Being Both Invisible and the Target: Street Harassment and Fatness


(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

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  • ReallyAWholeArticle

    Boo Hoo. “People are mean to me in DC, they should be accomodating to my sense of pity party entitlement” News flash. It’s a dog EAT dog world, best start realizing that.

    • Rebecca Lane

      Wow. I’m sorry you’re so bitter about the world.

    • Jema McCardell

      We’re not dogs. It’s people like you who perpetuate that attitude. I, for one, refuse to.

    • lynnlee

      Wah! My life sucks because I am such a bitter jerk so everybody should be as unhappy as I am! And they deserve it too!

  • DGAF

    I’m not sure if you’re aware of how physics work, but a light, thin person on a bike running into a fat brick wall is going to do more damage to themselves, and would more than likely be the one “on the ground”.

    • lynnlee

      I’m not sure if you’re aware that bikes are supposed to follow that same rules as cars. You don’t ride your bike on a pedestrian filled side walk- even if you are afraid of traffic. If you are too afraid to ride in the road, then walk. Hitting someone with your bike is assault- and hitting anyone who is completely unaware of you is going to knock them off balance because they aren’t expecting some wimp to be riding his bike on the side walk. But you probably know all that. You just wanted to come an pick on a fat stranger on the internet. How brave. You probably ride your bike on the sidewalk too.

  • lololol

    STOP BEING FAT! problem solved.

    • Rebecca Lane

      I think you meant to say stop the bigotry against body size.

    • Jema McCardell

      So, if she were thin, she wouldn’t have deserved to be hit with a bicycle, but since she’s fat, it’s OK???

    • misha

      Or the guy on the bike could stop running over people. Problem and public safety issue solved!

  • Yeah…

    Would it have been different, if while on the train, the person told his friend “I can’t sit, there’s no room”? Oh wait that’s probably what was actually said. Your false sense of victim hood inserted the rest.

    • Jema McCardell

      Because you were there?

  • Not So Big and Beautiful

    It’s a no win situation, sadly. I used to be the “fat girl.” I was teased, harassed and bullied until I finally lost weight. 100 pounds of weight loss later? Now, I’m “too skinny”, I have apparently fallen victim to the media driven agenda of attractiveness and have basically sold myself out. Nothing has changed other than my weight and cholesterol but I’m still harassed. Sadly, people will always find faults but I find confidence is the best protection. I’ve always been beautiful and damn anyone that tells me otherwise.

  • Ben

    I currently weigh 440lbs I’m 6’4″ but still Rather Fat. Get over it. You and I have both put ourselves in a position to be called fat, we take up more room than your average person, we both don’t fit in standard chairs. We have only ourselves to blame. FYI I was 220lbs and gained the weight after a spine injury…but it is still my fault for stuffing my face. Not a single thing you can tell me will make me feel sad that you are picked on for a condition you invented and control.

    • lynnlee

      Being hit by a bike is assault, not being “picked on”. By your logic, people who have any kind of problem that they may have brought on themselves deserve to be harassed. You break your leg skiing? You’re fault! Get out of my way! You are old and bent because you didn’t bother to get enough calcium in your youth or dieted away your bone density to stay slim? YOUR FAULT! Get out of my way you slow old fuck- or I’ll hit you with my bike!

    • misha

      The person who knocked her over with his bike had a choice. He made a choice to directly cause harm to her. Why should being fat be a license for other people to physically assault someone?

  • BeExcellentToEachOther

    Wow, these responses are just showing how much of a problem this really is. No form of harassment is ok, ever. And to the others who’ve responded…how do you know being overweight is by choice? Have you walked in her shoes? Try having a little compassion.

  • lynnlee

    What kind of douche rides his bike on the sidewalk? He’s too scared to ride in the road where he is supposed to ride, and then he assaults people who get in his way? I’m so sorry that happened to you. I agree harassment in all forms should stop. I think anyone harassed should fight back. Tell your harassers off. Snap their picture for a street harrassment website- or in the case of the man who assaulted you, to report them to the police. People should speak up when they see it happening. And all these brave souls coming from Reddit to say ugly things to you should try really hard to get a life. How fucking pathetic to spend your time trolling the internet.

  • Robin Laycock

    Great article (except for the parts where you were assaulted, insulted and otherwise harrassed)! I’m sorry the harassment continues in the comments section. At least no one can say you are making things up — several of the comments provide evidence of your experience of harassment and fat hate by being harassing and hateful. You don’t deserve this; no one does!

  • Jema McCardell

    So how fat does a person have to be to deserve to be hit with a bicycle??? 30 over ideal BMI? 10? 2? 100? NO ONE deserves to be hit with a bicycle, regardless of size. There was probably plenty of room in the seat next to her, the guy just didn’t want to catch the fats. Who wants to sit next to the smelly guy? Does he deserve to be loudly called out on it because he “chooses” not to bathe? Why is fat the only thing that should be loudly and violently called out? It’s not, because NOTHING should be.

    • Lynn Perry

      Thank you, Jema, for your excellent comments. I am fat as well, and these will definitely help me as I educate and comment in the future, both in person and online.

  • Lynn Perry

    Awesome article Sara Exler. Sorry this happened. Sucks.

    The point that’s easy for the commenters to overlook is the fat-is-ok-to-mock. No one deserves mocking. Also, fat is not “bad” or “wrong,” or per se, unhealthy. I know a lot of fat people who are a lot healthier than thin. Fat is just a body size. It just happens to be the socially targeted designated “evil.” I mean, bicycling is unhealthy. Sky diving. Skiing. Heck, _driving_ is unhealthy! Lots and I mean *lots* more people get injured in auto accidents every year. Do we target them for living unhealthy lifestyles? Or the drain their dangerous behavior places on the medical system? No, we don’t. We all make choices in how to live. Being fat and healthy is a choice that is _not ok_ with society, and so we are targeted.

    One poster is correct: accosting smokers is also OK, but the shaming is not there, I think. No one says out loud: “wow, you’re weak-willed, stupid, and a drain on the medical system for smoking.” (Or maybe they do now. They didn’t when I smoked.) But that is exactly what people say to fat people. Like me. I overheard someone on the bus one day saying “If I ever look like that, lock me in a closet and feed me nothing but toast” in a voice loud enough for the whole bus to hear. People moo behind me. I mean, OK, I kind of expect it from teenagers, especially boys, but not from adults. It’s hard to “laugh it off” when it happens so often. I know I should “grow thicker skin,” right? Well, no; people shouldn’t shame others, even fat people.

    And I agree completely that men are not taught to take up space. And men are much more likely to huff and look annoyed when asked to vacate the space. Or maybe they only do that to me because I’m a woman. Or fat. Or both.

    Thanks for the great article! And the interesting comments!

  • closetpuritan

    “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.”

  • Youknowwho

    I’m sorry I too am “fat” but refuse to play victim. I highly doubt so much I highly doubt you experience this much hate. But I refuse to accept you accept being fat. Stop playing wo is me and stop being a victim. Stop hiding behind headphones and do something about something so preventable. And just for a chuckle I would laugh at myself if I got hit by a bike.

    • misha

      Running someone over with a bike is preventable. Why are you excusing assault, but criticising someone for being overweight? Your priorities are truly messed up.