Solidity and sexual availibility

Hi all.

 I am hoping what I post today makes a bit of sense. I am still a bit foggy from the concussion I got from work, albeit much better.

Last week was rather amusing work-wise. I started the week getting kicked in the head by someone, and ended it with someone attempting to kiss me. Such is the joy of working with people who don’t express themselves in the same fashion as the rest of the world has decided is normal.

I have been working with individuals with developmental disabilities, often with co-occurring mental health issues, for 4 years now. I also have a mental health issue. I’m just tossing that out there so I don’t appear callous in any way with whatever I say here. I view myself as having had some of the same frustrations, although at a level of “higher functioning” communication and perhaps cognitvity-wise, than some of the people I have supported. Altogether, the people I have worked with have been so enjoyable and have taught me so much about myself. I have grown immensely as a person in working with the variety of people I have. It’s funny how helping other people has forced me to help myself; in accepting others for all of their foibles I have really come to accept myself in ways I didn’t really think I could.

For instance, for a few years now, I have worked with individuals who display some intense behavioral challenges, which is how I came to have the concussion. That kind of significant injury is pretty rare — at least for me, it has been. One of the things I have really come to appreciate about my body is that it allows me to do the work I have needed to do to support the people I support. My presence, in a certain way, gives off a real firmness. I am a woman who takes up space. Just by showing up, people think twice about hitting me. That, of course, is backed up by personality and training, but my body allows me to feel pretty safe and secure: I am not a person who is going to get hurt or thrown around too easily. I am solid in a very real way.

That safety has translated into my real life. I remember after a particularly long bout of responding to behavioral crises last spring, I came home after a night of one such episode, and some kid was standing on the back porch of my home. As a woman alone, I should have been scared, and retreated back into my car, cell phone in hand. At least that is what we are acculturated to think. I didn’t. I walked right toward him, thinking: What the Fuck is this guy doing on my porch step? I wasn’t scared at all. I thought: I can take this asshole. Turns out he was just passing through. It was the neighbor kid, and I didn’t recognize him in the dark.

The more I trust my body to take care of me, the more I kind of do battle with people, the more I find strength in my size. I have often felt that thinner, I am not nearly as safe. Thinner, I am viewed as more sexually attractive, more available for commentary via street harassment, more pliable to the dominant culture’s perception of how a woman should be.

Over at Sassy Says, there’s a post today about how one of the reasons people are so opposed to accepting bodies of larger sizes is because they are afraid fat people are demanding dominant culture find us sexy, and become sexually attracted to us. Aside from the inherent stupidity in this argument, because it’s idiotic to assume that people can be forced into finding anything sexually attractive (guess what, not everyone finds straight, white skinny people attractive. Did you know that? And the fat people aren’t grossly offended by the notion that we are all supposed to, because the media told us that).

What offends me most about this argument is the assumption that I want anyone to base my worth on my sexual attractiveness. That I would want the same “rights” as dominant, or thin, culture because I would want to somehow be put upon a sexually attractive pedestal and thereby be subjected to the same sexual pressure, harassment, groping, ogling and other crap that women are often subject to.

I am no stranger to sexual harassment. I have faced it at many jobs, beginning at the age of 15. I was harassed by a baker at a summer camp, both for being fat, and for being sexually attractive. It was a mixed message: Fat was bad and shameful, but I was sexually attractive. Somehow they were mutually exclusive. The answer was to find solace in fatness, because I did not want to be noticed by this asshole, disgusting creepy 40-year-old predator who made a game over groping and commenting on the women in the kitchen. I had no power, so I hid in the folds of my body.

As an adult, I have been street harassed, harassed at gas stations, groped at clubs, yelled at for not going home with some guy who detailed the life of the passenger pigeon for me. As a kid I was asked out on dates as a joke because of my fatness. I really don’t want to be involved in anyone thinking about my body sexually in a public forum. It bothers me. I rather enjoy the invisibility I think fatness affords me, because it makes me feel safer. It’s funny, that dichotomy: The hugeness my body has in keeping me safe from violent actions, and the sexual invisibility I want the hugeness my body holds to afford me. Somehow, I want both to exist, and yet I’m not sure they can. I mean, the nature of fatness is its very visibility, right?

Last week, one of the people I support tried to kiss me on the mouth. It’s not the first time someone I have supported has attempted to use my body for their needs. A few clients have attempted to kiss me. I have had my ass grabbed on a number of occasions. One client groped my legs and then masturbated. All of these instances reminded me that I am still viewed as a sexual being, even to a population viewed as more vulnerable than mine. Even to people I am trying to help. The notion of the sexual availability of women extends even into the populations we least expect them to.

