Discover more from Kaitlin Owens
Coming Out of the Wallpaper
A Former Femcel Speaks Out
Have you ever been cat-called?
If not, maybe you’ve seen it in movies: it's a sunny day outside. A girl’s walking down the street. Three men in yellow construction hats whistle after her.
Hey toots. Nice ass. Why don’t you smile, beautiful.
It can vary widely from that– depending on people, places and circumstances– but that’s the Hollywood view of it. It’s demeaning, objectifying language that most women take great offense to.
The first time I was cat-called it felt great. I was in college. Nineteen years old and freshly 60 pounds lighter.
I hadn’t really made any large lifestyle changes or committed myself to going to the gym any more than I was before. I just got on birth control. I have PCOS– which basically means my hormones are wild. When I got on the pill, instead of gaining weight like most women do, I lost a bunch of it in a short amount of time.
I went to my parent’s house in Florida a size 14 and came back to New York a couple months later a size 8.
It was like the world went from Black-and-White to Technicolor.
The first weeks in my new body, I just walked around the city, stunned.
I was getting a sandwich from the bodega and the cashier smiled at me. People made eye contact with me on the street– a man whistled at me while I waited at the crosswalk. Strangers started conversations with me when I went out to the bar that night.
It was like all of a sudden, I started existing in space. And from then on, life became easier. Dating became easier. Friendships became easier.
This door that I had been clawing at– scraping at until my fingers bled– had finally opened. Suddenly, this whole other half of life that I had coveted for so long was available to me.
The world is so much more difficult when you’re fat– and I wasn’t even that big! I hadn’t experienced a whole slew of difficulties that people larger than I felt. I could still shop at the mall, fit comfortably in planes and experienced little to no health problems associated with my weight– but people definitely viewed me as ugly because of my body. And I could feel that.
I didn’t know it consciously at the time– that my body was the problem. But there was always this friction in conversations. I’d talk to somebody, and despite not saying anything especially weird or wrong, there was this sense that the other person was incredibly disinterested and disengaged with what I was saying.
Nobody would really look at me. Cashiers would avoid my gaze while giving me change. I would start conversations with boys at parties and they would stare blindly out in the distance– ignoring that I had even said anything at all.
I thought this dynamic was natural– just the way life was, at least, how it was for me. It wasn’t until the curtain was lifted that I realized it was all about attractiveness.
Attractiveness is social currency. It allows you access to certain spaces in life. It makes you more valuable– and people want you around them because they think that maybe some of your “valuableness” will rub off on them.
We also think that attractive people are nicer, more capable, more trustworthy and more talented– simply by virtue of how they look.
There have been some quantifiable studies on this– on what they call “the halo effect”-- anybody with a JSTOR account can see that. If you want to do the reading yourself– here are the citations:
Jackson, Linda A., et al. “Physical Attractiveness and Intellectual Competence: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 2, 1995, pp. 108–22.
Baker, Michael J., and Gilbert A. Churchill. “The Impact of Physically Attractive Models on Advertising Evaluations.” Journal of Marketing Research, vol. 14, no. 4, 1977, pp. 538–55.
Hart, William, et al. “Physical Attractiveness and Candidate Evaluation: A Model of Correction.” Political Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, 2011, pp. 181–203.
But basically, for whatever reason, we think hot people are better.
The problem here is, the standards of “hot” for women are exponentially higher than they are for men.
The ideal woman is a doll. Perfectly posed, not a hair out of place– she’s tiny, she’s beautiful, she’s just fun– not especially serious. She doesn’t speak or have any real motivations of her own– she’s just a beautiful sounding board. A plaything. An object of desire.
And unfortunately for women, the way people see you, the attention they give you, and the importance they place on your thoughts and feelings depends a great deal on how “desirable” of an object you are. How much of a doll you can craft yourself to be.
There was this experiment done by Joel Wapnick (and some other people) that was published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 1997, where a group of participants were given a set of musical recordings.
Half the performances were done by men and half were women. In each of these halves, there were a set of audio-only recordings and a set of recordings that had video too.
Across the board, they found that participants, regardless of gender, rated the more attractive singers in the videos more favorably than the uglier ones.
But, they also found that the male participants were more severe in their rating scale than the female participants–so, for them, the singer was either really hot and really good or really ugly and really bad.
Also, confusingly enough, the men still rated the more attractive singers as more talented in the audio-only recordings– even though they couldn’t see them. The female participants did not have this pattern in their results.
It’s a very extreme dichotomy. You’re Hot or you’re Not.
And being Hot is not all it’s cracked up to be. It isn’t like, once you hit this certain degree of attractiveness, that you stop being an object and start being a person. You just start being an object that people want now.
Which can be scary!
