“Because there is no magical cure. There is no time machine. There is only the revolutionary act of being fat and happy in a world that tells you that’s impossible.”from Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong by Michael Hobbes
I went on my first voluntary diet at 17, the summer before I went to college. I weighed 180 pounds at 5’5″, and my family doctor suggested counting calories; 1000 calories a day should be enough at my age and height, she said. Then I’d lose the extra weight.
I remember being distraught. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of myself as “fat”, far from it. That happened in fourth grade at a class pool party, where I spent most of the time worrying about how my thighs looked in my bathing suit.
But it was the first time my shame had been laid out in medical terms, the first time it was implied this was something I could control, and the first time I felt an urgent need — no, an obligation — to fix my body.
My mom — having struggled with her own weight and wanting to help — gave me her Weight Watchers guidebook and promised to count calories along with me for moral support. The message: You don’t have to do this alone…but you should do it.
I don’t mean to single out my mom, because similar implications came from all sides. My dad, as I reached for a second helping: “Do you really need that?” My grandmother, brushing my hand away from the M&M bowl after dinner. The kid who sat behind me in sixth-grade homeroom and laughed: “Whoa, your arms are huge!”
I often wonder what my body would look like if I hadn’t started that first diet. If the inevitable failure of that and all the ones that came after had not steadily added pounds to my belly, my thighs, my arms, my legs. Had I ignored my well-meaning doctor’s prescription and carried on with my 180-pound self.
Did feeding the fire of shame give me the body I have today? Would ignoring it have done any good? Or would a love of food and a specific genetic makeup have made this body inevitable? I’ll never know, but it’s something I think about a lot lately.
Ellie entered fourth grade this year. It hasn’t escaped me that she’s developing. She has a tummy. She has a butt. She has thick thighs.
She’s perfect, and I am loathe to let a doctor or anyone else tell her otherwise.
She’s unselfconscious about her body now, but I wonder when she’ll start to look at other girls and compare. I wonder how it will shake out the first time a classmate points out her round belly and makes a cruel comment; if she’ll let it roll off her shoulders, or if she’ll internalize it for the rest of her life.
I know there is only so much I can do. I know my words will fall on deaf ears; that it doesn’t matter how many times I tell her she’s brainy and witty and capable, she’ll eventually hear whispers about her body — from peers, from doctors, from media, from herself — and how it doesn’t match up to some unattainable standard of what a body should look like.
I can use the word “fat” as a simple adjective, I can call myself fat without a hint of shame, and I can dance around in my fat body in front of my daughters and know that my attempts to normalize my right to enjoy this body won’t be enough to stem the tide of conflicting messages.
They already aren’t enough. The kids jiggle my tummy and note my roundness, watching me carefully for some sign of hurt or rebuke, giggling as though they’re getting away with something naughty. The pediatrician’s eyes widened when I used the f-word at Ellie’s last appointment, her hands clenching as though she wanted to clap them over my mouth.
Of all the things my body can do, it can’t physically shield my kids from a world that, at best, misunderstands and, at worst, despises fat people.
I don’t know how this plays out, as Ellie rockets toward pre-teen-hood and Gwen follows not far behind. Even if they dodge the proverbial genetic bullet and grow up to wear straight sizes, they’ll still have a fat mom. In looking through this warped lens, will they come to see me with disgust, shame, or embarrassment?
(Maybe I worry for nothing, but being fat has dominated my inner monologue for twenty-five years; why stop now?)
I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t approached my body like a battle and lost, over and over again. I have no regrets, but the relief in letting go of the fight has been so sweet.
The world says I need to keep fighting. The world says “maybe try just one more diet, this time will be different”, but that’s a lie. I hope my kids see through it sooner than I did.