It brought me back to a place of feeling unsafe, and sexually available. What a strange place to be, all in one week. My body protected me from significant harm, did me good earlier in the week. It allowed me to keep a parent and social worker and attorney safe from a person who was behaviorally escalated. And yet this same body betrayed me a few days later, appearing soft, and vulnerable and sexually available to another person. Each person was within the same system, and I presented myself with the same professional involvement in each case.

That’s a lot to wrap my mind around. Can this body be strong and fat and solid and able to take kicks to the head while also being sexually available and vulnerable at the same time? Is vulnerable a part of that equation? There’s still a lot for me to ponder there.

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13 Comments

  1. vesta44 said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I don’t think you have much control over how others see you.You can be strong and still appear sexually attractive to some, maybe just because of that strength (it may be your strength that is a turn-on for them). There is no way to know what is sexually attractive to another person until they tell/show you.
    The vulnerability may be more under your control,though. That can be influenced by your reaction to someone finding you sexually attractive because of/in spite of your size/strength. It depends on how vulnerable you feel in a particular situation and how you react to it. These are just my thoughts, YMMV, but it may be food for thought?

  2. thoughtracer said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Yeah, exactly. That’s my issue. I think as a woman, I have really been conditioned to see sexual availability as a weakness. I don’t want to be perceived as something to be lusted after by the general public. I want to feel safe and comfortable to just walk down the street without thinking twice. It’s really bothersome to me, even though I have no control over the general public at large. To me, public perception of sexual availability means you are more likely to be raped, or sexually harassed, or groped by some guy at the store. You can’t just go about your business anonymously, and for me, safely.

    Being fat has been safer for me, because I am less “attractive” to the population at large, or so I have surmised. And so when I have been brought out of that fantasy-land, and have been reminded that there are some people who do still find me sexually available, it’s been quite jarring. And I have to remind myself that it’s not about sexual attraction for those people, it’s about power, about their perceived right and privilege to be making public commentary on women’s bodies, on MY body, in the first place.

  3. Tari said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Thought-provoking post.

    I totally get the strength and solidity thing; I am that chick who walks around the city alone at night and never thinks twice that someone would come at me – I not only make an unappealing victim in terms of vulnerability, but I’m also mean and fight dirty when it comes down to it. So, you know, I’m just not afraid in that way.

    I’ve also never felt particularly invisible, though. I know that’s a part of the “fat experience” for a lot of people, but it hasn’t been mine – sexually or otherwise. I’m the chick who gets cat calls (and I don’t mean the “fat bitch” kind) when walking down the street with my (much thinner) girlfriends. (I chalk all the attention up to the fact that I am loud and obnoxious and laugh like a hyena all the time.)

    I have my own issues around sexual vulnerability, of course, and what’s been helpful for me is getting really good at knowing my own boundaries, and how I’m willing to enforce those boundaries. Of course, living in a patriarchy, this might not change the spectrum of how other people see me and approach me – but it has shifted the impact of those approaches on me, and how I react to them.

    I know it’s a little trickier working with the developmentally disabled, who may or may not have conscious intentions…but I think I would still tie my feelings of safety to my ability to hold good boundaries about appropriate behavior.

    ((I’m not sure this makes any sense, either, but it’s what came up after reading your post.))

  4. thoughtracer said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    It does make sense. I get catcalled quite a bit, too. I just don’t know what to make of it. I lost a bunch of weight at 18-19, and I credit that with learning how to dress. I gained it all back of course, but I still stuck to dressing myself in more flattering clothes (read: clothes that fit properly and are in style), than say, the shit they sell in the JC Penney’s fat section. (Which was worse than what it is now). You know, the floral shit that’s about one step up from a burlap sack. In public, I can have a pretty vivacious personality. Depends on who I am with. It’s funny to me when I get hit on when I am with my sister, who is thinner than me and was the homecoming queen. I am like, Hmm. That’s backwards.

    I have actually never been invisible. I just like to think I am. Like an ostrich. Because it makes me so fucking uncomfortable to be noticed. It’s like, having sexual power is a strange thing. Too much is bad. Not enough is bad. Just enough isn’t possible.

  5. Di said,

    February 18, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    It’s a paradox: we’re taught that our value is in our sexual availability, and that sexual availability causes us to be treated like we’re not valuable. Sex and sexuality is a privilege; I certainly don’t give mine out just because it looks like I’m an easy target.

    I’ve dealt with massive amounts of stupid, too, the highlight of which was the time some kids I worked with at a restaurant got a mildly retarded coworker to call me and ask me out on a date. I was NOT amused, and I felt bad for the kid.

  6. Sass said,

    February 18, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    You’re dead on. Having a large body allows us to operate in some ways completely outside of the standard heteronormative dynamic – then again we are also left open to whatever comments/insults people want to hurl our way. It’s a weird situation to be in, but not necessarily better or worse I suppose.

    And not to make light of a totally fucked up and serious situation, but “Harassed by a Baker” should totally appear on the list of trespasses against fat girls. I want to start a band just so I can make that the name of my album. 😛

  7. Sass said,

    February 18, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Oh yes, and I hope you feel better soon!

