I'm bipolar. I blog about it. I also blog about sex, theology and atheology, funny shit and sad shit, books, music, feminism, and love. Mostly love.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Understanding Fat Shaming

Note: I'm calling people "fat" on purpose in this post. First of all, I want to own that word. It isn't a cuss word for God's sake. Secondly, I want to evoke an emotional response. Fat has been used as a hurtful word. It's a word that makes strong people cry. Cry if you need to, but it's time for the truth.

I realize I've already made a post tonight, but after my post about self-love (which included body image), I had a conversation with one of my best friends. I know that he doesn't hate fat people, but he said some pretty ignorant things regarding fat people in our culture. This was just another effect of fat-shaming on us. Someone who really means no harm can say things that are very hurtful without understanding the reaction that understandably roars in response. So, I could go on about what fat-shaming is, how it affects people, how to fix it, etc. But I'm not going to do that. Because the person I talked to tonight understands all of that, but still doesn't understand. Instead I'm going to tell you a story. I'm going to tell you a story of a girl who's been fat for *most of* her life. I want to share my own fat-shaming history. Some of this will be news to you and shared for the first time, but I've come to realize that stories are heard while rants about the harmful effects of unhealthy societal expectations often fall upon ears accustomed to the sound. So here's my story.

As a five year-old, my step sister told me I was fat. She told me I needed to lose weight. She also told me I was a wuss because I was afraid to get my ears pierced, while her best friend's little sister who was only three had already done it. She told me I looked like a boy because of my short hair. She told me I couldn't touch her barbies because I would mess them up, and although my memory has served me the kindness to block it out, it's likely she molested me. She was about nine years older than I and she was skinny and pretty and cool. She constantly told me in new and creative ways that I wasn't okay. As an adult I can look back at that time and see a girl struggling with her parents' divorce, probably dealing with her own history of sexual abuse, and of course her own issues with self esteem. But at the time, someone who was older than me and knew so much more than me was telling me I was useless. It didn't matter what anyone else said, because people are nice, even when they don't mean it. I wasn't the kind of kid to be mean unprovoked (that came with puberty, haha), or ever hit below the belt like that. So I assumed that she must be right, and everyone else was being nice to spare my feelings.

Being a bipolar kid, I was really intense. I would constantly talk, usually about myself, I interrupted people, I argued too quickly, and I was completely oblivious to this behavior. So when I had a hard time making friends or people pulled away, I assumed it was because I was fat. Later, issues developed because I would see popular fat people, and I couldn't understand what was wrong with me. At St. Mary's we had uniforms. Until the fifth grade, girls wore plaid jumpers. Because in fifth grade girls began to wear navy skirts, the sizes stopped at what they thought a little fourth grader ought to wear. I was bigger than the rest of the little fourth graders. Only four girls were in my class at St. Mary's, and the other three were tiny. There was a new seating chart at school and I overheard some of the other girls complaining about it because they had to sit next to me. Completely unaware of my affect on people, I assumed this was because I was fat. It makes no sense, but to my young mind it made perfect sense. No one wanted to sit by me because I wasn't cool, which correlated directly with size. And I was deeply hurt by it.

By fifth grade I'd found my love of dance. Being big in the dancing world is incredibly difficult. You always have to be better than the best girl, because you're judged before the music even starts. My cheerleading uniforms had to be altered because the biggest size was too small for me. For someone trying to fit into a new school, I was convinced everyone knew mine was different. My best friend at the time who was dealing with her own self esteem issues as well (noticing a common theme?) would make side comments to me about the extra red fabric we'd snuck onto my uniform so it would fit. I would respond in a way that preserved her feelings while my own heart was breaking over it. I just wanted to be normal, and I had no idea how. I couldn't even wear the same clothes, because junior clothes were too small for me. I had to shop somewhere else. My dance team in junior high was called the Cubcadettes. After I joined (along with some other heavier girls), we were coined in the hallways as the "Chubcadettes." That made it ten-times harder to go perform on that floor. My mom, who was the coach, and I argued constantly because I was already so self-conscious about being a fat dancer that I didn't want anything else to make me look stupid. Often she was right (although to this day I think getting us pom outfits that looked like cheerleader uniforms was a bad idea), but my bipolar turned our conversations into battles. I was already scared.

In seventh grade, I started to lose weight. I worked out a lot and started seeing a doctor for weight loss with my parents. It was working for me. That year was the first year that I auditioned for and made UDA All Star. It was an audition hosted through UDA and UCA (Universal Dance/Cheer Associations) that gave you an opportunity to dance in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was so proud of myself when I received that medal. I wore it all day. Mom gave me shit for it calling me a Special Olympian, which genuinely hurt my feelings at the time, but I wasn't good at expressing that, really. I was just so proud because I truly thought my weight was going to get in the way of me winning that medal and it didn't. (Later I had a huge internal crisis when I considered that they may have only given it to me to prove they weren't fat-phobic, but that's a whole other story.) I went and performed in Philadelphia. It was a really cool experience and I got a lot out of it. I talked about it non-stop (again with the intensity that I'm sure drove people up the wall).

