“Nothing is more brilliant and juicy to me than a woman stepping fully into her selfmind, body, and spirit, full throttle, without apology. Kimberly Dark has been illuminating the path for a long time. This book is a triumph. This book is a jailbreak from cultural inscriptions meant to keep us locked up, shut up, and conforming.” Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and The Book of Joan
Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old is a moving, funny, and startlingly frank collection of personal essays about what it means to look a certain way. Or rather, certain ways. Navigating Kimberly Dark’s experience of being fat since childhoodas well as queer, white-privileged, a gender-confirming “girl with a pretty face,” active then disabled, and inevitably agingeach piece blends storytelling and social analysis to deftly coax readers into a deeper understanding of how appearance privilege (and stigma) function in everyday life and how the architecture of this social world constrains us. At the same time, she provides a blueprint for how each of us can build a more just social world, one interaction at a time. Includes an afterword by Health at Every Size expert, Linda Bacon.
Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor, and raconteur. She has written award-winning plays, and taught and performed for a wide range of audiences in various countries over the past two decades. She is the author of The Daddies, Love and Errors, and co-editor of the anthology Ways of Being in Teaching.
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About the Author
Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor, and raconteur, working to reveal the hidden structure of everyday life one essay, poem, or story at a time. She has written award-winning plays, and taught and performed for a wide range of audiences in various countries over the past two decades. She is the author of The Daddies, Love and Errors, and co-editor of the anthology Ways of Being in Teaching.
Read an Excerpt
Cozy or Uncomfortable: Tight Public Places
I had a moment of judgment as I walked up the airplane aisle and saw him. I wasn’t pleased to be having that feeling and there it was – immediate and unbidden. I was concerned I’d be uncomfortable sitting next to such a big guy on the airplane. Well, it was a short flight – Hilo to Maui. No need to get fussy. Better to get friendly.
He already had the seat divider lifted, when I stowed my bag in the overhead bin. I pointed to the seat by the window and he quickly sprang to his feet to let me pass. At that point, I had only noticed his size. In memory, I see how quickly he moved to accommodate me, and how he smiled.
I put down the seat divider on my way in. It’s a matter of public decorum. I don’t want to make the assumption that we should be touching even though we definitely will be touching. The seat divider helps us, when we want to pretend it’s not happening. It helps contain my hip, which will push against it, and the person next to me. That tiny little seat divider, between two big people, is like staring up above the door in a crowded elevator. It helps you pretend you don’t know what the guy next to you had for lunch because his breath is so close on your skin.
It took only a moment or two; social interactions go one way or another so quickly. He said, “Oh no, it’ll be easier if we put this up. Is that okay with you? Easier that way.” He was nodding and smiling and putting the seat divider up and I was nodding agreement and trying to push myself against the window. And he was positioning himself to wedge into the seat, find the seatbelt.
“We’re two big people.” I said with a chuckle and he relaxed into the seat, into the press of my body. We were shaped differently, so we fit nicely, definitely touching, pressing, wedged in, still strangers, separate, together, no divider.
“Yeah, yeah. I always wonder how the athletes do it. Those kids at the university, they’re so big, those strong guys.”
I nodded. “Hawaiian Airlines is pretty good too, as the airlines go.”
He said, “Yeah yeah, I heard on Go! Airlines it’s tough. I’m Kalani.” He reached out his hand and we angled to shake as I introduced myself as well.
I can see the judgment on my seatmate’s face sometimes, especially if I’m already seated when he or she approaches. Sometimes the person is listening to headphones, or thinking other thoughts, and sometimes it’s clear. “Oh shit, I have to sit next to a fat lady on this flight.”
And I thought it too, consciously or not, as I approached Kalani, but what is the fear? Discomfort of course. And when I’m the one already in the seat as my travel companion approaches, the pain is the possibility of inconveniencing someone, invoking someone’s irritation just by being there.
Sometimes naming the problem helps. I know some who make jokes. My fat friend asks the flight attendant for a seat belt extender in a fully audible voice. “I’d like a seat belt extender and a LIGHT beer!” she declares jovially. I see others who’ve asked for the belt-extender so quietly I didn’t even hear them. Depending on the type of aircraft, I’ve needed the extender too and I try to ask in the same tone I would request a cup of water. Some flight attendants hand it off like a cup of water, no fanfare, and no secrecy. Some slip it surreptitiously, like it’s shameful. This seems to be their training: don’t embarrass the customer.
We’re going to make contact. The flight is longer than an elevator ride, so we can’t just look at the numbers above the door rather than at each other. Still, there are set rituals on the airplane that help us pretend we are not in such close proximity. It’s not that the contact is much less comfortable, it’s that it ruins the illusion that we are really enjoying private space. Nothing private is happening in the space the airline sells us. The fat passenger dispels the illusion and this can cause anger – or maybe, in my case with Kalani, it can cause greater comfort.
