In the Dark,
I’m Not Fat and
You’re Not Mean

Michelle Weber
Issue 5, Winter 2022

Is movie theater popcorn good? For the first few bites, maybe, from the top layer that’s crunchy and buttery. The dry middle you eat mechanically; the salty gravel at the bottom, you chuck.

“Popping corn is a dynamite-like foodstuff.

Popcorn goes off like revolutionary sparks,

scattering debris.”

The power of the pop: read Rebecca May
Johnson’s “A Palace for the People.”

Did I get popcorn every time I went to the movies anyway, despite the exorbitant price tag and risk of instant-onset hypertension? Yes. It’s one of the most relaxing, stress-free, pure pleasure foods to eat.

Not because it tastes great, but because I got to eat it in the dark.

* * *

Eating in public is fraught when you’re fat. There is no option that people won’t comment on — if not with words, then with a withering/approving/pitying/scornful glance. A burger and fries? Like I need all those calories. Hummus and celery? I’m finally doing something right! An ice cream cone? How dare I.

Am I eating quickly? Disgusting slob. Slowly? Good girl, chew every bite 50 times.

Death by a thousand sneers and fake smiles. Probably not from you, but maybe you. We all swim in the same fatphobic soup.

There’s no way to hide the fact that I’m fat because of all the, y’know, fat. And contrary to popular belief, fat bodies still do require regular feeding to function, and fat people do sometimes like to leave the house. So I do the work of not paying attention to other people when I’m eating in public, and I do not use the word “work” lightly. Training is required. Practice. Vigilance.

Eating at home was only slightly less fraught, at least until fairly recently. I was put on my first restricted-calorie diet at age 8. Slim-fast at 10, Weight Watchers at 12. Jenny Craig at 15. What that meant: treats were eaten furtively, alone, and as quickly as possible so as not to get caught, the wrappers hidden under the bed and at the bottoms of drawers.

There were rarely leftovers to hide.

Anything forbidden was a treat: boxes of croutons. Butter. Corn flakes. By the time I left home at 17, my relationship to food was profoundly distorted; I pinged and ponged between caloric micromanagement and bingeing, hating myself the whole time and thinking about food always, always, always.

So boring. So pointless. So banal.

So consuming. Consumed by consumption.

* * *

But the movies! The movies were a one-of-a-kind respite.

“If you ask people to tell you about

their memories of going to the movies,

they almost always talk about concess-

ions. The candy their grandmother bought

them, how many pumps of butter flavoring

they put on their popcorn, that time they

ate so much they were sick, or snuck-in

snacks. Movie theaters are about so much

more than the movies we see in them.”

Read the feature that inspired this
essay, “Making Concessions.”

At the movies, it’s assumed that you’re going to get popcorn — even my mother would allow a small bag with no extra butter, believing the fiber was worth the calories. It was a treat, but one untainted by fights or secrecy.

You get to take your popcorn into a movie, where you sit in an actual seat and have 90 minutes or so to eat. There’s no rush, no shoveling. No hiding. No swallowing without tasting.

“The popcorn-eater is not tortured like

Jack in Titanic or Vivian in Pretty Woman,

fretting over which cutlery to use; you

cannot display your class superiority

when eating popcorn in the dark.”

Read more from Rebecca May Johnson in
A Palace for the People.”

And best of all: it’s dark. Everyone’s focused on the screen. When I got older and would treat myself to larger bags of popcorn (extra butter, please), no work was required to tune out the people around me. I could sit, and eat something buttery and salty at my own pace, and turn off the part of me that’s constantly scanning the faces around me to prepare for the next barb and never learning that you can’t prepare yourself to be hated.

At the movies I get to be like everyone else because at the movies, I’m not fat and you’re not mean.

Michelle Weber is the cofounder and editor in chief of Pipe Wrench.