I was early to Metro North Stamford line, sitting in an empty train car, munching on Doritos-like bean chips. Another woman — younger, thinner, blond, manicured — boarded the train and sat across the aisle from me, and I was immediately self-conscious. I glanced up and read disgust and contempt in her expression, though later I concluded that it was just RBF (Resting Bitch Face) … or as I prefer to call it, NYC (New York Commuter) Face.
I knew with absolute certainty that her look was about my bag of chips — the crunch, the flavor dotting the lapels of my coat, the little bits, broken off while that chips jostled in my purse, that I was now greedily shoveling into my gaping mouth. I put down the bag of chips, brushed the crumbs off my lapels, and thought about just throwing away those last little pieces in the bottom of the bag. Then, deliberately, I reached into the bag again.
I know what you’re thinking. This is satire; I’m exaggerating my reaction to make a point. I’m not. It’s literally true that, as I began to lick the flavor from my fingers, I thought of the infamous words of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi on a recent Freakonomics podcast:
“As you watch a lot of the young guys eat the chips, they love their Doritos, and they lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth, because they don’t want to lose that taste. Women I think would love to do the same, but they don’t. They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth … and how can you put it in a purse?”
Here’s the thing. Sexist as Nooyi’s descriptions are, she’s not wrong. As a plus-sized female professional, I’m worried about all of these things, and people do judge women for these superficial traits. What’s wrong is not the concern Nooyi identifies, but rather the solution she proposes.
Taking away my crunch is not the answer. Reducing the judgement is the greater need, shifting societal expectations. That may not be a solution the corporate snack food behemoth can, would or should take on, but with #metoo and #timesup bringing the spotlight to women’s issues in a big way, there’s never been a better time to talk about it.
All my life I’ve been loud. I grew up in the country where I could yell as loud as I wanted and no one could hear me except my hippie feminist backpacking mother and my even louder siblings. My mother and women like her were my Girl Scout leaders, too, and so most of my childhood friends were equally uninhibited country kids. As an adult, my voice is always too loud, my footsteps too heavy. I yell on the phone. I can’t tell you a secret because I literally don’t know how to whisper. My opinions are definitely too loud!
My voice always projects to the far corners of the classroom and as a student and a teacher, I’ve never understood why everyone else won’t do the same. I’ve never mastered that technique of classroom management where you speak quietly and the kids shut up so they can hear you … in part because I after a decade of teaching, I still struggle to convince myself that students like or respect me enough to care what I have to say.
Used to the wide-open spaces of dairy country, I’ve also always occupied a lot of physical space, too. I feel like a bag lady most days on the New York subway, my book bag chronically overfilled, careening wildly into others. I never sit beside anyone, because I know my ass will overflow into the seats beside me, and I feel like I should allow others the opportunity to consent to my invasion of their personal space. Conversely, I feel every encroachment of my own personal space as a rebuke — how dare I take up so much room in the world?
I know it’s all a social construct. I know that fatphobia and misogyny and all the other ways we judge each other are socialized into us from the stroller. “Oh, what a cute little girl! What a pretty dress! Don’t worry—in a few more years, she’ll grow out of that baby fat!” I understand that these judgements about myself are in my own head far more often than others are likely thinking them, and as Dr. Seuss may have said, “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
The thing is, I’m actually not that big of a woman. Five-four and size sixteen is exactly average for the American woman, not that you would know it from American advertising or see it on the rack at your typical clothing store. I have flat feet and I’d be stronger and more flexible if I worked out, but I walk five miles a day and I’m mostly healthy at the size that I am, not that you would know it from the Internet. I know I don’t need to feel so insecure.
And yet, as I’m happily munching away at a delicious snack that sticks to my fingers and will make me gassy in about three hours, a tall, blond woman steps out of a Prada advertisement and onto my train car. All the rationalizations underpinning my confidence collapse into the mud of self-doubt. In three seconds flat, I’m an insecure fat woman loudly pigging out on chips and taking up too much space in an empty train car.
The solution, though, is not quieter chips or a smaller shoulder bag.
The answer I can control best is internal, to become more confident in who I am.
