Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Fat One

I first found body acceptance/fat acceptance blogs and writers through diet blogs, like Diet Girl. It was '03 or '04 and I was looking for healthy eating / exercise ideas that didn't make me want to stab my own eyeballs out or smash everything in sight (and then eat it). I wrote the bulk of this post in 2004. I kept meaning to come back to it and finish it, but never have.

This week I started learning to eat with Michelle, otherwise known as The Fat Nutritionist. In 2004 I never would have though I'd end up consulting with a nutritional therapist, but in 2004 I was early enough on my journey towards trusting and respecting my body that I still was primarily focused on controlling my weight through diet and exercise. I had yet to realize that was a paradoxical combination and make the decision to follow a Health At Every Size approach. I had yet to have a panic attack in the grocery store because I was completely unable to make a decision about lunch. I had yet to yell at my husband that he needed to not talk to me about food because it was making me crazy. In 2004 I was at a stable weight of about 220, practicing karate and yoga, finally working in a busy lab where I felt respected and useful and feeling stronger and more confident in my body than I ever had.

Since then I got married, had melanoma, had facial surgery and a year of recovery and laser treatments, went on antidepressants, decided to pursue graduate school, applied for graduate school and was accepted, changed labs then quit lab work altogether, struggled to complete my thesis against a growing malaise that the antidepressant was not preventing...all the while gaining weight and having the unpleasant shock of not fitting into my clothes every 6 months or so. I'm heavier than I've ever been, the rapidity of my weight gain frightens me almost as much as my loss in stamina and the aches in my knees.

I am not going on a diet. What I am doing is tapering off the antidepressant, taking beta blockers to help with the 2-3 migraines a week the tapering off causes. I am doing some of the emotional work I was unable to do while studying for my Master's, and this has lead me to a point where I want to cut the food drama and have a healthy relationship with food and my body.

Below the line is the unpublished post from 2004. It's a bit of a ramble, but it's time to get it out of the draft folder.


I can't remember a time when I was not aware of being "big" or "fat", or some variant on that theme. My elementary school teacher counseled me that I should put my ten year old self on a diet, because it would make me happier, and people would like me more, so I'd be less of a target for the bullying that was making me hate school...

The more I think about it, the more I think I started out as a chunky kid, not medically overweight but taller and broader than those around me, plus some puppy fat. That's how I started, but the responses of people around me led me to believe that I was FAT, and that I needed to do something about it, which led me to worry about my body, and food, and what people thought of my body, and my food, and that's where the struggle started.

I was not a delicate waif of a little girl but dammit, I just looked at photos of myself at ages four through nine and found a chubby girl with a bad haircut and the unfortunate fashion statement of tucking my shirts in, which accentuated my short torso with a small belly roll before I had boobs to overshadow the whole shebang. From nine to twelve or so I became a bit more towards truly overweight I suppose, but the knowledge that it all came off (or redistributed) by age 16 because I grew vertically makes me assign it much more to puppy fat and puberty than to any real weight problem.

In that time period (nine-ish to 16) I was even more aware of being FAT because my mother had an obsession with loose fitting clothes: if you could distingush the shape of your body, it was too tight. This meant that any pants I tried on were all "too tight" because I have the familial large ass, and pants are sort of supposed to be fitted around the ass anyway. The tightness of the pants was not always worded as "those are too tight" it was fairly regularly called "those make your bum look too big", or "but they draw attention to your bum". The mantra of wear dark colours on your lower half so nobody notices your bum is still fairly well ingrained.

Of course, in the early adolescent era there was a new factor growing among peers, that of attractiveness, the ability to snag a boyfriend. I was possibly fortunate that I went to an all girl's school for that part of my life. Possibly. I don't know what it would have been like to be around boys then, if it would have made us all more competative or if we would have banded together in the face of a common enemy. No doubt a bit of both. In my little group of friends at school I was branded the fat one, even though I was one of two girls of a very similar level of chubbiness, I was the fat one for some reason. Probably because by that point I had been told so long that I was fat that I thought of myself that way and included it in my self depricating brand of humour. This trend of being The Fat One, either as something assigned to me by a group, or simply in my own mind, didn't even start to dissipate until I was in my 20's, when being a Brit at a California university changed my distinguishing feature to "the Brit".

I think that the general theme I'm chasing is that I was blissfully body un-aware, and that other people suddenly thrust before me a magic mirror with a picture of a Fat Girl, and told me that the Fat Girl was not a good thing to be. Still more people compounded and supported the argument and before I even hit puberty I had some nice self esteem issues going on the back burner. My memories of how I thought about my body center around having the unpleasant realization that I wasn't the shape I was supposed to be, and that everyone assumed that I would be so much happier if only I'd loose weight. I remember being 12, crying in a changing room when trying to buy clothes for gym class because I was so afraid of the comments I would get if I wore anything other than sweat pants and a gigantic t-shirt. I remember, at 16, being told by a friend that they wanted to set me up with a guy, and not to worry because "he really likes BIG girls!", the only nice part about that incident was the guy himself looking puzzled and saying "you're way skinny for me, I don't know why A. said you were fat..."

