Despite having difficulty navigating the classrooms and hallways of her prestigious university, Jenn Leyva accepts her fat body. She just wants the world to start accepting it, too.
I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world in one of the greatest cities in the world, and I spend a good chunk of every day worrying about where I sit in class.
You see, I’m too fat for most desks. I mean, I fit in them, but it’s not comfortable. I try to show up to physical chemistry a few minutes early, hoping to get a seat in the back row where there are a few chairs that aren’t attached to the tables. With stadium seating in lecture halls, I try to get a left-handed desk next to a right-handed desk. I put my bag on the chair next to me, mostly as a ruse for claiming an extra inch or two for my shoulders and ass to hang over. The desks are clearly not made to fit my body. I feel like a foot jammed into a stripy sandal one size too small. It fits, but there is skin and fat and flesh oozing out; I look like bread rising. It’s not stopping me from showing up to class and participating, but it’s a constant reminder that the space around me is not meant for my body.
It’s more than just sitting in class; it’s trying to maneuver in small spaces. Walking to the front of the room is a maze. I try to turn and contort my body to fit between the desks scattered about the room, but it’s not meant to be. My hips will nudge something and a classmate’s papers end up on the floor. I smile, apologize, and continue to shuffle my way to the front. If I finish an exam before the requisite time, I spend the rest of the class period looking around plotting my exit strategy. Can I find a clear path to turn in the exam without disturbing those around me?
It gets worse in winter. Like my classmates, I show up with coats and scarves and gloves and a bag with books and papers and who knows what else. I get to my seat and try to gracefully settle in. I look around to see how my peers manage. Somehow, I don’t see them struggling with coats and jackets and papers. It’s just me. I am reminded of the years I’ve spent crying in dressing rooms. I get a garment most of the way on—and then get stuck. It won’t zip, or it pinches and tugs. I can’t stop loathing myself for taking up too much space.
I don’t fit in in non-literal ways wither. I can get used to asking people to move and finding a larger seat. What’s more frustrating and disheartening is to tell people that I’m into radical body politics and fat liberation, and get a blank stare or a well-intended “but you’re not fat” in response. Yes, I am fat. It’s important that I use my own words to describe my body, so I’m using the word fat as a political statement. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with being fat, and I’m not interested in being slim. My government has classified my body as “morbidly obese,” I wear plus-sized clothing, and I get unsolicited diet advice from strangers. I have to look far and wide (ha!) for an image of my body that is not intended to cause shame and fear. I am fat. This is quite the spiel, and it’s only the introduction. (Just wait until I start talking about intersections with race and gender, or the diet industrial complex, or the conflation of health and beauty. That’s a lot for my classmates to handle.)
It’s not my job to explain my fat. And there’s no end to unlearning body shame and fat hate. These issues are complicated. Health, social stigma, fashion, desk chairs: It’s all political, and it’s all connected in really complicated ways.
Let me be clear, this is not abstract theory. I have to live this. Each and every day I am utterly outraged. The low-cal, low-fat ice cream at the grocery store, the “slimming” jeans at Torrid, the casual dismissal of certain foods as “unhealthy.” Even some of my closest friends doubt some of my tenets. I cannot sit idly back and let it all continue on. I want to stand up in the middle of a lecture on the “dangers” of the “obesity epidemic” and scream “Riots, not Diets!” with all my fury. I want to bring a whistle to class and interrupt every moment that’s racist, sexist, body-phobic, and hateful. I want a revolution in the streets where fatties will gather wearing sexy clothes to burn diet books and create a new world order where all bodies are valid. I want a world where it’s not my body that is too big; it’s the world that’s not big enough.
For starters, I just want a desk that fits.
When Jenn Leyva was 16, her dad told her that he’d buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a New York based fat activist and a senior at Columbia studying biochemistry. She authors Fat and the Ivy, a fat blog about social justice, feminism, science, health, and fa(t)shion.
Photo by Gary Barnes