On two separate occasions, I had a 7eleven cashier, sneakily reach his arm across the counter and grab my hand while I was paying.
Both times, it was the middle of the night– pitch black outside– and while tightly gripping my hand, they earnestly and feverishly declared their love for me, with crazed passion behind their eyes.
While walking home from work one October evening, I had a man follow closely behind me, begging me to let him come home with me. I was only able to shake him by entering my university’s (keycard only) cafeteria.
I had to put my Instagram on private because I kept getting anonymous rape threats– a type of message I had never received 60 pounds ago.
It was like there were only two choices for how men could see me: “You Are Invisible” or “We Own You”.
And I struggled with that a lot. It felt great to suddenly have more access– more power and more influence in my interactions with others. For the first time, I felt valued and listened to. I felt respected in a way that I had never experienced before.
But I couldn’t shake how disgusting and small I felt after realizing that my perceived value only increased because now Men thought I was hot.
Nothing had changed about me. I didn’t grow. I didn’t put any amount of work into myself as a person. I was still the same self-conscious, neurotic and strange girl that I had always been. I did nothing to earn these benefits or newfound respect— and I certainly didn’t sign up for these consequences. I had just lost some weight!
But now I understand the dynamic. I understand that the closer a woman aligns herself with the beauty standard, the more power in society she holds– and this has bred a sort of obsession in me.
I deeply want to be taken seriously. I want to be loved and I want to be heard. So, while I may want to give myself permission to be a human being– to be sweaty, to be dirty or unkempt– to use my body as a tool rather than strictly ornamentation– I know what I’m giving up. I know how the world works.
And I know how horrible I felt when I was fat. It’s a sort of isolation. A deep loneliness that evolves into a form of hysteria.
There was a book written in 1892 called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s about a woman who is committed to a mental hospital by her husband– a common practice at the time. She is seemingly normal, but after being cooped up in that room with iron bars on the windows, she eventually devolves into hysterical, crazed ramblings about women living in the wallpaper.
I too saw women living in the wallpaper. I’d go full days without speaking a single word and months without ever touching another person.
I used to go on long walks, in the middle of the night in New York City. My headphones blasting music into my ears, my eyes glazed over. I’d be speed walking so closely behind strangers that I just about stepped on their heels.
It’s a kind of psychosis– a feeling like you are invisible. Like you have no effect at all on the world or those around you.
Then, all of a sudden, you’re getting free poke bowls from fast casual restaurants and free drinks from men at bars and favorable impressions from interviewers at jobs– having done nothing but take a couple pills.
It’s crazy! But what’s even crazier is how quickly I forgot the person I used to be.
How quickly my empathy for the invisible fat girl turned into a sense of superiority over anyone bigger than me.
I remember standing in a restaurant in Virginia. I can’t remember the name of it– it was one of those trendy, brunch-type places. There was a wall of green moss running along the entrance and distressed, white farmhouse furniture filled the inside.
I was standing with a group of friends by the hostess station, waiting to be seated. I was wearing pants that I had just picked up from Buffalo Exchange. They were a pair of black, petal-pusher style trousers embroidered in white thread with a Western flair. A curly, decorative lasso looped over my buttcheek, ending with the word “Howdy!” in cursive lettering. They were tight– and they made me look good. But, as with all tight clothes, they required a certain degree of rigid, concentrated posing to be successful– and I was focusing hard on looking good in those pants. Back straight, stomach sucked in, legs slightly crossed, front foot beveled: I was being Hot.
There was a young woman standing across the room. She was overweight, her shoulders sloped inwards, she had long blonde hair pushed in front of her face– hiding. She had all the hallmark signs of someone who was just like me. Someone insecure about their body, someone uncomfortable with having to stand exposed in front of a large group of people, someone just looking to get a little brunch and go about their day.
She looked me up-and-down. Her eyes trained on my stomach. She then looked at her own stomach, took a beat, and drew further into herself.
And this made me feel good. This made me feel like I had “won”. It was disgusting. This woman whose shoes I had worn not too long ago was all of a sudden this “othered” figure. This benchmark for measuring my own “success”.
Now, a couple years later, I’m slowly gaining a little weight back– a product of a happy relationship and an increasingly busy schedule.
Of course it was easy to be thin and put-together and beautiful while I was unemployed. I had all the time in the world to fuss with myself. But now that I work 40 hours a week and come home to a sweet, cheese-loving boyfriend, it’s hard to stay trim and fit.
But I still battle with these feelings. You can’t come back from feeling the difference. I’ve seen how much better people treat me while I’m thin and I understand the social implications of being fat.
I want to be comfortable in my body. I want to be happy and live a full life and not be completely consumed by my image or by my perceived smallness. But I find that the blissful idealism of Body Neutrality is difficult to divorce from the actual reality of gaining weight.