I probably had more padding than those girls, I certainly had bigger boobs and wider hips. But I had a waist in the middle, I was hourglass and had no idea how to dress for it, that made me look fatter. Fatter than them at any rate. Why did I have to be stamped with the fat label though? Why did ANYONE have to be "The Fat One". How about "that's Rosie" as a way of distinguishing me from the group? How about something personality based, or a physical attibute that lacks the negative implications? Unfortunately I wasn't the tallest (or shortest) in the group, nor the only one with fair hair, and we all had long hair, so lucky me got to be Piggy.

We had the little one, the tall one (sometime known as: the one with black hair), I guess maybe one girl was the rich one, but if we're sticking to physical assignations she was the one with frizzy hair, and then me, the fat one. We could just as easily have gone with K. is very ticklish, A. has a quick temper, C. knows far too many Monty Python songs and Rosie is disturbingly bouncy in the mornings. There's this unpleasant burning need in so many people or groups of people to point at someone and show how much better they are than that person. In the absence of the ability to use a racial slur without getting into trouble, and since "you're American!" "you're a smartypants" "you're one of those damn morning people" and other such distinguishing features don't come out as particularly good insults... they resort to Fat. Calling someone fat is the only physical comment I can think of that has such wide ranging implications about the target's character and behaviour. Ugly, short, bad hair, smelly...They are all insults, but they don't also imply laziness, gluttony, lack of will power AND an absence of attractiveness, the worst implication I can think of is that "your hair sucks" is also partially a comment on the taste and styling ability of the unfortunate bad-hair victim.

I had a respite from the role of The Fat One when I went to school in Australia and was just one of many passing-through foreign kids at the local elementary school, I didn't stand out there for being a bookworm, or for being foreign, I quickly made friends and fell in love with my new school. There was still a Fat One though: she was called Nyla, and she was sort of annoying and whiny, so she became the target. Everyone called her Fat Nyla, which confused me because she wasn't fat at all, she was the same as everyone else. I found myself joining in when others mocked her, until I saw that I had been Nyla at my old school, and that we were only picking on her because she was the designated kid to tease, then I stopped joining in and made an effort to get to know her. That incident was my first realization that fat (and annoying-ness) is in the eye of the beholder. Not only that, but it taught me that fat is what you call someone you don't like, fatness is bad, so bad that someone you dislike can be referred to as fat, just to summarize their awfulness into one convenient insult that everyone will understand. "Ugly" doesn't cover it, because ugliness is a more ephemeral concept.

Fat is an excellent tool for putting people down because as a category it is hard to break out of. Someone who is called fat is likely to believe the comment, and go away and beat themselves up about it. There will always be someone skinnier, or just about the same frame but with a way smaller ass, or taller and closely resembling a beanpole, but a cute beanpole with a pretty face and legs that look great in shorts. There will always be someone who has a positive feature in a place where you have a flaw, and we notice that far more often than we notice the flip side, the version where we have some enviable physical features they might lack. Neither way of looking at people is particularly helpful, someone always has to loose when there is a comparison involved.

I have largely broken the habit of thinking of myself as The Fat One, which is especially fortunate considering I work around a lot of women who are shorter, lighter, and have more conventionally attractive body shapes (meaning: slim but with enough curves to be clearly female). I'm even taller than most of the guys in the lab, and I'm only 5'8". Now, when I think of it at all, I think of it more as "I'm bigger than you", meaning both taller and bigger around, tempered with the knowledge that I'm pretty physically strong by comparison too. Admittedly, it's not the most healthy place to be, mentally speaking, because there are days when I feel like a lumbering giant, and the phrase "she's a BIG GIRL" pops into my mind. Most days it's the strength I feel, and any fleeting envy I feel for someone else's lovely compact form is tempered by the fact that I like being as tall as I am, I like being able to reach things on shelves and I imagine I'd feel much more vulnerable if I were shorter.

Eating more healthily and trying to work out regularly helps me focus on what my body can do rather than what it looks like and what body says about me as a person, but it still haunts me: The Fat Thing. At a conference, or going to a party where there will be new people, I imagine being mentally categorized as The Fat One when I'm introduced, I feel sure that at least one person will look at me as I walk by and think "Jesus woman, STOP EATING PIES, and don't come out in public until your ass is smaller". When I have job interviews I'm afraid the first thought of my interviewer will be "she's fat" or "she shouldn't be wearing that, she's too fat". I'm afraid of being judged on my appearance, but that isn't because of what shape and size I am, it's because I have spent my whole life being told I'm fat, seeing people call others fat, and realizing what implications come with that label. I worry about being The Fat One because that would mean I am not a person in their eyes, it is the label that burns me, not the adipose tissue deposits on my thighs. Fat doesn't make you feel bad about yourself, assholes make you feel bad.

Unfortunately that means that our culture, as a whole, is an asshole.