My dad used to call me “Krissy.” It drove me nuts, especially since I stopped going by that name when I was 12. Everyone else in my family made the switch (to Kris or Kristin), but my father just refused and that meant everyone in his world also referred to me as “Krissy” and assumed it was okay. When I went to Nevis last year (at the age of 39) I explained to my aunt and my cousin that I preferred to be called “Zetta” and they made a conscious effort to honor my preference. This year my aunt called me “Krissy” several times but remembered to say “Zetta” when she was asked to stand and introduce me to the congregation during Sunday service. I didn’t bother to correct her whenever she slipped up because I was grateful that when I walked through the front door of her home my aunt didn’t call me fat. When we embraced she did let her hands linger on my waist to take a quick, silent measurement, but then we sat down to lunch and simply enjoyed each other’s company. That was Thursday. On Sunday I went to church with my aunt and when the service ended, my aunt’s sister-in-law dashed up to the front to shake my hand. She seemed to be in a hurry but took time to say, “You got fat!” before laughing and rushing away. My cousin also left church in a hurry so I called her the next day. She started with a couple of complaints: 1) it was Monday and I’d been on the island for five days without contacting her, and 2) I was paying money to stay in a hotel when she told me last year I was welcome to stay with her. Then she said, “You’re SOOOO fat!” And there wasn’t any laughter until I said, “I knew you were going to say that.” Then she laughed, I steered the conversation in another direction, and we moved on. Before I boarded the ferry to leave Nevis yesterday, another cousin made time in her busy schedule to stop by and say a quick hello. We embraced, I said, “You look great!” and she said casually, “You’ve put on a little weight.” I told her she was the third person to point that out, and then we spent the next few minutes catching up.
Now I have gained weight since last year—I know that. And I know that I am a highly sensitive person (HSP); my feelings bruise easily and I have had to learn not to let careless or unkind remarks get to me. I wouldn’t say I’ve traveled widely, but I have seen a bit of the world and I have to say that I have never visited a place where people felt entitled to call me fat. I grew up in a household where one man (my athletic father) felt he had the right to police the weight of everyone else (his wife and two daughters). He used to pinch me and my sister and say, “You’ve got an inch to pinch!” The message being that “good” bodies had no excess fat—bad news for a pudgy kid like me. Because I was so eager to please my father, as a child I learned to do the things he approved of—I was active in sports and I even went on a liquid diet when my dad started selling Herbalife products. I was an adult when my mother shared some of the insensitive and cruel things my father said to her about her weight prior to their divorce. I’m 40 now and I’ve never known a time when my mother wasn’t on a diet. It can be damaging to girls when they see their mothers being self-critical; I shared this important letter with my mother and she didn’t even (know how to?) respond. By the time I was a teenager I had decided I would never count calories or let food dominate my life. My siblings are rather image-conscious and I also decided I wasn’t going to obsess over the way I look; I figured if people truly liked me, they’d have to accept me as I am. I could afford to hold those attitudes when I was in my 20s, but in my 30s I started to gain weight and I know that my metabolism has changed. If I don’t exercise 3x a week, the pounds pile on and I become the pudgy girl my father feared would become obese (just like her mother).
I come from a family of big women; my great-grandmother Jenny Hobbs was a tall, big-boned Irish-Canadian woman and many of my relatives on that side of the family struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. But what I love about my mother’s family is that NO ONE ever makes insensitive remarks about size. It’s natural to notice changes in a person you haven’t seen in some time, but in North American culture it is rude and hurtful to blurt out observations about weight. I understand that Caribbean culture is different, but I’m not willing to give folks a pass on this. I hate to take it to Dr. Phil, but he’s right when he says, “You teach people how to treat you.” Calling a woman fat is an act of aggression—that’s how I see it. It’s not a compliment, it’s not an expression of concern. It’s a way of taking a swipe at someone without accepting accountability. Just because you laugh when you say it doesn’t make it a harmless joke. And yes, this is a particular trigger for me but it’s also part of a larger cultural problem that turns women’s bodies into public property to be ogled, judged, and handled without care.
When I think about moving to the Caribbean, I think about having to surrender my privacy—those spaces/stretches of solitude that enable me to dream, to heal, to write. Could I really live on a small island as an HSP? As a feminist and an artist? When my aunt stood to introduce me during church last Sunday, the pastor welcomed me and said, “I met your father, I believe. You look like him.” Which put a huge smile on my face because no one ever says that. My father called me a “stranger in the family” because of my attitudes and ideas, but he could have been talking about my appearance. Aside from my wide hips, I don’t share certain physical traits that mark the members of my “clan.” And I don’t share their belief that blood is thicker than water. If you mistreat me or disregard my boundaries, I’ll leave and/or cut you out of my life. I can afford to do that because I have so many wonderful friends and extended family members who accept me unconditionally. But where do you go when land is limited and friends are far away? My aunt’s pastor came up to me after the service to ask what brought me back to Nevis. I told him I was doing research for a book and he told me he was also writing a book—on the
sanctimony sanctity of marriage. I managed a diplomatic reply: “You must have found the recent Supreme Court rulings interesting.” But then he started pulling at his side as he explained that woman was taken from Adam’s rib, and it’s “womb-man,” etc. I said, “No doubt a well-read man like yourself has heard that ‘biology isn’t destiny.'” He said he had, and I said we would have to leave it there since we’re clearly on opposite sides of that argument. If I lived in Nevis, I wouldn’t attend church and I doubt I’d have many conservative people in my life. That might mean that I’d have a very small circle of friends! After Ghana I realized that there aren’t many places in the world for a single, child-free black feminist like me, which is a rather sobering realization…