August 29, 2018

“Gosh, You’re a Big Fella,” and Other Manifestations of My Privilege

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jared Harrop

So, I have known the new ASDAH blog coordinator for many years, and when she got the position and first started trying to wrangle some post writers, she asked me, too. I said, “What should I write about?” and her response was, “Anything you want! It’s a blog about people in diverse body sizes and their lived experiences, and I like your writing, so just write about your experiences as a larger-bodied man.”

I thought to myself: what do I want to write about? What experiences could I write about? I could write about the experience of flying in a larger body, smooshed into an airplane seat that’s too small for folks even half my size, between two other gentlemen about the same size as me. I could write about the intense discomfort I feel getting into and out of friends’ compact cars, or the frustration I feel when I can’t reach something that’s fallen on the floor because my midsection doesn’t let me bend down that far. I could write about big, comfortable, reclining movie-theater chairs that are still small enough that my thighs will sometimes trigger the buttons to un-recline me, at random, causing me to miss important moments in the movie. I could write about how difficult it was to find a cool-looking motorcycle jacket and any helmet that would fit my head, and about how my friends teased me for riding a bike that was too small for my bulk. I could write about how hard it’s been, my whole life, to take off my shirt at public swimming areas, and how I’ve wondered if everyone there would rather I’d just stayed at home.

I sat with those feelings, the things I think and feel and tell myself, the challenges I experience every day because my environment was not designed with bodies like mine in mind. Part of me wanted to write in that mindset, but here is what I decided to write about instead.

My privilege.

I am over 6 feet tall and over 400 pounds. I also am an able-bodied, cisgender, hetero-passing, 39-year-old, white male. Even with all of these privileged identities, I have struggled my whole life to accept my body and find self-compassion. I hate the way everything in the world seems to be made for someone who is smaller than me. I hate that it’s hard for me to get fun clothes in my size, that there are places that don’t fit me, and that there are activities that are inaccessible to me because of my size.

But you know what has never happened to me? I have never been asked to leave somewhere because of my size. I have never been publicly humiliated by a stranger over my size (like one of my female friends has). I’ve never been denied food because I “obviously don’t need any more to eat” (like some past co-workers have been told). I’ve never been asked to suck in my stomach for a picture (the way my wife’s female eating disorder patients have). I’ve never been told to put more clothes on to cover up (the way my wife has).

Because of my privilege–my whiteness, my male-ness, my able-bodied-ness–people “make excuses” for my size. “Gosh, you’re a big fella. You a football player?” “Did you used to wrestle in high school?” “I bet you’re a real popular guy with your friends when they’re moving.” Echoes in my head, of my perennially-dieting mom: “You’re just husky… You look like my brother, he was always a big man, too… Your sister is so lucky she got your dad’s metabolism instead of mine…” The worst I ever really get is microaggressions: sidelong glances or maybe eye rolls I can’t see, “wow, you’re really graceful/gentle/nice/smart/etc.–I didn’t expect that when I first met you,” “do you want to switch seats with me so you have more room?” Most recently a car-rental clerk who might have pushed a little harder than necessary for the up-sell to a full-size SUV while I was on vacation, although it turns out she was right–the compact crossover we ended up getting was impossible for me to drive comfortably.

I’m not saying that these microaggressions are acceptable or easy to deal with. On the contrary, they absolutely cause harm and steadily chip away at my feelings of self-worth. What I am saying, is that my privilege can and does protect me from many of the more overt forms of sizeism that others (who perhaps do not have that privilege) experience. My experience of size- and weight-discrimination, as a fat white middle class male, is different than what a woman might experience, or what a more impoverished person might experience, or what someone of another race might experience, even if they had a body very similar to mine. This is intersectionality at its core–and why intersectional approaches to weight stigma are so important. This is why I wanted to write about privilege for this blog–because understanding my privilege allows me to better understand my experiences of size discrimination.

When I view my experiences through an intersectional lens, as it were, and put myself into other people’s shoes, I can picture all the microaggressions I experience being amplified. Often people are nervous around me until they realize I’m usually very gentle, but at least they give me a chance, and get to know me. I know that this is partly due to my whiteness and my class. If I were a large man of another race, strangers might fear me and never take a chance to see my gentle nature. While I’ve had doctors blame some really asinine things on my weight (depression, toenail fungus, foot sprain), I’ve never had one refuse to treat me until I lost a set amount of weight, the way that a friend of mine was treated (who had limited mobility). And women’s bodies are constantly policed, by everyone! If I was not a cis-gender male, there would be a seemingly open invitation in our society for anyone to comment on my size, shape, diet, or presumed or explicit exercise whenever they felt like! I frequently witness this happening with my women friends, of all different sizes.

I don’t say any of these things in a self-pitying kind of way, or in an attempt to make myself feel better by pointing out how others have it worse than I do. On the contrary, I want to talk about what we can do with our privilege when we have it. As hard as it might be, I get to use my privilege to speak truth to those who might not listen otherwise–people will often listen to me, a normally taciturn large white middle class able-bodied male, and I can use that. I can use my voice to speak up and help highlight others’ voices. When people try to use euphemisms to spare my feelings, I self-identify as fat so they know it’s a description, not a disease. If people try telling me about their diets, I tell them with all the excessive confidence I can muster as an able-cis-het-white male, “I don’t really care about diets or think that they work well.” If someone comments on how gracefully I move for a man of my size, I pull up a YouTube video of a talented fat male ballerina to show them that I am not an anomaly. And as much as I can, I try to police the policers of others’ bodies and affirm as many people as I can in whatever size bodies they have.

I’m certain I do this wrong sometimes, and I am always learning how, and when, and where to use my privilege. There is a difference between helping to lift up another’s voice, and speaking for them. It is a tricky thing to learn. In spite of my mistakes, I feel strongly that it’s very important that I DO it, rather than rest safely in the cocoon of my privileged identities. It doesn’t solve all of my issues with my body. But maybe, at the very least, it might make it a little easier for someone else to navigate the world in theirs.

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Jared Harrop is a puns, sci-fi, Kung-Fu, superhero, and comic book enthusiast, who enjoys bananagrams, gaming, base lines, creative writing, and lengthy house projects. In his day job, he is a skilled maintenance supervisor, FBT-aficionado, and beloved toddler dad.

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