“You should be a model”: public ownership of private bodies

I was at my local coffee shop the other night, taking advantage of sitter time to get some homework done. Because I’d forgotten my headphones, I got to overhear the surrounding conversations. I wish I hadn’t.

I’ve been going to this shop every couple of weeks for months, always with the intention of studying. The two staff members I’ve seen are young, sweet, and attractive, as those who work in indie coffee shops tend to be. One of these young gentlemen has been consistently losing weight over the last long while. It’s definitely noticeable, but as his demeanour and work ethic haven’t changed, it hasn’t registered as that big a deal to me.

It’s apparently a huge deal to a lot of other people.

In the course of my 2.5 hours in the shop last night, I heard several customers address it: “You’re so attractive [now]! You should be a model!” More than once. I had the distinct creepy displeasure of listening to one customer my mother’s age discuss this young man (maybe 15 years younger than me) with her companion for, I shit you not, a good half-hour.

He was far more good-natured than I think I’d have been, but then again, I’ve also worked in the service industry and accepted a lot of inappropriate comments and behaviour for my minimum wage, too, so perhaps I also would have just sucked it up.

As I was leaving, I commented to him that I thought the whole public ownership of his body tonight was gross. He smiled, and told me about his experiences being “felt up for cheesecake,” how he has complained to his boss, and how this is a pretty regular part of what he deals with.

Shouldn’t people know better yet?

He really thought that the women doing this were under the mistaken impression that he’d take their attention as a compliment, almost as a reward for his weight loss, maybe a welcome to the world of the socially acceptably attractive.

Interesting message, though: one is not worthy of another’s attention if one is chubby, but one’s value to others increases proportionately as one’s weight decreases. The public ownership through non-stop discussion of his lifestyle changes is challenging enough. To add the unwelcome physical contact on top of it feels like a violation. Because it is.

Was my waiting to talk to him after his “admirers” had all left the shop a sign of complicity on my part? Maybe. I’d like to think I’d have spoken out if the words were less subtle, or if he’d shown distress. I do think it was important to let him know that not everyone thinks it’s okay to reduce him to one more coffee shop commodity, and not everyone thinks that his personal value has in any way changed simply because his appearance has. I have no idea if it made any difference, but that’s never stopped me before.


1 Comment

  1. Bambi said,

    January 8, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for yet another awesome read 🙂

    You reminded me of the time that I was in a coffee shop ordering and the person behind the counter who had spoken to me a number of times before said “I think you’re crazy drinking so much coffee. No wonder you don’t ever sleep! You know, cutting coffee out of your diet might help you sleep. Plus, hey, it’s a great way to lose a few pounds too! Couldn’t hurt!” and then she just giggled a bit and wished me a good day and carried on like nothing had gone on — cause in her mind, nothing *had* gone on.

    I almost couldn’t believe how offended I was at a comment that she certainly didn’t intend to be hurtful. But that’s the mentality, for sure.

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