Today's guest post comes from Caddy C who blogs at A Feminist Otaku. Thanks C!
This is a foreign concept to me. Or: A stranger's kind words collide with my self-perception.
I was never “the skinny child.” And in a culture obsessed with binary opposites, this meant that I was the fat one. Even if it wasn't necessarily true, it became true by virtue of comparison.
I love my sister and I see in her many positive qualities of which I wish I was similarly endowed. She is incredibly smart, and ambitious enough to follow her dreams in a harsh world. Also, she was “the skinny one.”
As a child, B had a voracious appetite but couldn't seem to gain weight. She ate more than I did, but had to be put on a special diet by our pediatrician. I have never had this problem. As a child, I had a normal appetite and a normal body weight. One might say that I am “big-boned” (Cartman jokes aside), or that I'm built solidly. I was not fat.
Yet, by virtue of comparison to my underweight sister, I became conscious of size. As a child, I had never bothered to wonder why she and I were different. Weren't all siblings different shapes and sizes? But despite my initial casual attitude, as I grew older I began to receive the message that I was fat.
My childhood friend told me that her mother said I was, “a little on the heavy side.” Curious, I asked my mother about it, and she became flustered. Lacking a straight answer, I asked my friend how she stayed slender. She didn't really know, but advised me to “cut all the fat off of meat when I ate it.” I made sure to trim my meat extra carefully from then on, though our family never ate much meat to begin with.
B gained enough weight by the time she got into Elementary School that she no longer needed a special diet. Along with our two closest friends, B and I enrolled in ballet class. I enjoyed it immensely, though even at about 10 years old I had a feeling that I was not naturally graceful. But it was fun! Spending time with my sister and friends, dancing to music … I thought ballet was great. I told my mother that I may try to dance professionally one day, since I thought it was so fun. She told me that I “didn't have the body to dance professionally.” I wasn't built like B, who “had the body of a dancer.”
I remember the disappointment that I felt hearing these words, like I had somehow failed to do something before ever even trying. B went on to dance for several years after I stopped, and she really shone on the dance floor. I soon discovered that I loved soccer, and then archery and karate. My mother's words faded into the back of my brain, but never disappeared completely.
As a teenager, I had the usual growth spurts. I confided in my mom once that I had really been craving milk lately. She said that my body was growing and as such, needed plenty of the vitamins found in milk. Makes sense, right? I thought so. Then I told her that I may need to get bigger pants, because the ones I had were a little tight. (I wore a size 7, at about age 16.) She promised to take me to the mall over the weekend, but warned that I definitely shouldn't let my pants get beyond a size 9 or maybe 11. Or ... ?
Fast-forward past my issues with teenage depression and suicide to college, and my issues of early-twenties and weight gain. Everyone's heard of the “Freshman 15,” right? Well I gained 15 the first year, then 20 the next year... and by the end of my undergrad years I was overweight. Without the constant chiding of my parents and out of the spotlight of comparison to my skinny sister, I ate whatever the hell I wanted. And it showed.
Finally, it took terribly unflattering photos of me in a bridesmaid dress to get me to realize that I had to take control of my weight. And I did.
The last three years have been a constant struggle, but I've lost about 90 pounds. (At my heaviest, I weighed 235 pounds – and I'm 5'6.) It's been one of the hardest things I've ever done, and every minute has been worth it. I've discovered a love of running, which is something I never in a million years ever thought I'd be good at. This year I challenged myself to run a 10K race, and I did. (I took about an hour – that's a 10minute mile, not bad!)
But when I look in the mirror, what do I see? I see a fat girl. Even though I'm no longer terribly overweight and my BMI is in the normal range, I see myself through a fat girl's eyes. I see myself as my mother saw me. I see myself as American culture sees me – as a fat girl.
The other day I went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner. I had worked a ten hour shift and was carrying around a basket that was so full it was straining the plastic handles, and I feared they would break. I was exhausted.
Just as I neared the end of my grocery ordeal, I reached the yogurt aisle to pick up my last item. Fat-free plain yogurt. There was an older lady standing in the aisle, gazing at the varieties of individual-sized yogurts. She seemed either absorbed by the array of possibilities or completely lost.
She spoke to me, out of the blue. I didn't have the heart to ignore her or brush her off. She told me that her grandson was just back from Iraq, and that he really liked this one particular type of chocolate milk that he couldn't get over there. She told me which flavors of yogurt he liked, and which ones she liked. I shared which ones I liked, and reached for my tub of the plain stuff.
I told her that I liked to eat the plain yogurt with granola or fruit, and that it made a healthy snack. She seemed in awe of my simple suggestion, and I couldn't help but smile. I told her that tonight I was using it as a substitute for sour cream on my baked potato. Then she said something that completely floored me.
She said, “Well, of course, you must eat healthy all the time in order to stay so beautiful and slender.”
I mumbled something like thanks, smiled, and left.
I have never thought of myself as slender. Not once in my life. But this lady at the grocery store did. And you know what? That's good enough for me. At least for that one day, a random stranger telling me she thought I was beautiful was enough for me to feel like maybe, just maybe, I was.
I may never be “the skinny one,” but you know what? I'm starting to be ok with that.
- At Mon Sep 28, 07:32:00 PM Cheryl said...
Please do me a favor. Let someone take your picture. A lot. Take lots of pictures of yourself. I know it's uncomfortable and you don't want to.
But I guarantee you that some day you will look back and see the beauty you don't feel now. And you will be glad for the photos proving it!
- At Mon Sep 28, 08:59:00 PM afeministotaku said...
I've become a lot more accepting of photos, though it's definitely not easy!
It's fun to see the positive progress that I've made, and quite a strange experience when I come across a photo that I actually like.
Thanks for the suggestion! :)
- At Sun Nov 15, 07:07:00 AM Anonymous said...
Oh, so long as you're slender! I am not and never will be slender, so I guess I should just hate myself.
- At Sun Nov 15, 09:01:00 PM afeministotaku said...
I'm sorry, Anon, but you seem to have missed the point of the post.
The point is not that I am or am not slender - the point is that I have never accepted myself as I am because of the varying cultural and personal forces at work telling me that I'll never be thin enough. I've never been able to be happy with how I look, and have always struggled with my weight because of the culture that tells me I should.
I wrote this because I've struggled with self-acceptance and body image issues and these are things that many women struggle with. I didn't write this to be hurtful to anyone else or make judgments about anyone else.