Take The Cake: Cleavage vs. Fatphobia

I found that de-centering my breasts from my daily routine changed me. And it kind of changed the way I do gender. Image: Virgie Tovar.

Take the Cake: Stories of a Fat Girl in a Skinny World is an ongoing series about living, well, as a fat girl in a skinny world.

My boobs have historically been, like, my best friends with some really fab attributes: cute, good listeners, great at networking.

I was an early developer with a pair of tigols by age 12. They got me grown-man attention from that deacon with a pompadour at church and the bagger at Safeway.

In the suburbs, the kind of awkwardly-erotic tension between a bagger and an outcast, chubby 6th grader with 36Cs can fuel your inner life for, like, months.

As per always, no one at school thought I was a big deal. But outside the halls of Pinole Valley High, I was up-and-coming hot shit.

Growing up, my boobs confirmed my gender identity in a way that almost nothing else in my whole life did. I spent most of my childhood feeling like I inhabited some liminal space between boy and girl — not quite a boy, but definitely not a girl either.


 

I saw my boobs as a way to get me into the secret world of feminine desirability, so I played them like they were my winning hand.


 

I lacked most of the experiences that I felt demarcated femininity — I couldn’t wear dainty dresses because none of them fit me, the boy I had a crush on punched me in the arm once because I made him mad (and that was clearly not the delicate-flower treatment I saw “real girls” receive, fuck you, Ashneil Ramen), and, finally, the other girls at school expected me to play Logan all the time when we reenacted scenes from The Baby-Sitters Club.

Honestly, my boobs did more than confirm my gender identity: They were my armor. For years and years, my idea of a good day was one that included 5-7 inches of visible cleavage. With each inch of cleavage I made a bigger and bigger declaration that I couldn’t be shut out of the culture because, hey, I’d given someone who mattered a boner. My boobs not only made me feel sexy and powerful, but also safe and, like, real.

They were undeniable evidence that I existed, that I could affect the trajectory of events.

I saw my boobs as a way to get me into the secret world of feminine desirability, so I played them like they were my winning hand. I created an entire story about my sexuality that centered my breasts, because they felt like the only normal — or maybe extraordinary — thing about my body. I think I hoped that I could use them to get some precious ween (obvi), but also to get more.

I had been taught that being fat rendered me undesirable, but the fat on my chest was the exception to that rule. It felt like my boobs allowed me to hack fatphobia, somehow. I wanted to create opportunities for my dates to have plausible deniability in the face of any accusations of fat fetishism, because my breasts were their “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

This got what we might call “mixed results.”

Emboldened by Ye Olde Tatas, I confidently pursued people — but I had so thoroughly internalized my own dehumanization that I didn’t know how to deal with their desire to love me or see me.

I don’t think I even knew how to want that. Shit, why am I talking about that like it’s in the past? I’m still working through that right now.

Years later, I entered a relationship that at its initiation was stiflingly respectability-oriented. He gently tsk’d my insistence upon wearing super-tight wrap-around dresses to all of our social outings, lauded the “mystery” of that elusive hint of cleavage over my bullhorn boobies approach.


 

Insofar as the culture wants to see a fat activist, I am expected to be cute, friendly, desirable, and feminine — because all of these things are interpreted as ways of saying “I’m not a threat to the fundamental systems that oppress me.”


 

 

I hated his bullshit, but my desire to make the relationship work by accommodating him had a paradoxical effect: It gave me this weird freedom not to use my boobs the way I always had.

I’m not saying “misogyny has its upsides!” I’m saying that, just as before, I took in this fucked-up information and made it work for me: I played it.

And then something else happened: I found that de-centering my breasts from my daily routine changed me. And it kind of changed the way I do gender.

My desire to present as superlatively feminine all the time has waned a whole lot. And it scares me a little.

I fret that the curve of my eyeliner doesn't thrill me the way it used to, the way the choice between skirt and pants doesn't feel like the difference between life and death — good day, bad day — anymore.

My fading interest seems to threaten something bigger, perhaps especially because I’m a fat activist. I feel like, insofar as the culture wants to see a fat activist, I am expected to be cute, friendly, desirable, and feminine — because all of these things are interpreted as ways of saying “I’m not a threat to the fundamental systems that oppress me.”

My relationship to my boobs will continue to change over time. It’s not like our friendship has turned icy or anything.

However, like the relationship I have with the rest of my body, I wrestle to make it truly my own in a culture that seeks to wrench it from me at every turn.

I don’t care whether I return to the cleavage-baring days or decide that the buttoned-up version is my preference.

It’s not like I have to choose, but I just want to get to a point where I don’t disassociatively use parts of my body to get the substantive things that no amount of cleavage could ever give me.

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