Black Femme Collective calls for creative nonfiction submissions from Black Queer Femme Storytellers engaging in the theme REST.

big(bitch)

Briana Ladwig
Visual art by Briana Ladwig

I usually refuse to say I was “big” as a child. The kid world was built more for waify white children than it was for me. The size of the slides, the height of the toys, or the width of the seats on the swings—everything else was much smaller than I needed it to be. So, naturally, people blamed my size, as if I could shrink myself down a foot, or lop off my stomach and budding breasts.

When I was eleven, I went to a Dave & Buster’s with family. I had a cousin who was one year older than me but much smaller. His height was always a joke because he, too, wasn’t the right size for a boy his age. When we told the cashier our ages (because children under twelve ate at a discount), she looked directly at me and told me I was lying.

“Excuse me?” I fumed. “I’m eleven.”

She pointed at him, angling her pen downward slightly.

He, I can believe. Do you have a birth certificate?”

I stared at her. How many people brought those to a pizza-serving establishment? This white woman, qualified at identifying legitimate children by her time at Dave & Buster’s, had deemed me Not A Child™ and it was accepted as fact.

My cousin’s guardian ended up getting the lower price, and my mom paid fully for me. She looked embarrassed for me but shrugged. There’s only a year until you’re twelve, anyway. But that wasn’t the point. Was it truly this easy for others to define me, and would no one protest when they were wrong?

This repeatedly happened throughout my childhood. I wasn’t allowed to participate in Easter hunts or play on the toys in the mall while waiting for my mom to finish shopping. My older brother called me his big little sister. The problem was almost always with my height and weight. My mom forbade me from wearing shorts when around grown men because my rapidly growing ass was my fault, and so their wandering eyes were too.

My ex was always excited about the discrepancy between my size, age, and mind.

I was eighteen when we first “met,” online and six months before Tinder took the dating world by storm. One day, after a particularly grueling week of classes, I sat in front of my laptop in sweatpants and vented to him during one of our video calls. He interrupted me mid-rant to mention that I, a high school senior, looked like a jaded college student already. He was intimidated by my stature, he claimed. But he was two years older than me.

After this, he only ever mentioned my age whenever he felt like being the mature one or, rather, when he needed to shame me into doing something “an adult might do.”

All other times, he left himself to be babied by me as much as possible. I defended him in the hospital from transphobic nurses interested in jamming a catheter up his genitals because he wasn’t using the bathroom fast enough. My appearance alone made them think twice about pinning him to the bed, and that seemed to be what I was best for.

Even when we got a dog together, he was happy to take on the role of the light-hearted owner while I was the iron-fist.

He was half my weight, size, and complexion, and he used this dichotomy to his advantage. 

When I quit my first professional role with a Boston-based group gentrifying the neighborhood they claimed to help, he said, “This is the first time you’ve ever shown your age. This is the first time you’ve ever been so childish.”

I was embarrassed, even though the decision had been right for me. I didn’t want to be the outward face of an organization that shafted its neighbors while claiming to provide affordable, mixed-income housing. This realization took place a few months into the job, after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new complex. Before I took photos of smiling community representatives and a board of housing developers pushing shovels into the ground, a resident from an older building across the street approached my team.

 “What the hell is this?” she asked. “You didn’t notify us of anything coming up in our area.” My team member, a community organizer whom the woman targeted her complaints at, eventually stuttered out, “Well, Danielle here is our Communications Associate, so you can put in a complaint with her,” before scurrying away.

Not knowing what else to do, I tried to pass off a business card to the woman and tell her she could email me. She looked at my hand and scoffed. She was a tall, older Black woman with an array of tattoos going up her arm. Her voice was deep and her lips dark. We looked as if we could be family. And maybe that’s why my coworker felt I could better handle her irritability. Maybe that’s why they had hired me in the first place. 

I was only twenty-two then, so I didn’t know why it was so horrible to act my age and quit. To be rebellious at the right time.

As a kid, I had gangly friends who ran their mouths off at other girls and then stood squarely behind me when those girls approached, using me as a shield. I never actually fought anyone for them but looking like I could was enough. As an adult, I’ve had other women, usually older and white but not always, jump when I walked past them as if I’d snatch a single hair strand from their swiveling heads. I’ve had potential employers nearly shoot their eyebrows off their faces when asking if “it’s okay” to run a CORI check. I nod enthusiastically. The history they assume I will have is not there. I’m still rarely hired.

I find comfort in other tall or fat people, especially when they are also Black. I know that they, too, have been experienced as aggressive in their lifetime, no matter how their true personality may come across.

I have wanted to buck at the women who have gripped their purses when I walked past, and the women who jumped when I said, “Good morning.” Perhaps I feel this pull due to years of seeing the biggest characters in cartoons, shows, and movies portrayed as the meanest. Of course, there is occasionally the soft sidekick, usually afraid of their own shadow. But the bully is often the fattest and tallest person in the cast, and we rarely know why. It’s implied that it’s in their nature. 

 

I have tried over the years to be mean, but I usually find that punishment is swift and harsh.

In the third grade, two little boys were my best friends, and they both confessed they liked me. I’m not sure if they actually did; I think they just didn’t realize that a girl could be as rowdy as I was, and it stirred up feelings. I was overwhelmed and disinterested. This was going to ruin our playground dynamic. I asked another friend for advice, and, of course, the news ended up making its way around our classroom.

