Dear Aunt Fattie,
Last summer one of my best friends (we’ll call her K) spent the day at the beach with another group of girls we hang out with. I was unable to go, but would normally have been there. That day they had a great time hanging out, drinking Bloody Marys. The three of them came up with a name for their group: “Big Girls‘ Beach Club” or BGBC for short. K, the group and I all made plans to head down to the beach again and repeat the festivities. Fast forward to this summer…this weekend they have plans to go again. Since K and I invite each other EVERYWHERE (the laundromat, the mall, out to dinner EVERYWHERE), I assumed I would be invited as well.
After having lunch together at work today, I brought up this Saturday. I was not so politely reminded it’s “the BIG girls’ beach club.” After a minute of my silence and clearly looking hurt, K not so sincerely told me I could come “if I wanted to,” but if I got below 1xx pounds in the next 2 days, I was uninvited.
This is a woman I spend 40 hours a week with at work, never mind social time. She knows I’m struggling with my OWN body issues. She knows I’m trying to work through accepting myself and my body for who I am. Beyond the insensitivity, i just don’t know how to handle the situation.
– Not-So-Big Beach Bunny
When people first learn about privilege, they tend to feel personally taken aback. “But I don’t try to profit from being white, or male, or able-bodied,” they say. “Why are people taking it out on me?” Perhaps unfortunately, you don’t have to feel like part of the dominant culture or mean to be part of the dominant culture for people to react to you as part of the dominant culture. That means that you’ll get special treatment from some people, while others — the ones without privilege — might be inclined to circle the wagons.
As a thin woman, you are a member of a dominant culture, and what’s going on here is that a member of an oppressed group sees you trying to impinge on a space she’s carved out for other members of that group. She may worry that you’re slumming, or just that your presence will change the tenor of the weekend. (Even the most feminist man might not be welcome at a girls’ night out.) She handled it badly; she should have been more gentle and communicative, and most importantly, she should not have included you in plans last year only to break them this year. She is not being up front and she is not being true to her word. But once you glimpse the root causes of her defensiveness, her actions, however ham-handed, are understandable. What’s going on at the BGBC is not just a bunch of women having a good time on the beach. The moment they acknowledged their mutual bigness, it also became a protective enclave. Aunt Fattie can’t say whether your friends see the “Big Girls’ Beach Club” as a place to encourage each other to lose weight, a place to bond over the difficulties of living in a fatphobic society and encourage one another to stay positive, or just a place to feel unthreatened by the bikinis of their compatriots. Most likely, it’s some combination. But it does not occupy the same emotional space for them as it would if it were just Girls’ Beach Club.
Your friends, or at least K, felt threatened when you invited yourself along. This doesn’t mean that you were acting in a threatening way, or that you are in any way a threatening person. K knows about your struggles with body image, so she knows that you would be compassionate (though she might also worry that, consciously or unconsciously, you would be using the presence of fat girls in bathing suits to bolster your own self-esteem). But what got her hackles up was the worry that simply sharing her safe space would make it not safe anymore. In this case it’s just not about you — it’s about your friend rushing to defend something that felt safe, if insular, in a world that frequently feels hostile.
This is obviously an important friendship, so there’s no harm in talking about your hurt at the way she handled it — “I understand why you would rather not have me along for Big Girls’ Beach Club, but I wish you hadn’t been so abrupt when I asked. It made me feel unwelcome. I still want to spend time with you guys, though, and it sounded so idyllic last summer. Can we do All Girls’ Beach Club some weekend?”
If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatshion, fatiquette, self-esteem, or body image, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.