Having previously worked as a university lecturer in Albuquerque, Jonatha Kottler now lives and writes primarily in Europe. Jonatha was one of Edinburgh’s 2016 Story Shop writers and has contributed to ECAS, to the Dangerous Women Project, and to Edinburgh’s Write Like a Grrrl community. Her work has also been published by The Guardian and by 404 Ink in their hit collection, Nasty Women. She is presently writing her first novel, and one of her essays is slated to appear in an upcoming collection entitled No Filter.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.
I recently wrote two articles about being fat. Being fat isn’t new for me, but writing articles about it is. One was published in a collection of essays and was subsequently picked up by a major website in the US. They wanted to re-publish it to help promote the book. It had a moderated comments section and the things people said weren’t all that bad–mean things that I expected, but nothing as mean as I’d heard about, or seen written about other women online (like those who dared to read their own poetry on YouTube and were threatened with death—levels of criticism that Charles Dickens never had to deal with).
I wrote the second article for a major UK newspaper, and there were a lot of comments–about a thousand at the time that I decided I had read enough–and that came as quite a shock to me. They were still not at the level of what some people have come to expect (for doing things like simply playing or writing about video games). I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the comments–I would take the high road and not read them–but of course, I did read some of them. I was glad that I did—there were many friendly suggestions for places I might consider looking for clothes (it was about plus-size shopping) and some people who felt that I articulated things which they couldn’t say themselves. Things I wrote meant something to someone, and that’s part of why we write things, isn’t it? To share our ideas and experiences and hope they connect with someone else.
But then there was one man’s comment–the one that made me wish I’d never looked at any of them, made me even wish I’d missed out on all the kind and important things that others said. It was a comment about my size, and obesity, and how I look and whether or not I should be allowed to take up the space that I take in the world. He read the piece I wrote and went looking for other mentions of me on the internet (I imagine he found some old comments by my students, too!). When he found a link of me at a reading, on YouTube, he linked back to it in the comments section of the article and said, “This is what this author looks like. I don’t think we should normalize this.”
I was caught in this spiral in my head where I couldn’t help but imagine: he read what I wrote–a piece about my own life experiences–and had been so upset about it, disgusted or angry enough to go out and Google me (it doesn’t take long, I know, but I cannot imagine bothering to do this after reading something in the newspaper. After all, it was the first sunny Saturday in April). He’d had a “ha HA!” moment when he found me, looked at my image–on a day when I was pretty proud and happy, doing my first public reading–and decided my image was an excellent exhibit to submit into evidence in the trial, The People v. How Jonatha Kottler Looks. He’d linked the piece in, to save others the arduous task of finding it. He’d felt that he had a point so trenchant that it only needed the 1,000 words my picture stood for to make it.
I try to keep a positive perspective. I’ve had lots of lovely comments and messages–a woman who used the articles to reconnect with her sister and speak honestly on this topic for the first time. My words broke down a wall between them.
But I was thinking about that link. The case against me being normal. Judged guilty by the comments section of your local newspaper and the sentence pronounced: your words don’t matter because your body isn’t normal. And I’m the one who let him in, invited him to have a lovely place at the banquet in my mind, where the smorgasbord includes my self-worth, my dignity, and my desire to put words in public, and he can devour as much as he wants. All for the low, low price of a Google and a copy and paste.
How utterly fucked up is that? He’s fucked up–a moralising asshole who judges and destroys in a few clicks what took much longer to create. And me, I’m fucked up, too, giving him the comfy chair in my psyche.
So, no more. Last call for assholes. You don’t have to go home, but you aren’t allowed to take up space in my mind, my heart. I will not populate myself with the members of the comment section, or be one of those people, either. I am writing a new comments section: the one my body deserves.
You have taken some serious shit, my friend, from the outside world, and also from me. This is a letter of apology to you, for things I’ve thought, and things I’ve done, and things other people have said that I have let burr against you. I pledge to protect to you from this, to be your armour, and to shine that armour with my words of praise.
You are my companion–we have been through everything together. You have held me and taken me places, all the places of my life.
You have battled germs, and made the tears for me to weep when only tears would do. You are there, strong to hold me up, or tired to drag my buzzing head down to rest. From inside you have cradled my thoughts, and laughed to dizziness and known pleasure, somehow, without any help from my Hamlet-swirls of endless thought and decision-indecision-regret.
In spite of all of that, you turned some cells into another person, you transformed food into tiny earlobes, and eyelashes, and a brain, and toenails and a heart muscle. Sometimes old brain here has trouble choosing dinner from a menu, and yet you, quietly, steadfastly, made a completely separate and marvellous human being, and brought him into the world, and fed him and held his hand and held the book of stories and read the words over and again. And all of this while keeping me going, heart, brain, toenails, all moving along.
I have treated you unkindly, giving you too much of some things and not enough of others, and criticizing you all the while. Reducing you into segments to appraise minutely–eyes too narrow, thighs too wide. I have made you into a letter of complaint: the person next to me has got a much better nose, why is she so thin, so beautiful, so glossy, so unwrinkled, when what I got was this.
Recently I described you as an old reliable car–you keep running but if I try to explain you to someone it is as a list of quirks: the passenger window doesn’t open and you can’t listen to the radio and use the windscreen wipers at the same time…
But, Dear Body,
You aren’t a list of complaints, or a series of regrets, or a mass of scar tissue, or a thing to be judged. You are GLORIOUS–a home and a companion and the only one who has been with me my whole life, and instead of wishing you were thin and unwrinkled and not sore, instead of being a quirky car that I’d keep until it wore out but would never buy in this condition, instead of all of that, I will say:
Thank you. Perpetual motion chug chugging heart, expanding lungs, gentle touching fingertips, blinking eyes. Thank you. You deserve my gratitude and my care and my shining armour against those who would hurt you with sticks and stones or words. Dear Body.
Jonatha can be followed on Twitter.