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CW: fatphobia, eating disorders
I’ve got some questions. Did I always struggle with loving myself? Or was my baseline to love myself until some other factors swooped in and altered the narrative I had about my fat body?
I was 5 years old when I first learned to hate my fat body.
I was totally a fat kid. A round, chubby in the face – and everywhere else too, little kid. I had dark messy hair and wore tons of denim. Even though I was a fat little 5 year old, I never noticed any wild differences between me and my peers. I ran around outside with them, rode bikes around the block, and played hopscotch. We were active, always outside. That’s how it was before cellphones and video games. And I kept up quite easily with my outdoor crew. I don’t remember any bullying at that age. Other kids didn’t take issue with my round body and so – neither did I.
So, where did I first learn that my fat body was a problem?
As a child, I lived in low income housing. I lived in a one parent household where that parent was disabled. We were poor, y’all. With poverty sometimes comes health issues, sure. Lack of resources and systemic oppression often have negative impact on people’s health. But as far as I knew, I didn’t have any issues with my health as a child. There was no great concern with my health, nor my body. I felt nothing in particular about my fat body up until this point.
For part of my early years I was in foster care. Many of my memories from that time are difficult to call upon without tears following pretty much immediately. Which is a total bummer, it makes it hard to write about. But it also makes it super easy to pinpoint exactly where my relationship with my fat body took a swift left turn off the side of a cliff, into a whirling cesspool of fatphobia. It was traumatic, and I’m still working on detangling the mess of that experience to this day.
Then, the narrative around my fat body changed.
When I was abruptly whisked off to my new temporary household I found myself in a culture of diet and weight obsession. My foster family seemed to make it their mission to get my health under control. I was their project. So I learned about the infamous Body Mass Index (BMI). I had tons of doctors appointments surrounding my weight. Doctors showed me the weight tracking charts. We talked about diets and medication. I was 5 years old.
These memories break my heart. What messages was I receiving about my fat body as a kid from this experience?
You’re different than the other kids. Broken.
Your fat body is a problem. It needs fixing.
Your body and health are scary and need to get under control.
If you want to be okay, you need to lose weight.
Obsess about calories and diet to lose weight.
You can’t eat what the other kids eat.
You need to lose weight to be able to return home.
Fat is bad.
I learned that I wasn’t actually like other kids. My body was an issue. It was a project that needed correcting. My body was unruly, worrisome, and a result of lack of discipline. I needed solving. I needed saving.
There’s a photo of me from when I returned home to my family after a few years in foster care. I was smaller. My body looked…lanky, almost? It felt lanky, anyway. To be honest, when I look at that photo I can’t help but think, that body isn’t mine. That’s someone else’s body in that photo. Someone else’s vision of beauty, health, and conformity. What a strange experience to look at photos and not recognize yourself.
When I returned home, I was active again. We didn’t talk much about me being in foster care, and I think that allowed me to suppress those new messages about my body that I’d learned for some time. I played all kinds of sports; softball, basketball, dance, and martial arts. I’ve always known that my natural state was to enjoy being active. It truly is my baseline. But, when I got into my teen years, I was still the fat kid amongst my peers. And that internalized fatphobia I had learned while in foster care creeped up. Those messages came back with a vengeance.
What was once dormant, festered and consumed me.
Feeling so uncomfortable in my skin led to swearing off all sports. I avoided mirrors and reflections for years. I developed an eating disorder. So, in hopes of minimizing my existence, I wore sweatshirts all year round. If I could look like a general grey blob instead of a fatty with rolls protruding from my abdomen, sides, arms, thighs…maybe people would forget about me? Like, if I’m walking by my classmates in the hall and they squint a little, maybe they won’t see that I’m so much bigger than everyone else. Is there a way I can avoid going to lunch? The cafeteria is a battleground for fatties. High school was rough.
What could have been?
I look back on these memories with such sadness. It hurts. I wonder, what would I be like if I hadn’t received those messages that clearly changed my relationship with my body? What might my relationship to my fat body be like today, if I had just been encouraged to love myself? What if I had been told that my fat body was beautiful? If my health had been an issue, how might things have been different if I was taught to just have fun doing active things I enjoyed and ate foods that made me feel energized as hell?
