There are few topics I hate talking about more than my weight.
I’d rather talk about child poverty or communicable diseases before talking about how I look or how I feel about how I look.
It’s not a new struggle for me, as it isn’t for most women. There hasn’t been a dramatic event to make this important to document right now, and yet I can think of little else at the moment. How in the world did I let my weight dictate how I feel about myself for so long? Or more importantly, how happy I am?
These days, there seems to be a lot of attention on weight. Embrace your weight. Lose weight. Gain weight.
I can’t stand in a grocery store without a magazine cover telling me how I can lose a dozen pounds by Sunday. We have always been a weight-obsessed society; this is hardly a new concept. From a time when women tried to gain weight to be curvier to now when they will do just about anything to be tiny, weight has driven our culture and the fashion industry.
For as long as I’ve been trying to buy clothes, fat chicks just don’t fit in. For years, even tall boots were designed with skinny legs in mind. The most desirable workout gear goes up to a whopping size 12, and don’t even get me started on bathing suits (there is nothing a “plump” girl likes more than to wrap herself in some sort of tent-like costume before trying to fit in on a beach where every roll, lump and bump are on display. It’s really fantastic).
Since Tess arrived on the cover of Sports Illustrated (hurrah!), everyone seems to have an opinion on what being a “fat girl” means. It alarms me that she’s been described as an attractive, “plus-size” model and not just an attractive model, but that’s a discussion for another time. The issue is that despite all the positive attention she’s received, her Instagram account is still filled with haters referring to her as various kinds of farm animals and wildlife.
But where does the hate come from? Does it come from the same uneducated, intolerant place that racism and ageism come from? Or is it something else?
Is it a general, sweeping opinion that all fat people are junk food-eating, lazy couch potatoes who will inevitably drain the health care system? Apparently not—otherwise, the same level of hatred would be spewed at skinny, smoking, chip-eating, lazy couch potatoes.
Is it a fear that if someone spends too much time with a fat person that they too might catch it, like some sort of “fat virus?”
Of course there are those folks who suggest that people (actually, complete strangers) are simply concerned with the health issues that come with being obese. Granted, being over-weight can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses.
However, mental illness, lower social-economic status, genetics, smoking, and drinking can also lead to the same laundry list of illnesses. The difference is that it is possible to walk down the street with a combination of the latter risk factors and not be pointed at, mocked, or muttered about.
So it can’t really be a good Samaritan’s concern over a stranger’s health profile.
Plus, are all pleasantly plump people the same to begin with? Are there different kinds of “overweight,” or are we all just lumped together in one shamed category?
This is where the frustration comes in for me. If there are various reasons for weight concerns and different implications from obesity (which there are), at what point did we decide to lump all chubby girls together as undesirable and call it a day?
For me the story is a whole lot more complicated than that, and I know I’m not alone.
I’ve always been the “fat” kid.
I know how it feels to be mooed at as I walk down the hallway at school. I know what it’s like to have a whole group of boys laugh and point as I walk down the hall in junior high. I know what it’s like to be the only girl not asked to dance in high school.
The truth is though, I didn’t really know I was “fat” for a long time. I knew there were some mean kids, but it didn’t really occur to me that I was different. I mean, I step-danced my whole childhood, a daily sweat-dripping, heart-pounding workout.
I was fit but evidently fat.
I can remember being at a competition when I was 14 and someone I had known for 10 years saying, just loud enough for me to hear, “I’m not getting beaten by the fat girl.”
Everyone seemed to know something I didn’t know: A) I was fat. B) This was something I should be highly ashamed of. C) This makes me different. I was the “unaware fat girl.”
I went to university where I became a different kind of fat girl. Still overweight, aware of it, but really not caring about it. I didn’t have to care because no one else seemed to care. It was a beautiful thing.
Here I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: When we surround ourselves with wonderful people, we really won’t spend a minute thinking about how “we’re not good enough” for the world. I sure didn’t. I ate, I drank, I and was merry.
I was still the fat girl, but for a few years I forgot that that made me “different.” Fear not, the world would remind me soon enough. But for a few years, I got to be the “blissfully happy fat girl.”
I would eventually become an adult with a career and continue to struggle with my weight. Really struggle. I tried to pretend that I didn’t care and that my confidence would be enough to help me bully my way through this world.
Clothes didn’t fit, I didn’t fit.
I was surrounded by skinny, beautiful people and the more I felt badly about how I looked, the worse things got. I was still the fat girl, just now I was the “very aware fat girl” with self-esteem too low to do anything about it.
I now was aware that thin people were simply treated differently than I was. I had to be the hilarious, fat friend or this world was going to eat me alive. I now recognized that people saw “fat” before they saw anything else when they met me or looked at me, even the people who tried so hard to hide it.
The jig was up. I was the “junk food-eating, lazy, health system-sucking fat girl” the world saw, and that was that.
