Fat Girl Friendships
Beyond shallow and rhetorical body positivity, Laura Marie Marciano reflects on the magic that comes with being present with other fat women.
I am sitting at her vanity, applying her mascara. There is makeup piled onto the small table. The mirror in front of me is framed in black plastic that looks like Gothic wrought iron. The Brooklyn room is decorated for Halloween, but it is July. Annie is on the bed, in her black bra and leggings, also putting on makeup.
“Isn’t it great to get ready with other fat girls?” she says to me, and laughs her deeply comforting laugh.
I just smile nervously at Annie and feel the lens of shame zoom in on my body. I have gained nearly 30 lbs after a traumatic romantic failure and I am far from ready to embrace the word fat. How could she be happy about being fat?
“And I bet when you were in middle school you were like best friends with the hottest, skinniest girls, right? They all do that – they need a fat friend to make them feel better about themselves!”
Her candid remarks sting me in places I forget still hurt. How much fat-phobia do I possess in my own body? How might it be measured out? I recall how my fondness for Virginia Woolf gravely diminished when I found out her disdain for fatness – calling fat women “chew-ers,” lethargic, and in terms of family reproduction and femininity, the heterosexual unthinking. The idea that fatness was equated with a lack of sophistication, nuance, queerness, or most commonly, work ethic, had been taught to me by both friend and enemy. And here was Annie, defying this in her confidence, that fat was nothing one should be ashamed of, or even more radical, something that ought to be changed!
Was I overweight in middle school? As a young adolescent I was occupied with preparing a face more than I am now – and I had a lot of conventionally attractive, ‘hot’ female friends. If I had been fat, and they needed me to feel better about themselves, didn’t I also need them to feel better too? How weak was I to have to surround myself with the shiniest people in order to raise my self worth. Much of this has shed through the years, yet it still feels exciting to be friends with a hot person – it is just my definition of what this means has matured and softened and been politically altered.
I think back to my cheerleading skirt and how it fit my body, to the boy who said I looked better with my clothes off and spread that opinion around the lunchroom in eighth grade. I know I had not been overweight at the time – but I had matured early and had visible curves. This made me a commodity to the boys and girls, and I felt protected by their thinness, their curiosity about my body. Now I might see this as them fetishizing what they didn’t have, and wanting it for their own. But then it just felt like a tug of war for what we could get from one another to feel ok.
I remember also reading a book about hitting puberty published by American Girl. It had all these letters from readers about their body insecurities; big boobs, small boobs, too tall, big feet, too short. Were these actual insecurities deserving of critique and explanation? To me they were more like indiosincrities that could be made cute with the correct bra, clothing choices, products, and shoes. The advice to the letter writers always said something about accepting what you have, then offered advice on how to make it better.
Then there was this one letter entitled “The Body Nobody Wants,” and even without the illustration, you knew it was going to be about a fat girl. Real fat-phobia and discrimination were tied to this one – there were no correct clothing choices or ways to make it cute to be fat.
The title of that letter was said to have been written by the teen who sent it to the publisher, but I wonder if that is true? And even if it were, the editor had kept it and sent the direct message to the younger reader: if you are fat, no one will want you.
When Annie refers to our friendship as something between two fat girls, I am not ready to do the work of overcoming my own hang ups about what that means, and it is clear our culture has done a number on me. But I look to my friend for some kind of guidance- because I know I should not feel ashamed of the form my body takes, at any given moment in my life, and she is there to actively remind me of this.
Annie is a 26-year-old, Jewish and Italian lesbian and New York Native, with an MFA in Media Art. She is a talented film artist, writer, and poet. She is also a sex worker who sees regular clients, most of which are working class men in her local area. Her identity places her outside of the status quo, and her body type also exists as an outlier to the mainstream.
Her wage labor as well is affected by her body. The rhetoric around sex work, and the media’s voyeuristic interest in the story of the adult sex worker, seems to have increased as of late. Advertisements for sugar daddy websites as an option for young women to get out of debt, or make a living, are more common. Yet Annie’s experience as a sex worker is even outside of what is already a taboo topic. She tells me she would not be able to find a sugar daddy, or a very wealthy client whom she dates exclusively, because she isn’t thin enough and those men don’t want to be seen with a fat girl. Not for that kind of money. Fat girls, culturally, are almost always enjoyed behind closed doors.
Annie’s general candor brings me head first into piles of self-doubt and confusion about the place of fat women, and where fatness belongs, if anywhere. My fatness, or lack of fatness, defines my space in public. I realize that the more weight I gain, the more I get both openly shamed, and at the same time, aggressively hit on, when walking outside. Perhaps the fat female body is for the amusement of the masses because it has no cultural capital- it is to be consumed – and I feel this immensely with every remark from a person on the street. The shaming is also insesent. I recall a colleague of mine telling me my ice cream cone was not the best food choice, and even if he wasn’t thinking about my body type when he said it, I was.