How would I have felt about my body in my teenage years if I had learned about being intuitive to my body’s needs? If I had just been allowed to be myself – a happy fat kid, how would things be different?
Thankfully, loads of therapy and finding body positive communities online helped me change the narrative around my fat body. As a result, I now challenge those messages that the world wants me to believe about my fat body and replace them with kinder statements.
My fat body is not a problem.
Being fat does not mean I am broken.
My health is my own.
Fatness is not an indication of poor health.
Health is not a prerequisite for respect.
My fat body deserves love and care.
My fat body may be different. And it’s beautiful. And there are many fat people out there living great lives.
I want so much better for that 5 year old kid.
We must do better.
One of my greatest hopes is that we learn to teach our children about bodies in a healthier way. We have to pay attention to how we speak about our bodies, other bodies, and children’s bodies. Further, we need to learn about the impact of diet talk around children.
Additionally, we need to evaluate what kinds of messages we teach kids about health. And about what health means. And about how health isn’t determined by body weight nor is it a prerequisite for respect, love, and living a happy life.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of amazing world we might live in if we didn’t perpetuate toxic diet culture. There are so many stories like mine, where our healthy relationships with our bodies are derailed by traumatic experiences fueled by fatphobia. Because the truth is, we all learned to hate our fat bodies from someone else. Our baseline is not to hate, but to love.
A wonderful essay! It is so wrong to stigmatize fat kids!
I love reading about when folks get that ah-ha moment about their bodies! Took me 49 years and I’m trying so hard to help my 30 year old daughter to get hers much sooner! I worked in medicine many moons ago. Back then a comment might come a person’s way at an appointment but morbidly obese was many lbs heavier and even overweight was far more poundage than it is today! My husband who has never been fat (5’10” 175 lbs) keeps getting told he must get at least 15 lbs off. He was in the military for many years and until here recently his weight was considered normal and healthy. The medical community ought to be ashamed of themselves for focusing so totally on a number in my opinion. I am hugely morbidly obese but I do not suffer from high cholesterol, diabetes, or any other issue that isn’t DNA, bone or muscle related. I know many other fat folks who are just like me. Healthy as far as tests are concerned but weight is normally the only focus of most medical persons. They encourage unhealthy diets, unsafe exercise, anything to lose that weight! I’m at a point in my life where I have no filters lefts anymore and I am speaking out. I found a provider years ago who does not bring up my weight except for the blurb she has to for billing purposes once in a while (yes it’s a rule) and I hang on to her with a sticky grip! There are times when I must see another provider in their exceedingly rare, privately owned clinic and until recently I’d not had to listen to that fat shaming routine in a lot of years. This time my hubby barely got me away from that provider before I ended up educating him about exercise, nutrition, dieting, and his bigotry. I used to break down in tears and start stuttering out excuses however I’d done some research and realized I do actually deserve to be alive and that doctors haven’t a clue as they traditionally get a maximum of 6 weeks of education about exercise, nutrition and hydration and how “diets” as we think of them these days will not work as a permanent solution. They get a fairly good dose of psychology but it just doesn’t seem to compute when it comes to us fat folks that shame and blame is never a way to motivate someone. As far as losing weight goes, it can be done without making a person nuts – when you do it right. For example xercising a body that has not been in routine exercise program must be done very slowly and with care or it gets hurt and then you’re stalled. I found that weight loss can be a side effect instead of the main focus. I educated myself, found some great online support and simply aimed at making my fat body feel better and perform without all the pain and quit a bit of weight loss came all by itself. Moreover, I didn’t care whether or not it came off at all for the first time since I was 8! My standing joke with my family and friends is that I’m either going to reply to the next weight inquiry by my provider with “I’m obese? When did that happen?” or “I’m just getting up into the weight range I was aiming for!” I do believe the time has come to make the joke a reality! She’ll love it because she knows I’ve recently begun my 2nd childhood and simply can’t help myself anymore! I wish every one of your beautiful souls a life without the shame being heaped upon us by society and with so much self love that you never let it get you down!