My Geography of Fatness: Socializing

This is the third second entry of a series focusing on my personal, autobiographical geography of fatness. To learn more about this project, check out the introduction entry, which should give you what you need to get started.

In this entry, I’ll be largely exploring the impact of fatness on socializing, both in public and private settings, using a perspective of a hypothetical narrative. In this narrative, I’ll be exploring what I would be thinking and doing during a hypothetical scenario, based upon what I had thought and done in similar situations in the past. The idea behind this is to explore a largely mundane, everyday activity and highlight the differences in mindset that come from my particular personal history of fatness. I’ll be attempting to follow the thoughts that come to mind when certain events in the evening occur.

An Evening Out

This hypothetical evening scenario, I’m going to meet with friends for dinner at a restaurant, a bar for some drinks, then probably end up at someone’s house for more drinks, games and maybe a movie. Seems harmless enough, right? Well, such an evening can be exceptionally stressful from start to finish for an obese person.

One goal I’ve always got in the back of my mind is to not stand out from the crowd because of my weight, because I’ve spent enough of my life with that particular characteristic being used by others to set me apart. I attribute much of my heightened self-awareness to growing up obese. Because my physical body set me apart from my classmates, I desperately wanted to be as indistinct as possible in every other way. Being that different person, that “other,” meant that I was the one who was picked on and bullied. My uniqueness was a liability, one that I wanted to avoid any recognition of.

What this translates to in a daily life in a constant anxiety that something will happen to remind everyone, including myself, just how obese (and therefore, how inferior) I am. Indeed, as an obese person I am psychologically required to create and maintain a certain façade that obscures my own self-knowledge of my fatness just to achieve enough confidence to ever venture into public. With this in mind, most social situations become similar to an obstacle course, with many opportunities presented for this “exposure,” which must be dodged at all costs. Frankly, it makes social situations tremendously tiring.

I will be marking the so-called obstacle points in the evening with bold letters, highlighting that it’s at this point that I face a choice that causes me some amount of psychological stress. These options usually must be generated and considered, and one chosen, on the spot and in a very quick manner. I will also explore the potential consequences of various actions that I can take at this point in the evening, and show which option I choose and why. It’s like a really, really lame Choose My Own Adventure book.

The Restaurant

A group of friends and I have agreed to meet at Cinder’s, a local Applebee’s style restaurant, and then to hang out together after dinner. One of my friends, who lives nearby, calls me up and offers to carpool to the restaurant.

OBSTACLE: Carpooling is a great way to save gas and the environment. It’s not so good, though, if I can’t fit into my friend’s car or don’t know what he/she drives. In this case I know my friend drives a Honda Civic, which will not fit me. My options are:

  • Ride with my friend in his/her tiny car, not fasten the seatbelt (which is not only a safety hazard but has the potential for an awkward, fat-aware conversation) and be uncomfortable for the 20 minute drive.
  • Offer to drive my own car, which I know I fit into but which happens to currently be filled with trash and will need more gas to make it to the restaurant
  • Refuse the carpool and make the situation socially awkward, or come up with an excuse and lie to my friend.

 


I choose to offer my car because I know I’ll fit, so I rush out to clean it out. I get sweaty in the process, which means I need to change shirts. Because I also stopped to get gas, now I’m also running late to get my friend, making me seem inconsiderate.

Once we arrive at the restaurant, we’re greeted by a cheery hostess who asks us the standard “how many in your party?” question. We tell her that we have six people who are coming. Then, she asks if we would like a booth or a table?

OBSTACLE: “Booth or table?” can be a tough question for obese people, because it varies not only by restaurant but sometimes by table in the restaurant. Here are the options in this case:

  • Booth, which runs a couple of risks. For one, I don’t know if the space between the booth’s back and the table will be deep enough for me to sit comfortably. I also never know if the table is movable or if its fastened permanently in place. Beyond this, I don’t know how wide the booth seats are, so with my wider rear end, the booth might not be wide enough to accomodate all of us.
  • Table avoids the depth problem, but also runs a couple of risks. If the table’s chairs have arms, I might not fit. If they’re flimsy, I might break mine. Usually a table is a safer bet.
  • No opinion, which has all of the risks of the other two options with one benefit: by saying I have no opinion in the matter, I avoid the chance that having an opinion will delay our getting seated, and hence avoid the “why do you even care?” conversation with my friends.

 


I choose to offer no opinion, and thankfully we’re transported to a table with sturdy, armless chairs.

