On street harassment: Hey, I’m walking here!

Have you ever had a stranger yell at you as you walked down the street? Or “Moo” as they drove past? How about a group of people point and laugh at you as you sit on a park bench, reading a book? Ever had your meal interrupted by someone you don’t know telling you that you shouldn’t be eating ‘that’?

Public harassment is a regular occurrence for many fat people. This shouldn’t be surprising. We live in a fat phobic culture, where we are regularly warned about the dangers and costs of the obesity epidemic (read: fat people). Scare mongering is ever present. We are surrounded by images of fat people without heads – further reinforcing that fat people are less than human, and therefore unworthy of respect or dignity.

Fat people are harassed for a variety of reasons. For eating in public; moving our bodies on the street or in the gym; decorating our bodies in interesting and delightful ways.

The purpose of street harassment is to remind us fatties that we are not supposed to be living our lives. We are not supposed to subject others to our fat bodies. We are most certainly not supposed to be having fun. We are not supposed to be happy. How dare we parade our fat bodies around in public, in fun clothes and a smile, no less? Don’t we know we should be ashamed? Don’t we know that our bodies are disgusting?

My friend Kath Read, of the Fat Heffalump, has written a lot about the street harassment she experiences. In her most recent piece, she explores possible explanations others have proposed to explain the harassment away – and she unpacks them all with her usual brilliance. She also shares some pictorial evidence of the kind of harassment she receives in public.

I’ve only experienced blatant street harassment once. It was a beautiful summer day as I was walking down the street in a group. As we passed by a man moving in the other direction, he turned around and yelled, ‘Hey fat fuck!’ We all just kept walking, as my companions tried to pretend they didn’t hear it, and I burned quietly in shame. (Because I did something wrong by simply existing?!) I didn’t respond, and to say it ruined my day is an understatement. I’d like to think that my reaction today would be very different.

I have friends who do respond, and they find that the harasser tries to flip the blame – ‘Woah, hey; calm down, lady! Geez…’ – making them seem like the asshat. Substantia Jones, of the Adipositivity Project, has begun a Tumblr called ‘Smile, Sizeist’. It allows individuals who experience public harassment to take a photo of their harasser and post it online for the world to see. As noted on the blog,

“Next time someone’s a dick to you about your size, raise your most powerful weapons. Your voice and your camera.”

I think one of the reasons that I don’t receive more harassment is that I am able, in many ways, to blend in. While I am always the fattest person around, I dress conservatively; not drawing additional attention to my body (this is not to imply, in any way, that those who do draw attention are somehow responsible for the harassment they receive, because they are not). It is something I am aware of when I dress, especially when I wear something a bit more adventurous.

For example, I have been lucky enough to have some custom designed pieces from I Love Lissy (a great fatshion line here in NZ). It took me months to garner the courage to wear one out in public. It’s a dress (something I rarely wear) that shows off my legs (something I never do) and draws attention (something I have shied away from with my clothing choices). I’ve now worn it three times, and each time I mentally prepare myself for street harassment. It’s become part of my ‘getting ready’ routine when I select certain clothes, or accessories. Just the other night, I decided to wear it out to a function in town. I knew I would be walking through heavily populated areas of town, and it crossed my mind, ‘What if someone says something? What do I say in response?’

Me in my I Love Lissy dress

Haley Morris-Cafiero has been documenting the way people look at her in public – she has posted the photos in a series called ‘Wait Watchers’ on her website. She notes that her project allows her to shift/reverse the gaze; while performing everyday tasks and taking their photos, she provides another perspective when considering street harassment.

When fat people talk about street harassment, we are not looking for your pity. We don’t want you to feel sorry for us, or to exclaim how absolutely awful it is. We want you to acknowledge that this is the fat shaming culture we all live in. And that you are most likely a participant in the hostility we experience every day.

You may not yell at us as we walk down the street, or ‘moo’ or ‘pig snort’ in our faces, but do you participate in other ways? Do you think hateful things when you see us enjoying ourselves? Do you make snarky comments to your friends when you see us eating in public?  Have you ever thought, ‘She is too fat to be wearing that’, or ‘Well, he obviously shouldn’t be eating that’?

You may not be openly harassing us in public, but you are contributing to the fat shaming world we all live in. If you want to be our ally, be aware of how you respond to others – be conscious of your thoughts. And the ways they reinforce our fat phobic world. When you think something negative about a fat person you see on the street, imagine if you would want someone to think that of your fat friend, or fat aunt, or fat partner, or of you?

Try adopting the fantastic Underpants Rule, as outlined by Ragen Chastain, of Danceswithfat.

“The Underpants Rule is simple: everyone is the boss of their own underpants so you get to choose for you and other people get to choose from them and it’s not your job to tell other people what to do.”

I usually shorten this to, ‘If it’s not my body, it’s not my business.’ Full stop.

Or, how about other adapting another standard, ‘If you can’t think or say anything nice, don’t think or say anything at all’.

If you’re thinking, I can’t control my internal reactions to what I see – you’re wrong. You were not born with beliefs and attitudes about fat people; you learned them.  And you can learn new ways too – new ways to think about fat bodies. New ways to appreciate all bodies belonging to others, as well as your own.