Some people live their lives dwelling on the past. Until recently I lived my whole life in an impossible future. It took an indirect posthumous jolt from Mr Spock – or more accurately Mr Leonard Nimoy – to bring me crashing into the present.
As a kid, I never saw anyone remotely like myself on TV. Or in the movies, or in video games, or at the children’s theatre, or in books, or anywhere at all in my field of vision. There simply were no young, funny, capable, strong, good fat girls. A fat man can be Tony Soprano […] He can be John Candy; funny, without being a human sight-gag. But fat women were sexless mothers, pathetic punchlines, or gruesome villains.
-Lindy West, Shrill, Chapter 1 – transcribed from audiobook version.
I was drawn to science fiction and fantasy from an early age, and consumed as much as I could through books, films and television. I was a tomboy and an introvert coasting through my life on daydreams and wild imaginings of what might lay in store in the future. In my future. In earlier years those imaginings would be like those of many other children: flying, monsters, daring rescues and world-changing inventions.
As time passed, and as I became more aware of myself and the world, those imaginings evolved. They narrowed, focused down to one burning fixation that was applauded, validated and revalidated by everyone in my life and everything I saw in the media that fed my imagination. With the passion and obsessive commitment of a Soongian ‘mad scientist’ I dedicated myself to a single field of achievement, the solution of one problem that I believed would unlock a limitless future.
Over the years I paid for books, equipment and expert guidance. It became a field of study that would see me through university and beyond. It permeated my every waking hour, every relationship, every social interaction. Anything else I achieved in life – as an academic, as an artist, or even just as a human being – paled into insignificance and disappointment as my personal Holy Grail continued to elude me. It was the first thought in my mind when I woke up, and the last thing I thought of as I drifted off to sleep. Once asleep, if I dreamed of achieving it I awoke from elation to utter despair as the solution fluttered once more out of my grasp and into the ether, as intangible as any nebula. It was an all-consuming black hole, the event horizon of which I had unwittingly crossed long before I had any awareness of its existence. No coming back.
The eternal voyage in pursuit of thinness. The continuing mission to eliminate my body. Space, as we all know, is the final frontier, and the message I received from an age too young to recall was that I was taking up far too much of it. This knowledge burned at me as much from the outside as it did from the inside. Everywhere I looked my failure to disappear was reflected and magnified back on me and my unacceptably convex body; photons carrying the intense heat of disapproval through the focusing lens of the male gaze that dominates mainstream media and burning permanent scars into my young skin.
This endless mission, this zero-sum Kobayashi-Maru style impossibility kept me trapped in my own unliveable future for decades. I was isolated from my own present reality, out of phase, as if in my very own transporter accident made flesh. Like Ro and LaForge in ‘The Next Phase’ I may as well have been declared missing in action.
Anyone who has lived this reality with me, who has survived the well-meant interventionist chats from family and friends, the bullying and the street jibes from strangers, will recognise the eternal postponement of their life. The holidays that will happen ‘when I am thin’; the ‘rewards’ we dangle in front of ourselves for achieving arbitrary weight loss goals (‘rewards’ that to other people would merely class as self-care – haircuts, new clothes, books). They will know all about the fun and spontaneity we deny ourselves for fear of causing offence with our exposed flesh. The tears, the self-loathing, and the loneliness. The self-sabotage and the settling. I broke the heart of someone who saw me, who was kind and loved me for the person I actually was, just to waste away my twenties and thirties married to someone who – like me – was caught in the same torture of waiting for an unreachable future. I sought out someone who would reflect and validate my belief in myself as a waste of space, as damaged leftovers, undeserving of unconditional love. Someone who treated me as badly as I felt I deserved. How could love and acceptance be for me, when I was so broken?
It was only when I had a child of my own that I awoke to the true horror of my situation. Only then did I begin to grasp that by definition, conditional love cannot be called love at all. I left that half-life for my son, and I hope that he might be spared a life spent in waiting if I am free enough to teach him what I have learned.
And I have learned a lot.