I’ve surrounded myself with people who appreciate me. My very stylish Southern roommate thinks I’m pretty. My partner seems surprised that I’m ashamed of the dozen hairs I call my beard, and thinks waxing my legs is unnecessary torture. I have work that’s intellectually rewarding, friends who seek me out for answers to complicated questions, and my writers’ group swears they would fall apart without me to lead them.
I’m finding a style that make me feel like the professional I want to be seen as. Wide-leg pants, long shirts and longer cardigans give me confidence, which is almost beauty, and I keep buying progressively smaller shoulder bags that hold less stuff to thwack into other commuters. I start the morning staring in the full-length bathroom mirror thinking, “Does this outfit make my belly stick out? Does it hide the fat rolls down my back?” Nevertheless, most days I feel pretty good about myself by the time I’m on the train into the city.
This hasn’t been an easy journey, though I know it’s been far easier than for many other women. I’ve never struggled with yo-yo dieting and eating disorders. My family’s support and financial stability means I’ve never had to rely on an abusive partner for housing or validation. I’ve never been fat-shamed by a doctor or a parent, only by my peers and the occasional stranger, like the guy once in Brooklyn, twice my size, who yelled out as I passed, “You’d be pretty if you weren’t so fat!” I understand in my brain that their bullying is just a reflection of their own insecurities, even in the same moment that my body shrinks into itself and my hands start to tremble.
At the same time, it’s a constant, never-ending battle, a constant vicious cycle of comparing myself to every slick, slim woman on the subway—both the real women standing beside me and the airbrushed women in advertisements on the walls. Changing my internal dialogue, as difficult as it can be, is just one finger in the dyke. It can’t stop the flood.
If Nooyi really wants to do something for women like me, the real solution, the lasting solution is to break that vicious cycle.
Of course, that isn’t Nooyi’s job and wasn’t her point. Her job is to make money for PepsiCo’s investors, by any means necessary. It’s true that Dove, Target, Levi’s, Tim Gunn and “Project Runway,” “This Is Us,” even the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition have made plenty of money by meaningfully including larger women. Women are writing growing numbers of romance novels with plus-sized protagonists, and other women are buying them en masse. I love that Maya from that Latuda advertisement looks like she’s at least a size 10, and she’s not the only woman of her size selling medication on television. I also hate that “she’s at least a size 10” is such a salient selling point for me, that it leaps off the screen for me because it’s so unusual.
I don’t think a body-positivity advertising blitz from a snack food company is the answer to our societal discourse on size, volume and femininity. Dove’s campaign isn’t the whole answer, either, though it has sparked a lot of important conversation. The profit motive will always come before any real desire for social change, which has to come from consumers, not from producers.
We need to change the way we talk about our bodies in front of our peers and our children, perhaps especially the youngest ones, because by kindergarten we’ve already internalized a cultural expectations of “fat is bad and morally deficient.” Doctors need to check their impulses to say, “maybe if you lost some weight…” when they would take the same symptoms more seriously—do more blood tests and diagnostic scans—for a thinner woman or a man with the same BMI. We need holistic sexuality education that addresses the ways we objectify and stigmatize people in our dating pool over superficial numbers and aesthetics that have no bearing on our pleasure.
In the book Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reveals that surprisingly high percentages of men actually prefer a woman my size to a Prada model, in both their Google searches and their porn consumption. He also found, however, that parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my daughter overweight?” as “Is my son overweight?” That’s despite findings that a significantly higher percentage of boys actually are overweight. Parents are also far more likely to worry that their daughter is beautiful, but more likely to Google “Is my son gifted?” Stephens-Davidowitz’s results tell me that even in the privacy of our homes, shrouded in the anonymity of the Internet, we’re lying to ourselves about what’s really important.
I don’t know what the solution is. I’m not a parent, and I don’t teach children anymore, either. I don’t have the platform of Roxane Gay or Ashley Graham, but I do try to be the aunt who recommends and gives as gifts children’s books about intellectual women, people of color, a gay Black Santa, families with disabilities and being brave and independent. I try to police the way I think about myself, and I’m struggling to reduce superficial compliments like “I love your scarf” as my first utterance when I meet other women. It’s still fingers in the dyke, but if I put my finger in one hole, and my brother puts his in another, and my cousins, and my roommate, and the people on my Facebook feed, then maybe we might start to see a change.
I don’t have many answers, but I know that Lady Doritos isn’t one of them.