Those of us beyond a certain size have all heard at one point or another: "You're pretty, for a fat girl."
Unfortunately, a 17-year-old heard it from the judge presiding over a trial last year in Montreal in which a 49-year-old taxi driver was found guilty of sexually assaulting her.
"It can be said that she is a little overweight, but she has a pretty face, huh?" said Judge Jean-Paul Braun.
The judge continued, suggesting that the teen was "flattered" because it could've been the first time a man expressed interest in her.
Cue heavy sighs from women everywhere — particularly fat women, myself included. Rightly so, Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee called the judge's comments "unacceptable" and filed a formal complaint.
The message is clear: Our bodies are open to prescription, ridicule, lecturing and pity. We're so far removed from the public narrative around issues of assault and harassment that if someone shows a sign to the contrary — take what you can get. Take it as a compliment.
Sexual harassment and assault are not compliments to anyone, especially those who don't fit the normative definition of attractive.
Many accused of sexual misconduct have leaped to using the size of their accusers as some type of defense. It's been ingrained into the culture — breeding fatphobia and other biases against people based on their size.
After every new case, experts remind us that sexual assault is about power, not physical desirability or the sexual acts themselves. Still we hear stories of some survivors purposefully gaining weight and avoiding makeup or wearing fitted clothing to make themselves "less desirable."
Sierria Coleman, a licensed professional counselor with Urban Balance, says she often sees this cultural blind spot reflected in the experiences of women she treats. "Implicit biases" against fat women — already seen as victims of their own "weakness," "laziness" or even "dirtiness" — often negate feelings of empathy toward their experiences.
In November, when actress Rebel Wilson took to Twitter to discuss harassment she had witnessed, she was met with tweets that read: "has a fork lift ever sexually assaulted you? nows the time to come forward," (which has since been deleted). And, "don't ever pretend to be some strong women for a cause. Your not even strong enough to show will power when it comes to a healthy diet & exercise. U R no more then a 15min fame actor anyway."
Coleman explained that some women "internalize the false narrative of 'If I look a certain way, I won't get unwanted attention from men.'" She said, "It's misogyny, and it's what's been fed to them, whether they're consciously taking part in it or not."
This is dangerous, not only to a woman's self-worth and self-esteem, but because it adds another layer of doubt and disbelief the public can use to shame women who come forward with their stories of harassment and assault. It also raises the self-blame game another notch.
This "othering," as Coleman refers to it, has a lasting impact and brings its own stereotypes, levels of trolling and faux health concerns, in addition to those that already swirl around survivors after they share their experiences.
Because women's worthiness is often tied to their sexuality and image, there's more at stake.
"It has been brought to my attention/ by the man with all the answers/ that I am too fat to be raped," said Beck Cooper, a New Orleans-based slam poet and spoken word artist, in her performance piece "Rape Prevention Potluck."
The poem continues, "Said no one would dare lie with me in all my morbidity/ So if a man donates his body to the inside of mine/ I should just be grateful/ Said I could smother any man underneath my fat folds/ So if a man doesn't make it out of me alive, I must have consented/ Fat girls are all green light."
Cooper, whose work on womanhood, body positivity and queer identity has been featured on Upworthy, Everyday Feminism and All Def Poetry, emphasizes that this idea of feeling complimented by unsolicited advances if you're beyond a normative size manifests itself in women very early on.
"It insidiously became something I was jealous of happening to other people," she says of how expressions of harassment and assault muddied ideas around her own self-worth and agency. "Not rape, but being harassed or being catcalled. Now that I'm older, I have the words to explain that they were being victimized; but growing up it was like being chosen. I didn't have the feeling of 'Oh, what a pig!' I had a feeling of, 'Oh, that doesn't happen to me,' and that's sick."
So when I was 'chosen,' when I was assaulted, that was something I was lucky to experience, because I'm fat and I'm not worthy. Like it was a gift — that sort of thinking."
There is no rule about who gets assaulted, nor is there one about who gets believed. But Cooper and others who have come forward are continually met by people eager to challenge their truths.
If #MeToo is supposedly this "cultural shift" everyone's claiming, the conversations around who gets heard, who gets to heal and whose or which cultures are actually shifting still have a long way to go. Both Coleman and Cooper agree that to really make a lasting impact, people who don't fit the mainstream narrative or idea of what a survivor looks like need to be included.
"There are a lot of myths around sexual assault and rape that keep certain identities and body shapes marginalized even further and keep their voices silent," Cooper said. "The image of the conventionally attractive, white female being raped violently in an alley is the predominant social conception of what rape is — which leaves out all of these other women and people who have experienced it."
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.