Taking up Space
My pants are falling off. Again.
I hitch them up and make a note of this development.
I lost weight this year. This is neither a humble brag or a sickness story. I intentionally lost weight, though it wasn’t until my husband was in the hospital that I realized it was possible. Okay, it’s tangentially a sickness story, but not mine.
I mostly did it because my clothes were getting tight and I hate shopping. None of my swimsuits, that I’d been accumulating from my sister’s castoffs and sales over two decades, fit and I couldn’t figure out how to purchase a new one for my new body. I maintain that every body is a beach body if it finds its way to a beach, but my suddenly-supersized chest was not a triangle-bra pair of boobs. It looked like I’d sewn pasties to string. It was ridiculous.
Friends with more experience taking up space suggested one-piece suits, suits with built-in skirts, suits with shorts, suits with dark colors, and suits with strange “slimming” technology. Instagram was convinced I needed a “retro” suit from one of at least 45 drop shippers with a high waist and polka dots. I spent about fifty dollars on a bunch of suits from a cheap Chinese brand with the idea that even if the suit was too cheaply made to wear, I’d get an idea of what kind of style would work on my new body. I only chose suits that had reviews with pictures of people I thought looked similar to me and who claimed to have ordered the size that corresponded with most of my measurements on a chart. (Size charts are baffling and the review claims only made it worse.)
High-waisted, it turns out, looked awful and was worse if the cut on the sides or in the back was high. The one-piece had a junior-high wrestling vibe because no one in the Chinese factory was expecting a torso as long as mine. Seriously, I’m at least two-thirds torso. My rib cage and hip bones used to call each other long distance.
Which is also why most of the retro dresses I’d bought because other busty gals seemed to look great in them looked like I’d stolen my wardrobe from a pre-teen. The waist, that is supposed to sit at one’s actual waist, tends to sit around my bra strap, so a giant poof of a skirt floats out like a 70s-era maternity shirt. My fitted, sheath-style dresses looked equally asinine because the extra material that used to hide the fact that the curve of the hips stuck out at my waist got taken up by my new fat. Other women my size somehow looked curvy and vivacious. Women bigger than me looked sexy and voluptuous. I looked like I’d been given five minutes with a lost-and-found bin to get ready.
On the other hand, I took up space. When in jeans and tops that fit, I felt more confident, more present, less likely to be ignored or run over with a shopping cart. I’d never taken up space before and it felt pretty good. I felt more grown up. I felt adult sized.
I’d grown used to slipping between the cracks of the world and being somewhat invisible. I say somewhat only because it seems absurd to say that a woman who is easily six feet tall in most heels is invisible, but I was run into, skipped over, and ignored in ways that made me feel like a ghost in the world.
A lifelong wallflower, I found myself (before the pandemic) doing things my slimmer self would have never done, like standing up in a restaurant during a holiday luncheon to bark out instructions for a gift exchange. I felt bold. I felt seen.
Who gets seen and who doesn’t is complicated. And for many people, carrying weight makes them less seen. Doctors ignore symptoms or chalk them up to “weight.” Hiring managers can be less likely to hire them. Clothing brands tend to either lack sizing or anything worth buying. My friend tells me too many men see her only as a fetish rather than a person. At the same time, they can be targeted for more harassment and unwanted advice.
Women of all sizes have to balance being “seen” by doctors, certain industries, and voters with the harassment, bullying, and danger that comes with attention. Trans women, women of color, and women with disabilities have an even greater challenge keeping this need to be visible in society from slipping over the razor-thin margin into trauma and disaster.
For years, being invisible felt safe. As I approached 40, fewer people shouted lewd comments from passing cars and moving through the world felt easier. Gaining weight made me feel more substantial, more capable of throwing a punch (or a person), and training for the most recent black belt test bore that out. I was slower, but I could suddenly pick up training partners I hadn’t been able to the first time we took the test.
