It was a humid summer afternoon. I ventured with my son to a few stores along East 86th Street, enjoying parts of the city we don’t normally venture. I wore a black and orange Free Minds Free People shirt, my young one a white t-shirt and shorts. The sidewalks felt like people were walking shoulder to shoulder, two steps slower than their normal pace.
As we made our way up 3rd Avenue to Harlem, an elder white woman in a walker came to a stop and said “Excuse me.” My native New Yorker face belies my tendency towards hospitality and grace. “Do you need help?”
She says in , “You know the problem with you people is …” I already observed how she had already made a few snap judgments and my body already tightened up in anger. “… you really need to talk to your people about health and weight.” A handful of reactions ran through my mind as I clenched my fist. In the few seconds that felt like a few minutes, her voice had become a monotonous whistle waiting for me to break it. The faces around me had gone from minding their business to minding mine. NYC has any number of racial and intergenerational incidents daily, occurrences for people to film and cast judgments upon.
In that moment, I also recognized that my fist was holding my son’s hand. I mustered with furious eyes and bellicose tone: “THANK YOU! THANK YOU VERY MUCH!” My words rang out across the sidewalk as I rushed past the crowds. I took a seat in an emptier block just underneath a few trees next to an apartment building. It could have been uglier, and the fact that it wasn’t meant I’d have to, for a minute, sit there and gather myself while my son was none the wiser.
I was surprised my shirt hadn’t torn at the pits with the anger I felt at the moment.
I had already grown accustomed to the label XXL. I knew I’d have to pay extra for comfortable clothes and shoes. I knew I have to contort myself in airplanes and subways that once accommodated for wider shoulders. I already had a few comebacks for people who commented on my girth, and I ignored scales as long as my mood felt right. I wear this watch that tells me I average about 12,000 steps a day, a byproduct of teaching in a hundred-year-old building. In front of people, eating for pleasure was perceived as gluttony and eating for health was perceived as a pretense.
I’ve never not been large, even at my slimmest. My size 42 pants never let me forget from whence I came. I was called “slim” for a summer after I lost 22 pounds in camp. It was the last time I saw 40 on a measurement tape.
In a previous life, I would rue the times when I would sift through photos and videos in any number of events and I wouldn’t show up in the final curations. The message, perhaps unintentionally, looked like, “Your weight makes it easier for us to forget you.” I was selectively vulnerable because I perceived my body to be getting in the way of my goals. I tried too hard at job interviews because I knew my size would not give me the space I needed to shine.
We deflect fat jokes as “part of growing up” as children. The joke kept getting told on us as adults and our aesthetic norms.
Tangential to this conversation is the ways that our spaces try to belittle us, no matter how large. We’re asked to fold into frameworks, to blend into models that make us easy to dismiss. They ask us to follow when we don’t know where we’re going. They ask us to speak only when the time is right, the place is right, the raised hand is perfect for being called upon. Plenty of people has advice for changing the space, yet only want to change the space from afar, without us.
I fought all of these perceptions by promising myself I’d make myself undeniable, uninterruptible. I had to work past my insecurity through my works, my teaching, my writing.
This vessel has taught me how I must believe in the space my vessel has taken. I can’t apologize for this body that’s refused to conform to the narrow and linear. I can’t pain over the plethora of images these screens serve me when I perceive my work to be bigger than me. When I occupy this seat, I might twist and turn in it, but I know once I’m settled, I’ll bring my full being into this work of mine. I need for this body to be larger for the people I now carry with me wherever I go, the responsibilities I’ve been bestowed, and the visions I’ve embraced.
When people say that there’s more of me to love, I take it seriously. They’re gonna have to love me.