A long-delayed missive on “childhood obesity”, from a onetime obese child.

By | March 24, 2010


My name is Lesley, and I was an obese child.*

I was first made aware of my size during a routine checkup by my pediatrician. I estimate I was around eight years old at the time. The doctor showed me a chart; the chart was arranged by height on one axis and weight on the other. For my height, which we could not change, I was supposed to fit into a certain box for weight, which, ostensibly, we could.

A year later I began a new diary (I was very much into diaries, even as a youngster) in which I introduced myself in the following fashion:

105 pounds!

For those who cannot read my messy scrawl**, the important part reads: “My name is Lesley. I am 9 (almost ten) and overweight. 105 pounds!”

I didn’t write, “I am 9 (almost ten) and I love unicorns,” although that was equally true. Nor did I write, “I am 9 (almost ten) and I live in Florida with my dad and my dog Priscilla who is all black and a poodle/chow mix with a big poofy tail,” although that was likewise accurate. Instead, when faced with an opportunity to introduce myself, I wrote my age, which determined the normal parameters for my size, and my weight, of which I was keenly aware.

I look at this diary today and feel the rage I once felt for all sorts of perceived injustice, a rage that that I’ve long since shed in virtually every other aspect of my life as too much work, an energy drain, a waste of resources. Nevertheless, seeing those words scrawled in pencil in the diary kept by my nine-year-old self sends my lingering anger into the stratosphere. Because it is so very unfair that before I’d lived to see my age inscribed in double-digits I had already come to understand that my weight defined me; everything else about me was secondary, less important, than my being fat.

I’ve discussed before the change I experienced not long after that diary entry was written. I’d spent my life as an active and athletic child, my apparent fatness no obstacle in keeping up with my peers (and frequently besting them). As I got older — slowly, as time moves glacially in youth — I came to understand what being fat meant; what was expected of fat people. Fat kids were lousy at sports, and those who tried to play anyway were to be mocked for it. Fat kids were always picked last, and though I was never picked last, I suddenly came to fear that it would inevitably happen, and when it did, I would always be picked last, forever more. So I stopped playing. As a self-preservation maneuver, a means of avoiding the teasing and bullying that few fat kids can ever fully deflect. I dreaded the very public Presidential Physical Fitness Tests my school administered annually; though I could still land myself somewhere in the average for flexibility and strength, the skin fold unmasked me. Every year I was inevitably far above the normal body fat range for my age. The secret was out. I was an obese child. I was a fat kid.

I never had any weight-related health issues back then, nor do I now. But I began to diet. I did! In elementary school, I dieted, I became gravely conscious of the food I ate, and with a child’s simplicity of mind I developed lists in my mind of foods that were “good” and foods that were “bad” and the standards by which any as-yet-unlisted food could be determined to fit in one category or another. My pediatrician sent me to a dietician, who prescribed daily menus in strict portions. Good for list-making! As the years passed and I ventured into the numbers-obsessed indoctrination of Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, my standards become tighter and the “good” food list grew ever shorter while the “bad” food list looked more like an amazing party to which I hadn’t been invited. Both of these programs had lists of “free” items, things that you could eat unlimited quantities of and still be true to your diet. Unsurprisingly, I pored over these lists with glee. Finally, someone had written the “good” foods down for me! I devised combinations that I could eat without worry. One example was romaine lettuce with red wine vinegar and Mrs. Dash. I ate this — I hesitate to call it a salad — multiple times a day. Pickles were also free. I ate many, many pickles. Rye Crisps. Crystal Lite.

I was extremely hungry, you understand. All of the time. The hunger was a constant nagging in the back of my brain, a perpetual tremor in my gut. When I’d managed to eat so little as to feel tingling in my extremities and a racing feeling in my chest, I knew I was Doing Well On My Diet.

Some weight came off, in small bursts, but then it would stop. There would come a point at which, no matter what, my weight would stubbornly remain, usually after about twenty pounds of loss. I’d cut out the romaine lettuce. No change.

I was an obese child. A fat kid. And it seemed that no matter how powerfully my mind longed to be anything else, my body would resist. Eventually I would surrender, devastated, heartbroken, and eat normal food again, and then the lost weight would return, plus more. And then, after that, I would marshal my forces and make a fresh attack on my fatness, one which would be doomed to failure like all the rest. I would return to exercise; but not the exercise of my younger days, playing games with friends, having fun. Exercise became a chore. I walked, long, pointless walks around my neighborhood, wearing headphones, satisfied only if I could maintain the speed at which my legs were throbbing painfully but manageably enough to keep moving. Still, I could not shed the fat kid stigma. It didn’t matter if I tried. Trying gets you no credit. You have to succeed. If you don’t succeed, your discipline isn’t great enough. You aren’t working hard enough.

It’s fair to say I worked as hard as I could, then, and still I couldn’t make my dream of thinness — the only dream I had, and let’s not dwell on the tragedy of a teenage girl dreaming not of becoming an astronaut or the President, but only of becoming thinner, as I was neither the first nor the last to spend my formative years in this state — come true.

Oh well.

