The truth is, I’m fat.
You can be euphemistic: I’m curvy, fluffy, pleasingly plump… but there are other, more hurtful words, too. As a culture, we learn how awful it is to be fat very early. I’ve had very small children run up to me and say in ugly voices, “You’re fat!”
For most of my life, fat has been something you wanted to avoid at all costs – a shameful thing; something to disguise or get rid of; something to apologize for, to feel shame for, to believe you deserve less out of life because you are fat.
I’ve been big all of my life – admittedly, different versions of big, but big. I come from a big family, on both sides. Being big is not something I’m necessarily proud of – in this culture, it would be impossible for me to be proud of being a fat woman. But, it’s also not something I’m necessarily ashamed of, either.
When I was a child, there was a time when I thought I could fly. Every day, I experienced the sensation of flying around the school yard, over my friends playing below. I sat in the classroom and my mind floated above the words of my teacher. I felt light and free.
That lasted for about two weeks, until my mom made me stop taking those pills. I was seven years old, and they gave me speed to lose weight.
When I was about ten, my doctor again tried to encourage me to lose weight. He told me I needed to start eating differently and gave me two weeks to lose ten pounds in order to prove that I was “serious” about losing some weight. He told me not to bother to come back if I didn't. I lost eight pounds, but refused to go to my doctor appointment because I had missed his goal.
Months later, when I did see him again for some childhood illness, he asked why I hadn’t kept the appointment. I told him that I had lost only eight pounds. He called me “silly” for taking him at his word; I felt confused and humiliated. But I blamed myself, not the doctor.
When I was a kid, I shopped in the Chubettes department – boys shopped in Huskies – which were mostly shapeless clothes in generic colors designed to make you disappear. As I got older, large size clothes – at least at that time – came in black, brown, navy, and grey with only vertical stripes: all the better to help you appear slimmer, more acceptable, to hide your bulk.
There is no little back dress that will make this body appear to be a size two.
These days, clothes for large women come in bright patterns and amazing colors – fashion-forward for the fat body. Colorful patterns show off curves, and extremely tight dresses caress large, rounded hips and breasts. Ah, but I learned my lessons young: I could no more wear those clothes than I could fly. And I found out I couldn’t really fly when I quit taking those pills at age seven.
Over the years, I’ve been told that I’m lazy, weak, disgusting, unlovable, and a freak. I’ve been told I would never have a relationship or a spouse; I would never have a professional position or find success in the workplace; I could not be healthy or happy or respected.
I’m sorry to admit that I let people’s words and prejudices become my truth. I believed them. I carry some of that shame with me still.
Fortunately, I’ve also been surrounded by people who love me, and who tell me those things aren’t true. I have wonderful friends. I’m married. I’ve had fabulous jobs. When you are shamed and ashamed, however, it takes a lot of positives to make up for even a few negatives. I struggle to see myself as talented, capable, worthwhile—let alone beautiful.
In my late teens, I applied at a high-end retailer for a clerk position. When I was called in for an interview, I selected my most stylish and flattering outfit. The woman interviewing me was thin, dressed severely in high fashion, made-up and coiffed to the nines. She started the interview then stopped me in the middle of my answer to the third question. She said, “There’s really no reason to go on with this. I mean, you don’t really fit our company image. You understand, don’t you?”
After more than two decades working in corporate settings, I went to seminary to enter the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I was repeatedly told that I would probably never be offered a ministerial position because of my weight. In one of the most “accepting” and “welcoming” religious denominations, it would be better if I were anything but fat.
Fortunately, I was able to minister and successfully serve congregations, even as a fat woman, but I know my size has been a challenge for some of my congregants to understand, let alone accept. They've told me so: some gently and lovingly, some more directly and confrontationally.
Fat people don’t need pity, and I’m not looking for it. It would be nice simply to be included and considered, seen for what lies beyond the obvious.
To know you’re truly welcome because there are chairs available that fit your body and your needs. To not have every medical appointment be about the need to lose weight – even if you’ve come to see the doctor about a skin rash or broken bone. To not dread having to get on an airplane. To avoid having endless conversations with people who assure you that they are not fat phobic, just “concerned about your health.”
I’m older and more experienced now with being in a body that’s different, that’s fat, that needs things that are different than usual. I’m more willing to ask for what I need and do that with assurance instead of quiet humiliation. I’m more comfortable speaking up and feeling worthy and taking up space without apology or shame. And I'm still haunted by my own moments of shame and self-criticism for not being "normal."
I’m fat. It’s taken me years to know that one small word doesn’t have to limit and define my life in the image of what others think I deserve or need. I’m so much more.