The Beheld: Basics and Special Projects

Thursday, November 8, 2012

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.


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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.


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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.

24 comments:

  1. Interesting. I was "the fat girl" too but I was teased for it, not mercilessly, but enough to make me as an adult think that it was the teasing that made me sort of fat-phobic later in life. I have no idea how much of this is internal or organic as opposed to something from outside forces...I just know that as it was for you, it was a hard time for me too.

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    1. Selima, the funny thing is that despite not having been teased for my weight, the idea that teasing is neverending for fat kids was so embedded in me that it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that hadn't really been my reality. I'm sorry that it was yours.

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  2. I was one of the chubby ones growing up. But that was the least of my worries. I was also the weird black girl with the high voice and whole myriad of other things. Those other identities probably overshadowed weight for me.

    I remember wearing a bra in 4th grade, and skipping the training bras straight for the B-cups almost immediately. I spent the next 17 years or so wearing the wrong bra size (and it was way off) and feeling uncomfortable with attention surrounding early puberty. In a way it was nice to be sort of invisible.

    I have never been "slim." I have been hovering at the edge of the "normal" sizes and the "plus sizes" since age 12 or so. Even though I am trying to lose some weight, I'll solidly be in the "fat acceptance" camp.

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    1. Jaded, that's interesting that your weight took a backseat to other visible (or audible!) differences that set you apart from your peers. Do you feel that way as an adult? (I mean, obviously it's different for adults in that we're hopefully less self-conscious, but you know what I mean.)

      I'm on board with much fat acceptance--and am 100% on board with laying off weight stigma. My own experiences prevent me from endorsing it wholeheartedly, and it's difficult to know how much of that is simply internalized fat-phobia on my end.

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  3. You articulate this so, so well. I have a lot of complicated thoughts and feelings around body positivity because, well, I was a fat kid and I am a fat grownup, and it ISN'T only society who doesn't like that. You wrestle with this hard topic admirably- thanks.

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    1. Thank you, Grace. I was going to say that I wanted to find "a middle ground" between fat acceptance and weight loss when someone really does want to lose weight--but it's not so much a middle ground I want to find as a different ground, one that doesn't ask us to choose, you know?

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  4. Thank you for writing this...

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  5. I wasn't a fat child but when my parents divorced, I became a fat adolescent, then a fat teenager, then a fat adult. (I am still fat). All I remember clearly about my parents' divorce is eating Oreo cookies. I ate A LOT of Oreo cookies and I hit puberty (I was 11) and I grew breasts and then all of a sudden, in one winter, I went from a girl's size 10 to a ladie's size 8. I was teased for a lot of things as a child (crooked teeth being the main thing) but I don't remember being teased so much for my weight. I remember loving, caring adults in my life trying to tell me (out of love, I believe) that I had to lose weight because I would be teased/judged/ridiculed/unlovable if I didn't.

    What I find fascinating about what you wrote is this idea of the secret - hiding binges, faking hurting an ankle or being sick - the hiding that fat children and adults do. My father was an abusive drunk, so that divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me and my family. I spent the first 11 years of my life learning how to keep my father's secret. You have to lie, to pretend, to tell yourself stories that you know in your heart are not true, to purposefully avert your eyes from the truth to hide alcoholism. To pretend the alcoholism doesn't exist and that you dad doesn't lose his mind and that you hadn't watched him choke out your mother or throw a butcher knife at her, barely missing. You have to pretend to be normal because you have to protect the secret - the alcoholism - at all costs. No one can ever know. You don't want anyone to know. It's your secret - your family's secret - the hidden shame of your life. I remember knowing at 4 years old that I had to keep this secret, that if it ever came out, all bets would be off. The world would end.

    I didn't have a weight problem when the abuse and the drinking took place. I had one after it ended. And reading what you wrote (which is so honest and brave) made me realize that once my dad left, and I didn't have that secret, I just replaced it with another secret. I don't think I know how to live without keeping some sort of secret. I certainly didn't at 11. My eating and my weight gain replaced the alcoholism and abuse. Maybe it wasn't just the fact that it was a secret - maybe "shame" would be the more accurate word. The alcoholism was shameful to me, and after my dad was gone from my life, my weight became what was shameful. What I felt I had to hide at all costs.

    Thank you for writing this and for making me think. Thank you for your bravery and honesty.

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    1. Anonymous, that is a powerful realization. For yes, when you grow up having to keep a secret, letting go of secrecy itself can be painful. Just knowing that there doesn't *have to be* a secret any longer doesn't mean we won't create new secrets to keep us company.

      Thank you for reading.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am an ex morbidly- obese . Now at a " healthy weight" for 10 years+.
    But weight is just a number. The weight is really all on our shoulders, in our life story / struggles. Constant life battle / theme. I really enjoyed reading your post and your readers comments!

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    1. Anonymous, thank you for reading. It really is a constant life issue--even when one's weight is stable and healthy and you feel good about it, it's really hard to let go of the mental patterns that accompanied old behavior.

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  7. a beautifully written discussion of a complex topic. i especially related to the part where you describe your feelings as fatness, and your fatness as feelings. i was a fat teenager, and while i'm thinner now as an adult i'm still slightly curvy. and i know that i get 'curvier' when i'm upset about something. is that cliche? the comfort eating? but it's deeper than just food making me feel better. it's like you wrote, those feelings get filtered through food, and i carry them around with me like baggage, physically manifested on my body. anyway. thought provoking. have also enjoyed the other comments.

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    1. A. Maren, if it's cliche, it's cliche for a reason. Something I learned when I sought treatment for what turned into an eating disorder was that it's perfectly normal to seek solace in food. What's not normal is not having any other coping mechanisms. I remember sharing this revelation with my then-boyfriend, who was like, "Well, of course! Chocolate can pick up my spirits"--blew my mind to know that the behavior could be normal. It does help--but it only goes so far, and that's where people like you and me get into trouble.

