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.
* * *
Being a fat kid wasn’t easy. But the reasons being a fat kid wasn’t easy had little to do with what body-positive bloggers such as myself usually cite. I wasn’t teased, I wasn’t bullied, few people ever tried to make me feel like I was lesser-than because my body was more-than. I don’t recall looking at “aspirational” images of thin women and feeling like I didn’t live up to them, though of course it’s impossible to determine how much of those messages seep into our brains. Sociological reasons alone cannot account for the shame I felt about my fatness. The problem went deeper than that. The problem—to a point—was me.
I keep wanting to baldly state some sort of vaguely political point, but then I find myself stymied as to exactly what I want to say. That maybe childhood obesity is something we should be “fighting”? (Yes, but then there are those billboards in Georgia.) That there’s a way to instill good eating and exercise habits in children without shaming them? (Yes, but who on earth is arguing the opposite?) That maybe when we say fighting childhood obesity is about health, it’s not some fat-shaming conspiracy but is truly about children’s emotional, physical, and mental health? (Yes, but that doesn’t mean that concerns about “health” aren’t also a veiled way of talking about children’s looks.) That maybe plenty of fat kids aren’t built that way, aren’t “big-boned,” aren’t victim to some sort of “fat gene” or environmental hazard but instead have bodies that are suffering from too much food and too little exercise? (Yes, but there are children whose set point is higher than what’s recommended, and I don’t want to advocate anything that would see a child beginning a lifelong battle that she’ll never be able to win. Those children—all children—deserve dignity that gets slighted when we stick too heavily to the traditional way of thinking about weight.)
I suppose the closest I could come to having a larger “issues” point here is this: The emphasis on childhood obesity is a convenient scapegoat for the deeply conflicted relationship pretty much our whole society has with food, comfort, bodies, and conformity. And we as a society have a responsibility to not only take a cold, hard look at that relationship for our own benefit, but, yes, “for the children.” We need to help children on a physical, mental, emotional, and sociological level be as healthy as possible. And sometimes being as healthy as possible includes losing weight. I’m not a public health expert, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know how to help children reconcile the ostensibly dueling messages of You are good just the way you are and You might be better off if you took certain steps that will make you healthier—and, as it happens slimmer. I just know that we need to.
I don’t like feeling like I have to choose a side: That I’m either a body-positive blogger who looks at weight as entirely separate from health when I know from my own experience that it’s not always separate, or I’m one of those body-shaming fat-phobes who thinks it’s fine to put chubby kids on a billboard as a warning and example. I only have my own experiences to go on, and when it comes to something as intensely personal as our bodies, going on personal experience alone can be dangerous. My experiences as a fat child can’t be superimposed onto the life of every fat kid in America, and I might be even more hesitant to quietly suggest that plenty of kids would benefit from losing weight had I been the childhood equivalent of those adult powerhouses who eat healthfully and mindfully, exercise aplenty, and remain fat. But that wasn’t me. Had I eaten the way my parents tried to teach me to eat, and not been so terrified of moving my body, I would have been well within recommended height-weight guidelines. As an adult, that’s where I fall, though my relationship with food is still conflicted enough that I may never know how much I’d weigh if I were able to be an intuitive eater. (Indeed, that’s another reason I haven’t written much on this; it’s hard for me to know how much of my feelings about childhood obesity inhabit the same space as the part of me where disordered eating thrived for years. Can we ever know?)
Nobody should be made to feel bad because of how they look, or because of the size their body takes up in the world. Does that even need to be said here? I’m saying it anyway, for good measure. But not all fat-phobia comes from outer sources. Yes, I’m tired of the idea that weight loss is unequivocally a good thing; I loathe the bumper-sticker wisdom that inside every fat person there’s a thin person waiting to get out. Nobody wins when we assume fat people must be unhappy. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fat people—including children—whose size does make them unhappy, and who don’t have a vocabulary for articulating that unhappiness without falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing. Had I such language as a child, I might have found more satisfaction from what came out of my mouth than what went into it.