In 2017, through some accident of social media, cookie-driven advertising and audiobook recommendations, I found myself listening to Lindy West’s incredible memoir Shrill. I was deeply skeptical; unconvinced that there could really be such a thing as fatphobia, or that fat shaming was anything but a useful tool to help motivate desperate and sad people (like me) into ‘making an effort’ and finally ‘defeating’ my fatness. Until I listened to the first chapter of Shrill I had never even remotely considered the concept of representation as something that might apply to me as a fat woman. Why would anyone be interested in positively representing something that is considered at best undesirable and at worst grotesque, even shameful?
Outside the world of science fiction and like many other women of my generation, one of the most formative pop-cultural influences in my late teens and early twenties was Friends. Back in the day, the show was about as mainstream as it was possible to get (for a young Western white middle class woman at least), and rewatching it now is a painful reminder to me of the utter ruthlessness of its treatment of fat bodies.
When you are fat, there is no escape from the knowledge that you should not exist, and ‘Fat Monica’ was the very embodiment of this for me. The relentless gags about Monica’s fat girl days were eventually expanded into flashbacks and an alternate-timeline episode, featuring famously thin actress Courtney Cox in a ‘fat suit’. I laughed at Fat Monica even as I felt my cheeks burning with shame knowing that the joke was on me. In an act of faux-carefree deflection I have often openly identified with her in self-deprecating jokes and by imitating ‘that dance’, claiming her as my own as if to ameliorate the humiliation. In retrospect, that somehow makes it worse. Fat Monica was an overextended joke, and yet still she was the very best I had by way of mainstream representation. She was the ultimate tantalising embodiment of the perfection that lay somewhere in a future I could never quite reach.
I was intrigued by West’s ideas, if not yet fully convinced. Then came the thunderbolt into my Trekkie brain: Lindy’s discussion of the moment that changed her entire life. This moment came by way of a photography project by none other than Leonard Nimoy. My ears pricked up. If any skepticism remained at this point, it was demolished when I sought out the pictures for myself, and I experienced a violent jolt – something akin to a mental whiplash – that dragged me into the present, something I had avoided for over 20 years.
The combination of Lindy’s words, the proud faces of the beautiful women in those photographs, and the connection with my beloved Star Trek was potent enough to break me out of my self-imposed stasis. I finished Shrill in a single day, and I vowed to myself that I would not waste any more of my precious life worrying about taking up space.
It has not been easy, relearning how to live and how to feel about myself. I have found the unconditional love that I have longed for my whole life, which has healed me beyond measure and given me back a part of myself I thought was lost forever. I am still a work in progress, but at least now there is actual progress. I often wonder if I’d had the ability to see the world this way when I was younger, is it possible I would have made different choices?
Being an unquestioning media junkie taught me, without me even realising, that it was impossible for me to achieve anything worthwhile or heroic without first achieving thinness. This truth is coded directly into the fabric of science fiction, with veteran Star Trek costume designer Robert Blackman stating in a BBC interview: ‘…when you want the characters to look heroic, there are certain things that you must do to make them seem that way – broader shoulder, narrow of hip, as vertical as possible, chest out, ready to go after evil.’
Star Trek, my very favourite, the place I retreated to for solace and hope – had been reminding me quietly season after season, series after series, film after film of that one inalienable truth: There are no fat people in the future. In the future, fatness has been ‘fixed’- we have been written out of existence, because we are terrifying. We are every thin person’s worst nightmare, lurking just around the corner if they slip up and succumb to whatever moral failing claimed us in the first place. And this is without bringing the conversation around to the racialised and racist origins of fatphobia. I am gay, and I identify strongly with non-binary gender identity. But I am also white, which bestows upon me a level of privilege greater than I am capable of comprehending. For further reading on that subject I can wholeheartedly recommend Sabrina Strings’ 2019 book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia.
Gene Roddenberry’s utopia, that famous final frontier, does not have space for bodies of size just as it has not (until recently) had space for physical disabilities, or gender and sexual orientations beyond the binary. Where they do not support plot, most physical differences have been erased and poor mental health or old age are aberrations to be solved neatly in an ‘episode of the week.’