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  8. What a gorgeous post. Really. I too was a chubby kid who was never really teased for my weight (other kids unfortunately were the one being teased. I think being meek got me off the hook). Still, as an adult I realized I carried a lot of ideas about myself from childhood, especially the idea of being unfeminine. I remember being terrified of not being able to be carried across the threshhold as a newlywed, which seemed to be such a marker of womanhood. I can say that doesn't bother me at all now and actually seems really silly, but I still struggle to think of myself as feminine sometimes, even though I'm now a "normal" weight.

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    1. Mandy, that's so interesting that it's that image that stuck with you--being carried over the threshold. It's funny what we arbitrarily decide is a marker of womanhood, eh? I never wear pants except for jeans, and it's because once I started feeling better in my body, I realized I wanted to shout my femininity from the rooftops, and that took the form of skirts. It's like, as long as I'm wearing a skirt/dress, you can't tell me I'm unfeminine. And you know how many people in my life have called me unfeminine? NONE! It's in my head only. Oi.

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  9. Wow, this post is so beautiful and hear-wrenching. It gets at the core of a major condundrum in our society - the childhood obesity epidemic - which is that we don't know how to "fix" this problem without inevitably creating further problems (such as eating dissorders and mental health issues). Modern culture makes it even harder with a crap food supply, GMO and a food industry hell-bent on keeping us fat and addicted to their crap food!

    But I think you are being too hard on your former fat-child-self. You were just a baby and you were taking care of your needs the way you knew how. I understand where you are coming from, but you can't shame your former self just like we shouldn't be shaming kids with those awful billboards.

    It's a tough call on what would be the right approach, but I can't help but think that an emphasis on exercise and health programs in shcools would be a step in the right direction. When you were a young girl the adults around you didn't know that they needed to play a bigger role in your healht as this wasn't such a public issue back then. But today it's really public and we adults need to be role models to young kids.

    I also can't help but think some people get addicted to smokes, others to food, and that the foods "fat" people tend to eat are addictive in and of themselves.

    Oye. I don't know. This is a tough one!



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    1. I'm glad to hear you bring up the political points here--it's not just that our culture has a messed-up emotional relationship with food, it's that it's built that way to further Big Agriculture and the Twinkification of America. I see that changing but then there are class issues that get brought into that. Not an easy fix...

      You're probably right that I'm being a hint unkind to my former self. I wonder how I'd regard her if I hadn't sort of dragged those issues into my adulthood--if I'd be more contemptuous of her or more forgiving. I'm guessing the latter.

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    2. Ha! Literally seconds after posting that I overheard a coworker talking about Hostess going bankrupt. Are we seeing the anti-Twinkification of America?

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  10. Thank you so much for writing this. You described my childhood, although I remember more teasing. I was the chubby toddler whose pediatrician put her on a diet at age 4. To this day, I firmly believe that this is the root of my "food issues." And then I continued to be the fat kid, the fat teenager who then got diabetes at age 13 during a time when doctors didn't realize that kids were getting type II diabetes. And I continued to be the fat teenager, the fatter teenager, the fat adult...and here I am. It's so difficult to balance the desire to accept myself and the desire to change myself. I am still painfully self conscious, but I am much stronger and know my worth. So... why do I continue to beat myself up every day about my weight? I gained a few pounds over the last month and a half during a very stressful time. And I've been berating myself for that and for falling off the exercise/yoga wagon. It is so hard to break free from the emotional baggage to be able to address the health issues and accept that it's ok to want to be healthy. It's ok to want to lose weight, even when you want to be able to really look yourself in the eye and sincerely say "You are so beautiful." I get a knot in my stomach just thinking about that. Something tells me that I need to put a big sign on my mirror and work on loving myself more. Just as I am sure that a diet at 4 years old messed with me, I am also certain that I need to let go of that, stop blaming anyone including myself, and learn to really love myself in order to be able to lose the weight. I've now had diabetes for over half my life, and I know that if I do the "right" things, I can reverse it. But it is still extraordinarily difficult.

    Again, thank you for so carefully and clearly articulating your experience. So many secrets, hiding food, binge eating...there are so many of us who have shared experiences and pain. The more we talk about it and learn to let things go, the better we will feel about ourselves. It's so much easier to accept and forgive when someone else understands and legitimizes the lingering pain from your childhood.

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    1. Greta, you're writing here about some really complex, really emotional stuff, and I'm glad to see it laid out here. Because yes, it is absolutely okay to want to lose weight, and that doesn't have to preclude also loving yourself. It's tricky to get there, but it's possible. At my best I'm able to keep my healthy habits for reasons that I feel good about; at my average it's a mix of both; at my worst it's just self-flagellation (or not being healthy at all/not taking care of myself).

      You may have found this blog through Sally McGraw's wonderful blog Already Pretty, but I'd recommend that you read her work as well as that of Mara Glatzel, or "Medicinal Marzipan." Sally focuses more on fashion but she's excellent at articulating the balance between those two poles. And Mara's work is wonderful--she comes from a place of sort of radical self-care, which includes healthy habits.

      http://alreadypretty.com
      http://www.maraglatzel.com/blog/

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  11. I was once been bullied and i think that have left me a strong impact....i grew up to learn that reality is harsh and people by yourside arent always the one you should trust...until now i find it hard to sociallize with people around including my family members...the feel of having low self esteem as i was once the fat,uncute little girl that have not much friend

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    1. It's really difficult to regain that sense of self-esteem once it's been taken from us--but you can, with practice, form from that harsh reality a solid core. I wish exactly that for you.

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