I came back, and during PE one day I was walking the track with the same friend who had made those comments about my cheerleading uniform. I'd been on TV, and she said that she had been with some boys (I'm not afraid to call out Abraham Huffington because he's still a dick). She told me Abe had said if they could find my station they wouldn't be able to miss me because of my huge ass. Again with the silent heart break. All I could think was I'm trying so hard. I will never be good enough for you people. I really was trying to lose weight and I was working my ass off to do it--way more than any of my peers did to maintain their tiny physiques. I cried about it in the bathroom between classes. I was truly hurt. People had said things about that friend to me, but I'd always kept them secret to spare her feelings. I had wished she'd done the same for me, but at the time I genuinely believed she thought she was being a good friend. Now I believe she may have used that as an excuse, but was looking for a way to bring me down. Perhaps out of jealousy, perhaps to shut me up about it, or perhaps both. But I do believe he said those things. In junior high (I think this is true of most girls; boys are oblivious), I was convinced people were always talking behind my back. Every now and then I'd find a moment of peace where I'd convince myself not to be so self-centered and to realize I was not the topic of everyone's conversation. But in this instance I was proven wrong. Being proven wrong one time will poison everything that follows.

This same friend also revealed to me that Sarah Simpson was calling me "Weight Watchers Dancer" behind my back. At the time, there was a Weight Watchers commercial with a plus-sized dancer. I guess that was supposed to be me. I was afraid to ever be around her again. I was so embarrassed. She was stick thin, a dancer, and everything I would never be. The only thing that made me feel better was being mean. Granted, my form of meanness never involved lying. I only told people how much of a bitch she'd been. I was so embarrassed that I wouldn't even use her words, but I'd say she was skinny and not that good of a dancer. I'd say she was mean and I didn't understand why people liked her... and people agreed with me. When my weight loss became more visible, she and her friend cooked up a rumor that I was bulimic. It was as if they were trying to say that, yeah she can be skinny, but only if she cheats. Again I was miserable. I worked my ASS of to lose weight. I was running, lifting weights, dance class, dance team, stretching and doing situps in my front room while I watched criminal minds... and they were going to say I was cheating? I was so pissed. But horribly, more than truly recognizing her cruelty, I continued that thought process: this is what everyone thinks. She's the only one enough of a bitch to say it out loud. And I felt worthless.

By 8th grade I'd lost a lot of weight. I was around 40 lbs lighter with a lot more muscle gained. I felt healthy. I still wanted to lose weight, but I was really proud of where I'd gotten. One day I dropped a bunch of stuff after the last bell. As he was passing, Dylan Reed mumbled, "like a cow" under his breath. I was done. I kept working out and eating right out of habit. But when the time stopped being readily available to hit the gym and the food not quite as accessible, I stopped caring. I didn't make the time or choose to eat healthy. What did it matter? I was never going to be skinny, no matter how hard I worked. I was never going to be as skinny as Sarah Simpson. She could eat all the pizza she wanted and look that way forever. She had it easy. Slowly, the weight crept back on. Cruel passing comments remained. Finding dance clothes to fit was still an issue. Changing in PE was devastating... High school.

On and off through high school I struggled with cutting, inappropriate relationships with boys, and all the other goodies bipolar brings to a hormonal teenage girl. I hated myself and I had no clue why. And I don't think I was ready to understand. I wasn't ready to say, I think I'm fat and I'm afraid no one likes me, because just the thought would make me cry. I didn't even like myself enough to really try to get to the bottom of why I was unhappy. College came and after an incredibly rough first year I began to truly find myself. My diagnosis with bipolar disorder gave me something I'd never really had before. For the first time I knew what was driving people away, and it had nothing to do with me being fat. I could acknowledge that the things I truly hated about myself were symptoms and not character traits. It was so freeing that I began to really come to terms with what it really meant to love myself. I learned that secrets are evil. The more you silently convince yourself you aren't worth it without consulting the people who love you, the less likely you are to succeed. Loving yourself is necessary to be healthy both physically and mentally.

So that's a story of fat-shaming. It took a mental health diagnosis and 19 years of struggle, but I learned that my body did not define me. I am smart, I can write, I can sing and dance, and I love children and books and Doctor Who and Harry Potter and and and... my size has so little to do with me. Granted, with the danger of generalizing I will state, that oftentimes, MY (not true for everyone) weight is a sign of how I'm doing emotionally. If I'm heavier it means I'm eating emotionally and I don't have the energy to work out. This is depression, folks. That is bad. But now that I know myself better, I know I'm not depressed because I'm fat. I gain weight when I'm depressed. And right now, after a year of self-discovery, I finally feel ready to tackle my health. But that's what it took for me. If I'd started any sooner, I wouldn't have been ready, and I'd have wound back up right where I started. Everyone has to find their own individual journey.

With that said. Fat-shaming is never okay. Ever. It is a sensitive topic because of the way it's been handled in the past and therefore must be handled sensitively now. Otherwise it's simply pointless. America is fat. Okay. Instead of making that broad and obvious statement, do something to teach kids about eating healthy. Tell them that loving your body is the first step to taking care of it. Tell them that it doesn't matter what someone else thinks of their bodies--they have to be their own champions. Okay? So shut up about the problem and be a solution. The solution isn't a lecture circuit. It's about appealing to people's emotions. Making them feel worth the effort. It's hard to understand what it's like to be fat in our culture unless you've been there, but hopefully this will give you a better idea of what it's like, and hopefully that will allow you to support healthier messages and to smash what hurts the people already struggling so painfully with self-hatred.

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