A Guest Article By Janet Conroy Quirk

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I turned 39 on January 8th. Elvis’ Birthday. And David Bowie’s. Two individuals who challenged a lot of restraints and made their mark in history, and certainly had their critics. While 39 is not a milestone in age, it marks an important year for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever opened a year by identifying as a Person of Size. Plus Sized. Big. Curvy. FAT.

This is all still new to me. As recently as a year and a half ago, I wouldn’t go into in an actual Lane Bryant store- I’d only shop online. I cut the size tags out of my clothes just in case I took my cardigan off in a professional setting, or held my coat on the subway. God forbid anyone see the number or the several X’s.

I’m not proud of that mentality.

I have no idea who I thought I was fooling. I’m 5’9” and somewhere around a size 24/26.  And yet, I clung so hard to the idea of passing as a straight size. I wore only black. I stood in between others for pictures. I only posted “up-high” selfies on social media.

A year ago, in January of 2018, things shifted. I became a member of an educational theater troupe that promotes empowerment and body positivity to young people. The first time I met my new colleagues it was over drinks and appetizers.

Nachos.

Pretzels with cheese.

Wings.

I was relieved to experience an absence of the usual food conversation. You know it well: “Take  these away from me! They taste tooo gooood!” “Oh well! Cheat day! I’ll pay for this tomorrow!” “Ugh, I feel disgusting.” At this gathering, there was NO “diet chatter”, as soon I learned it was called. I felt a relief that I didn’t know I even needed. I became focused on learning more about the world of body positivity and awareness of the damage that diet culture causes. I felt great.  

But our most self-punishing habits die hard. Just a few weeks after that empowering evening, I completed a run of my first off-Broadway show. I was feeling fantastic. Two of my closest friends from college came and cheered me on and we took a great photo onstage after the show. One friend posted it on Facebook and tagged me. Later that night, when I saw the photo, I  had a reaction to it that is probably typical of what many people experience in the age of social media. Something along the lines of:

“Omfg! This this needs to be untagged. Why?! My stomach is huge. People who hate me are gonna see this and laugh at me and think I’ve failed at everything in life!”

Yeahhhh. There was a lot to unpack in that outburst.  

The friend I was with at the time  looked at the photo and then simply stared at me until she quietly said, “Your friend posted it because she’s proud of you. She wants people to see what you’ve accomplished.. Why do you want to erase that?”

We then  had a long conversation about who was looking at what photos and why it mattered. Not everything was solved that night, but the shift that had started became a step. And I wanted more than a step. I wanted to be part of the movement.

My dad has a favorite quote from a 1942 speech by Winston Churchill. I’ve come to love it, too:

“This is not the end. Nor is it the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.”

That night was the end of my beginning phase of self acceptance and awareness of who I am and what space I occupy in this world. I pushed forward.

Three months later, I appeared in a YouTube video in which I identified myself by name and clothing size and talked about style and confidence. I felt proud of what I said, but I worried about The Comments Section.

“Just don’t,” a friend advised. “Don’t look. People are idiots. Ignore it.”

I was never going to ignore it. I went through each comment. I read the one that  told me I shouldn’t be allowed to wear clothes and should have to wear a garbage bag in public. I read the one where I was called a beached whale. And the one where someone took the time to track the exact time stamp where I appeared on screen to describe me as sad and of “an unfortunate shape.” Others made general comments about me and the other larger ladies, stating that we were all dying; glorifying obesity; jealous of the thin girls; and “unacceptable.” I attempted to advocate for myself with the company that created the content, with minimal success.

Of all the comments, the one that upset me the most was one where my name was used. Something about hearing “Janet”, followed by hateful, mocking words, enraged me. Janet is my name. It’s what my parents chose to christen me in 1980, after a  complicated pregnancy that put both my mother and I at risk. It’s how my husband addressed me when he promised his future to me on our wedding day in 2009. It appears on two diplomas- my Bachelor’s degree in Communications and my Master’s degree in Social Work. It’s how my friends and family greet me and speak about me. And it’s the name I hope keeps appearing in programs, bylines, cast lists and credits for a very long time.

I see online abuse daily, and I’m learning tools to handle it better. It is a legitimate trauma. However, there are many resources for combatting it.  I report everything. I watch names and and I take words seriously. I follow safety precautions but I also remember that what I’m reading is not feedback. It’s pain. What else can be said about a person who sees a video of a woman speaking about her body acceptance online and writes, “Yeah, but like where’s you’re (sic) neck? lol!”

I’m tempted every day to engage these faceless aggressors. But I know there won’t be a conversation. A productive dialogue can only occur when there is an ability to listen, a motivation to learn and a capacity for respect.

I have instead found support in other areas of the internet. I’m learning the intricacies of language and privilege. I’m invigorated by how much I’ve evolved and been educated. Unlike the literal plus size section, we’re not hiding. We’re out there. We’re talking. I’m just starting to talk, but I’ve got a lot to say.

Janet is my name.  This is my beginning.

Janet’s Website can be found HERE.

The referenced troupe, Realize Your Beauty, can be found HERE.