Being labeled “fat” or “morbidly obese” for 24 years is something I would not change; it gave me deep experiences of pain and suffering that shaped my world view. I am a white, educated, privileged woman. I was not abused, nor did I ever worry about going without a meal, or where I would sleep at night. In many ways, I lived a life far more kind than many, many people around me. And yet, I felt discriminated against and bullied by those around me for the way that I looked…for my fat. It seemed to tell the outside world a story about me I didn’t feel like I could control; a narrative about my character that was inaccurate and unfounded, based on stereotypes and fiction.
The strange thing about being a fat girl, and then a fat woman, is that I somehow seemed to fall outside the realms of what is considered “discrimination” in our society when I was bullied and shunned for my appearance. There are many, many, many fat jokes about women that are part of normalized and celebrated pop culture. Watch the movie “Shallow Hal.” Listen to stand-up comedians. Turn on the “E” channel. Or my favorite, those obnoxious stickers (often on large pickup trucks driven by fat men) that say “Fat Chicks Can’t Jump,” and “No Fat Chicks” (*Cringe*). Making fun of, or blatantly insulting girls and women who are fat was seen as a normal and acceptable form of collective criticism. Why? I’ve pondered this for many years. I think the answer is multifaceted.
First, I think that the unrealistic beauty standards created by mainstream media to SELL BEAUTY PRODUCTS brainwash us to believe that thin is normal, healthy, beautiful, and elite. That being thin is “cool” and “sexy” and somehow translates into an accurate assessment of happiness, health and success. These are messages sold through movies, music videos, fashion, tabloids, television, Hollywood, and advertising. Who has traditionally owned the entities that create these unrealistic beauty images? Men. I’ve watched enough Mad Men to know the power of advertising and the collective desire to be the unattainable. Buy me, fat girl, buy me!
I’m also in that parade that believes we are taught that pleasing the penis is valued more than about any other damn thing in this universe, and if the penis is socialized to value thin bodies, then anything bigger is “unnatural” or almost, might I say, “offensive” and “immoral.” We’re sexualized and we’re objectified and we’re dehumanized. Fat is gross. Fat is unnatural. Fat is dirty. Fat is sinful. Fat is a choice to be unwanted.
The very notion that fat is a choice, for many of us who were brought up eating food from our American kitchens, is a farce. I was raised eating Snackwell cookies, diet soda, and every “reduced fat” product known the the 90’s. My parents thought what they were doing was right, because the grocery stores packed it. We ate fruit roll-ups. They say FRUIT on them. “Strawberry” Poptarts. “Lean Cuisines.” Diet food. That’s healthy, RIGHT? The label says DIET on it, so it can’t be making her fat. RIGHT? WRONG.
There was, at least in my experience, such a lack of education about nutrition. Thin women eating cheeseburgers on my television screen. It must be something intrinsically wrong with ME, right? They can eat that and they’re not fat. So many mixed messages, so much guilt, so much shame.
And well, there was also that stress eating. I grew up in two households that were black and white opposite. I now look back and appreciate the “grey” shade I have become because of it, but there was a lot of anxiety that came from the split people I felt like I had to be to meet the basic approval of my parents. My mental health issues greatly influenced my eating habits; I learned to binge eat at a young age to escape feelings of anxiety, the cause of which I was not responsible for (I did not cause my parents to create me or divorce and hate each other). But somehow trapped in the middle, I remember sneaking into the kitchen at night at friends’ houses and binging on packs of Doritos and chips ahoy cookies. I looked forward to it. I looked forward to eating for the escape.
And so, how much responsibility can I take for the fat that was on my body, that was there from the start? The habits I was born into, the habits I created as a result of my environment, the habits I created to cope with problems with living. I didn’t deserve disrespect, I deserved compassion.
I can remember being on the school bus in Kindergarten. I was sitting near the window, and two second grade girls sat in the seat with me, crushing me against the wall. We were near the back, away from the bus driver’s eye, and they pinched my cheeks and called me “little piggy, piggy piggy, little piggy, fat pig.” I was scared and humiliated. I was 5. Hello world, fuck you, world.
I can, and will in time, share way more bully episodes, all directly due to the fat content on my body.
It was a struggle. And I hated myself, deeply, for being mortally flawed. My BMI, my BMI, my fucking god awful BMI.
So how much was I responsible for all of this? I’m not sure. But the trauma of so many experiences from fat shame caused me to dis-associate from, avoid, and hate my body. I was so sensitive with the topic that I tried to avoid it all together, I wouldn’t engage in any helpful self-talk about health, wellness, or how to get better. Instead I focused on my shame, guilt, anger and insecurities, which held me back from pursuing so many opportunities, and caused me to feel depressed, anxious and isolated on and off for many years.
Yes, back to that day in June, 2010, when I faced the scale again. When I begged and pleaded with myself through tear-stained words on paper that this time would be different. This time I would have the COURAGE to face myself.
And that night, or perhaps the next, I looked at my face in the mirror and I forgave myself. I forgave myself for the not-knowing, for the lack of understanding about nutrition, for the ways I coped with anxiety, for all the ways I had somehow been responsible for contributing to the numbers on the scale, and for my parents who I believe did the best they could. Instead of shaming and running, I looked at myself with compassion. I took responsibility for what I had contributed, and forgave myself for what I had not. I realized that I could blame others for my state of dissatisfaction, and if I continued to do so I would remain powerless. When I took responsibility for my fat and my shame, I realized I could too be responsible for changing it. And I did.
That heart to heart, that facing myself with compassion and responsibility, was the thing that made all the difference. I decided to take responsibility, from that day forward, for my health and wellness. I realized that if I wanted to escape the “I eat because I’m fat, and I’m fat because I eat” paradigm, I had to stop avoiding, stop shaming, and start empowering myself. I was a capable, intelligent, driven and strong woman despite the labels fat had given me.
In 1 year I had lost most of the weight. I was exercising three to four times a week, I was eating fulfilling foods, I was buying new wardrobes (from 14/16 to 4/6) and getting massive amounts of new attention. In some ways, it was like a physical and social rebirth. No more guys honking and calling me a “fatass” as I walked down the street. No more humiliation in malls as I walked through store after store knowing there was not one thing other than a sock I could fit into. And most of all… no more shame.
Ah, but don’t be fooled. All that glitters is not gold. There were prices paid, expectations unmet, and pots of gold missing from ends of rainbows. There was anger, resentment, disgust and confusion. All that and more, next time.
For now, keep sweating!