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Traveling is so uncomfortable. Traveling while fat to talk about fatness is... more so.
I write this post while embarking on my first work trip in over three years. I am riding in a van to St. Lawrence University, about three hours away, where I’ll be giving the Kathryn Fraser Mackay Memorial Lecture this evening, and doing a mini-residency. I’m honored and delighted to be doing this. And it’s still a lot, after so long cocooning.
I should be reading papers, or editing my book manuscript, or, failing that, sleeping. But I’m slightly too nauseous to do any of those things. So I find myself writing, and musing about comfort. Philosophers have written an enormous amount about pleasure, but very little about comfort. What is it to be comfortable, and comforted, and comforting? Three related but distinct questions.
Why the relative philosophical silence on these important concepts? I can’t help but think that it is due to the fact that comforting is traditionally women’s work, like most kinds of nurture. And so this form of labor remains, in this male-dominated domain, invisible.
In turning my mind to these questions, I think first about things that are reliably comforting: warmth, softness, human touch. Sweetness. When I picked my nearly three year-old daughter up from preschool yesterday, she was sobbing inconsolably. This hasn’t happened for months now, since she first settled in there. She had left her comfort object—in the form of a large, luridly pink plastic flamingo—in the classroom during her class’s trip to the playground. Even after it was restored to her, she couldn’t stop crying until I held her tightly. Had her father been the one to pick her up, as he usually does, he would have done the same, of course. There’s not a single good reason why men can’t do the work of comforting; and some do, to their credit.
Our children learn, from the time they are infants, to begin to soothe themselves too. Such self-soothing is both a skill and a process. It requires accepting comfort from their caregivers and doing what it takes to replicate the feeling. And it simultaneously derives from their caregivers’ successes and their failures—our presence and, sooner or later, inevitable absence. A child learns to soothe herself because we once soothed her consistently. And she learns to soothe herself because we are then sometimes missing, or deliberately absent, as in sleep training. (Yes, we did this. No, it wasn’t that bad, after the first night of letting our daughter cry for agonizing though brief intevals of increasing duration. Then, after three days, she slept through the night, giving all of us not only the comfort but profound relief of being reliably well-rested.)
As adults, we’re faced with the task of soothing ourselves fairly often. Other people—family and friends—help, of course, but by now, we’ve had to become as self-reliant as we often need to be. We seek much the same things as we did as tiny babies: warmth, softness, and the precious feeling of being held or cradled. Sweetness. So, by and large, we buy things: soft pillows, heating pads, weighted blankets. Chocolate.
I, like many people, became much more intolerant of discomfort during the pandemic. I eschewed stiff clothing and makeup and even jewelry, which felt too hard to me. Packing for my work trip was hence a shock to the system. I found myself reluctantly pulling out tights and boots rather than soft pants and comfortable sneakers. I had a fit of rebellion yesterday and made my way to a nearby “comfort footwear” store and bought a pair of beautifully comfortable lace-up leather loafers. I’m not sure yet if I’ll wear them for my class visits tomorrow on campus. (They might be too casual and make me feel the discomfort of students’ skeptical gaze as I try to remember, or at least pretend, that I have some kind of knowledge to impart to them.) I had already ordered such things as a silky padded eye mask and an embarrassingly large wrap-around travel pillow. I came equipped with a soft wool pashmina and good earplugs and the optimal travel snack (peanut m&ms, in case you were wondering).
No matter how smoothly things go, and how beautifully people treat you (and everyone has been unfailingly lovely so far), travel is so uncomfortable. I need all I can throw at the problem to ease myself back into things.
I obsess about these details in part, I think, because my topic is so uncomfortable: fatphobia, in its potent intersections with misogyny, racism, and classism. Writing about this topic has been tremendously freeing, albeit tremendously confronting. But giving a talk about these themes in-person is another thing entirely. It more or less invites speculation and scrutiny. Just how fat am I now? I can’t pretend my body doesn’t exist. I am here partly to be looked at, seen, and not simply heard. And even, now, as a “small fat” woman, my body tells a story. It is a story, as I’ve been learning, of making other people uncomfortable. It is, I am, too much—much too much, sometimes, straining against and spilling over the space allotted to me by society. Even now, at about my smallest, I never quite fit: certainly not the image of an academic, with my “soft animal” of a body, in the words of Mary Oliver, in a discipline that insists on sharp boundaries and precision.
There’s nothing to be done about this fact—other than seek to change the world, to make philosophy and academia and the world a place that embraces every body, whatever its gender, race, class, size, shape, age, and so on. It will be an arduous process, and a deeply uncomfortable one. Meanwhile, there is nothing to be done by me but muddle through the discomfort of my slight but discernible nausea. And so, for now, I sit with it. And eat a little chocolate.
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