THE NAME OF the place (a food service establishment) is not important, nor are the names of the people who worked there with me. The important thing is my rear and how it squeezes into the body image debate in contemporary feminism. More interesting than bitching about my job, no?
The place was set up like this: To get to the cooler at the back of the office, employees had to squish awkwardly behind anyone seated at the desk. One day, a female coworker was seated there while I was retrieving an order. Not wishing to disturb her, I told her my plan: "I'm just grabbing a drink," I said. "Please, don't mind my fat ass."
Let me explain something. This butt comment was a joke. It was not made at the expense of anyone else, not said to elicit sympathy. Most importantly, it utilized the phrase "my fat ass," which is inherently silly. It wasn't about whether or not I have a humongous rear. Only if I appeared on the cover of a fashion magazine would anyone suggest the size of my posterior was overly large, and I will never appear on the cover of a fashion magazine. (Or maybe I'm wrong: Janeane Garafolo was on the cover of Marie Claire and she's practically the queen of drawing attention to her sizable can.) Talking about my body in this way reflects my sense of humor. I also make comedic comments about my birthin' hips, teeny breasts, hair to kill for, goofy teeth, and brown, swallow-you-up eyes I've wondered if I inherited from my parents' German shepherd.
Actually, it's more than my sense of humor. Claiming butt largesse is a political statement. It's a proven feminist strategy for raising consciousness: Opening up about the discrepancies of one's body makes discussing them commonplace, and they cease to be seen as "flaws" at all. It's a short leap from buying a speculum and hand mirror to look at the hidden parts of one's body—the '60s phenomenon some credit with the birth of feminism—to mentioning what else you noticed down there. "Hey, I found my clitoris!" isn't too far a cry from "Wow, my bottom's even bigger than I thought!"
BESIDES, JENNIFER LOPEZ, Marilyn Monroe, and Oprah Winfrey have all acknowledged possession of an uncommon breadth of posterior. So talking about my heaping handfuls of heinie puts me in good company—which not everyone understands.
Thus, when I kiddingly asked my coworker to ignore my expansive hindquarters, she responded in an emphatic yet also snide manner, "Oh! You don't have a fat ass!"
Her response was meant to assure me that my joke was not true. However, further evaluation of her comment revealed to me that: 1) She did not understand I had made a joke. 2) She had evaluated my body and come to her own opinion regarding the size of my rear. 3) She felt compelled to discuss the matter, thus revealing that not only did she believe I believed I had a fat ass, but that I moreover had a problem dealing with my fat ass. And, 4) she dissembled in a way that ultimately implied she thought I did have a fat ass.
My fourth point depends solely on tone. Something about the amount of false sympathy, coupled with snideness, sent a message stronger than her spoken performance. I know that she responded automatically; she was probably raised to see any and all comments about women's bodies as necessarily self-deprecating. Plus, the competitive nature of the trade often makes food service workers of both sexes catty about appearances. However, such humorless denial of the differences between women's bodies only serves to uphold the same oft-derided impossible beauty standards set by popular culture.
I've come up with a solution to such awkward ass-centric conversations. Next time a friend asks you if her pants make her butt look big, I suggest you respond with a gleeful, affirmative "Yes!" Go buy her a cake, find that Garafolo magazine cover on eBay, and thereafter refuse to be seen with her unless she's wearing what you should call "Those wonderful pants that make your ass look so humongous." Maybe she'll end up on the cover of Marie Claire, laughing with the rest of us.