Ambergris and Apathy: When Whales Speak Out to an Empty Sea
If this piece speaks to you, consider subscribing to my Patreon, which enables me to write things like this instead of pitching to media outlets who will ask me to tone it down? Thank you in advance!
“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale
I have been fat for my entire adult life, and much of my teens. I don’t recall being bullied for it directly by other kids, though I assume I probably was — the world in which I lived was mostly one of whispers behind hands and not being invited over, rather than one with direct aggression. I postured as the aggressive one, if anything, protecting myself in a prickly sort of way by dressing Goth (the only fashion with clothes that fit my curves, but I wore them like it was a defiant choice) and a reputation for bullying bullies that kept people at a distance.
I was raised in a household that told me my body was neutral, not inherently good or bad. I took karate and prided myself on my strength, if not my grace. I didn’t feel especially alienated by my body until I was in residential living, where doctors and therapists told me my fatness was an indication of something deeply wrong with me. There’s an irony to that, I think, in that I went into these establishments for my mental health and emerged with an eating disorder brought on by medically imparted trauma.
I was merely “overweight” at that point, but was already coming up against barriers to healthcare. I was having pain in my left knee? Must be my weight (it was an ACL tear, and I’m still in physical therapy trying to regain movement and stability). I was having lower back pain? Must be my weight (it was a vertebra that was half the size it was supposed to be, but I didn’t get an MRI for 20 years). My eating disorder went untreated until I collapsed at work, needing to be hospitalized and force-fed even as doctors complimented me on losing weight. The “lessons” I learned about food in my late teens would negatively impact me for years afterward, causing me to have panic attacks in the kitchen and refuse to eat in front of other people. I still have to force myself to eat at parties.
Ambergris is the waxy grey substance that comes from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. It’s thought to be a product of protection against irritation in the intestine while the whale tries to digest the beaks of cuttlefish and squid, their main foods. It smells awful when fresh, but when dried and hardened, it becomes a valuable ingredient in perfume, preventing scent from dissipating as quickly.
It was (and still is, despite trade restrictions) so sought after that whales became endangered as a result, with 50,000 being killed per year until the commercial practice was ended in the 1980s. Still, whales are hunted under other titles, most often scientific research — Japan has since resumed commercial whaling, and ecological protections to fight climate change are being whittled away in the United States. We love whales, but not enough to protect them in any way that matters.
It’s been over 18 years since I was hospitalized for an eating disorder. I am now double the weight I was back then, and in many ways, I am happier. I have a much healthier relationship with food, I cook almost everything I eat from scratch every day, and I no longer starve myself to prove I have control. I have a doctor who is more interested in making my current body function at the best level it can, rather than trying to force me to diet or undertake surgeries. I don’t put up with people in my life who try to tell me how I should feel about my body, what I should eat, or how I should live. For the most part, I had made my peace in my 30s and considered the issue mostly behind me.
Then the Covid 19 pandemic happened. A lot of lessons were learned during the pandemic, especially in the world of public health. We learned a lot about what exactly we feel we owe to the most vulnerable in our societies (spoiler: apparently not much). Millions died. People are still dying. Still others are living with long Covid, something we still don’t fully understand the implications of.
I remember the day I read that doctors were planning on refusing fat people ventilators when they were in short supply. They cited BMI in these triage guidelines, an outdated and scientifically unsound practice but one that any fat person hears about on a regular basis anyway. Fat people were being dehumanized, our bodies the reason why we didn’t deserve to live as much as another person, not just by “Hollywood” or “the media”, but by the very people we were trusting with our health.
I shut the door on society after that. I haven’t really come back out again.
There are two whales I think about a lot. One is the subject of a documentary on Hulu called The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52. Scientists have determined him to be male, and probably a hybrid of some kind, but have never seen him. His whale song is thought to be too high for most whales, and so he calls out but no one seems to respond, hence his sad nickname. He hasn’t been heard from in any conclusive way in years. It’s harder and harder to hear whale songs generally, as human shipping containers and submarines fill the oceans with noise. We are creating more lonely whales as we continue to trash the planet for our short-term gain.