Our waiter brings us menus and takes our drink orders. As I look over the menu, I’m presented with yet another choice that is crucial to maintaining that non-fat façade:

OBSTACLE: Choosing what to eat in a social situation, as an obese person, is frustrating. The larger population blames my condition on what I eat, which means that image is has to be in the forefront of my mind. What can I choose?

  • Something large-portioned and unhealthy. This will serve to confirm that my condition is i fact caused by my poor life choices, to both my friends and myself. It will also solidify my inferiority because, as I’ve demonstrated, I have no will power.
  • Lighter fare in a smaller portion. Not only is this not what I want to eat (and therefore something of a waste of my limited dining budget) but likely won’t fill me. It also appears that I am either overcompensating for my fatness or I am trying to change myself.
  • Either of the above, but something sloppy. This is to be avoided as well, because a shirt that’s stained with food just feeds into another stereotype of fatness.
  • Something that rests somewhere in the middle of these characteristics. It probably won’t be fulfilling either and is therefore also a bit of a waste of money, but it avoids the other options.

 

I choose the third option by ordering a modest burger and fries, because who hasn’t ordered one of those before?

The food eventually arrives and our evening continues. As an obese person, I am exceptionally careful to lean wayyyyy over the table to ensure that as much of the mess from my burger as possible hits my plate, not my shirt. It’s another sort of stereotype, and if nothing else reminder of fatness, that fat people have food stains on their shirts. (In actuality, if you think about it, it’s just geometry, because my stomach sticks out farther and is hence more likely to catch the drippings from food).

Our food is gone, so our empty plates are taken away and the waiter returns with a dessert menu for our consideration. Dessert is certainly another obstacle for the obese.

OBSTACLE: Though I ordered a meal that was smaller than I knew I’d need to be full, and though I’m now still legitimately hungry, that doesn’t determine whether or not I order dessert or not. Instead, it’s the actions of my friends. I’ve got options:

  • If no one else orders dessert, I sure as hell won’t either. That’s the easiest way to be singled out as obese, by indulging in extra that everyone else was able to turn down.
  • If less than half of the others order dessert, I still won’t because that’s still too obvious and draws too much attention.
  • Only if more than half of the others order dessert will I even consider it.

 


Tonight, two of my friends ordered dessert. I did without.

After dinner, a couple of friends in the group bring up the idea of doing something else together while we’re out. They mention that a nearby comedy club has a show coming up in the next hour with a comedian they’ve heard good things about. Another friend offers the option of going to a pub.

OBSTACLE: As an obese person, a comedy club is basically terra non grata. Most people remember the scene from Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor where Professor Klump is roasted by Dave Chapelle? For fat people, this isn’t a worse-case or irrational nightmare scenario, THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS, and it has happened to me more than once. It’s like comedians have eagle-like vision for large people in the audience. I honestly can’t blame them, because their job is to make everyone laugh, and fat jokes do this. Still, there’s no quicker way to ruin my evening than to be laughed at by 200 people because of a condition I hope to minimize my connection to in public. So, to avoid this, I now am faced with an odd choice.

  • Express an opinion against going to the comedy club. I have to beware, though, that I may well be asked for rationale about my opinion. Being “not in the mood” for comedy, or not liking stand-up usually only goes so far, because really, who doesn’t like to laugh?
  • Make no opinion known. Even riskier because I might end up at a comedy club, or I might have to end the evening early (and lose precious time with friends) to avoid it.

 


I chose to express an opinion against going to the comedy club. Luckily, no one was particularly attached to the idea, so as a group, we declined that option.

The Bar

Thankfully rejecting the comedy club, we drove to a nearby favorite pub for some drinks. Being that it was a nice summer evening, we took to the pub’s outdoor patio to enjoy our libations in the warm breeze. After picking up our drinks and getting out to the patio, I notice that the seating out here leaves much to be desired.

OBSTACLE: The bar’s patio has two different options for seating, because all of the picnic tables, with their wide sturdy benches, are currently full. My options:

  • Cheap flimsy plastic outdoor chairs. These things, which can be bought at Walmart for around $4.99, are certainly not designed to hold my weight. They have, on more than one occasion, collapsed under me, and would certainly be dependable for doing so again tonight. That’s a spectacle that’s best avoided, because there’s no way around it being caused by my fatness.
  • Wrought-iron, solid patio chairs with arms that don’t “give” at all. These won’t collapse under my weight, but it probably won’t fit around my rear, and if it does, it’ll hurt.
  • Stand, awkwardly, for the entire evening even though there are obviously chairs available.

 


I choose the last option, because it seemed to be the safest option. I make up some excuse about sitting all day at work to deflect attention from the more obvious reasons.

