I haven’t always been fat. As a child, the word most commonly used to describe my size/shape was “skinny,” and as a pre-teen apparently my size caused at least one family member to worry that I might have an eating disorder. As a teenager I was somewhere in the “average” camp and in my early twenties I certainly gained a little weight (very few people stay the size they were at seventeen, and for good reason) but I certainly wasn’t FAT.
(Here is where I have to interrupt myself with a disclaimer. DISCLAIMER: I am not interested in debating or proving whether or not fat people can be healthy. Fat people can be healthy. Plenty of other people have articulated all the reasons that’s true way better than I can today, and there’s a whole wide internet of things you can read if you need info about that. Likewise, there is a whole wide internet of places where you can say horrible things about fat people if you are so inclined. This is not the place. What this is, this is me talking about my very personal and individual experience with identity and body politics, fatphobia, fat activism, and health at every size. Comments off topic, including personal attacks and attempts to shame, and attempts to turn this into a discussion about whether or not fat is healthy or ok or gross or whatever, will be deleted. I also reserve the right to delete any comment that makes me uncomfortable in any way, because that’s how having a blog works. Ok, onward.)
But I always had fat people in my life, fat friends and relatives, fat acquaintances and coworkers. Probably everyone does. And our society teaches us to look for differences in behavior, especially eating behavior, between fat people and non-fat people. As a non-fat person, I did that. I watched my fat friends to see what they did, how they ate, how they lived. And as I searched for evidence of binge eating or junk food obsessions or anything else that might JUSTIFY why my fat friends were fat, there was only one difference to be found. My fat friends really did seem to be eating less. And when I saw them eat, they seemed to be terrible uncomfortable.
Years later, one of my very close friends would become involved in fat activism, and this kind soul somehow dredged up the patience to talk with me about it and answer my endless, sometimes not very kind, questions. As Lauren Zuniga says in what is probably my favorite poem about queer issues ever, oppression is a loud room. Even as I looked around me and supposed that some people were just fat and some people were just thin and different bodies had different natural states (and what does “natural” even mean anyways?) I still held fast to certain societal prejudices against fat people. That is one of the ways that privilege can work. My friend exhibited what was not an endless, but certainly an extraordinary, amount of patience with me. I tried to listen more than I talked (hard!) and I learned a lot.
One of the stranger affects of our culture’s excitement over the policing of female bodies is, as women are encouraged to conceal their weight, we stop knowing what the numbers actually look like (though of course, there’s a wide variance of what any given weight looks like on various bodies). When I weighed 130 lbs, and I was honest about it, people were constantly shocked. “Wow, you don’t look it!” Or “You carry it so well!” were common things for me to hear, as if this somehow meant I was doing a good job, I was winning.
And I was winning at body acceptance too! Still somewhat oblivious to my own Privilege, I walked around smug because unlike so many women I knew, I didn’t struggle with hating my body! How could I hate my body? My body was me, we were one, it was fine. Everything was fine.
Until one day, it wasn’t. Maybe, if you were also a thin teenager, you can remember eating an entire pizza by yourself on the living room floor and having someone, an older person, look at you sadly and say “you won’t always be able to eat like that!” And maybe, if you were anything like me, you thought “I’ll always BE ABLE to eat whatever the fuck I want, just because you choose not to because your afraid of getting fat, that doesn’t mean I have to be like you!”
It happened at maybe the least convenient time. It happened right after I got engaged. Nothing in my diet or lifestyle had changed much, as far as I could tell (adult me eats much better than teenage me, FYI) but suddenly my clothes weren’t fitting right. It was so unexpected and strange that at first I thought I had literally shrunk EVERYTHING I owned in the wash. Finally, I had to concede that my body was changing.
While intellectually I was fine with it, I was also raised in this messed up culture and stuff. seeps. in. I was also an engaged woman making her own wedding dress and dealing with the constant reminders that SOME women diet for their weddings. I looked hard at my life to discover what I was doing “wrong.” I took up jogging, and tried to hide it, and told those who I DID talk to about it that I was just “interested in trying new things.” It was a lie. I loathed jogging. I was punishing my body for getting fat. And then, because I knew what my fat activist friends would say, I also punished my mind for punishing my body. If I had just loved myself enough, this wouldn’t be a problem!
I kept gaining weight. At a certain point, the vast majority of my thin Privilege melted away. Suddenly I was a fat girl. People made rude comments when I ate donuts at work. Glares. Eyebrows raised. People who I had previous asked to stop telling fat jokes in my presence (“those are my friends you’re talking about!”) but hadn’t bothered to comply suddenly just stopped talking to me altogether.
When I was thin, I got to decide every day whether or not to be a fat activist that day. I got to let things slide. Sometimes I felt tortured about letting things slide, but I still did it. As a fat woman, that was no longer an option. I could no longer take a break from it.
I officially became “obese” according to the BMI the same week that the FDA officially declared “obesity” a disease. I tried to joke about it, saying “I’m so fat I’m fat-sick!” but then I went home and cried and cried and cried.
Throughout all of it, I was keenly aware of two facts.
1. All I had to do was announce “I am worried about my health!” And the majority of people would watch me starve myself (which is what I most wanted to do) no questions asked.
2. I was/am the healthiest I have ever been in my life.
I was a sickly kid. I was a sickly teenager. Also, I have never enjoyed the vast majority of the food my parents eat, so as a teenager, I subsisted mainly on junk food (sometimes in excessive quantities). As an adult, I may not be as healthy as all of my peers, but I don’t get at least two terrible sinus infections a year anymore, I eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and while I love icecream, I don’t eat it every day.
And yet, once I was visibly fat, people suddenly started doing something they had never done for me when I was sick all the time. They started asking about my health. It was maddening.
Well readers, the wedding came and went, and the dress fit (just barely, I don’t mind telling you). I continued to gain weight steadily for a few more months, and I continued to vacillate between being pretty ok with that and being sad and angry and just wanting my thin-Privilege back. Then, one day, as suddenly as it started, the weight gain stopped. After about a year and about fifty pounds, I weigh in at about 200 lbs. my body is shaped differently than I used to be, but it is still my body.
I read a lot of fat acceptance literature in the last few months, and while it helped in lots of ways (there’s lots of great stuff out there) there weren’t really any stories like mine. Almost every personal essay begins with the author announcing “I have always been fat” or “I was a fat kid.” And that’s ok, that’s even great, because those are their stories and they should be told. But I worry that, much like with queer identities, we might be legitimizing those with a static identity at the cost of delegitimizing those with change and flux in their stories. There’s an idea that if a fat person had always been fat, that’s just the way they are “built,” but if a thin person becomes a fat person, they somehow failed. I don’t think this is an idea anyone is trying to promote, exactly, but it is there, and it does affect us.
That’s why I wrote this. Bodies change, and with them identities can shift. It took me a long time to get comfortable identifying as a fat woman, to be ready to claim this body, the body I currently have, as completely my own.
Earlier this summer my wife and I went on a belated honeymoon, and we spent most of it in the wilderness, away from the lights and the traffic and the sounds and smells of the city. One day we went on a hike that ended up being over twenty four miles long. Readers, it was hard. But I did it. That is what this fat body can do, and I am so proud of it I cannot even put it into words.