Turning 30 was a big turning point for me. The March before, I had an “a-ha!” moment in which I realized that although I may always be obese, I could at least be healthy and strong. I wanted my first thought to be, “Oh I could just walk here” rather than “I’ll just jump in the car.”
And so a journey began and I walked around the block. And the next day, I walked for 20 minutes. And then in the summer after, I started running a little. And so it continued. I even started doing P90X because someone said I couldn’t do it—this chubby girl was going to do stupid Superman-Banana if it killed her!
Weight started to disappear and I got stronger, realizing that the healthier I ate, the better I felt. I got out what I put in and felt the best I’d felt in my life. Yet when I walked down the street with my head held high and my heart feeling genuinely confident, I was still mocked, helped last at the store, or denied eye contact.
For now at least, the idea of healthy and overweight were mutually exclusive in the world around me. I was the “fit fat girl,” despite the fact that society considered that to be an oxymoron.
I had a revelation a few years ago when my father passed away. I ended up going through old pictures and videos with family members, looking at grandparents and great-aunts and uncles when they were my age.
I saw something quite astonishing: I was in these pictures. I mean, not literally “me,” but people who looked like me. Large, strong women, and lots of them. I might still be the fat girl, but I was clearly genetically predisposed to being plump.
I was rather annoyed that I couldn’t have picked up stunning-skinny gene, but at least my frustration was making a little more sense. I was the “genetically fat girl.”
Then I got sick, really sick. The kind of sick where the future was uncertain. I used every ounce of energy I had to continue to exercise and make healthy food, knowing I needed to be strong for whatever lied ahead.
I was right.
I was morphing into a different kind of fat girl—the “sick fat girl.” The one whose doctors would see my weight first, and me second. I was the girl who had to hear that my weight was probably the “biggest” contributing factor to my illness. My stats couldn’t have been better; my blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugars were all in a great shape, but were also apparently irrelevant.
I’m not saying the doctors were wrong. I was indeed overweight. I was at risk for many issues. Sadly, though, there was not another single thing I could do about it. I was still the fat girl, but now I was the “shamed by the medical community fat girl.”
It’s at this point that I would love to be able to say “be happy with the body you have and forget the rest,” because we can’t control what others think about us. Unfortunately, however, I think that’s horsesh*t. No matter how much positive self-talk we engage in or how many uplifting articles we read, we (and women especially) are still going to look at our thighs and remember when they were half that size or wonder which pants will best hide a muffin-top.
It doesn’t matter if we are healthy, kale-eating triathletes or unhealthy, junk-food eating couch potatoes. The struggle is the same. We want our bodies to look different, no matter what the shape.
It’s true we can’t control what others think or say or that we are affected by society’s body-image values. But we can control how much we let weight control our lives. Whether we are “fit fat” or “I’ve eaten ice cream every day for a month fat,” obsessing over fat doesn’t actually make you thinner or happier. It makes you weight-obsessed and miserable—not to mention, we continue to pass this obsession with weight on to the next generation whenever we entertain it.
We can still hate our thighs, but talk about the healthy food prep we do every Sunday evening. We can still want our stomachs to be flatter, but spend our day helping our neighbour after a flood and embrace how good it feels to be helpful.
Being happy doesn’t mean that we adore our bodies, because I just don’t think that’s realistic. But we can change the plot and start talking about happiness in terms of how we feel, what we did, or who we loved and not the five pounds we recently lost.
Every single breathing human has a body image issue of some kind, so let’s move on already.
In truth, I would like “weight” to be taken off the table completely. Let’s just accept that all people—fat, skinny, tall, small, brown, white, Christian, Muslim—are all stuck in this crazy world together and the only way we’ll survive this rollercoaster is with kindness and compassion.
Let’s remember that there are worse things than someone being fat. Being mean, hateful, hurtful, angry, rude, intolerant, or judgmental all must be worse than being fat.
I would love for a generation to grow up hearing about how important it is to love the hard-to-love, to work hard and help others to work hard too, to be tolerant of differences and actively try to understand them—instead of, “If I could just lose these last 10 pounds before the trip…” or, “Can you see my fat in this dress?”
Let’s imagine for just a minute what it would be like to stop worrying about weight. To walk through each day focusing on being healthy and happy, treating your body in a loving and caring way.
There is absolutely no magic cure for weight gain given that everyone’s weight comes with their own, tailor-made story of how it got there and why it stayed around. So let’s just shelve that for a while and focus on something we can change: How we feel about ourselves and how we feel about others.
The moment we get over the whole weight thing, we can suddenly begin to notice someone’s radiating smile, contagious laugh, or wicked ankle ink. We can learn to love spinach because it fuels our body for our busy lives and to cut back on sugar to avoid the crash in the afternoon.
We may not look any better in our bikinis, but here’s the thing: we really couldn’t care less anymore.
Author: Lisa Hawkins
Image: Laura Lewis/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton
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