Hi! I’m a new blogger. Let’s jump right in.
So last year I was lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to live and work in Fiji for a year. Naturally I jumped at the chance, but now after returning home I have the time and the inclination to start stepping up more in my social justice involvement. I specifically wanted to share some of my Fijian experiences because so many of the issues faced by Western fat people come from the culture that we’re steeped in, and it was a really interesting time to go and live in another culture that has some different nuances to weight.
But first some stuff about me. Aside from being the sort of person who jumps at a chance to move to a third world country (when I’m feeling cynical I think they refer to these countries as ‘developing’ because of all the stomach bugs, skin infections and other health problems I ‘developed’ while I was there, but that’s a topic for another post). I’m a cissexual heterosexual late-twenties woman, classically educated, fat, and extremely white. As in hey-I-wonder-if-any-of-these-freckles-will-turn-cancerous, reflective WHITE. And of course my attractiveness in the Pacific was entwined with my whiteness from a colonialist fair-is-good and white-people-have-money sort of thing. But what I really want to talk about today is the experience of fatness.
First of all: DO NOT MOVE TO FIJI UNLESS TALKING ABOUT WEIGHT IS DESCRIPTIVE FOR YOU, NOT OFFENSIVE.
Fijians are the world’s best observational comedians in training. If they’ve observed something, they want to tell you about it. Not necessarily with any commentary, just that they’ve noticed it. I’ve had people approach me to tell me their cousin saw me in the street wearing a red shirt and talking to a guy drinking a coke. No judgement, no story, just the observation. But when it comes to observing weight, Fijians are on it faster than your Aunt Francis. “Hello, you’ve put on weight/lost weight!”
It’s kind of strange, because Fiji has over recent years absorbed a lot of the health messages around weight (there is a lot of diabetes there) as well as cultural messages from the West – so comments on weight loss are often quite complimentary. But then again, comments on weight gain are often quite complimentary too, as I’ve been told gaining weight is a sign that you are happy. At least this is what I was told when my boss was confused about how his “compliment” of weight gain to my thin Australian co-worker didn’t go down as planned. I’m not sure whether a Fijian would mean it in a complimentary for me, seeing how I’m already fat. But it is refreshing to have gaining weight not be completely stigmatised, just as an observational point.
But even if someone only meets you once and therefore can make no comment on any weight change, commenting on your weight is pretty normal. I’ve had a lot of taxi drivers comment on my weight when I got in the cab – and then about half of them would go on to hit on me, so they can’t mean it too insultingly – and one masseuse who slapped me on the thigh as soon as she saw me and exclaimed “You are big! Like Fijian girl!”
(She also went on to tell me how I could seduce boys by telling them “Try me: we won’t need a mattress.” I haven’t tried that out yet but I’ll be sure to let you know if it works).
There is this strange inverted privilege that goes on about being objectified. Understandably (and rightly so!) many people don’t enjoy having all their wonderful human complexity squished down into existing simply for someone else’s sexual pleasure. However for those of us who live on the edges of the Attractiveness Spectrum, I know there have been times when I’ve wanted to get eye-stabby on friends or acquaintances who complained of being objectified whilst I’ve been struggling with sexual invisibility.
Do we all remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s comments on her experiences wearing a fat suit for her role in ‘Shallow Hal’? “People wouldn’t even look at me, wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. I felt no sexual energy from men [on the set]. Normally, in the film, I have all these tiny little clothes on, but when I come to the set with the suit on and feel none of that, it is palpable.” Swinging between two extremes is definitely a strange experience.
Having an actual lived experience of being in a country with different definitions of beauty hasn’t been dizzying or ego-inflating (I usually have a very healthy ego: any difficulty fitting through doors is fully attributable to the size of my head, not the size of my butt). What it has been is a very refreshing reminder of how culturally constructed beauty is. I got hit on there about 400% more than I do at home, without changing anything about myself. I’m sure it’ll be a good thing to remember once I start hitting the Australian dance floor again.