The other I think about a lot is Tokitae, a 52-year-old orca who was stolen in the 1960s and 1970s, along with most of her pod, and dumped into the chlorinated water at Miami Seaquarium. Many of her family died for the sake of “entertainment”, and the quest to see her released back to her home, to be slowly reintroduced to her pod, has raged on longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t think it’s surprising that she was renamed Lolita by the men who sought to deny her agency and refused to just leave her alone.
I was trying to explain to my therapist why I was staying home, 3 years after the first lockdown hit California. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot as my friends began to tentatively step out and socialize again, but I continued to stay withdrawn. I have lots of reasons — Covid still exists and I’m afraid of long Covid, it’s difficult to relearn how to socialize with anxiety when you’re sober, I have chronic pain that many spaces don’t accommodate.
But while all of those are reasonable answers, I realized I have become agoraphobic, scared of crossing the threshold. I scurry to physical therapy and back, to the animal shelter and back, rarely spending time away unless I have to. I order my groceries delivered, despite the fact I rarely get what I ordered. I dress up and do my makeup only to stay at home and wipe it all off again, never seen by anyone else.
“I’m fine,” I tell myself, and it’s at least mostly true. I feel less clingy about other people. More secure in myself. I broke up with my boyfriend over 2 years ago and I haven’t much felt like finding another partner, satisfied instead with reinvigorating my love of books and baking. I take my meds, I exercise my body, I putter about doing the shores. For the most part, I’m content.
I realized, though, that I am also avoiding the world. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly for the longest time until I began to see all the media praise for a new movie. The Whale.
In Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, the focus of the book, Captain Ahab, is chasing a white whale, recklessly and with a dogged determination that will destroy him in the end. What the whale represents depends on the person — some see the whale as just a whale, others see the whale as a dangerous brute, still others see the whale as a prize to be won. Ahab himself seems to waver in what the whale means, between symbol and tangible.
In the end, he harpoons the whale in a quest for revenge against the power of nature, a thing he cannot control and thus sees as evil and destructive. It drags him down, drowning him in the sea, along with most of his crew. He goes down still screaming about wanting to conquer this whale, even as he knows he’s lost. The book suggests that there will probably be another Ahab someday, trying to assert dominion over something because it exists beyond his control and that will not stand.
I was always rooting for the whale, myself, but apparently, that’s not what I was supposed to get from the book.
I don’t need, really, to go into detail about why “The Whale” fucking sucks for fat people. Roxanne Gay and Lindy West did a great job of illustrating that in their pieces, I can’t imagine I’ll do better. What I will instead say is how it impacted me, personally, as a fat person who is a little over half the weight deemed “alienating” by both the playwright and director.
I watched in horror as people who were not fat, many of whom had never been fat, many of whom posted New Years Resolutions about losing weight and “getting in shape” as if the two were one and the same, praised this film featuring an average sized man in a fat suit. “It’s so HUMANIZING,” they said glowingly. “So INTENSE and MEANINGFUL and SAD!” Some people I knew who self-identified as “ex-fat” said how relatable the film was, a film wherein a man almost gets a heart attack from jerking off, is constantly told how disgusting he is even by his supposed friend, who is poisoned by his daughter, who never stops eating processed food, who we see people recoiling from which we are led to believe is cruel but understandable.
What a unique point of view that’s never been seen before, except on Tommy Boy or The Tao of Steve or Shallow Hal or Fatso or The Nutty Professor or Norbit or Fat or on reality shows like The Biggest Loser or My 600lb Life or Fat Camp or Supersize vs Superskinny or Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition. Thank goodness none of that had real-life consequences for the people in them, especially not suicide, like in The Whale!
