Weighing In on Weight
by Rae Carson
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked for a technology company as an inside sales rep. I’d already experienced the “glass ceiling” and wage inequality, but working at—let’s call it Misogyny, Inc.—was my first encounter with that special brand of endemic discrimination that borders on harassment.
A few quick examples:
1. I had an idea that I felt would save our company tens of thousands of dollars per month. So for our weekly company meeting, I prepared all my data, dressed in my best suit, and confidently proposed a new inventory system.
I wasn’t even halfway done with my spiel before everyone started laughing. They told me it would never work. But, they said, I did look very cute in my suit.
At the next weekly meeting, our manufacturing manager presented the exact same proposal. He was lauded as a genius. We implemented it right away, and he got a big bonus for saving the company so much money.
2. After two years, I got a raise and a tiny promotion. My sales numbers were the highest in the company. Not by much, and not all the time, but it was an impressive feat, considering the other reps were seven-year-plus veterans. After the news got around, one of my female co-workers said, in a biting tone, “I’m sick to death of people thinking you do a good job just because you’re hot.”
She worked hard to promote this perception among our co-workers. In no time, I had a reputation as “the lazy one who gets away with stuff because she’s cute.”
3. I got very sick with food poisoning or a stomach bug or . . . something. I’ll spare you the details. But after two miserable days, I clawed my way back to work. I still couldn’t eat, so I brought a large supply of Pedialyte to keep me on my feet. Naturally, I lost a ton of weight very quickly.
The rumor quickly got back to me that I was bulimic. Another female co-worker had told everyone that for months, I had been eating meals on the company dime and throwing them up to lose weight.
Looking back, a couple of things stand out to me. In all three of these instances, 1) my body was tied to my performance, and 2) women were involved.
My experience is not unusual. Thousands, maybe millions of women have their accomplishments waved away or ignored daily, even as their bodies suffer devastating scrutiny—from both men and women.
These experiences were very much on my mind when I sat down to write The Girl of Fire and Thorns. The protagonist, you see, is fat. Elisa has an unhealthy relationship with food. No one believes she’ll accomplish anything, and her lifelong social conditioning has caused her to believe this harmful perception.
She begins to change right away. In chapter two, she stands up for herself and takes control of her wedding night. In chapter three, she saves a man’s life by grabbing the weapon of a dead enemy and stabbing with it. In chapter four, she has an epiphany about her own self-absorption and makes a point to focus on others—and on and on through the end of the book. My goal was to show Elisa gaining confidence through a gradual process of taking control of her own life and destiny.
But with Misogyny, Inc. so fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that some people in Elisa’s world might be unable to see past her body to her accomplishments and personal growth. So, for instance, without knowing Elisa at all, her maid finds her unworthy of being the chosen one, and despises her. And later, when (minor spoiler . . . ) Elisa loses some weight, a certain man finds her attractive for the first time—but is unable to acknowledge that she has become a great leader in her own right.
One sees her as fat. One sees her as beautiful. Neither can see beyond her outward appearance to the truth of who Elisa really is.
I know how easy it is to look at a woman and see nothing but a body. I’m guilty of it, too. How many times do we look at a beautiful, blond woman in a short skirt and think airhead or bimbo or shallow? Maybe she’s a rocket scientist with multiple PhDs. Maybe a battered paperback of her favorite Coetzee is shoved inside that Prada bag.
We just don’t know.
You can’t tell by looking at a woman’s body how much she exercises, how much she eats, whether or not she’s lazy, whether she is confident or depressed or accomplished.
When I drafted The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I was an athletic size 6. I felt beautiful then. I’m sixty pounds heavier now, and aside from my wardrobe, little has changed. I’m still smart. I’m still writing books. I’m still in love with my life. I still feel beautiful.
I grant that there have been some gradual shifts in maturity and confidence. But like Elisa, I’ve earned the heck out of these changes through life experience and introspection—not through changing the way I look.
A woman has a right to have and enjoy whatever body her choices or circumstances give her. But Misogyny, Inc. showed me how crushing it is to feel that the sum whole of your worth is wrapped up in your flesh.
So, to my fellow women I make this New Year’s resolution: I will commit to seeing beyond your breasts or fat or beauty to the essence of who you are. And I will vociferously defend your right to have your accomplishments acknowledged and lauded—no matter what you look like.
Rae Carson‘s debut novel The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a finalist for YALSA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and a finalist on the Cybils Fantasy & Science Fiction (Young Adult) list. Rae was also recently named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start.