Clearly, I’m in Trouble

by Jamila-Khanom Allidina

Jamila-Khanom Allidina holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Jaggery and Digging Through The Fat. She lives in Toronto.

About a month after I first start wearing the fat suit I meet Matt at one of the bars near the university. Matt is angular, only his angles are not proportionate or are not aligned or something, and so he looks like a parody of a Greek statue. His cheekbones are so steep his chin all but disappears; his eyes are deep set, the ridge of his forehead jutting out so that the colour of his irises is barely visible. His lips form a diamond, thin and chapped. But he looks kind, and awkward in a charming way, trying so hard to compliment me—me! with my fake muffin top. When I tell him my name, Haseena, he says it again carefully, but doesn’t ask what it means. We have a conversation that just leads itself; we’re so good at talking with each other. For the first time in months—maybe a year—I feel at ease with myself even though the fat suit underneath my clothes is chafing my skin. I’m funny and he laughs and he’s smart and I’m interested. He offers to show me around the city; he blushes when he asks for my email.

“Slick,” I say, “really original.” Like I have sharp-cheekboned guys asking to show me around all the time. Which I don’t—not in this body.

Matt leans over the bar to get a pen. His baggy t-shirt skims his body and I can see how skinny he is. He’s got the forearms of a twelve-year-old and no ass. He dresses like an ersatz hipster—black jeans and a t-shirt with a picture of a superhero I don’t recognize—but the jeans and t-shirt aren’t tight enough to show off his skinniness. He’s hiding behind his clothes.

After Matt leaves I return to the corner table where two of my new girlfriends are sitting. We are all from different cities. Nancy is from the States somewhere, so New England with her shiny blonde hair, toned arms, and polo tees. I thought I’d hate her but I really like her. Jade is from Vancouver. She’s tiny and has perfect skin, a really loud laugh, and an encyclopedic knowledge of children’s novels. I grew up here and there, with three older brothers, bouncing around as my father switched companies. I’ve always wanted a sister.

“He’s cute,” Jade says.

“Yeah.”

“Did you give him your number?” Nancy asks.

Jade laughs. “Who gives out their number anymore? Did you give him your email?”

“People give out their number,” Nancy says. “I give out my number. Email is so toothless.”

“I gave him my email,” I say. I open my mouth wide, curl my lips back. “No teeth. Too much junk food.” I roll my eyes and indicate my belly.

Jade squeezes my arm. “You’re gorgeous,” she says.

When I am skinny, girls don’t compliment my looks. When I am fat, they always do. Are they jealous of skinny girls or supportive of fat ones?

“He might not email.”

“He might.” Nancy stands. “Another round?”


I started wearing the fat suit because I lost so much weight that I lost myself. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was tied up in being a chubby girl. I hated myself for dropping so many pounds, embarrassed to admit how much weight I lost. Who am I in this new body?

One time at Starbucks—in my lean body—I was a dollar short, and the Starbucks guy took a buck from the nearly empty tip jar and winked. I walked away with my overpriced low-fat, low-sugar, low-taste latte and realized that this had never once happened to me when I was big. In my thin body men open doors for me, they wave me ahead when I’m jaywalking in front of their cars, they smile at me in bars and buy me drinks. The world treats me better when I am a thin girl and I despise every single person for it. As a fatty I went weeks without anyone looking at me twice. When I was fat, I knew that if a guy was interested it was because I was funny or smart or we connected in some way. In my new body it’s much harder to figure out who to trust.

When I moved to Toronto, where I knew nobody, I bought a fat suit on a whim. It’s a fairly small one—meant to make girls look four months preggers, the costume shop saleslady said. It’s not as big as I was at my biggest. The boobs barely jut out farther than the stomach. It’s lined with cotton, but chafes my skin in late-summer heat. I live in dread of someone touching me by accident on the suit. It doesn’t feel like real fat; it’s harder and smoother.

At first I just wore it around my new apartment, stretching my new, single-digit-sized tank tops over the fat suit, trying to see if I’d feel more like myself. Then down to the coffee shop to see what would happen. Later that week to the grocery store. The cute grocery store boy who had smiled at me the week before looked right through me.

“When I was fat, I knew that if a guy was interested it was because I was funny or smart or we connected in some way. In my new body it’s much harder to figure out who to trust.”

I thought it would be okay once I started wearing the fat suit. I didn’t want to gain back all that weight, not when I’d worked so hard to lose it, not after all those hours and miles clocked on the treadmill. I feel better than I used to, healthier, with more energy. The fat suit is just a way to ease the transition, so maybe one day I’ll get comfy in this thinner body.

