A man stopped me as I was walking out of the grocery store the other day and said, “Hey, Big Guy, you got some money to help me out?” I had my hands full. My pockets were empty, and I was in a rush, so I stammered that mashed-up phrase “SorryIdon’thaveanything.” Then he said, “Come on, Big Guy. Help me out,” as he followed a couple footsteps behind me. And it just hit me wrong that day, so I spun on my heels, right in his face, and snapped, “I told you once, I don’t have anything.”
I hate doing that. I really don’t mind people asking for money—it’s kind of like white noise after you live in New York for a while. The problem wasn’t the ask, or even the insistence. The problem was the “Big Guy” part.
I spun back around and darted into the crosswalk. My partner jogged to catch up to me and said, “You okay?”
“Do you ever get pissed off when—”
“Someone calls me Big Guy? Yeah, all the time.”
Most days, I handle it with a laugh and a little eye twitch. Other days, when I’m not in a good mood at the grocery store, I bite back, and I feel bad afterward. I don’t think anyone uses Big Guy with malice. It’s generally reserved for two occasions: the comically hyperbolic (typically when addressing a baby or a small dog) and, more commonly, as a moniker for the actual big guy in the room. Big Guy is a nice way of calling a man “physically comfortable.” Large, in a nonmuscular way. A Big Guy is supposed to be the fat and friendly person who brings the party. Billy Bob from Varsity Blues or Chris Farley on SNL. It’s the husky jeans of pet names.
I’ve heard the phrase for thirty years. Sometimes I’m svelte, and sometimes I’m… less so. It’s in my un-svelte times that I’ve heard it, usually when people don’t know my name and instead use the most identifiable thing about me to get my attention.
On vacation at the beach, someone would ask me to throw a Frisbee back, saying, “Hey Big Guy, can you toss that over here?” There’s the more overt moments—eighth grade, near the near-end of the mandatory mile run when my gym teacher said, “Come on Big Guy. One more lap.” I don’t remember him ever calling me by my name, actually.
As a man, it seems silly to point out a phrase like Big Guy because there’s a masculine expectation that we should take it. Words shouldn’t bother men. And then there’s the assumption that we shouldn’t be bothered because becoming a Big Guy is something we’ve done to ourselves. Pretty shameful to let yourself go, isn’t it, Big Guy? Yeah, almost as shameful as getting upset at someone else about it.
Even sitting here writing this, I keep thinking to myself, “Justin, you’re being too sensitive. You’ll draw more attention to yourself by complaining.” And I’d be willing to bet at least a few of you reading this are thinking the same. We’re all working with the same kind of fucked-up logic when it comes to how men are supposed to function. But it also might be worth asking yourself why men are supposed to be unbothered by the way people quite literally call out other people’s body sizes with smiles on their faces?
As one of those guys who has waffled between average and big, Big Guy encapsulates everything I feel about being on the larger side of life. Being a Big Guy comes with the expectation that you’re going to stay quiet about it. I don’t ever remember being pulled into conversations about body positivity or body dysmorphia. I was taught that talking about your body size or showing any kind of discomfort about it was a sign of weakness. If you don’t like your body or the names people come up with for you, change it! Lift weights! Eat less! It never occurred to anyone that maybe there was something wrong with the rest of the world. That perhaps, instead of me working on not being sensitive, there are people in the world who need to work on thinking twice before they speak. That disguising overt insults as chummy banter might be as big of an ailment as reacting sensitively.
I get spicy about it because, listen: Basically, you’re calling me fat. To my face. In front of other people. And then you justify it by coating it in chocolate (wait, let me try this one: “Like you need that, right?) and pretending I’m the one with the problem. If that all seems over the top, let me tell you a quick story about my favorite bar: As we were talking with the bartender, this drunk regular who always talks about gambling walked up and asked me and my friend if we were dating. She told him no and joked, “He’s not my type.” He said, “I don’t know why. He’s a good lookin’ guy. The Big Guy just needs to” and then he put his hand on my stomach and (I’m not making this up) jiggled the contents around with his hand “just lose a little bit of this gut.”
And I like my bar, so I sat there and I took it—considering what throwing a punch might do; considering what trying to recite this essay to him might look like; considering that no matter what I did, I was in the wrong. It’s permissible because society regards fat, male bodies as fair game.
What this guy did might feel like an extreme, but it isn’t. It’s a product of the pipeline of body criticism. Bodies that scale larger than the norm are squishy things to be poked and prodded. Joked about and played with. But if I looked at that man and said, “Listen, you drunk, gambling fuck. Take a lap, get your life together, and fuck off,” like I wanted to, that would have been an overreaction and an insensitive way to address his behavior. Those are addictions; taboo to wade into that space. But with fatness, we’re not so kind. We’ve settled on: You’re a fat guy? You did that to yourself.
I think that’s why Big Guy has thrived. A barb like that only takes root if you ignore it; ignore it long enough and it sounds as natural as calling someone “pal” or “bud.” But Big Guy is like a warble—this insect larvae that burrows under the skin of wild animals. My dad told me about them growing up, hunting in Tennessee. They’re practically invisible, but they get in under the skin and they eat and grow. The wound festers. To the naked eye, it doesn’t look like much because the animal’s fur usually covers it, but underneath, the animal suffers. It’s incredible how many things in the world we don’t see.
Big Guy is a phrase that carries all the sins of how men are taught to talk about (or not talk about) their bodies and their self-perception. And the worst part about it is that the last person you’d want to hear about it from is the Big Guy himself. He’s the guy who’s supposed to liven up the room. So what if, instead, you were the one who brought the problem up? You nixed Big Guy from your friend group’s lexicon? I’m already carrying enough, remember?
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