This summer a woman who I barely know came up to me and patted my stomach, inquiring about my pregnancy – in front of my boys, who are twelve and ten and old enough to understand that no non-pregnant woman wants to look like she’s pregnant.
FACT #1: I get asked about my imaginary due date far more often than I’d like to admit. FACT #2: I’m not pregnant, and probably never will be again.
When I told this woman so, she tried to backtrack by saying (over and over and dearLORD over again) that the dress I was wearing made it look like I was expecting. I told her she needed to stop talking because she was being offensive. Needless to say, the rest of the conversation was awkward at best, and it left me feeling so shamed – shamed at the pool later that day, shamed when I put that dress (a new dress that I was in love with) in the laundry. Shamed when my boys saw my distress and wanted to come to my rescue – everything from wanting to shoot her in the foot with a BB gun to wanting to yell every bad word at her they knew. I explained to them that in our family we choose to love people who hurt us, and that none of those things – violence or angry verbiage – would bear any kind of good fruit.
But oh my God, the shame. It’s a deep shame. It’s a poisonous shame. And you want to know what else it is? It’s an alien shame, one that is given to a person from the outside in. Through little cues and thoughtless actions shame about weight is handed out one bit at a time, like coins for a wishing well. Sometimes the coins are little, pennies and dimes. Other times they are larger – half-dollars that are heavier to carry. And though this shame is a thing handed to us outwardly, it takes root inside us, curling around our psyches like a choking parasitic vine.
I was very young – maybe five or six the first time it happened. I loved my grandmother so much. She was joyful and funny and loved to cook and adored my sister and I. We were never a nuisance to her, ever. Up until this day there was never a moment where I felt like she wished I would just leave her alone for a couple of minutes.
My grandmother was heavy. I never thought about it much, but I remember, every now and again, feeling curious about it. One day when she and I were making pie crust together, I asked her, “Grandma, why are you so fat?”
Please understand that, as a young kid, the word FAT had no negative connotation to me. It was just a descriptive word, like blue or windy or warm. It was just a way that some people were. I didn’t know that it was negative, and I didn’t know what made people fat. The question was just simple childhood curiosity.
I can only imagine how the question must have hit her, a grown woman who had probably faced ridicule on more than one occasion about her weight. She heard my question through years of filters, and took it to mean the only thing she could comprehend me meaning:
I wanted to know why she was FAT. I wanted to know why she was UGLY. I wanted to know why she was GROSS. I wanted to know why she was LAZY. I wanted to know why she was WORTHLESS.
I know that these were the things that were going through her mind, because the same things have gone through my own mind, time and time again – when I’m at the doctor’s office being weighed, when someone asks me when I’m due (THE LIVING WORST), when I have a muffin top over my jeans (daily). I know exactly what her internal dialogue sounded like, because I am an adult, and I have walked a mile or two in those shoes.
But then, as a kid, all I knew was that Grandma Marge was fat, just like her hair was grey and her skin was white and her eyes were blue. It wasn’t negative. It was just a part of the woman I loved.
She stopped rolling out the pie dough and looked down at me. Her eyes were glossy and full of tears. Then she left the room. She just left me there, standing on a stool, hands slick with Crisco, confused as I heard the backdoor shut.
I climbed off the stool and sat down on it, wiping my hands on my jeans as a feeling of restlessness came over me. This is a feeling that I would come to rely on in later years when the shit was about to hit the fan.
I can still hear the heavy footfalls of my dad’s boots – he has the same gait today. Grandma was following him, and I knew, I just knew, that somehow I’d done something wrong.
Do you know that to this day I can’t remember what color my grandmother’s bathroom was? She had two kitchens – one was green, the other was yellow. Her living room was white and brown, with kicks of yellow and orange in it. Her bedroom was white, all white, with soft blankets and lots of lovely light coming in the windows. But I can’t remember what color the bathroom was.
My dad took my hand and led me to that colorless bathroom, and without a word, gave me a spanking that I’ll never forget. He was angry. I was in pain. And I didn’t know why.
After the spanking he turned me around. His finger – dirty, not in a bad way, but just the way farmer’s fingers are – was in my face and these words were in my ears:
“If you ever – ever – call your grandmother fat again, I will use the belt.”
I learned some lessons that day. I learned that being FAT was something to be ashamed of. I learned that FAT wasn’t just a descriptive, like orange or wet or dry. I learned that FAT was a word that carried power, the power to hurt someone you love, and the power to make the people you loved hurt you.
