Why I Love Eating In Public

Courtesy of Marie Southard Ospina

I love food. I'm not supposed to say this because I'm fat, but give me some Vosges bacon chocolate, a classic cheeseburger on a bun (no pickles), or some Cajun chicken pasta with mushrooms and red peppers, and I'm basically yours. To me, food is essentially beauty incarnate. It offers the nourishment needed for survival, but it's much more than that — it can be the centerpiece of group activities; a catalyst for further bonding with the friends or family that you actually like. And let's not forget that cooking it can be quite the activity, as well — messy and, at times, spontaneous and often very likely to go incredibly wrong, but still quite the laugh. But even more than the food itself, perhaps, I love eating in public.

I didn't used to, though. As my chubby child self metamorphosed into a chubbier teenager and eventually a fully-fledged fat human, eating in public became complicated. A younger Marie would go to Applebee's with her high school friends, most of whom took up less space than she did. They'd order nachos (topped with myriad greasy meats and cheeses and spicy sauces). They'd purchase heaps of pizza and chicken Caesar wraps and those miniature pigs in a blanket that, admittedly, looked better than they tasted.

Then, she'd arrive at a well-known conundrum: Should she partake in the calorific taste-testing with her buddies, in plain view of judgmental passerby, and risk the, "Shouldn't you, like, eat a salad?" remark? Or should she order that salad, only for the waiter to give her that familiar stare? "Aw, look at you. It's so cute of you to try," it seemed to imply — to try to lose weight, to try to be smaller, to try to be "better." As if the only reason a fat person could possibly choose something "healthy" off the menu would be the desire to shrink themselves.

Courtesy of Marie Southard Ospina

I've known a lot of fellow fat people in my 26 years. Some have spent their lives riddled by culturally-designated insecurities. They, like most women and femmes (regardless of size), have been taught that life cannot be lived as fully within a fat body as it can be within a thin one. A life of adventure, travel, fire clothes, and even more fire sex? Nah, fatties don't get those things, so they say. They must first shed all the "excess" weight.

I spent a good portion of my life subscribing to those ideals, too. I totally get where they come from, and I totally get how easy it is to call yourself "garbage" when everyone else is doing it. So I'd allow every seed of internalized fatphobia to make me skip meals altogether. "I'm fine with a drink," I'd tell my friends. "I'm just not very hungry."

Logically, I knew that people could already tell I was fat. No amount of black clothing or "flattering" silhouettes would ever actually hide the evidence of my double chins or back boobs. But, somehow, eating food in public — especially if the foods were readily considered "unhealthy" — felt like the pinnacle of my deplorability. Like a mouth full of fries or a drop of ketchup down my chin would serve as proof that I was undisciplined and greedy and disgusting.

At some point, however, I started meeting more fat people who deviated from the cultural expectations thrust upon them. Rather than swallow the belief that they should be filled with self-hatred due to the amount of physical space they take up, they were rebellious. They wore crop tops and bikinis. They shed light upon the ways size discrimination and fatphobia can affect healthcare, conviction rates, employment, and day-to-day bullying.

They didn't learn these things and turn the critique onto themselves, though. Instead, they critiqued the mentalities and institutions set in place that continue to shame, ridicule, and heckle those with larger bodies. They were able to deem fatantagonism a cultural problem that affects everyone (including thin people who either fear getting fat or shame those who are) without not turning themselves into the villains of the story. They were not an "epidemic." They were the cure to one.

One of the first times I dined with a group of fat, radical women, I took notice of the way they ate in public. They ordered what they wanted, plain and simple, without second-guessing those decisions. Some had salads; others had hot dogs. Some wanted soup; others wanted only dessert. Their choices were seemingly based not only on desire, but on answering the question, "What's going to make me feel good today?" It was such a fulfilling way of going about things, and I suddenly couldn't believe I'd wasted so many opportunities to do the same.

As I continued to watch them that night, every bite of food they took felt like a little act of resistance. All around us were thin people, thin waiters, thin onlookers. I could tell that some were getting a kick out of the table of fatties indulging in such gluttonous, "cliche" behavior. And that's exactly what made the simple act of eating so powerful. It felt like a giant fuck you to every before and after photo, to every "lose the belly flab now" advertisement, to every glossy magazine claiming that fat people don't get to wear crop tops, and to every person who'd ever laughed at us on the street, hurling insults faster than any one of us could inhale a milkshake.

Surrounding myself with rule-breaking fatties has changed my life in more ways than one. Before them, I never believed that I could make dietary or fitness choices based on carefully curating the practices that best feed my body and soul, with no preoccupation for weight loss thrown into the mix. I certainly never believed that I was entitled to public displays of eating — and, as a result, to public displays of unapologetic fatness.

These days, however, I know that I am entitled to such displays. Some folks may look at my chins as they stretch to accommodate that burger or meatball sandwich or even a veggie panini. They may deem me a cautionary tale, a reminder not to eat "too much," lest they want to end up like me. Others may take the opportunity to chastise me directly. "You better not eat that," some will say. "That's enough now, piggy," others will muse.

Courtesy of Marie Southard Ospina

But as long as such people are out there, I know I will continue to eat in front of them. I will show off what feels, to me, like an incredibly healthy appetite, in much the same way that I show off my visible belly outline year-round or cellulite-emblazoned thighs come summer.

Food is one of the many magical things life has to offer, after all. And contrary to all those guidelines and (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) rules for How To Conduct Yourself When Living In A Fat Body, it's not off-limits to me, simply because my ass doesn't fit in that deck chair over there.

Like so many things I once believed could only be experienced once the weight was lost — be it romance or fashion or self-love — I relish in my reclamation of all things edible. With every unapologetic bite I take in front of others — with every stretching of my chins — I remind myself that I deserve to take up space. I am as entitled to the luscious sensation of ice cream trickling down my cheeks on a sunny spring afternoon as anyone else. I am entitled to live.