As the evening continues, eventually a DJ takes over the bar’s PA system and begins playing some reasonably decent dance music. A number of the bar patrons begin dancing, including a number of my group of friends, a couple of whom have given me the look-c’mon-wave. I’ve got a few beers in me and am sufficiently “buzzed” that I’m feeling the music “move” me, and hitting the dance floor evolves into a possibility.

OBSTACLE: When obese people dance, it’s typically considered disgusting, hilarious or pathetic. While folks of regular weight can enjoy dancing without concern of being “on stage” or being the center of onlookers’ attention, fat people don’t get that luxury. There’s always a worry that a simple attempt to have fun will result in laughter, insults, or even, sadly, YouTube fame. What can I do?

  • Feel the music and jump out on the dance floor. Of course, this is the riskiest. It risks large-scale derision from the other patrons, the likelihood that my skill-lacking dancing (from an absence of practice) will be a whole other spectacle, the possibility of YouTube fame, the probability of getting sweaty (fat stereotype), and oddly enough, the fear that attractive people will dance with me. Huh? About 90% of the time when that happens, it’s either a statement of pity, or a joke or dare amongst friends.
  • Stay, standing at the table, even once all of my friends have gone dancing. It invites more of the look-c’mon-waves and ultimately semi-awkwardness if I keep refusing to dance. It also means I’d be stuck spending this time alone.
  • Fake an illness, an early morning or fatigue and split. This means the evening is over, I’m done spending time with my friends (which I value) and I come off looking like a wet blanket.

 


I choose the second option, because I’m just not drunk enough to have zero inhibitions, but I’m also not ready for the evening to be over; plus, I’ve got a friend who’s depending on me for a ride. Crap, that means not only am I sitting at the table alone, but to ensure that we get home safely now I’m done drinking, too.

Friend’s Apartment

Once the evening at the bar has wound down, a friend invites all of us to come to his house for further drinks and fun. Much like the carpooling, one option I would have here is to invite everyone to my place, but because of my pathetic and pathological need to present as positive of a public image as possible, I can’t bring myself to do this because the cleanliness of my home isn’t 100% perfect. Speaking of carpooling, my carpooling buddy has asked to be dropped at his car to relieve me of my responsibility. Going over to my friend’s house sounds like a great time, but there are a few obstacles that are standing at this crossroads.

OBSTACLE: It’s been a warm day, and I’m pretty certain my friend doesn’t have air conditioning (or is too cheap to turn it on). This means his apartment will be uncomfortably warm upon arrival and will get warmer with body heat. Options:

  • Damn the heat, let’s go party. Risks are that I’ll be drenched in sweat and very uncomfortable. While this is a concern for everyone, it’s especially a concern for me because my extra weight doesn’t allow me to deal with the heat as well.
  • Go home, lose time with friends.

 


So, assuming I decided to his place, there’s a couple of other obstacles awaiting me. For one, I’ve been out with friends for about seven hours and I really have to go to the restroom, the kind of restroom visit that will take a little time to finish.

OBSTACLE: Obese people have long been the, ahem, butt of poop and fart jokes. Even in children’s movies, it’s always the overweight characters who are audibly flatulent and who disturb the other characters with the odors produced through flatulence or excretion. Should I go to the restroom, knowing it will take a while and knowing there’s only one restroom for six people who’ve been drinking all evening?

  • Who cares? Everybody poops. Just light a match or something. Of course, the risks are openly disgusting my friends and recalling that obese-stink stereotype. Odd inhibitions like these, which even I know are irrational, speak so much louder to me because of my fatness.
  • Hold it in. Given how I feel right now, this will cause pain.
  • Stop by a gas station on the way over and drop the deuce there. Also provides a chance to buy some snack foods for the party (it’s only proper to support my local merchants after leaving something like that in their restroom anyway), but risks the potentially awkward “geez, where have you been? It took you a half hour to buy some cookies?” question.
  • Forget about stopping by and go home to poop in peace.

 


For this, I usually choose the third option and simply brush off any questions about it. But then, once I were to arrive at the apartment, there’s one more obstacle in my way, which has been faced in other forms earlier this evening: furniture.

