Friday, January 13, 2012

No longer the fattest in the room

A lot of women who are fat or trying to lose weight talk about entering a room and comparing themselves to the other women there to determine if they are fatter than them. This is something I have not developed a habit of doing because when I was very heavy, I was always the fattest one in the room. There wasn't even a contest. At nearly 400 lbs., I didn't need to look around to know who was fattest.

Even as I have lost weight, I haven't made those comparisons for two reasons. One is that I don't like this habit in general as it is a form of assigning value to people based on body size. I don't care how open-minded a person believes her or she might be, this screening and evaluating based on weight is a way of establishing a pecking order. One is, essentially, comforting oneself by determining one is not longer "at the bottom" (i.e., the fattest) by performing this act. It's a bad habit and reflects poorly on those who do it.

The second reason I have never done this is that, even at around 175 lbs., it is simply second nature for me to believe that I'm still likely to be the heaviest woman in the room. I'm in a culture of petit women who are not only slim 98% of the time, but small-boned and short. I'm never going to be anything, but the fattest in the room as long as I live where I currently reside.

This situation has never really troubled me because I don't care how heavy others are and I don't preoccupy myself with my body size relative to them. That being said, I can't help but realize as part of internalizing a new body image that there are women around me on occasion who are proportionally fatter than me. This isn't about ranking, but about no longer seeing myself as a lumbering behemoth that elicits of stares and nasty comments.

My thinking is more along the lines of "if there are those who are fatter than me, then there is no reason for people to treat me as some freak of nature" as I am now within a range of "normal". Since I continue to view myself as incredibly huge, this is part of a process of normalizing my body image, not seeing myself as somehow "better" than fatter women. The fact is that I see bigger women as within the range of "normal" as well, which helps me feel less like the gigantic person I saw myself to be and more deserving of being seen as "human". Such has been the damage to my self-image that I must constantly work to adjust my thinking so I feel I can call myself a regular "human", a privilege I have always afforded others but has not always been given to me.

Generally, I don't think about this "fattest woman in the room" situation, but I had a recent experience which made me consider how so many women establish a pecking order of beauty and weight. Since I was always relegated to the bottom rung both by  myself and others, I don't really consider this when I talk to other women. Something happened recently to make me think that this was being done to me and that perceptions of me have altered now that my physicality is quite different.

Before I get any further, let me say that I have never subscribed to the idea that there is all sorts of jealousy that results in sniping and bad behavior because of weight loss. I don't think the other woman that I'm going to mention in this post was "jealous" of me or my fabulous beauty as I don't feel I am some gorgeous babe now. I'm also pretty sure that most people would believe me to be a fairly average woman in her late 40's with some nice features and in need of some weight loss. The person I'm going to talk about in this post never knew me except at a weight marginally higher than it is now. She had nothing to be jealous of because this was our first, only, and likely last meeting.

Some time ago, I met a friend of my husband's for the first time. He has described her on many occasions as "a sweetie". She's very positive and educated and he has been quite happy with his communication with her and the progression of their friendship. One of the reasons that he wanted me to meet her is that he felt that it would facilitate more communication with her if we both could be at social interactions with her at the same time. This is especially the case now because our time has become more limited than ever. It is extremely difficult to sacrifice time for socializing as well as spend time with each other due to work and preparations to move.

This woman is much taller than average, somewhat overweight (perhaps proportionally as much as me, possibly a bit less) and somewhat mannish in appearance. She's a native of a Western culture, though not the same one as me. She's also married and participates in the same volunteer work that my husband has been doing. The bottom line is that we didn't hit it off. She came across as reserved and answered my questions in a way which was guarded and steered topics of interest from items of depth to banal superficialities. In the end, I felt as if merely asking some questions (such as why she loved the culture we both reside in, a reasonable follow-up question to her assertion that she was so fond of it) were intrusive and put her on the spot. I didn't feel my questions were too personal or invasive, but her responses seemed to indicate otherwise. My husband was also surprised at her level of reluctance to travel beyond the surface in the conversation as that had not been his experience with her to date.

