You know when you are having one of those days and you feel like everyone is staring at you, judging you and making comments in their minds about how you look? I have that every day. And those comments? Not just in their heads.
For the past eighteen months I’ve been volunteering in a remote part of the Solomon Islands. How remote you ask? I didn’t know Osama was dead until a couple of weeks after. We’ve only just gotten limited internet access to the island. Did you guys know Prince William got married!? I read it on the internet…
If you happen to drop by you can tell who I am – I’m the only one who gets sunburnt with this highly inefficient white skin of mine and who stands out like a neon bulb at night. I’m practically the village light house. I’m the odd one out with my different culture and strange mannerisms; of course people watch me.
Here’s a couple of things about the Solomon Islands:
Solomon Pijin – the lingua franca – is a remarkably direct language. It doesn’t go for all this gentle-subtle-roundabout-way-of-suggesting-something-stuff that English does.
Also, in the Solomons it is perfectly reasonable to comment on people’s appearance even if you don’t really know them that well.
So not a day goes by when I don’t receive at least three comments about my appearance. Normally these come out of nowhere, like a shark or Chuck Norris, and I’m never expecting them.
Sometimes they’re just thrown at me: “Claire! You look fat today.”
Other times they’re a little more sneaky:
“What are you two doing?”
“Just going for a walk. Exercising.”
“That’s good. Especially for Claire.”
Sometimes they’re just plain bizarre:
“How are you today, Mary?”
“Good, Claire…You’ve cut down. When you first came here you looked like your thighs were about to explode.”
I’m not going to lie to you – at first it got to me. I’m not the most slender creature on this earth but I’m not Jabba the Hut either. My man-friend says I have a body like a Spanish guitar. I think this is boy-talk for exceptionally childbirth-worthy hips. Like most girls I know, I spent a fair bit of my late teens eating apples, jogging long distances and unhappily chewing on air. So initially having all these people call me fat to MY FACE? It was enough to put me off my rice and kumara (like sweet potato and a staple food in this culinary limited part of the world.) But then I sat down on my cushy Greek rear and took a good hard look at what was going on.
I realised that it’s all about semantics. What would happen if someone called me curvy? I’d bat my eyelashes like Marilyn, that’s what.
If they called me bootylicious? Yeah, I’m practically Beyonce.
Vivacious? I’m Sophie Dahl circa that Opium perfume ad.
Fat? I’m going to go lock myself in the bathroom and sit on the toilet sobbing my eyes out whilst eating a tub of biscuits and singing ‘Am I Not Pretty Enough?’ over and over to myself.
But fat is just a word. It’s barely a word. Yet how much power have we given it in the West? Here in the Solomons it is not nearly as loaded with all the negative connotations we in the West have saddled it with. Here it is an adjective for describing people like tall or short or flat footed or hirsute. Here fat is the opposite of thin. In the West, it is more so the opposite of good. And that is not cool.
So I worked hard to remove the power this word had over me. And I had a lot of practice, believe me. I stopped letting the word fat punch me in the face every time someone attached it to me. I took it because in comparison to a lot of the tiny young women here, I am fat. Compared to most Solomon women once they hit thirty I’m practically Kate Moss, so it’s all a bit relative. I created a protective field around me, kind of akin to what my body has done after a year and a half of living off a predominantly carbs-based diet. After so long I’ve kind of lost interest in what my body is doing as long as it is operating the way it needs to. On any given day I can be told I’m fat, slim, have lost or gained weight. The other day I was told “You are so fat. Everyone covets your body.” And while initially this caused my brain to have a minor confused meltdown, whatever. Bodies are bodies and as long as they work properly it doesn’t matter what they look like.
For a long time in Australia I used to walk down the street convinced everyone was looking at my body and judging it. Now I know that they are because they tell me to my face. But it doesn’t make a difference to who I am or how well I do my job or my capacity to love people or them to love me.
And that word – Fat? It’s just a word. We give words power. And we can remove that power too.
Just some famous women who’ve been called fat in the past. Makes you think doesn’t it ?
Claire Varley has a degree in Media and Communications, majoring in Gender Studies. Pre-Solomons she worked in the community sector in women’s and family violence services.
Does the word “fat” have power in your life? Are there any other words that you’ve given more power than they deserve?