I remember the first time my mom took me to a dietician. I was in the second grade, and thought we were going to the doctor’s office for a check up. When we sat down with the dietician (after taking my height and weight…a thing that until that day I’d always enjoyed), she looked at me and asked,
“Why do you want to lose weight?”
I looked at my mom, thoroughly confused and unsure how to respond. She nodded at me, wordlessly telling me to answer.
I answered honestly. “I don’t know.” What I meant, of course, was I don’t know why I’m here. We were half-way through that visit before I realized that losing weight meant I was fat and of course I already knew fat was something to be ashamed of, so
Yes, Mom, I will write down everything I eat (even though I might not be able to spell everything I eat) and I promise to do sit ups every day.
Oh, the shame. The vampiric, life-sucking shame.
When I was in high school somebody dear to me offered me $1,000 to lose fifty pounds. I was 5’10” and weighed 180 pounds. I know now that I wasn’t – by any stretch – fat, but still,
oh the shame. The all-consuming, life-sucking shame.
My heroes growing up were Princess Buttercup. Red Sonja. Ariel. Super Girl (I was obsessed with that movie). Strong women. Beautiful women. Women who were lovely and tough and determined and who were girls. But I couldn’t emulate them. I didn’t have the courage. I cut my hair short even though I ached for it to be long. I wore jeans and flannel shirts because it was the 90’s and grunge was acceptable and it was the only look I thought I could pull off. What I wanted to wear were cute dresses and lip gloss and high heels. But between my height and the miserable voices in my head screaming at me that I was shamefully fat, I couldn’t do it. Instead I spent the bulk of my high school career feeling like a lumbering giant, always hunching my shoulders over so I’d appear shorter, telling myself that I would never get asked out because of all the FatOhMyGodI’mSoFatNoGuyWantsToDateLetAloneTouchAGirlThisFat. At least I’d never end up a teen mom, I’d tell myself as if that was some kind of consolation prize for being disgusting.
Shame? Ohhhh yeah. Fuck. I’m so glad I never have to repeat high school.
So much of my life has changed. I married a guy who has taught me the meaning of passion and unconditional love. I have four beautiful, ornery, drive-me-nuts, awesome kids (a tiny little testament to just how wrong I was on the no guy will ever want to touch me front), a career that I love, hair down to the middle of my back, a closet full of dresses and a drawer full of lip gloss.
And even though I’m better, the shame haunts me.
I am still 5’10”, but instead of weighing 180, I weigh 240. My first pregnancy happened during a time of bone-deep grief, and the weight I gained then – a lot of weight – has always seemed to hang around. I’ve done Atkins and toyed with Paleo, I’ve lived by the canon of Weight Watchers, I’ve ran miles and miles and jumped rope and breathed through yoga poses I was sure would kill me (and still do every morning because yoga is a drug you just don’t quit), and all the while my weight has fluxed too and fro like the tide. But it always comes back to where it is now. During the day when I’m busy chasing kids and writing words and folding laundry and grocery shopping I can ignore the shame I feel at that. I can even manage to feel good about myself. But at night, when I undress for bed, the self-hate returns in the wake of a quieter mind. And when I wake up in the morning it’s there, as blatant as the sunlight that brought me out of sleep.
It’s there when I go down; it’s there when I get up.
So those in-between times – when I’m not thinking about it, and on the rare occasion that I can believe in my own physical beauty – are important. And when it gets shattered by someone – willfully or ignorantly – handing me a little coin of shame, it hurts.
We all have That Thing that we feel insecure about – too skinny, too fat, skin problems, thinning hair, teeth that aren’t perfectly white or perfectly straight, boobs that are too small (or too big). Maybe it’s your nose or the stray hairs on your chin. Whatever it is, I’d wager that, more often than not, you have to fight to not be hyper-aware of it. The struggle is real. But I hope that you can find a way to see yourself beyond your perceived flaws – see yourself as a person of infinite worth, of undefinable value – and live your life as if you really, truly believed that was true. And then, apply that same standard to everyone around you. Stop looking at their exteriors and judging them against your own. Recognize their infinite and eternal worth – a worth that is completely separate from the skin they walk around in.
I’m preaching myself here, by the way. I have my own record of judgmental thoughts and verbal diarrhea, both toward myself and others. I’m a work in progress.