When I deal with my work, I'm content to deal in superficialities, but not when I'm dealing with people from my own culture or in social situations. I get more than enough talk about the weather, food, trivial experiences, and holidays through my job. As readers of my blog are fully aware, I'm a person who likes complexity and depth. It's a genuine joy to plumb the deeper recesses of an issue and explore facets of a topic. This woman was certainly capable of such a discussion as my husband said she'd had some communication with him on that level before, but she wasn't like that with me.

I walked away distinctly feeling that she did not care for me, but not that she formed some deep-seated hate or anything. It wasn't such a greatly negative encounter. It just didn't go very well. This actually didn't bother me at all. I absolutely do not need everyone to like me. I didn't give what had happened much thought until recently when my husband invited her and her husband along with another couple to accompany us to a goodbye dinner. We're leaving the country we're in and so are she and her husband and getting a group together seemed like a pleasant and expedient way to bid farewell.

The response that we received is what has sent me into my current reflective state. She politely refused and effusively thanked my  husband for the invitation, but she also mentioned just the two of them (my husband and her) getting together for a goodbye and "anyone else" he might like to invite. I may be out of the loop on social convention in Western culture, but I believe when you have met someone's wife and actually sat down at a meal and spoken with her for over an hour, it is polite to at least mention the spouse by name rather than just say "anyone else". Even my husband felt that the wording was potentially quite meaningful as a message conveying that she might tolerate my presence, but would prefer that I not be there.

This, in and of itself, is not really a big deal to me. I don't mind that she doesn't want me around. That being said, I was perfectly fine to associate with her again with the possibility that things might go better on another occasion. However, my reflection is actually about why things didn't go so well the first time. There are, of course, plenty of reasons including the very real possibility that there was simply a clash of personalities or she simply is not interested in someone with my personality. It's also possible that I seemed too negative or aggressive for her tastes. I am not a "Debbie Downer", but I do tend to see things very much through the filter of yin and yang. I see the good side, but I also see the bad, and I will talk about both equally. This woman is more of a positive type and may find whatever focus I had on the negative unappealing.

The reason why this has made me pensive is that my experiences have generally been quite positive when meeting new people. I'm socially quite adept, but I am, and I hate to say this because it sounds like bragging, quite intelligent. My intelligence has never been anything but an asset for me throughout most of my life. In fact, I have often felt that it was one of the things which persuaded people who might simply have dismissed me based on body size that I may indeed be worthwhile to know. It is this thought which occurred to me as I mulled over the snub in her letter.

It is absolutely clear to me that I am treated very, very differently now compared to before. People are nicer to me in every way. I attract far less negative attention. When I get stared at because I'm a foreigner in another land, people no longer look my body up and down and stare at my stomach, but rather look at my face. I wondered if this situation was yet another occasion in which my changed appearance was affecting a response to me, but this time, in a negative way.

I've written before about how one of my husband's former male friends looked me up and down and then ignored me. He judged me as unworthy of his attention and behaved as though my large body rendered me invisible. Dismissiveness as a result of fatness is very common. I wonder now if achieving parity in terms of the assessment of my appearance has changed some balance whereby my speaking and display of intellect is regarded as overbearing. In the past, the state of my body dipped me so low into the negative territory that my positive attributes, whatever they may be, could be digested as welcome counterbalances. Without that glaring aspect of my physicality to make the other party feel superior, is the way in which I present my mental capabilities coming across as overbearing, smug, or too much?

Obviously, I cannot know what is going on in another person's mind, particularly in what I would guess is their unconscious reasoning. It could simply be that I am unlikable to her personally even though I tend to be quite likable to the vast majority of people I meet. I can say that after announcing that I was going to leave the country I'm in and return to America, four adults over the age of 30 broke into tears at the news. Clearly, I must not be too odious an individual or they wouldn't have been so upset about my departure. At any rate, this could also be that I'm making too much of poor phrasing in a message and "anyone else" was not a snub, but an indication of careless writing or poor social skills. I don't know what the truth is and I doubt I ever will. However, I think the possibility that people may perceive my personality differently in a manner I would not have anticipated based on having a much smaller body is one worth contemplating.

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