I had an interesting exchange with my godsister yesterday. I sent her a photo of an outfit I was wearing and she commented that she loved the outfit and that I was looking skinny. I told her no I wasn’t, it was a facade and she said “ugh okay whatever” obviously annoyed at my inability to “take the compliment.” Here’s the thing though, why is looking skinny a compliment?
Granted, my reaction was steeped in fat-positive and fat studies material swirling around in my head that has inherently made me question so much about internalized fat bias and thin-normative comments/microaggressions that my knee-jerk reaction was perhaps a bit unfair. Rather than jump on a soapbox, I ended up just saying thank you, but I took to social media to detail the exchange.
It was harmless, right? She was just trying to be nice? It was a compliment, right? But why was it a compliment, that is the bigger question. If, being a black woman someone saw a photo of me and said, “Wow you look so pretty and white in that photo.” Would it still feel harmless? Would it still be nice? Would it still be a compliment?
Some will argue saying that I cannot equate fat-ness with race or gender or sexuality. That one is a choice that you can change. Remember how once upon a time that was the exact same discourse we had for the gay lesbian bi- trans (gender/sexual) community? And I get it. People feel exhausted by social justice. People feel it stifles them and makes it hard to connect because we have to be so careful with our words, our thoughts, our language. We try so hard not to offend or isolate. I sincerely think that people in general are good. We want to do good and we have good intentions.
Social justice or the point of bringing attention to social injustices is not to overwhelm you or stifle or sever us. It is to say, hey we are all different in certain ways. Be sensitive to me and my differences and allow me to be sensitive to yours. Understand that though my physical attributes tell a cultural story that story is not the entirety of my being. Social justice says ask. Social justice says empathize. Social justice says think. Social justice asks for intention. Social justice champions difference, but let it be known that just because we are all different (and even our differences are different) that we all have access to the full range of human emotion, that we all have the capacity for compassion.
I hold all of that. I hold the piece of understanding the context my sister sits in: a society, a world, a time where thin is the given ideal. However, thin is not my chosen ideal. And in that moment the two were dissonant and caused a type of friction. And that is okay. Because social justice was the space I had to disagree and the mediums I am allowed to explain exactly why.
I love my sis and she loves me. I understand that. And I did explain to her where I was coming from with my “inability to take the compliment.” I don’t know if she heard me but she listened. That, I think, is the beginning. Listening to a story that is not your own as if it has value, because it does. The work or “the work” is iterative. It is never-ending and it is dubious that we ever really live in a world that is entirely socially just. However, that is not permission to stop the fight because 50% is more than 40 and both are better than 0.