It was great for a while. I put the suit on and bought a couple of empire-waist tees and attended the history department orientation at the university. People paid what I felt was a normal amount of attention. I went to the bathroom a lot, locked the door and checked my breasts and shoulders to make sure nothing was peeking out. (The suit is several shades lighter that my skin. “Nude.” They don’t actually make fat suits for brown or black people, just white people.) I felt okay. I felt right. I felt like I could talk about feminism with the new girlfriends I made at grad-student mixers. But my skin looks like I’ve been rolling around on a pile of rakes. I’m starting to realize that dating is more complicated than usual with this fake flesh.


Matt emails. It’s a cute email, but it is kind of toothless. He hopes that I’m enjoying Toronto, that I’m enjoying my work. He saw that movie we talked about and thought it was good. A short analysis of the movie follows, just to show that he really saw it and that he can be funny about pop culture. He says he’d love to show me around the city or “meet up for a drink or a bite or whatever.” He doesn’t give a time and place. (This is a mistake, Nancy says, when I email her immediately; you should always give a specific time and place so if the desired object rejects that specific time and place they are compelled to offer another. I suspect she gets her dating advice from chick-lit novels.) So I email back that I’m enjoying the city, and mention a cute new café on the Danforth I found, ask him where the art house movie theatres are (so he’ll have to write back; it’s only polite), and say that I’d love a tour. But I don’t give a time and place, because there are some things this feminist thinks are the guy’s job.


Jade and I meet for a drink after we’ve both put in several hours at the library. My neck and lower back are sore from hunching over the endless articles my professor assigned. The bright light of the afternoon is harsh after the calmly-lit cubicles in the library. We stride through campus, heading south, the green on the trees already turning yellow at the edges. Jade’s frustrated with the departmental secretary, and talks about this for several blocks. When we’re settled in at the bar she asks about my upcoming date.

“What are you going to wear?”

I hesitate.

“I can come over and help you pick something out. I love playing fashion show.”

The last thing I want is a farcical set-up in my one-bedroom apartment with me running into the bathroom every time Jade tosses me something new to try.

“I can’t. Thanks though. I have more work to get through tonight.”

Jade shrugs. “Next time. I think you should go for something totally cute and that, you know, hints at things but that doesn’t let it all hang out. Cute and classy. Maybe something a little strappy, but high-necked.”

There was a time when I’d agree. My college roommate and I had it all worked out: cute for the first date, cuter for the second, all-out sexy for the third. This never worked on undergraduate boys because the dates weren’t proper dates but the kind that started with “we should hang out sometime.” These hang-outs never varied: we went to one bar or another and ended up groping in the shadow of trees on campus before retreating to the dorm room most likely to be free of roommates.

These days dressing and dating are much more complicated. The suit has thick straps that cut into my shoulders. The breasts aren’t too full—I opted for modest because even though I dropped a cup size, I am still fairly well endowed—and the suit snaps up tightly between my legs. I can’t wear anything strappy. I don’t wear anything sleeveless just in case. I like those loose cap sleeves that look like wings. Low necks are out, as is anything backless. I can’t wear pants that ride too low. My options are limited.

“I thought I’d love dressing my new body.”

I settle on an empire-waist dress­ that’s flimsy and summery and girly. I sew in a bit of lace at the v-neck to add a bit of sex appeal, but also to hide the round neck of the fat suit. Jeans and pants are extremely difficult with the fat suit on. It really doesn’t have an ass. It’s just one big blob back there. When I was chubby I had a great ass: two distinct parts, curved, fairly firm. When I lost the weight I shaved a great deal of it off my ass; without the fat suit, I am as flat as a rug. I can’t win.

I thought I’d love dressing my new body. There were times as a chubster that I couldn’t fit into dresses in shops. I thought I’d be thrilled to ask for my new size. I thought I’d adore wearing body-skimming trends. Don’t get me wrong; when I was big I knew how to dress, knew how to draw the eye to my face or to my ample cleavage (another thing I miss). The whole point then was to dress to look thin. I wasn’t like a stick-thin character on a sitcom who, when shown in fat flashback, looks like she was dressed by her mother. I knew what I was doing. But for months, after starting to lose the weight, I wore my old fat-person clothes outside, baggy on my new, slimmer frame.

