On Being a Fat Child
I was a fat kid. I haven’t written about this before, telling myself it’s because this blog is about beauty, and I’m wary of conflating weight and beauty. That’s true, but the real reason I haven’t written about having been a fat kid is that—listen, I know writers are supposed to “show, not tell,” but how can I show you the scar the ever-present question of fatness has etched onto my heart? I can’t, and so I will just say: I haven’t written about being a fat kid until now because it was too painful. Being a fat kid hurt me then. Having been a fat kid hurts me now.
Things I remember about being fat: Not being able to wear jeans (there was no such thing as jeans for fat girls in 1983). Not wanting to participate in any games at the school fair except the cake walk; wanting those cakes so badly that I moved faster than I ever had in my life to repeatedly get the last seat, thus winning five cakes; understanding the implicit humiliation of being the fat kid who wanted five cakes but wanting those cakes more than I wanted my pride; doing my best to be gracious when my parents insisted we give away three of them. Faking sick on the day we were supposed to do height-weight testing, only to find out upon return that it had been postponed a day; jiggling my leg incessantly until I had to step on the scale in hopes of losing “enough” weight by midmorning. Immense disappointment at learning that the three scoops of ice cream I’d piled on my plate at the Bonanza buffet weren’t scoops of ice cream but of butter. Pretending to twist my ankle at age 7 in the 50-yard dash at track and field day to spare myself the embarrassment of being the fat kid who came in last; doing the same at age 8, and 11. Stealing bags of brown sugar from the pantry to eat in my bedroom, alone. Secreting away boxes of cereal, to do the same; denying to my mother that I’d done so, even when it was clear she knew I had.
There is a theme here: absence, and falsity. I couldn’t wear jeans; I didn’t want to play games that wouldn’t get me cake; I faked sick; I pretended to twist my ankle; I denied secret eating. Being a fat child wasn’t so much about the fact of being fat as it was about couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. There is a counter-theme too: Love—of food, exquisite food, food, füd, phood, food, the panacea to whatever free-floating stresses there were in my life as an intellectually mature but emotionally not-so-mature 8-year-old girl. I didn’t have a difficult childhood by any means, but it was a childhood; it came with bumps and dents and scratches that I didn’t really know how to handle. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to learn, because I had food right there, every day, making it all okay. It worked—until it didn’t, but that’s not the story I’m trying to tell here. Food felt like it worked, and in a child’s mind, that’s enough.
Things I do not remember about being fat: Being teased. Being bullied. Having my weight remarked upon by strangers; being laughed at or taunted. I remember exactly three instances of shaming from other people about my weight: a neighbor suggesting I not enter her family’s trailer because I was fat and might somehow damage it; my grandmother telling me in the JCPenney’s dressing room that the problem wasn’t that the pants were too small but that I was too big; a third-grade classmate gasping when she saw my three-digit weight listed on my weight-height chart, when most kids weighed in at around 65 pounds. But when I try to fish deeper for the other memories—the memories that are surely there, for what fat child escapes a landslide of teasing from cruel classmates?—I come up empty. I remember being lightly teased for other things—my name, my glasses, my ponytail, my lack of athletic coordination—but my fatness, the singularly most visible thing about me, remained uncommented upon.
When I look at my own experience of being a fat kid, I don’t see a problem with society, or cruel children, or unlimited soda refills. I see a problem with—how do I put this without appearing to be swatting the wrist of my 8-year-old self?—I see a problem with me, and with the way I understood my size. There was very little fat-shaming in my life, but I still felt like being fat was wrong, bad, unfeminine, shameful—all those things fat activists say are erroneously attached to weight. They’re right to say that; those feelings should be separate from weight. Yet they weren’t separate, not for me. I filtered any feeling I had—about my fatness or anything else—through food, and my chronic overeating was what kept me fat. My feelings were my fatness; my fatness, feelings.
I wouldn’t have been better off had I been basically bullied into losing weight, or into feeling worse about being fat. But I would have been better off had I learned ways of coping with stress that didn’t center around food; I’d have been better off had I understood the joy of moving my body. I’d have been better off if clothes shopping weren’t an exercise in futility; I’d have been better off if any of the well-meaning sweatshirts and tees that were given to me as gifts had fit without revealing the immovable fact of my belly. I’d have been better off if I hadn’t had the hurdle of weight to constantly run up against. What I’m saying is: I’d have been better off if I weren’t fat.
I’d also had been better off if the world around me didn’t disperse shame upon overweight people—had my grandmother not told me I was “too big,” had my classmate remained nonchalant whatever the number on my height-weight card, had my neighbor not insinuated I could singlehandedly topple over a trailer designed for far greater stress than a fourth-grader’s frame. The world needs to change in its attitude toward fat people, and that is unquestionable. But it wasn’t only the world around me that inscribed my fatness upon my identity to the point where I still sometimes cannot recognize myself in photos because I’m looking for someone bigger than I actually am.
Yes, I wish the world around me had been different. I wish I’d been different too.