Many people look back at old photos of themselves as kids and lament, “I was so skinny back then!” I have the opposite experience.
At age 40, I weigh less than I did in junior high. I was overweight from about age 7 through early adulthood, and growing up a fat kid taught me a lot about myself. It also taught me about other people, specifically how their fears and biases can make them say and do terrible things.
When I started gaining weight at age 7, my parents treated me differently. I internalized their worry, but I somehow knew that their real concern wasn’t my health, but how having a fat kid would reflect on them.
Growing up fat back then meant near-constant ridicule and rejection. Some kids were overt bullies; others were silent but clear in their intent to exclude the big girl whose precociousness and eagerness to please tipped the scales.
The way I was treated as a fat person was far more harmful to me than any health issue, especially as a child. And in the 1990s, well before the body positivity movement went mainstream, when low-fat diets were commonplace, my body was viewed as a moral failing.
(Speaking of moral failing, my mom put me in a church-sponsored weight loss group when I was in the third grade, which taught me that not only did my parents and my peers hate my body, but God hated it, too.)
In high school, I remember lying in bed, holding my stomach and wishing I could just cut it off. I hated that I looked different from all the other girls. I hated that clothes I loved didn’t exist in my size and that I had to have a prom dress custom-made because none existed that fit me. (And that I was asked to prom out of pity, not genuine interest.) I hated feeling left out and “less than” because of my weight.
By the summer after my freshman year of college, I was ready to make big changes. I’d engaged in disordered eating patterns before, but my resolve to lose weight sent them into overdrive. I ate nothing for a week and was thrilled to learn I could do this.
When I returned to school in the fall, people took notice of my weight loss and it encouraged me to keep going.
I lost around 70 pounds that year, mostly through unhealthy means like replacing eating with smoking weed. After college, I discovered I could binge and purge, which set into motion a decade of bulimia and substance abuse. But when you’re a chronic people pleaser who is getting heaps of praise for “looking soooo good!” all you want is to give people what they want, by any means necessary.
From personal experience, I know that fatphobia and thin privilege both exist. And I would have claimed otherwise at the time, but those factors, along with a heavy dose of shame, is what motivated me to lose weight.
“The stretch marks and scars I used to feel ashamed of are monuments to where my body has taken me.”
I’m childfree by choice for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I remember too much about what it was like to be a child. Shame on top of undiagnosed depression and anxiety fueled unhealthy behaviors and disdain for who I was growing up. I regret the circumstances under which I lost weight, and I often wonder how my life might have gone differently, like in the movie “Sliding Doors,” had I stayed fat. I have so much sympathy for my younger self, the girl who was essentially bullied into changing who she was.
Now, I refuse to define myself by my weight or my body. It’s taken me most of my life to learn it, but I can take pride in how I look without attaching my worth to my appearance. It’s one thing to hear the words and understand them intellectually, but I only internalized this and really started feeling worthy within the last year.
Today, my body seems to have found a set point it’s comfortable with, and my current eating and activity habits maintain where I am. I’d be lying if I said I was completely uninhibited about food and the state of my body, though the volume of self-criticism has been turned way down.
My past is there, but it’s not as present.
For me, “freedom” feels like being able to go out to a nice dinner and not wanting to immediately vomit it up in the bathroom afterward, or signing up for an exercise class because I genuinely like feeling strong and moving my body, not because I’m at a calorie surplus and need to burn it off. The balance I’ve struck feels good because it comes from a place of self-love instead of self-loathing.
The experiences I had growing up a fat kid taught me to see the good in painful experiences. I’m what happens when you ridicule the high-achieving big kid: Now, I’m unstoppable. Moments of harsh judgment and rejection growing up have made me both resilient and determined to make things better for kids today. And I’m unafraid to call out injustice and poor treatment when I see it.
Although I wish I’d had it growing up, I love that body positivity is so much more common now. It gives me hope that things are getting better, but fatphobia is still, sadly, very much alive. I want to live in a world where body size and shape is irrelevant; where “beauty” is truly defined by character and the way you treat others. While my life feels easier now that I’m no longer treated the way I was when I was heavier, I hate that I changed myself due to vanity and pressure to conform.
Most of all, I wish I could go back to my 9-year-old self in that weight loss group at church and say that there was never anything wrong with me; that I was worthy and valuable as I was, and that the problem wasn’t with me but with the society that wanted me to feel as bad as they felt about fat people.
It’s likely my body will change in the future as I age, and I feel like I have a mental and emotional advantage because of the experiences I’ve already had with my physical self. The stretch marks and scars I used to feel ashamed of are monuments to where my body has taken me up until now, and these markers of the past remind me of who I am: someone who has been through physical and emotional hell and came out the other side determined to change the way we think about bodies and our innate value as human beings.
And that’s what makes me feel worthy.