We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
Culture
  |  
Gender + Sexuality

How to Be Seen and Unseen at the Same Time

Vancouver rain is cold and invasive. As a fat person, I prefer it to the people anyway.

Rabbit Richards 3 Mar 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Rabbit Richards is learning how to exist on stolen land in a marginalized body. They serve as the chairperson of the Anti-Oppression Committee for the board of Spoken Word Canada and as accessibility co-ordinator for Verses Festival of Words. They make their home in Lek’leki, Downtown Eastside Vancouver.

[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from BIG: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies edited by Christina Myers. Republished with permission from Caitlin Press.]

I’m walking up Main from Alexander to the SkyTrain station to go stare at the water behind Science World. The tops of the mountains are cloaked in fog. The seagulls are bleating like goats, fighting over bits of bread cast from upper-storey windows. The air is warm but the rain is cold and the dissonance makes me want blankets and tea, but at least when it rains you don’t smell as much of what’s being washed away.

I don’t romanticize petrichor the way I see other poets do, although it is a good smell. It’s just that in the Downtown Eastside rain is more cover noise and garden hose, less idyllic concept. I’m new to Skwxwú7mesh and still haven’t figured out appropriate rain gear. Mostly I wear soft hoodies, let them get soaked through and have several stages of drying clothes hanging on a line in my apartment.

I’ve had one raincoat in my life that I loved, and it was when I was about six-years-old. It was reversible: a lavender slicker on one side and the textured side featuring the signature floral print from Bonwit Teller. I wore it until it was so small on me that it pinched the flesh on the insides of my armpits, even in the summer with just a thin cotton shirt underneath. The hood was big enough for my fluffy hair, and I felt like Fashion in it because it came from the same store Katharine Hepburn shopped at in Desk Set.

Never mind that the store had lost a lot of its glamour between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the 1980s. Donald Trump had that effect on many things in my city, and Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Sixth Street was a place my mother took me, to get coffee (for her) and to disappear in racks of luxurious leather goods and diaphanous scarves that cost the same as our car (for me). She was always careful to tell me to use the good bathrooms but make eye contact with no one unless it was direct. If I ever saw “the Donald” in the hallways I was to make myself invisible and come straight back to her.

Thinking about that raincoat always makes me feel like I’ve grown too big for my bones. Last year I bought a winter coat from Torrid, mail order from the States. I was shocked at its quality, because clothes my size are almost always flimsy and poorly constructed. (The buttons keep falling off, but in this economy, who expected otherwise?) I did have one good coat when I was living in Kelowna a decade ago, but at the time I had much different supports, and my body, while still considered “plus-sized,” fit in the largest size they made at Cleo.

I told everyone that was the first coat I ever had that made me feel feminine, but it was also the first coat I ever had that fit, at least since that little lavender raincoat. And it made me feel invisible in good ways. Like I could blend in. I didn’t cut the size tag off, as I often do so that when the coat is hanging on a hook anonymously I don’t have to hear skinny people tittering about how stressful it would be if they ever owned anything with that many Xs on it.

***

People jostle for place at Main and Hastings, and I am keenly aware of how much space I need to slip between people who are standing mostly still but who also weave unexpectedly through the streets. I get stopped a lot because I wear my hair in brightly coloured box braids. I don’t always love the attention, but it does mitigate some of the ways people look at me. I can see the irritation on their faces before they switch to some variation of OMG YOUR HAIR IS AMAAAAAAZING, and to be honest it’s not the worst way I’ve distracted people from being annoyed at my physical presence.

When I grew from a sickly child to an unhealthy teen, my body changed from boyish to mannish, with the sole exception of enormous breasts. (I was using she/her pronouns then, and no one in my life had been made to question this.) Being seen as an object of desire in a game that wasn’t just about power was very disconcerting to me, but I also really liked being seen as feminine. It’s a tricky line, being the biggest girl on the gymnastics team. Being “big and strong” was like stealing attributes from someone else’s character sheet. Being stared at for my chest seemed like a dangerous way to finally be seen as something other than the sick weird kid in the corner. Being became difficult in a new way.

I’ve seen a photo of myself at age fourteen, all elbows and knees and a plastified smile. I remember feeling fat the day the picture was taken. I remember feeling fat always. I don’t know where the photo had been buried, but when I pulled it out of my mother’s bureau drawer, tears came immediately. I was so thin you could see the shapes of my long bones. I had a swollen belly because my digestion was so messed up. I could look at the face of that child and know it was me, even as I remembered that the morning of that day I had wanted to choose different clothes and my mother had overruled me.

Remembered wanting simultaneously to disappear and to be a star. To be seen and to be left alone. It rained that day, too. I think I wore a t-shirt and pretended I didn’t care.

