Hi, I’m fat!
Just a few years ago even writing the word ‘fat’ – in any context – would cause me stress. The thought of someone connecting the word fat to myself was something I tried to avoid at all costs. But three years ago that began to change. I moved from the United States to Ireland to pursue a Master’s degree in Urban Geography. I was originally studying historical aspects of the city, but changed directions after reading an article by Robyn Longhurst. Her article, “The Geography Closest In – the Body … the Politics of Pregnability,” examines how pregnant women feel about going to the mall in Hamilton, New Zealand. As I was reading, it struck me how similar some of their stories were to my own. Some of the women in the article had difficulties using the public restrooms due to the small cubicle size. Some women received funny looks from employees and fellow shoppers when they went into a ‘straight size’ clothing store. These were things that I had personally experienced as well. But I wasn’t (and never have been) pregnant. I was fat.
After chatting with my advisor, I decided that I wanted to switch my focus to how fat women navigate spaces. My Master’s thesis revolved around women ‘coming out’ as fat and their feelings about their fatness in public spaces. I enjoyed my research so much that I decided to stay in Ireland and pursue a PhD on the same subject – fat women and space. For my current research I’m investigating how fat women feel about their own fat identity and the fat community using data collected from social media posts. As part of my research, it was suggested that I begin my own blog in order to better communicate with the community I was researching.
Upon reflection, it became clear that before I could really begin to be a positive voice in the fat community (and hopefully beyond) I needed to share my own experiences, my own story as a fat woman. After all, why should you trust what I have to say without knowing exactly what I’ve experienced? How can I expect you to share your stories with me without knowing mine? So here is my big fat journey … so far.
I was always bigger than kids my age, even the boys. I was the tallest, strongest person in my school until high school. Growing up, I participated in both sporting and artistic activities. I tried tumbling (gymnastics) and basketball for a year each – didn’t love them. I played softball for about 8 years, swam competitively for 3 years, and practiced karate for 3 years. I took painting classes, ceramic making classes, and baton twirling classes. I was a well-rounded kid with varied interests. But I was gaining weight, getting bigger and bigger.
I was the first of my friends to develop breasts. At this time I already weighed more than any girl (and most boys) in school. I distinctly remember a time when two friends and I were in my bathroom. We were changing clothes for some event and when I went to change shirts, my friends gasped and stared at my chest. They started exclaiming about how lucky I was to have such large breasts, that they would kill to be my size. I tried to insist that my breasts weren’t that big – clearly they were – despite the positive comments my friends were making. But I was ashamed of them. Anything that was bigger than normal on my body was a source of shame and panic. I was already being picked on because of my weight; big breasts would only compound the problem. I didn’t want to stand out – I wanted to be normal. ‘Normal’ kids didn’t get picked on and called names in school. ‘Normal’ kids didn’t wish they could disappear so no one would notice them.
By the time I was a freshman in high school I was almost 5’9’’ tall and a size 16 – much larger than any of the other girls and a majority of the boys. I loved to sing (and still do) and was part of our high school show choir. Before the school year began we had a fitting for our competition dresses. I was dreading it. The afternoon of the fitting I almost went home sick. I was deathly afraid that they wouldn’t be able to find a dress in my size and I would have to quit the choir. It would be just another humiliating exercise in a long line of humiliation and shame. Inside the fitting room, I nervously undressed and stood waiting for some comment on my big body. It didn’t take long. The fitter’s measuring tape almost didn’t make it around my chest and stomach – something she felt obliged to state as she was measuring me. After she wrote down my measurements she flipped through the dress catalog to see if there were any styles in my size. In front of me, while I was trying not to cry as I got dressed, she muttered about how few options we had due to my size. I then felt extra guilt for being the cause of us not getting the dresses we had originally wanted and being stuck with whatever could fit me.
My mom also struggled with her weight. Growing up, there wasn’t a diet that we didn’t try. Low fat, low calorie, low carbs, no sodium. Shakes and meal replacement bars. My least favorite was the cabbage soup diet. Every week you made a huge pot of cabbage soup and you could eat as much of it as you wanted. Part of the diet was that you alternated days of other food: day one you could only eat fruit, day two you could only eat vegetables. Repeat. After about a month I couldn’t stand to eat another bite of cabbage soup. And after all that torment I didn’t lose any weight. I didn’t lose much weight on any of the diets. If I did manage to lose a few pounds, I quickly gained it all back – plus more. I was always left feeling like there was something wrong with me.
These are just a few examples of how I felt betrayed and shamed by my own body. There are many other times when it was made clear that my body, and therefore me, was different in a bad way, a way that was considered unacceptable to society. Before, during, and after these events I was called every fat name in the book: fat, ugly, cow, whale, pig, hippo, blob, lard ass, slob, blubber, gross, monster, beast, and many more. I was told that it was no surprise I wasn’t dating anyone – who would want to be seen with me? Who would want to date me? What man would want to have sex with me? I would never get married and have kids if I didn’t change the way I looked. I would never get a decent job or a promotion. My fat body made me unworthy of romantic love. I would never make anything of myself because of my fat. These names, comments, and questions didn’t just come from schoolmates. Strangers, teachers, doctors, so-called friends, and family members all felt compelled to comment on my weight and appearance. I can’t count how many people have called me some variation of fat. I can count on one hand how many people have called me beautiful.
The shame, loathing, guilt, and insecurity I felt about my fat body stayed with me for many years, until I moved to Ireland. During the research for my Master’s thesis, I began to see that there were other people who had similar experiences to my own. There were strong, intelligent, fat women who were fighting back against the people and the systems that told us we should be ashamed of ourselves and needed to change. One of the most important moments in both my research and personal journey came when reading about women ‘coming out’ as fat. In coming out as fat, women were reclaiming the word for themselves. Fat, they declared, doesn’t mean that you’re weak, stupid, lazy, or ugly – what people actually meant when they called you fat. These words have become attached to fat. They are social constructions that in reality have nothing to do with fat. Fat is a substance found in every body – some bodies simply have more than others. Mine does. I’m still a work in progress (aren’t we all?), but more and more I realize that my fatness doesn’t define me. It’s a part of who I am that I will always carry with me, but I’m choosing to not let that define my present nor my future.
I’m strong, smart, determined, and beautiful. And I’m fat.
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