Have you ever been referred to as ‘big’?
Was there an accompanying gesture?
What about ‘large’, or ‘small’?
How did it make you feel?
One of the interesting ways gender imbalance can make itself felt is through the simple mechanics of personal volume – how much space you take up. Generally, men are bigger than women (although this is not true for boys and girls until at least aged twelve, whatever the clothes manufacturers would have you think). How does this manifest itself in language and attitudes? Well, the word ‘big’, for a start. Compare ‘he’s a big guy’ (powerful, intimidating) with ‘she’s a big girl’ (fat, pitiful, unnattractive).
Being large of stature, for men, is usually positive. Tall men earn more and are more attractive to women. Carrying extra weight – up to a point – can be seen as bulky, dominant, commanding. Large is imposing and threatening, with no need to do anything except just be a menacing deterrent, like a bomb. Heavy, weighty, significant, important.
For women? Women usually make themselves more attractive by losing weight. There is a hierarchy for women that assumes slimmer = better. We even have a word – ‘petite’ – for delicately small that is usually reserved for females. Lithe, slim, graceful, lightweight, trivial, inconsequential. We giggle girlishly or flail furiously as men pick us up and put us where they want us.
I, like many 30-something women, am getting bigger. I was reasonably tall anyway, but I’m now the sort of woman you’d avoid carrying without an emergency. Time for a mid-life crisis, an exercise bike in the living room, an expensive gym membership and a series of disgusting powdery food substitute-shakes?
Not at all. Time to take up all my space.
I’m big enough to fight off someone who is trying to take advantage of me. I’m big enough to make a satisfying sound when I walk. I’m big enough for people to notice me. I’m big enough to have some interesting creases that might warrant further investigation (saucy). I’m big enough to stand my ground. I’m big enough to be paid attention in the playground, in the classroom, in the boardroom. I’m big enough to be significant. I always was, but now my physical shape is starting to reflect my big mouth and you know you’re getting plenty of bang for your buck.
I’ve no desire to be obese, of course. I’m healthy, and plan to stay that way. But I don’t need to be skinny to be powerful; I don’t need to be the youngest, frailest thing in the room, or worry if I’m not. I’m not the woman you use as a pawn, or you tell to shut up. I’m not fiddling with distracting clothing that doesn’t suit me or sighing over my plump bits.
I’m standing up and casting a big shadow, and its all mine. I am a big girl.