Fatness is equated with weakness of both mind and body in the same way as the ageing process, although (fortunately) this has never been pursued explicitly in a plot line on Star Trek that I know of. Age, decrepitude and weakness on the other hand, and particularly the trope of rapid ageing, has been used as a plot device many times: think of the realisation of Uhura’s ‘greatest fear’ in “And the Children Shall Lead” for example, or Bashir in “Distant Voices.” In every example, age is seen as a debilitating condition and one which will inevitably be ‘fixed’ before the credits roll. Indeed, the ‘fixing’ of age and mortality are notable and central themes in season one of Picard, with his advancing years mentioned many times over the course of the season arc, culminating [spoiler alert] in his death and resurrection in the finale.
Watching Picard (which I enjoyed immensely) I found myself mentally rewriting the scene where Arcana approaches Picard and muses upon the changes time had wrought upon his face. “They’re just… lines,” she says, “But they imply so much more. Grief, endurance. Marvellous.” Let’s have a series spin off starring Crusher or Troi (or both! Come on, we can dream), one in which their bodies and faces have been allowed to age naturally in the same way as Patrick Stewart. Let’s not have them girdled and clad in tight costumes. Let’s have them be approached by an artificial life form that has been designed without 21st century beauty ideals in mind, maybe (now I’m really going wild) one that doesn’t need to signal binary humanoid sex characteristics that are surely a totally unecessary consideration in AI design (is it such a stretch to have an androgynous android?)
Let’s have this synth appraise a humanoid woman in all her soft, endlessly mutable mortality. Let them gaze at how her body curves and rolls in ways that are unique to its inhabitant’s genetic code, ways that reflect her life’s journey and its inherent challenges. “It’s just… flesh,” they could say, with the same wonder and admiration, “But it implies so much more. Growth. Birth and rebirth. Grief. Endurance. Marvellous.”
This is a wonderful story and I cried a little reading it. Thank you so much for sharing it. I grew up looking at the same things, learning and unlearning (constantly) the same lessons. I love Lindy West and will have to finally read Shrill. And I love those photos. I want to applaud the author of this piece and everyone who has taken some of these same steps. It is beautifully written and woven rich with references that tell this story so well. Thank you for sharing it and all its perfect lines.
(ps a quote from Nimoy i cherish that others might love too. he knew exactly what he was doing. )
“This book would be appropriate on the coffee table of every home in the United States, particularly where there are young ladies involved and I’ll tell you why. Because young girls are standing in front of mirrors as a result of what they’ve been sold as being the standard and say, ‘I hate my body.’”
Thank you so much, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard that quote, so thank you for that too!
Thank you Ruth!
Karen was amazing, and I do feel very lucky, even while missing her incredibly.
Our love of Star Trek and the hopeful future it has presented was one of the first things we discovered that we had in common, so this seemed really appropriate. Nice to finally see strong openly gay characters. AT least there is some progress
This column really struck a nerve. I am a large man who was married, until March for 20 glorious years to a large, beautiful woman. I greeted er every morning when we woke up and throughout the day with “Hi gorgeous,” or some variant. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I wanted to make sure she felt that and knew how beautiful she was.
She was also incredibly smart, funny, endlessly intellectually curious and breathtakingly generous of spirit, with a smile that lit up the world. I loved her roundness and her curves. Her size made not a damn bit of difference except that, because she was large, I loved her that way.
She took care of me when I was critically ill and then for more than five brutal but precious months I was at her bedside 24/7 while she died from a brain tumor.
Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes; the heart doesn’t fit a narrow body specification.
Never forget that you are beautiful just as you are and that you deserve to be loved for who you are and to be treated with love and appreciation.
Be well, even in these hard times
Thank you for your beautiful comment, Larry. Your wife sounds like an amazing person, and I am so sorry for your loss. How wonderful that you found each other and loved each other so completely in the time you had.
Stay safe and be well in return