The Value of Fat
by Holly Elizabeth Rice
I’ve been a plus-size beauty vlogger for the past two years, but I’ve been fat my whole life. Except for the day I was born. The doctor clocked me in at five point five pounds — less than either of my siblings and half the size of the baby in the crib next to me in the hospital nursery.
More often than not, I’m the biggest one at the table. The biggest in a group. The biggest in a room.
Growing up fat gave me a heightened spatial awareness of my body’s parameters. There was a time around the age of six when I begged my mother for a two-piece bathing suit, and a time around the age of 16 when I begged her to let me change out of one in a Walmart dressing room. On that latter day, my mother stood at the doorway of the stall, the curtain tucked up to her chin as she tried to argue that my teenage body didn’t deserve the hate I gave it. But my mother’s floating head couldn’t convince me that my body should’ve been allowed poolside. She gave in, the same way she had when I was six and wanted a hot pink tankini, and purchased the solid black one-piece with the skirt cover-up for me to wear to my classmate’s birthday party. There were times when I refused to wear a bathing suit at all, and sat on the edge of the pool with my feet in, watching other people delight in the skin they were given. I was just a kid who wanted to go swimming.
When I was fourteen, I was told by a woman whose child I babysat that I would be a pretty girl if I’d just lose twenty pounds. I wasn’t attractive with that extra weight taking up more than my share of allotted space. Today, I move around New York and refuse to sit on the subway, fearful that the person I choose to sit next to will berate me for touching them because they perceive me as too big to be near them. I keep my shoulders crunched inward when I walk down the street so I don’t accidentally bump into anyone. In restaurants, squeezing between tables to get to my seat is the worst part of a meal, and I often have to pick whether to drag my fat ass through other patrons’ butter dishes, or face them as they watch me try to get by. In this city, the size of restaurants is especially unforgiving. Everywhere I go, I do the math of where my body can and can’t fit according to other people.
In high school, instead of being called by the typical rhetoric reserved for girls, all of my insults were prefaced with “fat”: fat slut, fat bitch, fat whore, fat cunt, fat ass. Fat alone was worse than being slutty, bitchy, whorish, or cunty combined. I had two boyfriends, but ultimately, boys were ashamed of being seen with me. Boys who I’d considered my friends reacted with hostility if I ever developed so much as a crush on them. One demanded to know how I could have thought he’d like a girl like me. Once, in the freshness of spring, my friend gave me a piggyback on the school’s front lawn. Upon seeing us, her boyfriend laughed and spoke only to her: How can you carry that fat whale around?
My body has never been just mine; it has always belonged to everyone else. As I grew up and graduated high school, my body fluctuated. At one point during college, I lost fifty pounds and people liked me better. I was still considered fat — just a more acceptable version of it. The guys I dated all proclaimed to like “curvy” girls and considered themselves “real men” for being able to “handle” me. On my YouTube videos, hidden among encouragement from other women, are comments from men with usernames like TheBBWBro who fetishize my size and congratulate themselves for being woke enough to love a fat woman. While other men hate me because of my weight, others love me despite it or because of it. My weight is never not part of the conversation of who I am. At one time, I used to fear my defining descriptor — the moment when someone would try to put my face to my name, motioning with their hands at their sides and asking “the bigger one?”
I care less about that now.
The emergence of larger women in popular culture in recent years has shown me that there are varying degrees of big. Up until recently, I searched for my body in celebrities and in everyday women as a way to justify myself as attractive even though I was fat. The popularity of models like Iskra Lawrence and Ashley Graham and social media influencers like Loey Lane and Alexandra Thomas have propelled me to stop feeling that my only value is in horrifying tropes like “funny fat friend.” As a child, I used to hold up pictures of Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday and Hilary Duff to my mother and ask her if I looked like them, because they both had moments where their bodies weren’t as thin as other young women I saw on television. Moments where they had bodies almost like mine. My mother squinted at them, and then looked at me. Yes, she said, there is a little meat on their bones. But we both knew they were grown women who’d earned their curves through puberty and age, and I had not.
The visibility of women like Alex and Loey tells me I can stop trying to shrink my voice to make up for the extra space my body needs. I now allow myself to have my own YouTube channel, and my most popular videos are the ones where I show off my body instead of hiding it below the frame. Each time the views and my subscriber count climbs, it is because I’ve shown my viewers what my body really looks like. My most popular Instagram posts are full body shots.
But I still don’t know why fat people are hated to the degree they are.
In June, plus-size model Natalie Hage was asked by the passenger she was sitting beside in the exit row if she really felt she could help people in an emergency. In an effort to stave off the egregious bullshit fat people face during travel, Hage had purchased the seat for seventy extra dollars because of how much more room it afforded. On my way to visit my mother for her birthday, I tried to fasten my seatbelt on an airplane and found I couldn’t. There was nobody beside me, but a repulsion toward my body bloomed on my face as I whispered to the flight attendant that I needed an extender. He ignored me, or didn’t hear me, and so, too repelled by my own fatness, I struggled with the belt without asking for help a second time. I then realized, as he walked to the front of the plane, that I had been sitting on some of the belt and I didn’t need the extender after all. The relief I felt was more shameful to me than needing the extender in the first place. The hope that other women would be confident enough to voice their big-bodied needs is why I film videos in my bedroom. I try to be a better example for myself, because my body doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed anytime it asks to feel comfortable or safe.
Last year, in the dead of night, my phone lit up with messages from a former high school classmate. Hi Holly, they read, I hope this doesn’t wake you up or anything. I need to apologize for a couple of things I’ve done to you in the past. As I read, he confessed to telling people that I had touched him — fooled around with him — against his will. The first was back in high school at your house when we were drinking one night. We were playing around a little bit which was perfectly fine but the next day for some reason I told someone that you assaulted me. I still to this day don’t know why I said it but I was probably looking for attention.
As I lay in my New York bed, far away from the past in which he had constructed this lie, I tried to feel the ache of betrayal, but I couldn’t muster it. It was clear why he had said I assaulted him; he might not have known why, but I did. His friends had found out that we had been hooking up and he was embarrassed — embarrassed about the possibility of finding me attractive, embarrassed by my big, wide body. This was nothing new.
I was not embarrassed. I felt nothing.
Holly Elizabeth Rice is a writer, freelance editor, and Youtuber based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has previously appeared in Matrix Magazine and The Inquisitive Eater, and she creates video content that intends to add to the body positivity movement and plus-size conversation. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, she is the recipient of three awards from the Nova Scotia Talent Trust and was named RBC’s Emerging Artist in 2015. She is currently working on her first novel.
Featured image courtesy of Poet Architecture (Art by Anna Kozłowska-Łuc.)