It was the holiday season in 2008 and I was working at a Borders in Franklin, TN. I had graduated college that summer and I, like many of the unfortunates who graduated in 2008, was using my degree working retail in the hopes of eventually finding any employment that was not retail. I had been in the haven of my small, liberal arts college and had returned to my born-and-raised territory because there was nowhere else to go, and luckily I had loving, supportive parents who could take me in. I was separated from all the friends I had made in college and was now trying to explain to my coworkers in Tennessee that queers are just like you. See? I’m me. I’m just like you. Ish.
Anyway, I remember being in a good mood that day. Despite the economic downfall of our civilization, Obama had been elected into the White House. Things seemed to be going up even if the patrons of this particular Borders overly corrected me when I said, “Happy Holidays,” as opposed to “Merry Christmas,” or threw Obama’s books in the toilets of our restroom. (Someone has to retrieve the book and plunge those toilets, people.) Obama had won, suckers. And the store was appropriately busy with cheery music, piped in through the speakers. I liked to crack jokes again. I liked performing the emotional labor of service again. I had a plan to visit Seattle in the New Year to see my friends and we all hoped to move there by the fall, which didn’t feel so far away.
A forty-ish-year-old woman came up to the register. I don’t remember the books she purchased. But I do remember smiling and making a few jokes that she laughed at. It was a good day, after all. And then,
HER: You remind me of… Do you know that woman in, uh, Sister Act?
ME: Whoopi Goldberg?
HER: No. Uh. The nun. Um. She was in. That’s all I know her from. Um. She’s… larger. Some people think she’s. Uh. I’m sorry. I don’t think she’s… I think she’s pretty. But you remind me of her.
ME: Kathy Najimy?
HER: Yes, that’s her. Sorry. I think she’s. I mean. She’s really funny.
I had finished ringing her up. I said, “That’s quite a compliment.” I meant it. She didn’t think I was serious. Our genial rapport from moments before had evaporated. The stakes had been raised. She felt she had insulted me. She apologized again, took her purchases, and left.
I knew Kathy Najimy*. I knew her from Sister Act, of course, but more importantly, from one of the most significant films for women of my generation, Hocus Pocus. But, she was fat. Hence the apology. This woman made the comparison in her head, then immediately did a refresh on what Kathy Najimy looked like and thought, “DEAR GOD – this is insulting. APOLOGIZE.” Because Kathy Najimy is not attractive to her. Because Kathy Najimy is fat. And by extension so was I. And she had just made this comparison. And oh no, I would think that at the heart of this, she was calling me fat. Which I was and am. But that’s horrible and insulting. Fat people aren’t desirable. Shucks.
Kathy Najimy is funny as fuck and sexy as hell and, in those films, she’s also fat, or at least fatter than the other people in the films. In terms of my fat acceptance history, she was formative. Particularly, that moment when she gets on the bus in Hocus Pocus and the bus driver objectifies her just like he does Sarah Jessica Parker. Because we should all feel so lucky to be objectified, I guess? I don’t know. But I remember thinking as a kid that if I was still fat when I got older, dating wouldn’t be a problem if that bus driver hit on Kathy Najimy with the same gusto as SJP. (Dating, as it turns out, actually hasn’t been a problem, so it’s the little messages you get, kids. Don’t be an object, but know that you’re hot and things will probs be okay.) She was unapologetically bold in those movies. Even if her fatness was somewhere in the joke, it was a joke she controlled. She was in control. And again, so funny. And this woman apologized for comparing me to her. Because fat is a pejorative first and an adjective second. Because fat isn’t something you should ever want to be called.
This memory came into my mind recently because for the first time in my writing career, I’ve written a play specifically about fatness. As someone who has always been fat, I struggled with what story to tell and how to tell it. How do you talk about something that is simultaneously empowering and depressing? Empowering because I’ve accepted that my fatness is apart of me no matter what I do, and that trying to erase it comes from a dark, unproductive place wherein I don’t deserve to eat anything, which is ten times unhealthier than being a fit fat person; and depressing because like most people I still feel the pangs of fatness when I’m reminded that other people see fat as a bad, horrible, unattractive thing that must be punished or constantly in pursuit of correcting. We have a moral failing. We don’t try. We’re unhealthy. We ruin your health insurance. We’re a suck on the state. We deserve to be fat. The only good fat person is the one who’s trying not to be fat, etc. The depressing shit of fatness outweighs (pun intended) the empowering shit at times.
As a playwright, I wanted to find a way through the depressing shit theatrically, with humor and metaphor. Otherwise, the play is a series of depressing conversations that people feel like they’ve already heard, cause they have. We’re all party to the fat elimination morality game if not in public, then in private. We all participate. None of us are immune. The play I’ve written is based on the popular meme of the Tiny Woman Inside every woman that’s just aching to break free from the fat suit we contain her in, but like, for real. My protagonist’s Tiny Thin Woman is vomited into existence full of opinions and conversation potential far beyond the vocalization of wanting to go to the gym. And both the protagonist and Tiny Thin Woman take their lots in life in stride, violence, and dieting, like everyone else.
So, on this, the week of my thirty-first birthday, before I dive into the casting and rehearsal process of this play for my program’s New Play Festival, I’m thinking about being compared to Kathy Najimy and how baller that was. Hello lady who thinks that Kathy Najimy is only a fat body, which is inherently awful, and therefore, who would ever want to be compared to her – I’m choosing to reframe your understanding of her as the badass she is. I take that comparison with the full gusto of a thirty-one-year-old who’s sexy as fuck and funny as hell.
Also, the first week in May I’ll have a reading of my new play, Tiny Thin Woman Inside, in Iowa City as part of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop New Play Festival.
I will be outed as fat. Practice your shock faces now.
*Clearly, as a theater person, I also know Kathy Najimy from Kathy and Mo: Parallel Lives, but unfortunately, that’s not as widely known. Google, people. Google.