I wear tight, long little white tank tops around the house. At night I know exactly where the contours of my body lie. I take long showers. I lounge in the armchair in front of the TV and watch myself watching in the reflection. I rub in lotion fortified with vitamin E, shea butter, cocoa butter, aloe vera,­ anything purportedly nourishing, anything with a bit of shine to it. I try hard not to see the things I still hate: the flat ass, the cellulite, a quarter of a lifetime’s worth of moles and marks and scars, the red scrapes where the fat suit chafes. I focus on the small belly, see how flat I can get it if I really, really try to tighten my abs. I love my arms. I sleep with the sheets tucked tight under the bed like in a hotel, like a cuddle.

In the fat suit I am both more myself and somebody with no edges.


Our date is on Sunday. I meet Matt on campus and he takes me to little India. He is awkward at first, placing his hand carefully away from mine when we both hold onto the pole in the streetcar, glancing at me and then looking out the window as we talk and talk. We eat kebabs and I buy thin yellow mangoes and dry bay leaves. He asks me what my name means.

I hesitate. “It means beautiful,” I say. “My parents had high expectations.”

He smiles and says, “It suits you.”

“Smooth,” I say.

“I try.”

We catch a streetcar to the farmer’s market. It’s four o’clock so all the farmers are selling their wares for a dollar a basket. Then we walk along the wide streets to a small bar where we drink Stella and talk about our work, university bureaucracy, movies we like and why we like them, the memories associated with the songs playing in the background. He talks with his elbows on the table, his hands in the air. This is what we don’t talk about: our failings. Our mothers. Our heartbreaks.


He leaves me at the subway stop. He has his hands in his pockets and I can’t tell if he is going to try to kiss me or not. If this were a movie he’d say something cute, or someone would bump into me from behind and push me into his arms, but he just sort of awkwardly thrusts himself at me; his lips are chapped and dry. It doesn’t matter.

Clearly, I’m in trouble.


This is my plan: I will buy another fat suit, a thinner one (an expense I can’t afford, but if I cut out cable and start walking to and from school—an hour’s walk—instead of taking the subway, I can do it) and then, slowly, using clothes strategically to indicate levels of fatness, go from my current fat suit to the thinner fat suit, and eventually discard fat suits entirely in favour of several layers of clothing, and then, maybe, if I feel comfortable, just wear normal clothes. This could be accomplished over four months—with Christmas as an added bonus because I can return after break and if I’ve lost ten pounds then, no one will think it’s weird. I’m not Christian, after all, so I don’t really put on Christmas weight. Also, I can tell Matt I’m a virgin, which is not true, to avoid taking off my clothes for him.

Easy.


I have a free membership to the university gym, but despite the expense I go to the gym nearest me. in Greektown. Of course, I don’t wear my fat suit to the gym. (Although, that would make for a tougher workout.) It’s not the fanciest gym in the neighbourhood;­ no big-screen TVs and the pool is tiny,­ but it’s got six treadmills and complimentary towels.

“And my identity wouldn’t be rooted in my body; my body would just be something that held me together.”

After my run I do some crunches, skip the free weights and head to the pool. I duck under the water quickly, get the first sting of chlorine in my eyes out of the way. I swim two or three slow laps. On one length I pretend pirates are chasing me and I have to make it to the other end of the pool without making a sound. This is hard. You have to keep all movement underwater, and just keep your face above (to keep an eye out for spies.) Then I float for a while, my legs stretched out and my arms folded behind my head like I’m on a beach. Recently I’ve been craving the country. I want a house on the other side of the city, near High Park. A three-level, each floor its own apartment. I could live on the top floor, with the slanted ceilings, and rent the first and second floors out to my friends. Of course I’d have gotten rid of the fat suit by then. And when I had kids (would Matt make a good dad?) I’d kick everyone out. I could teach at the University and we could buy a cottage in Muskoka. Or maybe a small college town would be better: bigger house, cheaper. An apple tree in the yard. Of course I’d be skinny and okay with it or fat and okay with it. And he—Matt or whoever—would be okay with me being skinny or fat. And my identity wouldn’t be rooted in my body; my body would just be something that held me together. And I’d be really good at making pies.

I’m rubbing a towel through my hair by the side of the pool when Matt walks up.

He says my name with hesitation.

I push on my glasses to make sure it’s him. He’s standing there on his chicken legs, pale white under the florescent light. He isn’t hiding his surprise; he’s staring right at my not-entirely-flat but much-smaller-than-normal stomach. I am acutely aware of my thighs.

We stand facing each other for an uncomfortably long moment. I wrap the towel around myself.

