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What Happens When You Call Your Fat Friend Beautiful

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By Your Fat Friend:

Image source: figure 99/Flickr
Image source: figure 99/Flickr

I am sorry that I didn’t thank you right away, my dear friend, and that I seemed so distant. You were kind to pay me such a wonderful compliment, and I was unprepared.

There’s alchemy in compliments. They can change a whole day. Being called smart, witty, accomplished, fun, lively, thoughtful, strong, a good friend, a caring partner, a helpful colleague — compliments reflect parts of ourselves that we cultivate. They feel like someone is recognizing work we’ve put in, characteristics we’ve forgotten about ourselves, or aspects of our personalities that we thought others couldn’t see.

And then there’s being called beautiful. Beautiful is different.

As a fat person, I’m rarely told I’m beautiful. When I am, it nearly always comes with a qualifier. “You’ve got such a pretty face. If you lost forty pounds, you’d be a knockout!”, “That jacket looks great on you. It hides your midsection so well.” None of them are compliments — they’re wishes for the future. They’re congratulations for hiding unappealing parts of my body, or for some perceived dysfunction. They are conditional love, promised but undelivered. You wear it so well.

Those qualified compliments say a lot about the person delivering them. They reveal thoughts that my friends and family never would about fat people. They tell me precisely what rule I am an exception to. Fat people are ugly, but this one looks okay. Rather than setting me at ease, qualified compliments tell me I’m with someone whose feelings about fat people are unsettled and easily triggered, a minefield to traverse alone.

But once in a great while, someone tells me I’m beautiful, and leaves it at that. No qualifiers, no caveats, no pitches for diets or surgeries, no mournful look. Just beautiful. Today, that person was you. I didn’t thank you properly because I don’t know how, and because when you talk about my body, you are never alone.

When you speak to me, you speak in an echo chamber. What you say stays, and longer than you might think. It clatters around with echoes of harsh and horrible things, dismissive and demeaning things, quiet indignities and moments of violence from years past. It careens toward the “fat bitch!” so routinely leveled at me when I decline a date. It ricochets off of my aunt’s ever-growing list of clothing I shouldn’t wear, because of an ever-growing list of body parts she thinks I shouldn’t show: shoulders, arms, thighs, knees, belly, breasts. In amongst all of that heavy history, reinforced day after day, beautiful can be impossible to believe.

You are speaking softly, kindly into a cacophony of comments about my body. Beautiful gets lost. If you say it more, its echo may come back to you. If you sit with me long enough, some of those other echoes may subside. If I am to hear beautiful, I have to hear all the rest, too.

And beautiful is so loaded.

There is a cost of reducing people to their appearances. It’s the foundation for catcalling, sexual harassment, and sexualized violence against women, queer people, trans people — and all of that is unacceptable. We should be defined by more than our physical appearance and our perceived sexual appeal. Too often, we are reduced to the sum of our physical parts, distorted in the funhouse mirror of beauty standards.

“I like a girl with a little more meat on her bones. They’re always wild in bed.”

Beautiful isn’t the only thing that matters. I know that well because my sense of self can’t rely on a compliment that so rarely comes. As a fat person, the eye of the beholder is unfriendly territory. If I want to feel okay about myself, I have to cultivate other strengths. I build up charm, grace, and kindness as a shield. Humor becomes a martial art, judo to fend off fat jokes and humiliation. My intelligence must be superlative to fight back against the perception that I am uneducated, weak-willed, slow.

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Despite our best efforts, beautiful commands attention. Beautiful gets jobs, raises, a foot in the door, a second shot. It is not all of who we are — far from it — but it still carries so much importance. Beautiful matters. It is a language I cannot speak, a door I cannot walk through. It is a currency in the world. Beautiful elevates some people, and it is defined by excluding others — including most fat people.

“I love your courage. You just wear what you want — you don’t care what anyone thinks!”

When you call me beautiful, I don’t just hear you. I hear the echoes of years’ worth of harsh words and unfriendly policies. I feel the lost opportunities and closed doors, the family rejection, the sidelong glances and shouted epithets. I feel suddenly seen, and being seen is always a risk as a fat person. If I acknowledge that you have seen me, so have all those other, harsher critics. It calls up so much hurt, so much need, so much hunger, and so much longing.

Beautiful is hard to hear because it’s hard to admit how deeply I want and need it. Because beautiful, without qualifiers and caveats, is a radical thing to say to me as a fat person. Strangers, family, friends, dates, partners, media, doctors, pundits and politicians all tell me that I am to be rejected, and that being fat means being slovenly, ugly, and usually unloved.

Beautiful, for better or worse, often means loved. Fat people are so rarely told we’re either. As with telling me you love me, only tell me I’m beautiful if you mean it. And challenge yourself to mean it. Recognize the way it stretches you to call a fat person beautiful, not as an exception, but as a shifting, growing rule. Feel all the things you are rejecting by saying such a simple, common word.

Think of calling me beautiful when you see a fat person in a restaurant or on an airplane. Think of your beautiful friend when you see a fat person on the news, headless, during a report about obesity rates. Remember me when a family friend signs their child up for fat camp. See all of them as your beautiful friend, unqualified. Remember how much you love me, and your fat sister, and your fat grandmother. Feel the openness in your ribcage and the warmth in your bones. Extend that warmth and grace magnanimously.

Because when you tell me I am beautiful, it tells me that there is something you understand. Thank you for that understanding. I love it, I don’t trust it, I can’t believe it, I need it, it hurts, don’t stop.

This post was originally published here on Medium.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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