(Trigger warning: street harassment, fat hate, aggressive language)
I was walking on my lunch break, as I often do. The DC sidewalks are crowded as people walk from their offices to food trucks and other lunch places. I was suddenly knocked to the ground. I couldn’t figure out what had happened until the bicyclist on the sidewalk who hit me yelled “move your fat ass,” as he turned the corner, instantly gone. Remarkably, I heard some people laugh. No one bothered to stop the bicyclist and only one person offered to help me get up from the ground. Why would people laugh? I had a bruise on my hip and also on my “fat” ass.
I’m not upset that the bicyclist called me fat, I am fat. I’m upset that my assault was laughed at and somehow my fatness was the problem in this encounter, and not the fact that I had just been knocked to the ground by a stranger. My fatness had made me both a target, and an invisibility in a city that touts one of the lowest average BMIs in the nation. In a physical and metaphorical way, I just did not fit into this city.
On the train going home, a group of young men were talking with each other. One told the other that he should sit down (as he was standing) and the seat next to mine was empty. “I don’t have any room- this fat fucking bitch is taking up the whole seat.” I said nothing and it was by the grace of my headphones that I just pretended I didn’t hear. I got off at the next stop and caught the next train. Headphones have seemed to be one of the only things that have helped protect me from street harassment. I pretend not to hear. I walk away. Of course, “protect” is the wrong word. “Cope” would be closer to the right meaning, and even then, headphones are far from enough to cope with street harassment.
I was being targeted on how my body looked, and suffering the type of street harassment based on fat hatred.
I see the endless body language on the metro and the streets every day, and I would guess you probably do, too. Men are taught to take up space, widen their stance, and keep their legs wide as they sit. Women hold their bodies small, their knees together and often cross their arms across their bodies and look at the floor, or their phone. No matter how tightly I hug my body and put my fat knees together, I cannot disappear. I see women everywhere trying to shrink to the smallest possible minuscule living being, as if their bodies, whatever size, are taking up too much space and a woman’s goal is just to get smaller and smaller. We’re supposed to take up less space. Breathe less air. Speak fewer words.
There is no wrong way to have a body. The problem in this scenario has nothing to do with my gender, or size, but the fact that those aspects of myself somehow open me up to abuse by strangers in public. It took me many years to understand that the problem is hatred, not me. If I am surrounded in hate it becomes more reason for me to support self-love, body positivity, and the rights for all people to exist without such abuse.
Not conforming to traditional beauty standards does not protect me from street harassment, it just makes my street harassment different. As those of us who fight against street harassment, we need to acknowledge that not all street harassment is the same for every person, but we do need to combat all types of street harassment. My harassment may not look the same as for someone of a different gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, presentation, or size. Yet all of it is based in power and dominance. Whether a catcall, a slur, a gesture, or physical harassment, as a society we need to stand up. Have you been harassed? Tell your story. Speak out. Headphones aren’t enough, and we cannot continue to not hear the problems with harassment any longer.
Sara Exler is a visual culture historian, urban farmer, vegetarian, and fat feminist with a background in nonprofit and animal advocacy work. When not working, she can be found spending time with her husband and dogs, usually with some knitting in her hand. Follow her on twitter at @zaftigsara .
Photo Credit: Stop Street Harassment Facebook Page