  8. thoughtracer said,

    February 18, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Haha! Harassed by a Baker. I didn’t even think of the irony about that in relation to fat girls!

  9. BigLiberty said,

    February 18, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    It has been my experience that, for some men, being fat is a sign of greater sexual availability in and of itself. They assume you’re not getting any, while all the thin chicks have been taken long ago. I think some of them also think that it’s flattering for a fat girl to get noticed, even when the form of address is disgusting. Any notice is good notice when you’re a fat girl, they think, since you’re not getting that, either. Men aren’t lining up to worship your protruding collarbones, so there’s no competition.

    There’s also a perception that fat women are easy, for the same reasons as stated above: we can’t get any, so we’ll take anything. So while they wouldn’t get away with groping/saying nasty things to a slim woman, they can do it to us because we “want it,” and know we can’t get any better. And we won’t have any expectations of a serious relationship, because we know we aren’t worthy of that kind of recognition, even from the lowest of males.

    As with any oppressed class, the privileged class doesn’t believe they have to treat us like human beings, with feelings, likes and dislikes, etc. We’re just disgusting animals and, frankly, we’re lucky if we get any attention at all. We should be ecstatic we’re being groped by some horny freak.

    Am I being extreme here? This doesn’t apply to everyone, certainly, but this is precisely how I was treated in high school (until I lost “the weight,”), and again in college when I was still “unacceptably fat.” I’ve been treated like a sexual object more times than I can count, while my thinner friends were treated with far more respect. Only now has it changed; not before a great deal of abuse and manipulation.

  10. Phledge said,

    February 18, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    It has been my experience that, for some men, being fat is a sign of greater sexual availability in and of itself. They assume you’re not getting any, while all the thin chicks have been taken long ago. I think some of them also think that it’s flattering for a fat girl to get noticed, even when the form of address is disgusting.

    Word. I am quite certain that the person to whom I lost my virginity (at 17) was less about being into fat girls and more about being into easy girls. I look back now and realize that I actually was flattered, was easy–because I had been conditioned by parents, friends, and mass media to believe that I might not ever get laid. Now? Fuck you.

    On the topic of safety, one of the chapters in “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies” discusses fantasizing about being thin, and what the first feeling that comes up is. Mine, far and away, was fear of being sexually assaulted and not being able to fight back; it was definitely less about “oh, now that I’m thin and sexy I’ll be noticed and therefore vulnerable.” Now I am well aware that people of all sizes have had an experience of this, but right now I know I have a false sense of security because I can’t be tossed around easily. Combined with an inherent sense that most people are essentially good and you have a fat woman who doesn’t get scared walking in the barrio at 9 pm on a Saturday night (when I have to, duh). Stupid? Maybe. One thing I do NOT have to try hard to remember is that rape is not about sex–it’s about power, and nothing draws more rage than a woman that isn’t doing what she’s told. I wonder how many of us will be victims because we don’t have the bodies They’ve told us to have.

    Scary stuff.

  11. Bree said,

    February 18, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    I work as an office manager in an apartment complex in a neighborhood that is frequented by drug dealers and gang members. Since I don’t drive, I rely on public transportation to get to and from the office. The bus stop is at a train station, which is a haven for these thugs and other assorted weirdos and winos. So I sit there and wait for the bus along with them. The only times I’ve been approached by men is when they ask for money (presumably to get booze or dope) or older guys passing through on bikes that are just being friendly. I think my fat in a sense, does detract from people messing with me. Not because they think I’m gross and unsexy, but probably because I could put some serious hurt on them. I did run after a 17 year-old suspected gang member and insulted him several months ago for calling me a bitch. Was it stupid? Yeah, but he’s never once attempted to retaliate. Of course, you never know when I will set someone off. I hope that day never comes.

    It is still amazing that in this day and age, rape is still considered a sex crime and women are asking to get raped because of their appearance. I know there are rapists out there who are motivated by getting into a girl’s pants, but those guys are very rare. If you look at rape victims, it is not always the so-called “ideal object of beauty.” A rapist for the most part doesn’t give a rat’s ass if a woman weighs 120 lbs or 320 lbs. And since most rapes are done by men women know, sometimes intimately, it blows that sexist theory right out of the water.

  12. Anna said,

    February 20, 2008 at 6:24 am

    Of course rape is a sex crime (i.e. a form of sexual assault)
    “a statutory offense that provides that it is a crime to knowingly cause another person to engage in an unwanted sexual act by force or threat”
    How does rape not fit this definition?

  13. thoughtracer said,

    February 20, 2008 at 10:27 am

    No,
    I think Bree maybe meant it shouldn’t be classified as a sex crime, bu7t just as a heinous crime, like murder. I don’t know. Maybe Bree could clarify.


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