“WE’RE BIG SO WHAT” screams the Star Magazine headline. The cover features three unflattering photos of overweight female celebrities with their weight and first names only: “Melissa 250lbs., Chrissy 400lbs., Kelly 185lbs.” I know I shouldn’t, but I slide the magazine from its metal holder. I do my best to look like I am just casually flipping pages waiting for my turn to check out. I land on the four-page spread which is showcasing other famous, allegedly “big” women in unattractive photos with their weight listed under their names. A familiar heat wells up inside me. Star’s failed attempt at promoting female empowerment reinforces a truth I have known my whole life; fat people are treated like public property.
My mom wrote “Think Thin” with a giant smiley face on my lunch bag every day. From the age of eight, I was living in constant pursuit of a thinner body. I didn’t like how my size set me apart from everyone else. I was the only girl who didn’t have Twinkies or Ding-Dongs in her lunch. I wore elastic waist stretch pants because I couldn’t fit into the popular double zip Dittos jeans. I wore the summer version of my school uniform; a pink jumper all year round, because I couldn’t tuck my uniform shirt into the plaid wool skirt meant for winter. I only wanted to fit in; to step out from the spotlight of being known as the fat girl.
I was nine when I stood in my mom’s bathroom and she placed a diet pill (speed) in my hand, which I promptly swallowed with my Tab. She and her friend Ruth had discussed my weight problem earlier that day after my weekly tennis lesson at Ruth’s house. “She probably eats when she’s not hungry, or when she’s bored.” Ruth suggested. It was true, my favorite thing was to eat in front of the TV after school. “Let me give you a few of these,” Ruth offered, “They might help with that.”
At ten, and like all the girls in fifth grade, I took gymnastics at the YMCA after school. I diligently practiced backbends and cartwheels and assumed that the more advanced tricks; walkovers and round-offs, would become easy once I lost the ten pounds I was always dieting to lose. On the last day of class, when Coach Leo was passing out sign-up sheets for the next session he didn’t put one in my outstretched hand. He leaned in and whispered, “You should probably drop some weight before you sign up again.”
If I wasn’t actively dieting, I was actively sneak eating the junk food I wasn’t allowed to have. At twelve, I would venture to the local liquor store, with a dollar bill stuffed in my shorts pocket to buy a candy bar or bag of M&Ms. On more than one occasion, the cashier would hold the item up, waving at me, “This is no good for you,” or “You don’t need this,” he’d say. “They’re not for me,” I’d reply.
The summer before seventh grade, my mom’s hair stylist, who was also a family friend, gently nudged me into cutting off my long, blonde hair. When I came home looking like a fat little boy my mom was furious. He told her, “She needs to see the reality of her size.”
Leaving my regular Saturday night babysitting job, the mom handed me a bag of left-over cookies. Her husband smacked the bag out of her hand, “She doesn’t need those!” he’d said with a definite tone of DUH! in his voice. She tried to hand them back to me anyway. “It’s okay. I’m on a diet,” I’d said, feeling bad for her.
Everyone, it seemed, was interested in saving me from life as a fat person. When I lost weight, I’d made them proud and I was proud of myself. My inevitable weight gain, however, was always met with the heavy sighs of their disappointment. In those moments, I was not only embarrassed and ashamed for my own weakness, but I had also let down the people who only wanted the best for me. Because my size was a riddle that needed solving, it was a community effort. I was fair game for comments, suggestions, opinions and judgment. This intervention of others on behalf of my well-being helped create a world view I have spent years trying to undo; I was not okay until I was thin.
For some reason, commenting on others body size is generally accepted, especially when it’s “for their own good.” And, especially when “they” are women. I am not saying that it wasn’t important for the adults in my life to look out for my welfare, or that my being overweight was not a legitimate concern, however, being overweight was not an indictment on my character, nor should it be for anyone else. It should not have been fodder for public discussion. For over ten years I lived my life believing everything would be better when I weighed 110 pounds. Not only would I fit into the button-fly 501s that had eluded me, but, more importantly, no one would have cause to ask me, “What are you going to do about your weight?”
I am overcome by a familiar heartache when I tuck the Star magazine back into its slot. The subheading to the ridiculous headline, “We’re Big So What” is peeking out at me from behind the metal holder. What they Eat! Why They Don’t Care! It occurs to me it should really read: Why do we care?
Trish Cantillon is the married mother of two who has published on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Refresh,, Brain Child Magazine Blog, and in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization serving terminally ill adults, and their families, by providing end of life dreams.
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