There are many things I can say about myself, but the one thing that I’ve said the longest is that I am fat. My oldest running internal dialogue is one comprised of words such as tubular, rotund, chubby, fleshy, and podgy.
I do not recall a time when I did not imagine myself as being large. My longest standing memory is of me taking up space in the world as a fat girl.
So, now you know my weak spot.
But let me tell you another secret: it is time for me to stop caring about my size. I mean, seriously. I’m probably going to be “fat” for life, so fuck it.
I am not alone in wasting a perfectly good existence lamenting, crying, and self-inflicting venomous thoughts because of how much I weigh. Women are taught early in life to directly link our self-worth to our bodies. From the time we are toddlers, it is our being + our bodies = how the rest of the world views us. Boys, with some exceptions, do not have early physical standards placed upon them. But I am not here to lament culture wars. It is well documented, researched, and discussed that popular representations of the female form can have harmful effects on women of all ages.
Here is the honest to Allah truth: most American women (and others around the world) are not size 0, or even size 4 or 6. We are, on average, size 12 and size 14. Most people have fat women who are important in their lives. They have fat women as mothers, sisters, friends, co-workers, and lovers.
More women around the world resemble Adele rather than Keira Knightly. This is an observable fact. I’ve spent time in Afghanistan among villagers who are not meeting their daily nutritional needs. Processed foods are virtually nonexistent in their diets. The women pass their days cleaning, cooking, and doing an array of chores most American women could not manage. And still, there are some thin women, and there are many fat ones.
To be honest, I don’t know where the definition of “fat” starts. If you look to Hollywood, it starts at anything over a size 6. If you consult the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, it starts at anything over what is considered “ideal” weight or gender and height appropriate body mass index (BMI). Thinness is not really defined, either. For a 350-pound woman who wears a size 24, “thin” may be a size 16. There are many size 12 and size 14 women who are healthy and toned, and who few people in the general population would see as overweight.
The question is for women: at what point do we become fat? This is an important point to consider, particularly now as the medical community is acknowledging the reality of “fat but fit” and that some thin women are not as healthy as their larger sisters. Being skinny is no longer a precursor to being medically healthy.
Here is another question: who benefits from the self-hatred and shame we have of our bodies, whether fat or thin? We don’t.
I think I know the answer to that first question: we only become fat when we start seeing ourselves as such.
I called up my mother and asked her at what point in my childhood did I actually become overweight. The longest memory I have about myself is feeling fat and not liking it. Her answer surprised me.
“Well,” she began, “you were always a little chubby growing up — like kid chubby– but you were never really fat except for a few periods of time. I mean, you really didn’t get that large until after you got out of high school.”
What? But I clearly always remember being fat. I mean, I often thought that I took up massive amounts of space.
“You did get big in third grade, and again in fifth grade, but you would go up and down. You weren’t really that big, in general. There were girls smaller than you and some a lot larger, but you were just chubby.”
I asked her, “How did I get big? Did I eat a lot? Did I have an unhealthy relationship to food?”
She sighed. “No, not really. You didn’t eat so healthy, but you ate what I cooked you. I always felt guilty for not feeding you better….”
“But mom,” I said, “you fed me what everyone else in the rural South fed their kids at the time. There were no discussions in the 1970s and 1980s on childhood obesity, especially in our neck of the woods.”
“True, true,” she continued, “but I still feel guilty about it.” She explained that I didn’t like sports. I was one of those kids who preferred reading, playing piano, and walking in the woods over exerted physical activity. She doesn’t have to remind me of that. I loathed gym class. And, like all fat girls everywhere, I really was the last person my fellow classmates picked for team sports.
“But I’ve always felt fat,” I revealed. “You mean I really wasn’t fat-fat as a kid?”
“Not really,” she shared. “You were chubby, sometimes large, but you didn’t really become obese until later. But, you know, I was an active teenager — far more active than you — and I wore a size 12 and 14, and I always felt big. Looking back, I really wasn’t.”
During my childhood in the 1970s, the rural South experienced a transitional decade as farming, meat, and lifestyles became corporatized. The Old South was morphing into the New South, and body mass indexes were growing.
My mother, by day, was a well-respected social worker who dealt with abused and neglected children. At night, she became a different person who deferred large aspects of her identity in order to accommodate her family.
During my childhood, my mother, a short woman, weighed about 275 pounds. She married a man who never let her forget that.
“Maybe you grew up thinking you were fat because your father never stopped telling me how fat I was,” she suggested.
Feeling fat often means that one perceives themselves as socially and sexually invisible. Because I grew up believing that I was the size of a Mack Truck, I never felt that anyone found me attractive. Feeling fat is not just a physical perception; it is a feeling of unworthiness in other areas beyond physicality.
This feeling carried over into adulthood. I automatically assume that no one finds me attractive, even though I know that I’m not particularly hideous. I’m too fat for men to like, is one internal script I have.
I have spent my entire life feeling fat, socially unacceptable, invisible, and somehow deeply flawed because I did not — ha! — measure up to popular culture’s ideal female. I know that I am not the only woman who feels this way – most women secretly harbor feelings of self-loathing in some form or another, even those who are size 4. My mother, at her smallest, was healthy at a size 12. I have sturdy and hearty folk on both sides of my family, but very few are actually small-boned and dainty. This means that I will never be Hollywood style skinny. And to be frank, I don’t need to be.
I’m slowly and earnestly trying to accept that my happy weight (and the most healthy option) for me will hover above what society says is acceptably thin. There are moments I own this concept. But there are even more moments I still struggle. This blog post is an attempt at putting it out there in hopes that somehow, there will be power in the sharing.
Yet, after almost forty years of disliking myself because of my weight, I’m beginning to tire of the energy necessary to be so mean to myself. It takes way too much work to maintain self-loathing. Fuck that. I’m healthier than a lot of skinnier women I know. I’m smart, I’m kind, and when I love someone, I love them deeply. I want to be thinner, but I am starting to accept that I will never, ever be glamorously thin. And the man who does eventually love me will love every inch of it.
I end with this quote from Kelly (not me), “The Goddess is Fat”:
Round is female. Round females are the visual symbols of strength…of life-giving…[t]he cultures that produced thousands of images of fat women knew this about us, that we represent the ultimate female, full, round, big, strong, soft, warm women. The moon is round, the earth is round, cycles are round, and so are we.
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