“You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? That ‘you’re not fat.’”
At 5’4” and about 167 pounds, according to my last Wii Fit weigh-in, the digitally-rendered Mii version of myself and I are firmly within the Orange Alert “overweight” category, according to both the federal government and the fitness experts at Nintendo. Granted, those same Nintendo engineers freaked out an entire generation of female high school athletes when the Wii Fit made its U.S. debut in 2008, by telling them they too were borderline obese. However, my Mii (which is automatically plumped up according to my real-life gravitational pull) and I are not confusing muscle mass for extra LB’s. The worn-through holes in the inner thighs of my Old Navy Rock Stars are frustrating evidence enough for my pear-shaped, student-budget self. And though I don’t aim to lose the two dozen or so pounds my now-antique video game console recommends, primarily because I would simply look weird, it would be nice to throw on a shirt and jeans without worrying if my navel is peeping through the gap at the bottom of a button-down.
That being said, I’m not sure if I am seen by others as “fat.” Several people (excepting grade-school bullies and a particular ex-boyfriend) have specifically informed me that I am “not fat” Obviously the spectrum of body shapes is highly variegated, but my place on it has long been difficult for me to define. So, while watching the latest episode of Louie this past Monday, I found myself identifying more than I initially expected with Vanessa, the above-quoted “fat girl,” especially during the episode’s poignant closing, when Vanessa elegantly calls Louie out on his well-meaning and perhaps unintentionally backhanded bullshit. It was a rare televised blow struck on behalf of the “fat,” the “not fat,” and everyone else who -- like Louie and Vanessa both, as they stroll into the sunset hand in hand, understanding each other through touch as much as humor -- runs around in potentially lovable and routinely devalued skin. Rather than digressing into an oversimplified binary of what is and is not considered attractive, the episode skillfully alludes to vagaries of personhood that extend beyond weight. Being a fat girl in the dating world sucks, Vanessa says, breaking a taboo of what she isn’t supposed to say, but so does a range of characteristics that might mysteriously reclassify someone as supposedly unworthy and unwanted.
Vanessa is a sharp-witted server at the West Village comedy club where Louie is a regular. After she catches Louie’s set one night, she tells him she loves “seeing him up there,” though she “hates comedy.” (She herself is clearly more talented than at least one of the male comedians shown on stage; Louie observes her cracking up Ed Burns and hobnobbing with Dave Attell.) Vanessa is honest, hilarious, attractive, and fat. She forthrightly asks Louie out, but he begs off, saying that “he’s tired.” “Oh my God, are you going to be okay?” she says, forehead wrinkling with over-concern. “You should have said something before, I didn’t know you were tired.”
It’s also implied that Vanessa is better at her job than employees like the pretty, slender young blonde named Sunshine, who shuts Louie down when he clumsily asks, “Is that really your name?” Dealing with a crabby customer waiting too long for his check, Vanessa says, “I’m not your waitress, but let’s go find her and kick her ass.” If I didn’t want to be friends with this fictional person from her first appearance, I definitely wanted to from that moment onward.
Vanessa’s approach with Louie reverberated with my own so truly that I cringed while watching her give him thousand-dollar hockey play-off tickets because she’s busy on game night, and subsequently convince him to grab a cup of coffee with her, with the implied caveat that it’s not exactly a date. (She still pumps her fist in victory.) As far as spending time with another human being goes, Louie and Vanessa’s not-date is enviably good. They obviously click on several levels; later, Vanessa tells Louie that if someone were watching them from a few yards away, they would see a great couple in action. Yet, throughout his interactions with her, you can see the half-fictionalized Louie/Louis trying to process conflicting input and impulses. Here’s a woman who is fun, clever, generous to a fault, and who genuinely likes him, his gastronomical “bang bang” adventures notwithstanding. Dave Attell seems to vouch for her. And Louie himself is “nobody’s bargain,” to quote the Boss. So what’s the problem? We’re all riders on this train, and there’s no mercy in this town, so why is what Vanessa’s asking too much?
