When I was 4 years old, I learned to read. I don’t remember how it happened, I only can recall small tidbits of learning to write my name. What I do remember clearly is how much I loved to open a book and travel on new adventures. For all of my life, books have served as an escape, inspiration and excitement. Even as an adult, I devour books and always have a stack that I am working on at any given time.
When I was 6 I learned to swim. Or at least attempted to swim as much as I could without getting my face wet. The Yacht Club my family was a member of only offered lessons in the late spring, so most of my memories of swimming lessons involved freezing in the water on the cool spring mornings and my oldest sister trying to convince me that putting my face underwater wouldn’t kill me. To this day, I enjoy swimming and bike riding. I like to be active, although I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I still dislike getting my face wet, but I love a brisk spring morning.
When I was 7 I learned that I was fat. I don’t know how exactly I found this bit of information out, I think that it was a comment made by my third grade teacher. When my class had a party she told me that I shouldn’t eat the chocolate cake because if I stayed fat then I would have a hard time finding a man to love me when I grew up. I remember thinking, at the time, why do I want a man? Mostly it just confused me, because all that I understood was that I was supposed to be ashamed for wanting a piece of cake like the other kids. After that I started to notice the whispers between well meaning Aunts and other relatives about me. I would hear bits and pieces of conversations. Things such as “She is such a pretty girl, it is a shame.” or “She has such a pretty face. If she can get rid of that baby fat she will be a beauty.” and worse “It’s all because her momma left. Everyone just spoils her and gives her cookies when she needs a mother.” I didn’t really understand what they meant, I just knew that for whatever reason, there was something horribly wrong with me, and that I ought to be ashamed. People had to whisper about it so it must be an awful thing.
When I was 8, I went on my first diet. It wasn’t my idea. My new stepmother was trying to “help me”. For months and months, everything I had to eat was monitored. I can recall the pictures of pigs that were stuck on the fridge and the freezer just to remind me when I wanted to sneak food that I didn’t want to be a pig. The next couple of years met with various attempts at making me lose weight. Some worked, some didn’t. I recall that in 4th grade I had managed to lose some baby fat, and all the teachers at my school would tell me how pretty I looked now that I had lost weight. The whole situation made me feel like my worth was some how connected to how much I ate, or rather how little I ate. Snack time at parties was always touchy. I always wanted to eat the candy like the other kids, but knew that I wasn’t supposed to, and that if I did someone’s mom was going to tell on me. Well meaning strangers would tell me that I didn’t need whatever snack I was eating. The worst time was when the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus started leaving carrot and celery sticks for me with notes explaining that when I was thin they would start giving me candy like they left for my sisters.
When I was 11, I started Slim Fast. Not even close to starting puberty, and I was having to drink a shake for breakfast and one for dinner. While the rest of the family would eat dinner and dessert, I was stuck trying to drink the chalky, milk diet supplement. Before I was twelve, my stepmother started giving me diet pills to take everyday. I still remember the box they came in. They were called AIDES and where in a box that was supposed to look like a candy box. They were chocolate covered speed basically. I learned how to sneak food and hide it in my room. When I would have a bad day, I would go to my room and stuff my face with all the delicious treats that I had managed to pilfer throughout the week. Afterward I would be on a sugar high; red faced, chocolate fingered and filled with shame. At school, I still knew that I was different. The constant teasing from the boys, the sing song chants and practical jokes where met with the idea that somehow I deserved them as punishment for being too weak to lose the weight.
When I started middle school, I promised myself that I would finally try to be thin like everyone else. I tried, but still never managed to get there. Our school gym class had wonderful uniforms complete with polyester short shorts. I was always embarrassed to participate because I knew that my pale fat thighs were wobbling to the amusement of all the boys in my class. Boys were always teasing me by telling me that some other boy liked me. I never believed them, and would be mortified watching the boys laugh about having told the pig that someone liked her. At home it was worse. My stepmother would point out morbidly obese people at stores and tell me I wasn’t far from looking like that. That I should be ashamed of myself. I had to shop in the pretty plus section of department stores, and often was forced to wear ill fitting ugly clothes.
When I was 15, I had perfected wearing baggy clothes and trying not to be noticed. I tried to pretend like I didn’t have a weight problem, but still it was difficult to ever put myself out there too much. I knew that I should not draw too much attention to myself, and that somehow if I managed to be nice and funny then maybe people wouldn’t notice too much. I would sit at home on weekend in my bedroom and daydream about all the fun I would have if I were a thin teenager. Finally, I just decided to get busy and be proud to be a fat girl.
When I started college, I was buying snack food and other junk food and hiding it in my dorm rooms. Binge eating was a favorite pastime. I was jealous of the bulimic girls on my hall, I just didn’t have the nerve to make myself throw up after the binge. I buried my misery with alcohol and drug experimentation. I learned quick that drunk guys didn’t notice I was fat and that the stoners didn’t care, they were just glad to have someone around that would always bring snacks.
When I was 19, I had a daughter and married a man I thought was going to love me forever. He left me for someone else, and in a lot of ways, I thought that was again punishment for being fat. I still was proud to be a fat girl. I thought this was growth. At least I wasn’t beating myself up about it. I was accepting it, and willing to take the punishment for it. It makes me sick when I recall the money I spent on gym memberships, diet pills, miracle drugs, nutritional counseling, weight loss support groups and books on the latest diet fads. I probably know more about food than most people with degrees in nutrition. Every new doctor I had would give me the speech about how if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. So many time I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying “Really? Are you serious? Can it be that simple? Let me get this staight- if I eat fewer calories than… Oh My God! I finally get it! I understand! I am healed! Cured! Saved! Thank you Jesus for taking the blinders from my eyes!”.
Now, I am no longer proud to be a fat girl and I no longer binge eat. I look back and realize that I shouldn’t be ashamed of being fat. I should be ashamed of not allowing people to take my picture when I was younger, or never having taken a family portrait take because I couldn’t stand looking at myself. For never having gone to an water park for fear of being seen in a bathing suit. For not having the nerve to dance at a club or flirt with a hot guy. For learning how to go to the pool with my daughter and keep myself wrapped in a sarong and never getting in the water. For being to embarrassed to play with her on a playground, for always settling for less than I wanted. For allowing people in my life walk all over me, for always blaming myself first. For all of these things, I should be ashamed.
There are at least a thousand adjectives I could use to describe myself- smart, funny, kind, sweet, interesting, clever, witty or beautiful-and for almost all of my life the only one I could relate to me was fat. That adjective always came first. I never realized that I wasn’t my body. That the size of my body has nothing to do with who I am.
I look at myself now, at 34, and I like what I see. I am 5’8, I weigh 243lbs and I wear a size 18. My thighs are strong and sturdy. They have carried me throughout my life, and I like their softness and the curve of my hips. My belly is streaked with silvery stretch marks and a long, jagged vertical scar marks the lose skin on my lower abdomen. These are scars from nurturing another life in my womb and giving birth. My breasts are large and sagging slightly as time progresses. They are firm and have nursed two children. My arms are soft and dimpled. They are strong enough to hold the people I love tight, and strong enough to let them go. My skin is pale-soft and smooth, my curves are ample and built for snuggling. I look at myself, naked in the mirror and I see all of this. I see my strength, my broad shoulders the sturdiness that comes from being firmly planted in reality. I am a soft place to land. A safe haven. Built for comfort, not speed. I am beautiful. I will never be thin-but I will be happy. I am extraordinary