in touch with her, for obvious reasons. But even though I’ve long since forgotten her name, I haven’t forgotten the fat joke; I’m not sure that I ever will. Whenever I stand on a scale and see a number I don’t like staring up at me, I hear her words in my head (“You mean let out the fabric or take in that skin?”). It’s more infuriating than depressing; fat jokes shouldn’t matter, regardless of how much we weigh. “You’re fat” should be as insulting as “You’re tall” or “You have brown eyes.”
It’s been a few years since that day, and while I still haven’t quite made peace with my neurosis, I’d like to think that I’m aided somewhat in the knowledge that these things are illusions, that the feminine ideal I see on TV and in magazines is a mirage designed to dupe me into buying cosmetics and weight-loss products, and that the person I see in the mirror isn’t necessarily the person others see when they look at me (for better or for worse). Accepting myself for who I am — cliché though that sounds — has become something I strive for every time I catch a glimpse of my reflection.
Above all, I hope that someday, I can look back to that awful moment in that dressing room and that my only regret will be that I didn’t spin around and hiss “Oh, fuck you!”