When I was in middle school, specifically seventh and eighth grade, there was a kid, a boy, who was a bit of a bully to me. At some point, he took to calling me “obese”. I don’t mean as in, “Wow, girl, you are obese!” I mean he called me Obese, as though it was my name. He did it loudly, too, with a cheery, booming cadence that emphasized the second syllable: Oh-bese! I wonder now if he even knew my real name. I presume he would have, as we were in the same class. But he never used it. I can actually hear his voice even now; I can’t remember the voices of my grandfather who passed away when I was seventeen, or my best friend from that middle-school era, but I remember his voice and the way he said Oh-bese! to me, over and over, every day. He said it when people were around, in crowded classrooms or the cafeteria; he said it when I was the only one present, if he caught me in the hallway or walking out to the buses at the end of the day. I don’t honestly remember it bothering me that much, or for very long; eventually I assume I learned to block it out. But I can’t seem to forget the voice.
The picture to the left was taken the day I graduated eighth grade, and, giggles over my ludicrous hair and outdated fashion aside, is a fair approximation of my size at the time. Today, when I took at pictures of myself from back then, I don’t really see a fat girl. I see a round face; I see a noncurvy figure. I have never been small-waisted or large-bosomed or traditionally “womanly” in shape, at any point in my life. I see a girl who was probably a bit taller and a bit wider than some of her classmates, but who was not really different to any dramatic degree. I certainly don’t see the gargantuan freak of nature I believed I was then, which was probably at least slightly related to the fact that there was a kid who called me Obese as though it was my name.
In a testament to the endless circular context of writing on the internet, the memory that opens this piece was inspired by a post that was set afire by another post and partly informed by some other posts I have made, so it’s as though I’ve thrown a boomerang and because I wasn’t watching for it to return, it’s beaned me in the back of the head. From the primary inspiration, wrought by the inimitable Fillyjonk of Shapely Prose:
This so-called epidemic is not made up of theoretical fucking people who are just as fat as you can possibly imagine. It’s made up of people you see every day AND WHO YOU PROBABLY THINK ARE “NOT FAT.” […] That’s the point of the good work that Jezebel has, for the most part, been doing, making it clear that fear of fat is an injustice visited on all of us, of any shape. Jezzies seem to be okay hearing that from their thin editors — since we all know they’re really talking about thin girls, right, and it’s not okay for thin girls to have to think they’re fat! They might start to eat too little, which when you’re thin is called an eating disorder!
In fact, though, the difference between body shame for thin women and fat women is only one of scale. There’s not a magical cutoff where shame becomes healthy. There’s not a magical cutoff where bodies become unacceptable. There’s not a magical cutoff where weight loss pressure suddenly breaks free of patriarchy and societal scapegoating and becomes pure and beneficent concern for health. There’s only an arbitrary demographic cutoff where someone who was okay one pound ago becomes a statistic to scare children with.
Lizzie Miller is a hot topic right now; she is the nearly-naked plus-size model in the tiny picture in the September issue of Glamour that so many people have been palpitating over. Heralded as an overnight poster girl for “normal” women, the 20-year-old size 12/14 Miller is suddenly being asked to speak for them as well as herself:
“I remember when I was younger, looking through magazines, and I would feel so out of place and so self-conscious because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” said Miller… “The fact that this picture caused such a frenzy, it says that this is, obviously, something that people need to see. I’m not trying to promote obesity, and I’m not obese, but I’m also not stick thin.”
So Miller handily brackets her own limits of where acceptable sizes should begin and end–it’s really no different than the current paradigm, it’s just moving the goalposts a bit–but she draws the line at “promoting obesity”. Of course. No one wants to promote obesity. Obese is, after all, one of the very worst things a person can be. To be Obese is to hate yourself, to allow your body to look that way, and to hate everyone else, to force them to see you in that shape. To be Obese is to be unsanitary, uneducated, unpleasant, and unhappy. To be Obese is to be unlikeable and more than that, unloveable. To be Obese is to be unacceptable.
The trouble, as Fillyjonk points out, is that many of us are obese, according to even the most forgiving definitions. I was legitimately obese as an eighth-grader, and I am legitimately–morbidly, even!–obese today. Truth be told I’m not sure there’s been a time since puberty that I was not obese, even at the apex of my compulsive-dieting and borderline eating-disordered teen years.
Today I can look back at my eighth grade self pictured above and think, Wow, I really wasn’t all that fat. Certainly not as fat as I thought I was. But the sharper truth is that even at the time, telling me I wasn’t fat wouldn’t have helped. Telling me I wasn’t fat would have done nothing to quell my insecurities, my gutter-level self-esteem, my passionate body hatred. Telling me I wasn’t fat, even if you told me every day, wouldn’t have changed a thing and it wouldn’t have made a dent. I knew I was fat, and the reality of it was irrelevant; I knew it, with all the certainty of my burgeoning adolescence. I knew. So telling me I wasn’t fat would not have helped, any more than it helps when anyone tells anyone they are not fat, when the person calling themselves fat really, truly believes in it.
What would have helped would have been someone telling me I was fine the way I was, fat or not. Or someone telling me being fat was not reason to hate myself, to starve myself, to hurt myself, to punish my body for failing to conform to the images in my head, or in the magazines I read. Or someone telling me being fat was not the end of my world, that it did not mean nobody would ever love me, or want to be my friend. Or even someone telling me, yes, even if you are Obese, you still deserve basic human respect. These are the things that would have helped; these are the things that may have saved me years of damage that then took additional years to repair. What was singularly unhelpful was being told I wasn’t fat in the first place, since that assertion did nothing to dismantle the idea that fat people richly deserve their ill treatment. Simply being identified as “not fat” meant the fear of becoming fat (or fatter) was allowed to remain solidly intact.
There is a cultural trend at work in our world today which seems to dictate that any behavior that could be perceived as “promoting obesity” and thereby advancing a deadly “epidemic” is irresponsible, immoral, and unforgiveable, practically on a level with drowning kittens or selling crack to schoolchildren. But neither the promotion of obesity, nor obesity itself, is the disease; the disease is universalizing standards and expectations of what counts as a “normal” human body, because “normal” is always, always, always subjective, as it should be.
What would have helped would have been someone telling me I could be me, and be accepted, no matter my size. Even if it was a lie or a bedtime story or the prize I could only get after slaying a few dragons and scaling a few mountains. That would have helped.
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