“I wear a fat suit,” I say.

“Oh.”

Another long moment of silence.

“Why?”

I try to tell the truth. “I wanted to see what it felt like.” Only it turns into a lie. “For fat girls. On a day-to-day basis. I’m writing an article. For the Post.” Why did I say the Post? Why didn’t I just leave it ambiguous?

Matt’s cheekbones relax into a big smile that takes up his whole face. “That’s amazing. That is so cool. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Well­—”

“Of course you couldn’t tell me. Of course not.” He laughs. “You had to see how I’d react right?” He knows he’s passed a test. He knows he’s come out on top. “That is so cool.”

He suggests a drink, maybe dinner, and somehow I agree to meet him at the coffee shop across the street in half an hour.


The whole way to my apartment, Matt asks questions about the fat suit. Where did I get it, how much did it cost, was it the biggest one there, how did I think of this story idea, are people really that bad when you’re bigger. He doesn’t say “fatter,” just “bigger.” That’s nice.

I hold the suit out in front of me, my fingers tucked into the straps.

Matt stares like it’s an object of wonder. “That is amazing,” he says. “Is it heavy?”

“Not that heavy.”

He touches the belly button. “They even sewed in a little navel.”

“I guess they were going for realism.”

He leans in and kisses me. He smells of chlorine.

At the bar, I’m back in the suit, and Matt crows about how realistic the whole thing looks, giving stink eye to every guy who doesn’t pay attention to me. I point out, gently, that the experiment is kind of ruined by his presence. The lie is coming easier now. I’m half-convinced that this was my intention all along. Matt positions me at the bar and goes to sit in a corner, picking up a paper someone’s left behind and pretending to bury himself in it, purposely holding it upside down and winking at me from above it, like we’re in a farcical spy caper, which it’s starting to feel like we are.

“The lie is coming easier now. I’m half-convinced that this was my intention all along.”

I try my best to eye up any guy who walks up to the bar for a drink, but I don’t have the energy. All my grim smiles get me nowhere. The bartender asks how I’m doing and I’m tempted to lean over and tell him that my fat suit is rubbing against my hip and that I wouldn’t mind ditching the beer in my hand for a stiff scotch. After a half hour Matt joins me at the bar and makes a big show of saying very loudly how pretty I am. I tell him I don’t think I can conduct the experiment with him anymore and he wants to go get food, but the thought of another hour or two of lying wears me out.

We meander under the streetlights, fingers linked, as Matt postulates other experiments: “You could get a prosthetic nose. A really, really big one. Or do a whole hair thing. Do blondes really have more fun?”

“I’d look horrible with blonde hair.”

“You could just wear a wig.” Then, “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.”

“I googled you. I mean, your name. Before our date. So when I asked you what it meant, I actually knew what it meant.”

“So you weren’t being smooth. You were just—”

“I just wanted you to like me. I mean, honestly, I think you’re gorgeous. But yeah, I totally set up the line.”

I nod. “That’s actually kind of …”

“Weird? Loserish?”

“Charming.” Human.


In bed that night, Matt neither avoids my very small belly nor focuses on it. He doesn’t tell me I’m beautiful­—doesn’t even comment on how big my eyes are. Mostly his eyes are closed as his hands wander. I suck in my stomach and squeeze my arms against my sides so my boobs look bigger.

I expected sex to feel different in this body, but it doesn’t. It’s still awkward, and it’s still silly, and the faces he makes are simultaneously hilarious and beautiful in their vulnerability. His clothes are off, the lights are on, I can see every mole on his chest, the pathetic wisps of hair, how one nipple is slightly larger than the next. He’s enjoying himself and he’s trying to get me to enjoy myself, too. Maybe if I close my eyes. I should have used lotion this morning. I haven’t eaten a pierogi in a year. Maybe if I just concentrate harder. I should read some of those Cosmo articles or I shouldn’t because are they sexist. This isn’t very different than before. Nothing is different, everything about me is still the same.

I still can’t get comfortable, but maybe I will eat a pierogi tomorrow.

The next morning, I don’t wear the fat suit. I wear jeans and a tank top and a little jacket, nothing too revealing or tight, but it’s clear that I am not a size 16. It’s also apparent that I’m not a size 6.

We go to a nearby diner.

“Do you want something to eat? They have really great pancakes here,” Matt says.

“Let’s share,” I say.

I feel lighter.

 


Jamila-Khanom Allidina holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Jaggery and Digging Through The Fat. She lives in Toronto.

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