Words by Victoria Knight
Cover art by Nikki Sztolc
“Fat really is its own gender sometimes in a world that so rigidly defines gender by abjecting the non-normate to a zone of non-being.” – @KivanBay on Twitter, December 27th, 2020.
I read this tweet after quite a while of thinking about my gender. I had known I was queer for a long time by this point. But, beneath my identity as a bisexual cis woman, there was this underlying feeling of…
Well, that was just it. I couldn’t tell you what it was.
I had never felt fully disconnected from my gender. I have only ever made one conscious push towards femininity in my life, and it came when high school beckoned. I remember feeling pressure to reinvent myself. Long hair, skirts, and using my full first name is where I would start.
The name thing lasted for less than half of Orientation Day. My teacher announced me by my full first name, Victoria – a name which I have no objections to having (it’s on this article, after all) but one which feels too long, too elaborate and too formal to be spoken. After a handful of times being referred to as such, I asked my teacher quietly if she could call me Tori. I still prefer Tori.
My feminine reinvention didn’t come in high school and, spoiler alert, it’s never come.
The skirt experiment was similarly short. After a few hours, the lack of stretch in the polyester became too much around my squishy stomach and burgeoning hips. I unclasped the skirt and let out a visceral sigh of relief on the stairs, but felt the sting of the lines embedded into my flesh and the itchy-hot chafing of my thighs long after.
The hair lasted the longest, perhaps only because of its novelty and its relative lack of interference in my day… but even that didn’t last. I can’t remember the exact points at which I cut my hair, but my Year 12 photo features a haircut not dissimilar to the pageboy cut young Tori donned from the ages of around four to eleven.
My feminine reinvention didn’t come in high school and, spoiler alert, it’s never come. While it could just be that I am, independently of my body size, gender nonconforming, there has been no moment of gender questioning in my life that has been devoid of some relation to my being fat.
To hark back to high school once more, I remember I used to wear a t-shirt under my school polo, and I used to tell myself it was just to smooth out my stomach. But the shirt also minimised the size of my chest and blurred the shift from my waist to my hips. It stopped me being so conscious of my body. My fat, feminine body. I remember wearing that shirt in any weather, because the stifling discomfort was not worse than the discomfort of there only being one layer of fabric between my body and the world. A world that was cruel about my size; about my gender; about me.
Fast forward a few years and I hit university. I have grown my hair out again, but it’s less about a conscious pivot towards femininity and more that I have not had time to get to JustCuts. But when I do get there, I want it to be short. Cropped, pixie, short back and sides. Just something short. In early undergrad, fuelled with all the drive of a young queer who has just discovered cultural studies, I cut my hair off. And in doing it, I also cut off all of the reasons why I shouldn’t have short hair; for over the years, I had heard a lot of them.
I am neither here nor there, I am designated genderless or gender-ful depending on what others require of me.
The haircut made me start thinking about how I had been held back from doing what I wanted with my own body for so long. That underlying feeling I had been thinking about regarding gender started to bubble again. I started thinking about how I felt in relation to womanhood, femininity and identity, and everything was touched by opinions about my fat body.
These opinions were not always negative (though anti-fat bias and negativity did feature heavily), but compliments about my body often resided in hyper-femininity; I was thick, curvy, busty. I was sick of the laziness of being complimented only for hyper-gendered aspects of my life I could not control, but equally feeling de-gendered stirred up uncomfortable memories. For a while, I experimented with using both “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns in an online context. Supportive friends immediately varied my pronoun usage, and I realised just as immediately that “they/them” pronouns were not going to work for me. It took me back to bullies snickering as they sent a friend up to me in the playground to loudly and mockingly ask if I was a boy or a girl. It took me back to the shame that tried to swallow me as I firmly responded that I was a girl, turning to leave with a clumsy sway in my step as I sucked my gut in. Because girls were graceful. Girls were skinny.
Being fat and queer has me existing in a strange liminal space. I am neither here nor there, I am designated genderless or gender-ful depending on what others require of me.
I want to iterate, though, before I go on, that it is beautiful being fat and queer. I would not choose anything else. Being fat and queer is beautiful, enriching and wonderful. But things that are beautiful, enriching and wonderful are not always easy.
After experimenting with pronouns to little success, I felt disheartened. I felt uncomfortable with neutral pronouns. Did it mean my gender experimentation was over? That I had trespassed in a space I did not belong in?
(Another spoiler alert: no.)
Society defines gender not only by what people do, but what they are not allowed to do.
My gender troubles laid low for a while after that, until I read this article’s opening tweet. Kivan Bay is an amazing fat liberationist, and this tweet absolutely floored me. Fat as its own gender? I thought about it for days. I still think about it. And finding it again for this article, I am thinking about it right now. I have thought about it, cried about it, looked at it over and over and just sat with that tweet, because it made me realise that my feelings were not strange. I was not alone in these fat gender feelings. I felt like I had found a place to be.
To simplify the tweet, I have taken it to mean this: fat people are designated as being “other” in society. Society defines gender not only by what people do, but what they are not allowed to do. Fat people are seen as being outside of these rigid gender norms, so they are “abjected” (think exiled or rejected) as not fitting within gender at all. It is as if they do not exist.
My gender feelings are mild. I am not uncomfortable being referred to as a woman. Sometimes when others refer to me as a woman, though, I feel a little… disconnected. It can take me a second to realise that it isn’t an attack on me, it isn’t a bait-and-switch where someone is going to start laughing and ask if, no, seriously, am I a man or a woman? But it’s slight. It doesn’t impact me every day. At the time of writing this, I still consider myself a cis woman. Albeit a gender nonconforming one. Saying that is easier than trying to explain the intricacies of my life growing up as a fat girl. Though I suppose now, I could just send them this article.
There is a place for you; take up all the space you need.
I am a woman, and I am fat, and those things interact in strange, unpredictable and unusual ways. And while I believe some of these gender feelings certainly relate to being seen primarily as a fat person before I am seen as anything else, I am not just a fat woman. I am also queer. I am a PhD student. I am a friend, a singer, a public speaker and a funky little lesbian gnome barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons game.
My fatness is a part of me, and my gender is a part of me that has been affected by my fatness. I cannot tell you whether that effect has been good or bad, probably because it has been neither. It has just been. And it will continue to be, to evolve and to flourish in this world that I make my way through. I hope to continue surrounding myself with people who make this strange gender journey a little easier for me. And I hope they, and I, can make that strange gender journey a little easier for all the wonderful fat kids to come after us who don’t quite know where they belong. Final spoiler alert: none of us know where we belong. We have to make that place ourselves. And you will, even if that place takes up more space than the world tells you that you deserve.
There is a place for you; take up all the space you need.
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