Eventually, once I’d graduated high school, I gave up on dieting, because I’d personally been party to so much evidence that it simply didn’t work. When I was eighteen, I repeatedly asked my doctor about Fen-phen, but she said no. In retrospect, I may have dodged a bullet, as it was a year later that the startling numbers of young women dying of heart problems after taking this medication first started receiving media attention. Pills were out. Bariatric surgery — praise be to whatever vague forces guide the universe! — was still recognized as a life-altering potentially-dangerous last-ditch effort only to be deployed on those mythical fats whose weight was keeping them prisoner in their homes. What else could I do? I was out of options. I was an obese child, now assured of a life as an obese adult.

The path I ultimately chose was self-acceptance, and cultivating an appreciation of my body no matter how my appearance may (or may not) change. I chose to care for myself and dig myself. It was a long time coming; it didn’t happen in a week or even a year. But with time I came to realize that it wasn’t my fatness that made me hate exercise; it was the social expectations associated with being fat that did so. It wasn’t my fatness that made me feel inferior to and isolated from most people I met; it was the cultural ideology which dictated that fat people are lonely, miserable, and broadly unpleasant.

Nothing that happened to me as a kid, none of the changes I went through, none of the self-loathing I absorbed, none of the teasing I tolerated, none of it would have taken place if I were fat in a vacuum. None of it happened exclusively as a result of my fatness. It happened because of the culture in which I was living, a culture we all share to one degree or another. It happened because I received, processed, assimilated and internalized the negative messages about what fat people can and cannot do, and what fat people are and cannot be. It happened because my peers did the same and acted out those cultural expectations upon me; because my pediatrician believed that putting a nine-year-old child only slightly bigger than average on a diet was a smart and responsible choice; because my parents, trying only to raise me as a happy and healthy kid, thought that I needed help in order to be normal. My fat was never the problem; the problem was living in a world that targeted fat people as defective, unintelligent, ill, repulsive. If I hadn’t felt singled out, if I hadn’t been utterly convinced that no one in the world aside from my parents would like me, let alone love me, until I stopped being fat… my childhood and teenage years probably would have been very different. Indeed, if I hadn’t beaten my metabolism to a pulp through compulsive dieting during my formative years, I may even not be as fat as I am today. I’ll never know.

This is why when I hear or see anything on the subject of Michelle Obama’s new campaign against “childhood obesity”, I feel a terrible knot in my stomach, because I know this sort of approach will always, inevitably, turn into a campaign against obese children. And fat kids have enough to worry about, frankly. They have to fight hard already to resist this culture that tells them their size will always hold them back; they do not need to be further singled out by a crusade mounted by this nation’s (in all other respects, rightfully so) beloved First Lady. I was damaged as a result of being a fat kid, certainly; however, what damaged me was not my fat, but the messages I received about fatness. I was damaged by both perceiving myself and being treated by others as inferior, an object, something in need of repair, and not a person worthy of basic respect. I was seriously damaged by the endless dieting, such that I grew into adulthood with absolutely no idea of how to eat in a healthful and self-aware way. I was damaged by the idea that so long as I was fat, my life would be forever on hold, as only thin people get to be smart or successful in life.

Call it a campaign against childhood couch-sitting. Call it a drive to get kids to go outside and play, in the grand tradition of the many hours I spent doing the same as a (fat) kid. Call it a movement to educate children on basic nutrition and how their amazing growing bodies work for them. But don’t single out the fat kids. Their burden is already heavy enough. And if I am any indication, doing this will only ensure that this generation will be fatter than ever, dragging behind them huge heaps of food issues and low self-esteem as a bonus. Not all of them will be as strong-willed, independently-thinking, and plain old determined as I have been, and as many of you have been, who were able to shed the fat-based self-loathing and begin that crazy adventure towards self-acceptance. Many of them will struggle with body hatred for the rest of their lives.

How does that help? How does specifically targeting fat kids help anyone, when children are already committing suicide as a result of bullying in which they’re called “fat”, even when the kid in question isn’t actually fat? What this says is that fatness is already so reviled amongst children that even the suggestion of it can drive a kid to despair. Imagine, then, what life is like for the kids who are legitimately fat. Imagine the effects that underscoring the existing stigmatization of fatness will have on all children, and how they relate to anyone who looks differently than what they have been taught to consider “normal”.



* The reality of whether I technically fell under the “obese” category at eight years old is uncertain. I was large for my age in general, and I doubt I was all that fat even though my weight was an omnipresent concern in my mind — and I mean this without hyperbole, as I can vividly recall being convinced I was enormous compared to my peers even in elementary school. I may not have been more than “overweight” by a few pounds, though those pounds were enough for my pediatrician to obsess over my weight on every visit. Certainly, by the time I reached seventh grade, I had accomplished the task of becoming obese.

** I have blanked out the last name of the object of my nine-year-old affections. I don’t know why. The thought of posting it as-is left me feeling strangely exposed. I guess none of us ever fully shed our childhood insecurities.

This post originally appeared on Fatshionista.com. A shorter version was published in Newsweek.

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