One day, another one of our classmates approached me as I sat pensively on the swing set, pushing my sneakers into the sand. She began to sing, Danielle and Samuel sitting in a tree.”

I looked up quickly and yelled at her to stop. But she continued. My immediate response was to sing back at her, so I chose her best friend, ”Kathrine and Malorie sitting in a tree.”

She got red-faced very quickly. “That’s not okay! Stop before someone hears you!”

I kept singing loudly, laughing as I did so. “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” 

She shoved me.

I shoved her back with all my might. She spilled over, and her white girl tears began to fall loudly. A playground monitor stormed over to us and yelled in my face in a way I had never seen her yell at any other kid, “What did you DO?”

The only kid I ever successfully bullied was a girl I knew through my church. We were frenemies. When I said I was going to wear a particular color, she said she would do the same. When she said she was ready to get baptized, I did because she did, and I didn’t want her to beat me. But, at the same time, we had a crush on each other. We even kissed.

One evening, when I spent the night at her house, her mother caught us. The door swung open suddenly. I can’t remember which one of us went to hug her mother at her core as some sort of distraction. It didn’t work. Her mother separated us. When her mom asked me where I had seen that “type of stuff,” I told her, “in a movie.” I wasn’t sure if I was lying or not.

She smugly told my mother what I had done the very next morning when she came to pick me up. They made me wait in the car. Mom returned after an agonizing twenty minutes, mortified, and yelled at me until I couldn’t stop crying.

“This better be a fucking phase,” she said as we drove home at top speed.

Back then, my mother was annoyed that I was queer, but the bigger problem was that she was frenemies with my friend’s mother as well. Mom was a single parent who lived in a roach-infested apartment with her badly behaved kids. My friend’s mother had two prim children, a massive house in the suburbs, and a loving pastor for a husband. I was the fat black sheep leading her daughter down a dark path. 

Despite this, my brother and I were relatively clever, and my mom liked to brag about that. My crush’s mother often asked about the gifted-and-talented courses I took and eventually signed her up for the test. Two years after the incident, my crush passed and became my classmate. We hadn’t hung out with each other since.

Angry that I was blamed and humiliated, and sure it was because I was labeled as the aggressor, I leaned into my role. I was mean to her. I laughed at her with other girls. I mocked her to her face and behind her back. Even the awful white girls who were my bullies noticed how much we disdained each other and watched us with daily fascination. To them, it was a strange rivalry.

But the both of us understood that seeing each other every day reminded us of the “sins” our families berated us for, so despite having been skin-to-skin just a few years earlier, we were now antagonists in each other’s life stories.

What fascinated me most was how much I was able to get away with regardless of what I actually felt about her—which, over time, was nothing but internalized shame. If I ever shoved her, no one would run up to my face, scream at me for the offense.

This spring, I went on a date with a person taller than me. She made me feel shy for some reason. I didn’t have to crouch to her height or talk softer to come across as kinder than I might be so that she wouldn’t feel nervous. It was a well-needed change of pace.

We were at the Earth Day celebration in George Floyd Square on a seasonably cold day in Minneapolis. I, in a red sundress, suggested that she, in a cheetah-print coat, join me on a hunt for snacks as soon as she arrived. We weaved through vendors serving vegan soups, teens hocking pins to raise money for local organizers, and screaming children playing tag in the blocked-off street. Despite our clothing choices, no one looked at us twice and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because we looked made for one another.

We talked a bit about light-hearted things like a group of singers lining up to serenade the audience and our flashy outfits. Then, as we circled a giant metal fist raised in solidarity, we talked about how we felt after the trial. She told me that she was an abolitionist, and so she knew that the outcome wouldn’t matter unless we made strides to defund and abolish the police as well as the prison-industrial complex. I agreed, but I stayed honest and referred to myself as an aspiring abolitionist. Because, though I have read Angela Davis, it felt really good to see a murderer taken away in cuffs, even knowing it was performative and placating. We laughed as we talked about his eyes darting back-and-forth as if he was surprised not to be immune from this outcome.

When we couldn’t locate the tamales promised on social media, we walked a few blocks away to a Dairy Queen and sat outside to have ice cream, the wind whipping my eyes into a tearful, steady drip. We cracked jokes about our overbearing families, and queried each other on our favorite film genres—we both liked horror—until we sat in silence.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. It was quite the opposite, but I found myself at a loss for words. I stared at her silver locs and dark skin. I felt her eyes scan my face too. What I planned to say had flown from my mind. For the first time, I was with someone who required nothing more from me than my presence and seemed happy to give the same in return. We simply were, without expectation. I simply was, without the weight of being shamed.

Briana Ladwig
Briana Ladwig is a Black, queer, mama illustrator based in Lawrence, Kansas whose work centers around Black Liberation, decolonizing storytelling, generational healing, and afrofuturism. She grew up learning to draw on the floor of her dad’s art studio, receiving a natural education from closely watching his work as a master book illustrator. She now draws inspiration from the cycle-breaking work of her ancestors and Black speculative fiction, especially the works of Octavia Butler. Bri’s favorite medium is lush, textured watercolors under detailed pen lines. Bri is currently working on an illustration/design degree at the KU while doing freelance illustration work from home.
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