The Oscars, SAG, and the Baftas, they all showered The Whale with nominations and awards (including a win for his fat suit!) as any marginalized group would have predicted. We love telling people who aren’t marginalized how brave they are for putting themselves in a fictionalized version of a marginalized person’s shoes for the entertainment of others who also aren’t in that marginalized group. It’s 2023, and we have Lizzo making amazing music, TV shows, and clothes for bigger bodies, yet she is under constant pressure to justify her diet, her style, her existence.
It reminds me of how exhausting it is to deal with that myself, every time I post on social media or speak in public. I think about when I go to the grocery store and people tell me how *good* it is that I’m buying fresh produce, or tsk at me for buying Oreos. I think about the number of strangers who felt entitled to touch my stomach to ask when I was due to have a baby. I think of the people who would tell me I was so brave for going to the gym, that I didn’t have to be fat forever! I think about the doctor who threatened to deny me my ADHD meds unless I did a crash diet. I think about the gaming store that told me it wasn’t their problem when I asked about accessible seating. I think about going to dinner with my thin boyfriend, and how he could wolf down piles of pizza rolls and 2 liters of soda while I would get scowled at for having a mozzarella stick.
Sometimes I want to scream “MAYBE I WOULDN’T BE THIS FAT IF I HAD GOTTEN HEALTHCARE FOR MY KNEE BACK WHEN I ASKED FOR IT! Maybe I wouldn’t be disabled now, having to take an assortment of painkillers just to be able to sleep! Maybe I wouldn’t have such messed up hips if doctors hadn’t just ignored me! Maybe I’d exercise more IF IT DIDN’T HURT TO STAND UP!”
But it doesn’t matter, they don’t care. I’m Whale 52, calling out into a dark and endless ocean. They may hear me, but they don’t respond.
I made a post on my Facebook wall talking about how disappointed and hurt and angry I was about all the praise for The Whale. An average man arrived to tell me that my feelings were wrong, that I misunderstood it, and that it was actually very respectful. When I disagreed and asked him to listen to me and the other fat people in the thread who were being vulnerable, talking about the pain they felt, he proceeded to double down until I blocked him. Immediately he was in my Instagram DMs, demanding I engage him, telling me that my writing was bullshit, that I lacked skill in media critique, that I was fat and stupid and a liar and clearly wrong. After all, it didn’t bother HIM.
That’s what it feels like whenever I leave the house. So I stay home, not because I’m ashamed of my body, but because it is harmful to my health to have to bear all that hostility when I’m just trying to go to the gym.
That’s one thing I guess The Whale got right — the constant harassment and inhumanity of literally everyone around you all the time, and how smug they are about it, like they’re doing you a favor. It’s certainly part of why I don’t want to rejoin society. Why would I, when they’re so keen on abusing me “for my own good”?
I wonder if anyone pointed out that maybe Brendan Fraser’s character was a recluse because he was tired of people shuddering when they looked at him. I wonder if they pointed out that he probably had tried to get healthcare, but kept being denied until he stopped going. I have lots of friends like that, who know there are things wrong, but they refuse to go to the doctor. “I already know I’m fat”, they say, haunted looks in their eyes. “Why pay to tell me what I already know?”
The truth is, doctors ignore serious health concerns in fat people all the time, we all know that. One woman wrote about how severe this issue was in her obituary. She died of cancer that went unnoticed because her doctor insisted she just needed to lose weight. I can’t imagine how horrified she’d be by The Whale.
I feel for the White Whale in Melville’s story. I feel *like* him. Me, and fat folks like me, we’re just trying to swim in the sea, minding our own business, yet we are hunted, targeted, mythologized as evil. We, in our fat bodies, become the projection for a whole society’s body image issues, their terrified insecurity around health when healthcare is an impossible, unaffordable dream for most, their worry that they might not get the ventilator, when it comes to it. In their distress and rage, it doesn’t matter who else goes down with the ship, as long as they can get that harpoon in us, the monstrous and uncontrollable whale, as they go.