A tale of fatness, bald-headed Black womanhood, and liking reality TV too much
When I was in 7th grade, after earning a personal best at the pacer, I threw up in front of my entire middle school P.E. class. Multiple classes, actually. Let’s say the whole school was there. How the event unfolded:
The pacer countdown begins and I feel a chill running down my spine
Suffering. I’m a fat kid running the pacer, it’s literal Hell
Victory. I beat a (sad) personal best and finally pass the other chubby kid Vijay, who I don’t like, and reach the class’ lower-median quartile. I’m invincible
Objects are blurring
Why is Mr. Jones looking at me like that
Defeat. I throw up on the sidelines, next to the trash can outside of the gym, and finally, inside the trash can
(If you’re feeling sorry for me, to be honest, I’m not even sure this moment was as emotionally disturbing as it should have been. It got me out of school early.)
Historically, my mode of socializing hasn’t been an easy song to learn or listen to. The beat is unfamiliar; there are awkward stops. You may like it after some time but you’ve got to want something nontraditional.
Samantha Irby, author of We Are Never Meeting IRL, captures this rhythmic movement through life so well, unifying a ragtag band of those of us who felt both wronged by our childhoods, and also kind of feel like the impetus for our downfall. Furious at the boy in 9th grade for making fun of the paint stain on the ass of your gym shorts (the most unfortunate maroon/brown hue), but also wishing you’d been responsible enough to wash it before he noticed, instead of binge-watching The Real World every time you thought of doing it. Or feeling certain with every husky bone in your body that Mrs. Edwards keeps picking on you because you’re one of two black girls in the class. Except. She did catch you in a failed operation last week acquiring fresh Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookies with your best friend during a “bathroom break”.
Samantha Irby is a tall, bald-headed, fat woman with a devoted love for reality TV and processed foods. Raised outside of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois, she began her raw, memoir-ic writings with her blog Bitches Gotta Eat. Since its success, she’s put blog-to-paper– and I say this because her memoir We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is actually a collection of essays with a casual, comedic tone that feels like you are leafing through printed pages of her blog.
She discusses her disabilities, horror stories with dating and desirability politics, the humiliating moments fat and former fat people know too, too well (including a story where she breaks a chair), having deceased parents, and more and more. She also has several hilarious pop culture takes. Actually, that is a great chunk of the book.
“The Bachelorette proves that men are as petty and vapid and ridiculous as women are made to seem. They’re just better at hiding it, because they get to be Real Men and sulk and brood and bottle everything up. These dudes are backstabbing drama queens who are constantly cutting each other down, throwing shade all over the place, and casting more side-eyes than a Siamese cat... (Let’s hit pause on the remote for a second here and say that I do pay very close attention to one or two members of the cast, the black ones clinging for dear life to the inner tubes as they drift helplessly toward the deep end of the dating pool. No, she’s never going to pick Marcus or Jonathan, but she will keep them on life support for however many episodes it takes to satisfy the NAACP. ”
Her ability to fire quips and hot takes in rapid succession without irritating the reader could have made her a best-selling author on its own.
The seemingly unprecedented power behind Samantha Irby’s memoir, however, is that it is a tale (or series of tales, as it is a collection of essays) of a fat black woman fucking up. She is a fat black woman who is fucking up, right in your face, over and over again, rather unapologetically. She’s fucking up forreal and simultaneously treated like a fuck up for simply living in her truth. Either way, she gives us the raw details.
Irby won’t simply state her roundness or disability– she will point out the minute details of her body and its awkward maneuverings. Her boobs aren’t saggy, they flap to and fro during intercourse with a gusto.
Perhaps you can attribute this to simply good writing– that’s fair. Regardless, it is a phenomenal experience for a reader like myself. Often the shame isn’t in the idea as much as it is in the details– the specificity of a memory, or apparent flaws with the body positioned awkwardly. She lays these details out as if spreading an outfit across her bed. At one point, she details a situation that resulted in her pooping outside in the dead of winter, crouched atop a makeshift snow toilet and standing beside a horrified white man.
There’s something literally shocking about this, but not in the most obvious way. A first person narrative shedding light on the parts of yourself you tend to shove into a box, and put in an even bigger box (although some of her stories surprise even me), is a small liberation.
Despite her transparency, her writing is also anxious and self-deprecating. But she also accepts this for the most part. There is peace in this, particularly in your mid-30’s (which she was at the time of writing this book). She is a human with a paradoxically unabashed shame.
I don’t know if I could call Samantha Irby’s memoir a “success story”. That’s not how I remember it at all. She maintains her laser-sharp cynicism until the end, and even amidst revealing the happy partnership she is in that might read as a ‘happily ever after’, there is a radical honesty of the pitfalls and uncertainties.
The personal narratives that line our bookstore shelves like to sell happy endings. They carry a “the journey was ugly” underbelly, however the darker moments are often tethered to the reader and author’s knowing that at the end, everything will be alright. Their glossy endings and lessons learned are less reality-based and more operational, giving us faith in the darkness of now and in the fear of our unknown fates. A comfort and disservice.
. . .
I’m not walking through Safeway with a Naomi Campbell confidence– but I’ve become a much better person to myself recently, and with it came confidence that Lew one year ago knew not of. With a New York Times Best Seller, TV show on the way, and loving partner, I might predict the same for the book’s leading lady.
I wish I had the company of this book years ago. But. Samantha Irby’s rhythm– her movement through life internally and externally, and her honest, deadpan humor in this memoir– will probably always remain at my core. Thanks for speaking my truth, Queen.