When you grow up fat, the desire to fit in is felt even more acutely because your body acts as a physical barrier that stands between you and everyone else; a constant reminder of this super obvious way you’re different from your peers. Those feelings resurfaced when I saw “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian being shared widely amongst all the women I know – everyone agreed it was highly relatable for any and all women, and that it was a fantastic piece of writing. As a result, I went into it with high expectations that simply weren’t met; the writing just isn’t my style, I guess, and as someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with dating, I couldn’t relate to it the same way all these other women seemed to.
Before I was even halfway through, I’d noticed how often Roupenian mentions Robert’s weight – ‘but he was on the heavy side’, ‘the heavy coat hid his belly’ – and this put me on the defensive, making me empathise with Robert in a way I’m not sure Roupenian meant for young women to do.
As a fat woman, my weight has been the single factor that’s held me back when pursuing relationships; society has told me that bodies like mine are undesirable and in need of reshaping, so I’ve convinced myself that nobody would ever be interested in me romantically, because we’ve all just accepted that fat bodies are unappealing and undesirable. I talk myself out of ever trying, because the fear of exposing myself, meeting someone, being intimate with them, and having them realise that I actually am that fat in person, paralyses me.
I know that my reaction to “Cat Person” says more about me than the writer. I know that if I weren’t approaching this from the perspective of someone who’s been fat their entire life, I probably would have enjoyed how realistic the story is, how the way Robert is slowly revealed to be sexist is so accurate. Unfortunately, we carry our biases with us everywhere we go, and the references to his weight took me out of the story and ruined my ability to engage with it as deeply as I would have liked to.
Society teaches us to value those with good looks over those without them; celebrities and models are held up as moral guides, regardless of their actions, purely because they’re beautiful and talented and we should revere those traits. For that reason, I can’t help but feel like it would have been more revolutionary for Roupenian to make Robert classically handsome – Margot would have immediately felt comfortable with him, while still projecting her own thoughts onto their interactions, and filling in the gaps of his personality with her own assumptions, and the ending could have unpacked just why Margot assumed he was a good guy and whether his good looks were a factor.
As it is, Margot realises she’s repulsed by him when he bends over to untie his shoes and his stomach is at an unflattering angle. Roupenian assumes that the reader will be able to instinctively understand why seeing his larger-than-average stomach awkwardly positioned made her recoil, because we’ve been told that any other reaction to seeing a chubby body is abnormal. Sure, other factors played a part in Margot’s realisation, but the fact that this specific scene is what made her recoil just reinforces the notion that larger bodies are repulsive.
Often when criticising something for perpetuating fatphobia, or anti-fat bias, or whatever you want to call it, I feel like the lone voice in a sea of people who have bigger fish to fry. There are other fat activists making the same critiques, but outside of explicitly fat positive circles, there doesn’t seem to be any widespread concern over the impacts of fatphobia, particularly on women. Despite the fact that rigid beauty standards harm all women, many feminists dismiss the work of fat activists as frivolous. So many otherwise decent leftists I know only talk about fatness when they’re using it as a punchline. Seeing those kinds of reactions to my tweets voicing concern with Roupenian’s emphasising Robert’s weight stung, and yet again I felt like that teenage girl on the outside of everything, looking in at a crowd that considers my concerns, and by extension me, unworthy of their time.
Catherine Bouris is a freelance writer and postgrad student living in Sydney, Australia. Her tweets can be found @catherinebouris
You can read Kristen Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person” in The New Yorker