Maybe I bumped her elbow. It could’ve been something as simple as that: the catalyst. And when she turned around to see me, her response was habitual – not calculated. She saw my face and then looked down my body and back up again with disdain, then disgust, and then she finished with a small laugh of gleeful pity. The entire assessment and pronouncement lasted a full second – not more than two.
Could I have imagined the disdain – or has there been some past interaction between us to prompt her disrespect? No, I am anonymous – and I have spent a lifetime cataloguing glances such as these. I know the difference between a pullback that implies I’m taking too much space, and a step-aside that extends respect for someone who needs to walk past. I’ve been thinner too – and I know these glances suddenly disappear. (They are replaced by different glances, but that’s another story.) Those who don’t experience them often dismiss the social sanctions that take place in mere moments. Imaginations, paranoia. To those who know them, they are as real as the furniture.
To be fair, she had been drinking. To be fair, it was late at night and I was on her turf. That is, anyplace where the body is put into motion. I can sometimes get her respect in the classroom, or behind a desk, a place where my body is secondary to my mind. The hour and alcohol would only serve to drop the decorum she might use at, say, the post office. She would note my body shape and size, attire and demeanor at the post office too, but the schoolgirl glee at my perceived defeat is reserved for late night. For slight intoxication. For a place where she believes I am unarmed, unwelcome.
We had just left the dance floor and I think I bumped her arm. We’d been out dancing and the music was ending for the night. We were coming back to ourselves – the selves that are no longer ecstatically moving, bodies pulsing rhythm. We were coming back to the selves that have to find meaning in our own lives, make decisions about who we are, how we project ourselves onto the bright canvas of culture. The bracketed existence of dance floor anonymity was finished. And though I don’t know the woman who gave me “the look,” I know how much she needs me.
What causes one to offer disdain toward another and think it is warranted? The fact that it will be excused, or lauded, for starters. What causes a person to dismiss the humanity of another? A need to elevate oneself, for one example. And that’s why the slender girl on the dance floor needs me to be fat. She needs it, and while she thinks she doesn’t want me around, she wouldn’t know how to live without me. And her fear that she could be me, but isn’t, adds the gleeful chuckle of dismissal to the end of her affront. I give her life purpose.
By the bar, late at night – this is not the time for conversation, but I catch her eye and look for a moment with real compassion. This does not even take a second, maybe half a beat. I am so out of place in this interaction – not doing my job. And indeed, I know how to do my job – to avert my eyes and show her the shame that I feel. I felt it as a child, and still do at times when someone like her catches me unaware, the shame of forgetting that I am not credible, followed by the hot rage of unspoken justice. But not this time – and not usually anymore. I just look at her with compassion – so different from pity. I am not afraid I could be her. I know I could be her. And I know that my ability to practice kindness toward her will help us both – and probably others whom we haven’t even met.
I just stand and stare at her, thinking: I know how much you need me. Without me, you’d have to do something with your life in order to feel good about yourself. You couldn’t just gloat about not being me. You couldn’t use me as the ballast that keeps your head from floating away thinking of all of those on the dance floor who are prettier or thinner or shapelier than you. Without me, you’d have to make someone else your scapegoat, and it might not be so easy, if there weren’t obvious physical criteria involved. Barring replacing me, you’d have to focus on who you want to be within yourself – not just in comparison to others. I want to ask the kind of rhetorical questions that prompt reflection in a quiet moment: What must you think of yourself to elevate the size and shape of your body – perhaps what you do to make it so — to traits worthy of virtue? How little must you think of yourself to look at me that way and take pleasure in it?
Her glance also makes me know that she doesn’t know me at all. Does my demeanor say it: Maybe you didn’t know, but any fat woman you meet in a social setting – especially one who’s doing something that uses her body: working at a job, dancing, buying clothes, eating a meal – she has character and fortitude to spare for surviving a world that uses her as you’ve just done. Fat people may scapegoat others to find their self-worth, surely. If she thinks she’s so different than me, then she doesn’t know me at all.
I don’t say any of that, but for our similarities, I seem to know something she doesn’t see. She doesn’t actually need to DO anything in order to be worthy of respect and positive attention in the world – neither do I. It’s already done. We are already fine people, just as we are. Even as she puts me down, she does not deserve my put-down. How much lower can we agree to feel? No lower. No more.
I didn’t speak at all, standing on the edge of the dance floor, late at night. But if I could read her painful need in her quick behavior, perhaps she could read my truth in a simple stare as well. Perhaps she heard me say:
“Gentle, darling. No one deserves your derision. Not even you.”