October is National Bullying Prevention Month. A great deal of emphasis is placed during October on teaching children to recognize bullying, giving them the skills to cope with it, and understanding when to report it. We present this essay as National Bullying Prevention Month comes to an end, as a reminder that bullying can come in many different forms and from places you might never expect – including inadvertently from loved ones. We are grateful for the opportunity to share this essay with you, and for the strength and courage it took for the author to write it.
“I’ve been thinking,” my mother casually said to me one day. “You should write about being fat as a kid and how that affected you.” I was stunned. It was the first time my mother had ever admitted that I was fat as a child. Whenever I had brought it up in the past (and I frequently did), she always denied it: You were just a little chubby. Family photos didn’t change her mind: You were cute. But in my 50th year and her last, she finally gave credence to my childhood reality and encouraged me to publicly tell the tale.
Although caught off guard by her deathbed candor, I knew her suggestion was a good one – it was time to heal my psychological wounds and to put a human face on what has since been labeled “childhood obesity.” So to honor one of my mother’s last wishes, I now write about being fat.
I suspect I was fat from infancy because my mother did admit that the baby formula made me “a little chubby.” But I was a happy-go-lucky preschooler and didn’t feel fat – kids can’t be bothered with mirrors. However, when parallel play gave way to so-called cooperative play, the outside world held up a virtual mirror. I first knew for sure that I was fat when the boy down the street dubbed me “Fatty Patty,” an epithet that stuck and stung. My First Communion dress came from Lane Bryant, “the fat store” – a basic cotton tent, nothing like the frilly little dresses the other girls wore. The photos from that day can still bring tears to my eyes.
Both my parents had careers so we had a weekly housekeeper – a very obese woman who would nearly get stuck in the stairwells. She often warned me that I’d end up looking like her if I didn’t lose some weight. That scared me – but I didn’t know what to do about it.
To make matters worse, my father was an athletic director, teaching fitness and health. Much to his dismay, his “little” girl couldn’t even do a somersault. He would coach me in the evening, only to be frustrated by my inability to tuck my head and roll. (I was round; there was nothing to tuck.) At my urging, and unbeknownst to him, my enabling mother would write excuses to get me out of gym, to spare me the humiliation of being unable to climb the ropes or leap over the “horse.” I couldn’t get my roly-poly body off the ground.
While my father had a genuine concern about the impact of weight on my quality of life, sensitivity was too-often lacking. He once called me to his side to admonish, “You waddle like a fat person. Walk like this instead.” He modeled walking with his toes pointed straight ahead. He made me practice, and practice I did. By then I knew it was bad to be “a fat person.”
Mealtimes were often stressful. I had a hearty appetite and ate with gusto (“a good eater,” my aunt called me). Sometimes when my mother put dessert in front of me, my father would slide it across the table to my ultra-thin sister. My sister would be delighted, both with the extra helping and with the approval it represented, while I ran upstairs sobbing. My mother would later rap on my door with a replacement treat, and I’d gobble it down through my tears, feeling absolved yet shamed. In retrospect, her enabling did not help matters.
My dad knew I was deeply hurt by his hard-line approach but justified it with, “You’ll thank me one day because boys won’t like you if you’re fat.” But I didn’t care about boys yet. What I did care about was that I was bigger than all my scrawny little girlfriends, was teased mercilessly by other kids, and judged at home. And that felt bad.
I changed schools in seventh grade and braced myself for a new group of kids calling me fat. Mostly I was ignored though, except for a popular boy who befriended me because he thought I was funny. (I was funny. Overweight people often develop a keen sense of humor in order to attract friends and to divert attention from their own glaring imperfection.) The following summer, my excess pounds suddenly melted off. It may have been increased activity, pubescent hormones, and/or boys. Whatever the reason, my eighth grade physical exam determined that I was underweight. Halleluiah! Classmates who had rejected me suddenly came around.
But thin was only my outward appearance; inside, I was still fat. Even though my weight has long since been within “normal” range, I have continued to carry those extra pounds in my head. Self-image is formed during the early years – if your first identity is that of being fat, fat remains your identity. And once you have been fat, you are forever aware that you have the ability to stretch your skin again, to distort your body unwittingly...and very well might do so. I closely scrutinize pictures of myself to see if I look fat. I force myself to stop eating before I am full, yet always feel like I ate too much. I am no doubt fortunate to have survived weight-related trauma without developing an eating disorder.
Although I have used “the F word” throughout, I am highly aware that “fat” is one of the few negative descriptors that our society continues to use with impunity. Fat people are perfectly acceptable joke fodder, ripe for the picking because conventional wisdom believes they could be thin if they had more self-control. Shame on them is our not-so-subtle reaction, leading to prejudice and discrimination. And, of course, the question remains as to who’s setting the standard. Media deluge us with anorexic body images, and we clamor to compare favorably, filled with revulsion for those on the other end of the spectrum. Yet the health implications of too much or too little weight are all too real.
As a school administrator, I kept a photo of myself in second grade on my desk, featuring a round and anxious little face. I did that to remind myself that there are other “Fatty Pattys” out there who are depending on adults like me to protect them from bullying and to guide them to a more healthful lifestyle.
My mother wanted me to include suggestions for reducing the incidence of childhood obesity. I believe the lessons are implicit in my story and will vary for each reader. There are many reasons why people overeat or under exercise – and there are reasons other than these why people are overweight. Through hard work, coupled with sensitivity and support from others, it is possible to physically transcend obesity. But the stretch marks in our heads and hearts never really go away; we just try our best to cover them up.
My mother was the inspiration for this essay, and my father brought it full circle at the end of his life. When I would visit the frail, little man, he’d force food on me because he felt rude eating in front of me and didn’t want to eat alone. After refusing cake repeatedly one night, a treat he frequently denied me as a child, I asked him if he remembered how fat I used to be. He immediately responded, “Yes.” Then with a wink and a grin, he added, “And you still are!”
Patricia A. Nugent lives in Saratoga Springs and is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a collection of 300 vignettes that portray the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one, as seen through the eyes of a daughter and her terminally ill parents. More information is available at www.journalartspress.com.
Nugent recently read a portion of this essay on the WAMC radio show, The Roundtable. You can listen here.
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