There was a long succession of hand-me-down jackets and outerwear, most of which came from the men in my family. I have broad shoulders, which I am told helps me look more “balanced,” but that means none of the women in my family have clothes I can borrow. (I know there is no way I am the only non-binary person in my family, but I’m the only one I know of. Not so much invisible as hypervisible, like everywhere else.)

In college I wore anything I could afford from the men’s section of Old Navy or H&M. I was lucky enough to live in Brooklyn near Kings Plaza mall, one of the few that housed plus-size sections in the department stores and where I could actually try clothes on instead of waiting for them to arrive in the mail. People complimented my style, but what they mostly meant was that I was doing a good job of fitting sideways into compartments not created for me.

***

They put a community garden under the Georgia Viaduct. On wet days it smells of mulch and weeds. I’ve seen the occasional squash leaf in there, but usually the boxes of earth look empty and sad. I think a lot about planting there, but would I trust to eat the food that came from it? And isn’t the lack of green — both vegetables and spaces — carefully planned out? The cars speed through that section of Main Street and it’s a dangerous intersection for pedestrians. My understanding is that the only reason the viaduct isn’t farther north is down to community organizing in Chinatown. Vancouver decided to erase the black neighbourhood instead. If you know who to ask or how to see it, there are bits and pieces of history everywhere.

There’s someone in the garden today, but it’s hard to tell if it’s someone who’s there to garden or someone who’s there to touch soil for a moment or someone who’s there because there aren’t a lot of places to be that don’t feel like you shouldn’t be there at all.

***

I don’t bother taking a bus up to Main Street-Science World. It’s always crowded in the stretch up to the station, and I need to sit down but don’t “look” disabled. I’d rather walk and be wet and tired than explain that, while I don’t seem frail or like I might waste away, I am fragile and need care. Fat people aren’t afforded care. Fat people are judged morally for existing in our bodies, and then snubbed because our relative health is our own responsibility and has nothing to do with consumer capitalism or a childhood soaked in stress hormones.

Fat black people are supposed to know their place and disappear. Fat neurodivergent people are in the way. Fat Jewish people don’t exist. I’m aware of the ways oppression intersects over my head and creates a grid of lasers I don’t fit in. I can walk instead. Lucky me. Today. On days when I’m not able to walk, I get to face drivers who look at me disappointedly or refuse outright when I ask for the bus to kneel.

Under the station, I dip round the corner to the Tim’s. Like my mom, I prefer my coffee piping hot, preferably black. She taught me to order a larger-sized coffee than I actually want to drink, so it stays hot in the cup longer. This was especially useful when we were getting the coffee on the way home from the city, to take the long express bus ride back home to Canarsie. Cold coffee comforts no one and doesn’t really accompany stashed salami sandwiches very well.

But now I order coffee in front of thin white hipster women, and I wonder if my mother was aware of the size of her hips when she ordered hers. I wonder if saying extra large will ever feel less like pulling a spotlight directly over my own head. I wait in front of the Pick Up Here sign and try to shake some of the water from my hood without making too much of a mess.

Dipping out from under the station, I make my way through holes in the commuter crowd. I never actually touch anyone else, but people react to my passing as if they need to check themselves for damage. I don’t look back, but I hear people make comments behind my back. A lot of assumptions get made about where fat comes from.

About how a fat person “got that way” or why they’re out in public where the thin can see them or are in some way forced to interact. I prefer the way the rain invades my personal space. It’s not consensual either, but it isn’t singling me out for special notice.

I dodge the weird statues of people at café tables in front of the Science World plaza. Sit on a bench and stare out at the water, and across it to the homes of people who can afford a waterfront view in the middle of a housing crisis. Sip my coffee and let the rainwater from the lid dilute it in my mouth. The sun has glared between cracks in the clouds until the fog has burned off, and the rain makes a steady sort of soft curtain. By the time I get home, my hoodie will be twice its own weight. I’ll hang it on the line in the living room and switch to the next one, and try not to see this process as metaphorical.


BIG: Stories about Life in Plus-Sized Bodies (Caitlin Press) is a collection of personal and intimate experiences of plus-size women, non-binary and trans people in a society obsessed with thinness. These stories offer a closer look at what it means to navigate a world designed to fit bodies of a certain size — sometimes literally. BIG invites readers to question and reframe our collective fixation on body size.

On Tuesday, March 3, celebrate bodies of all sizes as Caitlin Press presents the Vancouver launch of BIG at the Tiki Bar at the Waldorf at 7 p.m. Join editor Christina Myers and contributors Jen Arbo, Jessie Blair, Caroline Many, Jennifer Pownall, Tracy Manrell, and Rabbit Richards as they read from their essays.   [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Do not:

  •  Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully, threaten, name-call or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, downvote, or flag suspect activity
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities

Do:

  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls and flag violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Stay on topic
  • Connect with each other

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Do You Think BC Should Change Its Pandemic Plan for Schools?

Take this week's poll