Invisible might feel safe, but it doesn’t sell merch, it doesn’t land jobs, it doesn’t make friends, and it doesn’t — ultimately — work. For any of us.
A convention controversy a few weeks back made some of that invisibility feel more noticeable. Who gets to take up space and who gets to command respect aren’t new topics, especially in the past few years. And in some ways, what I found myself witnessing broke down across predictable lines. Marginalized voices, whether because of their race, gender identity, publishing status, bank account, disability, age, region, etc., haven’t always been heard. That particular day, which social media platform certain people gravitated toward ended up being as divisive as anything else.
Conventions, while geared toward specific interests from comics to parking meters (yes, I once attending a parking convention), are also a microcosm of society. Who gets heard and seen often plays out the same power structures and biases we see elsewhere. Who takes up space is often pre-determined by the same factors that determine who gets seen everywhere else.
An organization run by volunteers is an organization where control is most often in the hands of those with a certain degree of financial freedom (because they can take time off work, hire people to tend to things they would otherwise do, or not need to work long hours or multiple jobs) and personal freedom (such as a lack of family commitments, a working car, etc.). They might also be free of disabilities that hamper movement, decrease energy available for extra activities, or anxiety that interferes with meetings and phone calls. Are there people who overcome these obstacles to volunteer for things they are passionate about? Yes. Absolutely. And I am not suggesting it’s impossible. What I am saying is that when there are barriers to entry, assuming someone cares less because they aren’t overcoming those barriers is absurd. When those barriers are different for different people, making assumptions about their level of care or commitment is disingenuous at best.
If the people running an organization have large bank accounts, no children at home, the benefit of the doubt when booking things, and the voice in their peer group, they are less likely to understand the perspectives of those without their privileges. Someone who experiences racism when trying to book an event isn’t failing but being failed by society. Someone who has to prioritize child care or a job over planning an event isn’t saying the organization doesn’t matter, but that other things matter more.
I recently saw a quote saying that it’s not that there are no women in STEM because women aren’t interested but because so many get pushed out. The same idea applies to non-white and non-cis as much as it does to women. Pushing people out isn’t always direct and obvious. When people feel invisible, unwanted, unheard, unseen, they often leave. And when enough leave, it looks like they aren’t interested. It looks like they don’t care.
An industry run on the backs of poorly-paid people in a hugely-expensive city also self-selects a workforce that is largely white and well-enough-monied to have expensive degrees, expensive clothes and indoor plumbing while making minimum wage and dreaming expensive dreams. I am hardly the first person to point out that this group ends up making mistakes from its unnoticed biases. People far more eloquent than I could hope to be have written about publishing’s mis-steps with regard to equality. Books that reinforce member’s stereotypes are often chosen over those that don’t and in an effort to promote “authenticity” some authors have felt outed or misrepresented.
Being seen sometimes comes with a cost.
Not being seen comes with a cost, too.
Before Covid-19, people in a variety of industries would extoll the virtues of networking. Which, of course, is the primary purpose of a lot of conventions and conferences. Seeing others and being seen. Not being able to attend or being invisible once there can mean limitations on opportunities. When organizations see individuals as tokens rather than people, those they represent lose opportunities.
As I hitch up my pants again, I notice my recent shoe choices. An odd segue perhaps, but there’s a message about taking up space in there.
My heavier self (and I intentionally avoid the term “fat” here because while I might refer to myself 35-pounds ago as “fat,” I was not even what Roxane Gay calls “Lane Bryant fat”) preferred flats and low heels. My heavier self also managed to sprain both ankles in back-to-back months. Somehow while I was running (slowly) to fit back into my pants and shorts, I strengthened my bum knee and weak ankles. Suddenly, spiky stilettos I haven’t been able to wear for years are almost comfortable. For the first time in decades, I can walk a few miles in heels and not feel like my left ankle bones are rubbing together.
And I find myself wanting to wear heels more. I want to take up space. I want to be visible. I want that feeling of being weighted again — without having to buy new pants. I still hate shopping.