OBSTACLE: My friend is a graduate student, which means he doesn’t have high quality furniture. Because grad students are treated like slaves, his furniture’s all either hand-me-downs, third-hand, rescued from a dumpster or built from a box. Because of this, I have no idea what chairs might be sturdy enough to support my weight. Beyond that, given the flexible nature of socializing, my seat might be taken during the evening. And since I’d be running behind after my poop-cookie stop, my options might be limited

  • Skip the poop-cookie stop, arrive super quickly, stake-out the sturdiest chair and never move. Never mind the gastrointestinal distress, at least I won’t suffer the ignominy of breaking furniture because of my weight, and I won’t owe my friend money for a replacement.
  • When I arrive, ask the person who’s sitting in the sturdiest chair to give it up for me. Awkward, and definitely not a way to avoid drawing attention to my condition.
  • Lay on the floor, problem solved but kind of awkward and out of place.
  • Forget about all of this and go home.

 


I probably would have laid on the floor, because it was the best option despite its awkwardness.

However, I never would have gotten that far. Chances are, given all of these obstacles, I would have immediately gone home from the bar and put a fork in the evening. In fact, I can recall several times in the past couple of years where I’ve done exactly that. In this case, my fatness brought increased inhibitions, which brought heightened anxiety, which led to a premature ending to what could have been a good night with friends.

Some Analysis

In a lot of ways, my lifelong condition of fatness has led to a larger perspective that places outside of my home or most familiar surroundings are very potentially hostile. This is because there are constant reminders in the world that serve to ensure I don’t forget how unacceptable my condition is. These reminders are social, material and functional, and create a landscape of hostility that is invisible to people who don’t share my condition. It’s something that has happened on a lifelong basis, starting with nasty insults from other kids at the earliest ages in school and continuing today. This continued discipline from the larger social world has changed my perspective to one that is far more insular than I would like to be.

Sure, this idea that anything-but-home is hostile applies for everyone to a point because a home is supposed to be a safe place. For me, though, it means leaving home can feel like a considerable chore because the potential for embarrassment rises significantly. That anxiety is multiplied in situations where the surroundings or the people aren’t 100% familiar, because in those cases the obstacles like these listed above aren’t necessarily foreseen.

This anxiety isn’t limited to public places, though the potential for public embarrassment there is obviously much greater. Sure, unfamiliar public places throw out more of these obstacles at a quicker pace, making the experience require more attention and hence tiring me mentally much quicker. However, this extends to private homes of friends as well. I subconsciously require that a friend earns a significant amount of trust from me before I will go to that person’s home. I need to be as comfortable as possible with that person before I can be in their home without a great deal of anxiety in terms of facing potential obstacles, or ultimately judgment based on my size.

The private home situation, while more confortable, also offers a higher potential social risk. Being embarrassed because of my fatness in front of 200 strangers, like at a comedy club, is enough to ruin an evening. Being embarrassed by my fatness in front of a half-dozen of my closest friends is enough to ruin a month, because these are people that I’ve developed relationships with and whose opinions I respect. To be lessened in their eyes (even if this lessening isn’t real and is 100% in my head) is a prospect that I can’t bear to face.

With a world that seems so hostile, it is often easier to just stay home. Through a lot of my life, that’s exactly what I did. Building and maintaining a façade is hard, tiring work. If my free time is so limited, why should I spend it on activities that aren’t relaxing? It’s certainly meant that I don’t go out of my way to find social opportunities. It also means I generally don’t take chances on anything socially related. Those two factors are probably a big reason that my friend networks are actually quite small, and that the people I can really and truly trust can be counted on one hand.

Is this anything more than a longstanding issue with granting social trust to people I know? Perhaps, but these trust issues were brought forth by brutal enforcement of social discipline against my condition of fatness. That they have altered my perception of personal spaces, probably irrevocably, is why this project is both inherently spatial, and remains important in my mind. On the other hand, because this is the only worldview I know, I do wonder how others interpret this narrative. Is it the same for everyone, fat or not?

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

4 thoughts on “My Geography of Fatness: Socializing”

  1. I've been working very hard to lose weight the last few years and have found it incredibly difficult and unsuccessful and have been trying to figure out the WHY of it. What's frustrating for me is that I already eat so much good, whole, fresh food. The exercise part is the hardest. It's hard to find the additional energy and time to exercise, when I've got a three year old that never stops and is yet to sleep through the night but once. I am exhausted and on the move all day long. My Romanian years were the best for me. I ate lots of meat, bread, desserts (fresh food with little to no preservatives in anything), drank lots of sweet wine, beer, and even pop, but I walked EVERYWHERE, even miles on some days because I was intimidated by the driving and interworking of their big city public transit). The bad part, though, was the migraine-intensity of the headaches I get from that physical activity.

  2. I didn't say it was about will power or lack thereof. I believe its more about a lifestyle change that includes much better eating and exercising habits, not just for while, but as a habitual way of living.

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