He asked where I was headed and I told him Oakland. He told me he was on his way to Las Vegas for a high school reunion. Even though he’s from Hawaii, a group of five graduating years got together and planned this trip. He’s retired now – thirty-eight years as a heavy machinery operator and now he just enjoys life. He asked about my trip, how long I’d be away and why I was going. “Oh, you’re a storyteller,” he said with interest. “Sounds like good work. Sounds like you’re busy. That’s good!” He came to Hilo to build the Kamehameha School and fell in love with the place. He just didn’t go back to Oahu. I coughed a bit during our conversation; he rustled in his bag and thrust a throat lozenge into my hand. “I was coughing earlier too. Take one.” We were in contact during the short “connecting” flight.
I noticed how relaxed it felt to simply accept that we were touching one another, no need for apologetic shifting, turning strangely away toward the aisle or window. No need for the isolation of a book or earphones. When we talked, we talked and when we didn’t, we just sat there, taking up space.
We talked of our kids, his oldest of three is thirty-eight and a major in the army. I smiled at the thought of Kalani starting his career with a wife and a new baby and he told me he’d also get to see his grandson in Las Vegas – his daughter lives there too. He asked where I live and when I said I was down Kalapana way, he said, “Ah, by Uncle Robert’s?”
“One of my favorite neighbors,” I replied and he smiled.
“I take groups out at night to see the lava when it’s flowing,” he said. “When Pu’u’o’o gets going again, we’ll be at it.” I raised my eyebrows, impressed. That’s a good walk and tough terrain at night.
“How long will you be in Vegas?” I asked.
“A month.” He said and noting my surprise at the length of the visit, he added, “I play music too, so I got a lounge gig while I’m there. Sometimes I play down at Uncle Robert’s – at the Kava Bar.” When I asked what he played, he reported five or six different instruments.
“You may be retired from one job, but you’ve got a few more,” I laughed.
“Yeah yeah.” He said, “I got a good busy life too. So do you. We’re lucky.”
“Yes we are, Kalani,” said I.
And so we traveled, on the short flight from Hilo to Maui, connecting to other destinations to do our work and share our skills. We will each sit in another plane – for many more hours. And again, we’ll each negotiate a small space with a seatmate who might believe we’re just a bit of bad luck. The fat seatmate is like the crying baby or the kicking toddler.
Or maybe the fat seatmate is worse because sometimes people claim we shouldn’t fly at all. Some speak of us as though we’re lazy and inconsiderate and should get off our fat butts once in a while and do something with our lives. They find us pathetic and unattractive, not just a burden on the flight, but a burden to society as well.
But sometimes I’m lucky and get a seat next to a guy like Kalani, who welcomes contact. I’m not as bold as he, but I can aspire. I do much of what he did on that flight – I smile and look for pleasant conversation. I feel entitled to be there – and often, I try to take up less space. Kalani didn’t make himself small in anticipation of my disapproval. He accepted that he was going to be touching me, that we would be sharing an experience and his acceptance made me more comfortable as well. Sure, I’m a body-rights activist and so I was poised to appreciate his approach. It’s possible others would’ve simply forgotten he was a big guy. They’d have remembered him as a nice guy. I thought he was that, and also a mentor. Truly, no one should feel they have to put someone else at ease. We can all be doing our own work accepting the diversity of the human body in public places – and we can darned well keep our shortcomings to ourselves. Still, Kalani’s approach to proximity was a gift. Some of that gift was cultural, I’m sure. In Hawaiian culture, influenced though it has been by colonization and religion, fat people are not generally felt to be useless, lazy or invisible as immediately as in white North American culture.
Kalani’s approach inspired me because comfort is what we lack. And it turns out that comfort isn’t about having enough space in your airplane seat – that’s something to take up with the airline if modifications are needed. Comfort is about ease within oneself and around strangers in public places. That includes all of the ways bodies show up with regard to size, age, race, gender, ability and more. If we look closely, our discomfort on the airplane reveals something to us. We’re often uncomfortable around others and with ourselves. And that can change, even if the airline doesn’t sell us a bigger space in which to rest ourselves while we fly.
Table of Contents
- Maintaining Appearances
- Another Way to Starve
- Language, Fat and Causation
- Diamond Jim
- Wanted: Fat Girl
- Dances With Light
- Thighs and Freedom
- Big People on the Airplane
- Cozy or Uncomfortable: Tight Public Places
- Here’s Looking at You
- Shadow on a Tightrope
- Coming Out Fat
- My First Lover Was Not a Lesbian
- Becoming Travolta
- Does This Limp Make Me Look Fat?
- The Chance to Practice
- The Aging Yoga Body
- Migration Patterns
- The Naked Place
- Building the Good Body
- Self-Help, Fitness and Feminism
- How the Women’s Movement Ruined Everything
- Passing it On
- Learning to Fish
Afterword by Linda Bacon, PhD, (“Exploring the Health Science in Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old”)
What People are Saying About This
“Nothing is more brilliant and juicy to me than a woman stepping fully into her self--mind, body, and spirit, full throttle, without apology. The day we all step fully into our bodies and voices will be a revolutionary moment. Kimberly Dark has been illuminating the path for a long time. This book is a triumph. This book is a jail break from cultural inscriptions meant to keep us locked up, shut up, and conforming.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Book of Joan and Chronology of Water.