The reality is often that fatness must be hidden and covert, and that those who possess it, or those who crave it, must do so in secret. I think about the trope of a mistress being a plump goddess that comes with a lot of available sugar but no visible baggage; at least none the man has to take on. They have perfectly contoured faces, above faux-diamond chokers, and spray tanned chests, and they always must smell clean. Fat girls must always be clean. Annie tells me it would be a cold day in hell when a fat sex worker might be allowed to have unshaved legs, or dress sloppy. And this is true for all of us.
I think about fat girls in school who guys fuck for practice and then say it was only for the head. I think about fat girls hiding under towels by the pool, under layers in the hot weather, robbed of the pleasure of swimming. My own mother hasn’t gone swimming for twenty years. This is sad. I think about the trio of three fat girls that walked into a pastry shop I was sitting in and I how I instantly judged them, listening to see what it was they would order. My own fear of gaining more weight keeps me in a loop of self-hate that I project onto innocent bystanders just trying to live their lives without public scrutiny. I think about my friends, who have never been overweight, saying that they “feel fat” as if fatness is an emotion and not a physical state.
I feel for my friend, Annie. Her words are constantly speaking the truth, dropping bombs on people’s fake empathy, and I thank her for being so woke, even if it hurts me to wake up myself. My body weight has fluctuated my entire life. I have been both average and overweight, and even what doctors might call obese. It’s hard for me to remember which body type I have at any given time, but I reconcile that Annie understands this, and understands the struggle of living as a fat person in our culture. I only have to think about the nightly news to know that fat people are never allowed on TV, even if it is about politics, war, or the weather.
I remember one night, me and Annie and our friend Holiday were sitting in a diner, on our way to Rhode Island to film a new project, and we were all nearly crying about how depression had ruined our lives and people just didn’t get what that felt like. And here we were, three different body types, eating fries and pickles, and watching our tears mix with the food. We were all wearing black. Annie started talking about how people tell her to exercise, how that will make her happier. And she starts to laugh. “They don’t fucking get it!” And she’s right; they don’t.
But that afternoon, Annie and I were together in her room getting ready to visit her mom in Salem, NY. Their home is a 100-year-old farm house and when you are there, you can eat whatever kind of incredible food you want, made by the most earnest Italian mother. First, we pick up our friend Emma in my car and Peggy too, who I have never met before, but from photos I know she’s like a curvy version of Amy Winehouse. I feel empowered driving these women around, and unlike the girls in middle school who I needed to be close to, these women are supremely beautiful without conforming to convention.
I sit down with Annie’s mother for most of the afternoon. The house feels like Halloween, but it is summer. She tells me to stay away from bad men, and that I can eat whatever is in the fridge. I am thinking about how she just accepts her daughter – Annie can be a fat sex worker and smoke weed in the house and it is ok. I realize this is because Annie has built a safe space around her body, being open and fierce about who the fuck she is.
I go up the carpeted stairs of the house. There are several bedrooms off a long corridor. The white, Persian cat, with a hot pink collar, comes about my feet. She is shaved for the summer, so she looks particularly strange. Ahead of me I see Emma’s figure through a crack in the door, her camera lens protruding from her hands. I knock, and Annie says to come in. She is laid across the bed in a black and lace bra, and a pair of underwear with a pink ribbon laced up the back. She laughs. I am so impressed by her confidence in front of the camera, I want to tell her. But then I stop myself, because I hate when people are impressed by fat women’s confidence – their projection of self-hatred so palpable, their repulsion, glazed over eyes staring at chubby legs in a mini skirt and translating those feelings into the phrase no fat woman wants to hear: I wish I had your confidence!
Her mother comes in behind me. “That’s a good angle,” she tells Emma. Annie stands up. She walks off the bed. Her mother comes behind her, and re-ties the ribbon on her daughter’s garment. “I took her to McDonald’s after her session the other day. Did you ever think you would hear a mother say that, Laura?” She laughs, loudly, and we do as well. We go out to the hot tub and smoke through a vapor pipe.
Later on we are together watching a movie, and as we get ready to sleep the other girls change in front of each other, while I change in private. In the morning we will drive back to the city. I look through the window and see hundreds of pine trees in front of the Synagogue across the street. Annie laughs about how I am afraid of nudity, how I never show my body. But I don’t want anyone to see any part of me – not now. I say something about having brothers; and she agrees maybe that makes sense. I still feel pretty good, laying there, hanging out with other fat girls.