The answer might lie in Jim Norton’s one-word reaction when he sees Vanessa at the club: “Yuck.” After all, what could be more disgusting than a compelling woman who would accept Louie as he is, without forcing him to conform to an artificially higher standard? Tellingly, Louie says nothing. That moment foreshadows the conversation he and Vanessa have about calling dating “trying” at the end of their vague hang-out session. “Try dating as a fat girl in your early thirties,” she tells him, inviting his wan, conciliatory contradiction, “You’re not…you’re…”
“Oh Louie,” she sighs, already disappointed before he says, “You’re not fat.”
Thus begins Vanessa’s wrenchingly honest monologue about living as a fat girl in New York City. “Why do you hate us so much?” she asks, admitting that she’s choosing Louie to represent “all guys,” as she is representing “all fat girls.” “What is it about the basics of human happiness --- you know, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us --- that is not in the cards for us?” This is something I have mulled over many times, openly challenging my late mother’s installed voice that tells me, as she did when I was an intense high school junior, I have “everything a man could want,” a lingering and enigmatic phrase.
“If I was ‘very, really beautiful,’” which Louie calls Vanessa post-“not fat,” “then you would have said ‘yes’ when I asked you out,” she says, adding that the “high-caliber” guys flirt right back with her, because they know their status and social power won’t be compromised. Meanwhile, the “regular” guys, including the great Louis C.K., refuse to bat an eyelash at her, “because they get scared that they should be with a girl like me. And why not?” What is dangerous about being with a person like Vanessa, an overweight but confident grad school nerd like myself, or any number of the amazing women I know, who have a variety of bodies and somehow routinely become friends with men they like, instead of lovers? A lack of mutual attraction is one thing, but repeatedly falling into the “she’s great, but…” category causes a person to start asking questions more frequently. Meanwhile, the warm embrace of gentle rejection that Louie describes as a special female talent at the beginning of the show, and which he employs himself, becomes less and less comforting.
And as the episode clarifies, it’s not a matter of sex. “I didn’t ask if you ever fucked a fat girl,” Vanessa tells Louie. If she had simply offered a quickie in the stock room, she says, he would have jumped at it. Vanessa then lays it on the line, speaking for many: “I can get laid --- any woman who is willing can get laid. I don’t want that. I don’t even want a husband or boyfriend. I just want to hold hands with a nice guy, and walk and talk.” Louie finally takes her hand, and as they amble toward the horizon, he tells a fat lady joke, the best possible ending to the show.
Part of the episode’s brilliance lies in exploring why that simple, public display of intimacy can be so threatening, especially when the person on the other end of the held hand is, according to the sliding scale implemented by our societal hive brain, demonstratively imperfect. Sarah Baker’s portrayal of Vanessa incisively tackles the interwoven, rat-king-like nest of issues surrounding culturally-approved body images and actual desire, but the genius in Louie’s writing is that “fat” could, with minimal adjustment, be swapped out for a range of alleged flaws. This is a specific story, but with threads that tie it to a number of all-too-human experiences.
A few years ago, on what would become the most surprisingly romantic evening of my three decades plus on Earth, a friend of mine suddenly changed the game and opened my heart just by taking my hand as we walked down the street to a party. Unfortunately, this took place in London, and more unfortunately, said friend still lives and teaches in one of the world’s most famous college towns outside of the UK’s bustling capital. An Atlantic-sized ocean of time has now passed, stretching the endurance of perceived destiny and slowly eroding whatever true feeling passed between us.
Since then I have had enough spontaneous and short-lived adventures to keep a girl occupied, but maybe too often I’ve returned to the thought of that night, and that feeling, especially because, as one of my male friends said recently while discussing the vicissitudes of dating, “You do have people who like having sex with you.” Sure. Most of them have been “good guys,” as Vanessa describes Louie. Sometimes they’ve even bought me coffee or walked me to the subway the next morning.
But rarely have they held my hand.
Kathleen Brennan is a history PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Occasionally she writes and edits non-academic things at her home in Brooklyn, NY.