I remember the first time I thought about going on a diet. A girl in my class at school proudly announced that her mother had put her on one because she was getting chunky. I looked at her, and I looked at me, and I thought, “If she’s chunky, I must be huge.” So I went home and asked my mom to put me on a diet. I was seven.
My mom told me I was too young to be thinking about that kind of thing, and maybe she was right. But I didn’t believe her. I may only have been in second grade, but I was fully aware that every year, when I saw my pediatrician for my start-of-school vaccinations and exam, the very first thing he said to my mother was, “She’s a little pudgy.” Even at the time, the words burned themselves into my mind in huge red letters: PUDGY. And those letters spelled another word: WRONG.
I come from a family of German-Swedish extraction, all of whom are big-boned and most of whom, if left to our own devices, run to fat. Weirdly enough, my mom never evinced any body image issues. But my dad and sisters did. I remember them constantly being on Weight Watchers, and my mom serving up the dry, broiled chicken that seemed to be the only food the diet allowed them night after night. I remember my sisters buying boxes of AYDS, an early-seventies diet supplement in the form of chewy chocolate. Early on, dieting seemed desirable to me: a secret society I wanted to participate in, to which my sisters barred the door. It was a grown-up thing. More, it was a thing many of the members of my family shared, which I didn’t. Being the youngest of five kids by eight years, I was always aware of the gap, aware that my other siblings, closer to one another in age, shared things and had relationships with each other that I didn’t. I wanted to belong.
But despite all that, I never thought about my body size much until third grade. That was the years everything changed. That was the year I learned just how worthless, weird, undesirable, unacceptable, and alien I was. I learned all those concepts wrapped into one word: FAT.
That year, the private girls’ school I had been attending merged with a private co-ed school. And from that year until the time I graduated, I was bullied on a daily basis. Not by boys (that did come later, but they didn’t start it). But by girls. Girls who had been at that school already. My girls’ school had been a fairly benign place. Sure, there were cliques and rivalries like there are at any school, or in any place where kids get together on a regular basis. But the co-ed school was mean. When I see a movie like Heathers or Mean Girls, I think of third grade.
There were two in particular who made my life Hell. They would come up behind me and hit me or kick me in the butt “to see the fat jiggle.” They stole my clothes during gym class and threw them into the showers. (When I appealed to the gym teacher for help, she told me if I had been faster and if I fit in better, these things wouldn’t happen.) They started a rumor that I didn’t wear underwear, and encouraged other kids to flip up my skirt to find out and to see my fat butt. They made barfing noises when I passed them in the hall and, kids being kids, pretty soon everyone was doing it.
This kind of treatment went on for the next nine years. Every day. But it didn’t take me that long to get the lesson: I deserved it. Because I was fat. I learned to despise fat people, and I learned to despise myself. And the most horrible thing about this label was, it wasn’t true. Even at the time I recognized that several of my most vocal tormentors were larger than I. And when I look at school photos from third and fourth grades, I see a kid of average size.
The mean girls in my school had taken against me for some unfathomable reason, and they called me by the worst insult their tiny, nine-year-old brains could conceive: FAT. It took me years and years even to wonder why this purely descriptive word was necessarily an insult. It just was, and is.
My life went on. In sixth grade, when I was ten, I went out for the school play and got cast as the lead’s middle-aged landlady. This began my romance with the theater, and if anyone had made me aware that my skill at character roles was a good thing, my life might have been much different. But when I constantly got cast as the old spinster or the ugly wife or some other butt of all the jokes in the play, my “peers” took that to reinforce their conception of me as strange and undesirable. I yearned to play a lead role—one of those mindless ingénue roles the pretty, popular girls got cast in. I came to hold back from the character roles to the point that my director once threatened to boot me out. Even when I explained, he didn’t understand the problem: the stranger I looked on stage, the more people laughed at me in the halls. They took my stage persona as proof of who I was, and it gave them leave to torment me more than ever. I even got shit backstage from other cast members. It turned what should have been a positive experience into a nightmare. I loved doing theater, but I eventually gave it up because I couldn’t cope with the horror it made of my life off stage.
And a huge part of that horror was the knowledge that I was fat. By the middle of tenth grade, when I was fourteen, I knew in my bones that all my problems—severe depression, loneliness, being bullied, never getting a date, anxiety, and living in daily terror of being seen and commented upon—were due to my excess pounds. At this point in my life I stood about five-foot-seven and weighed about one hundred and forty pounds—hardly obese. Yet among people of petite and slender build, I felt like The Hulk.
I hit a wall somewhere in the middle of the winter production of Godspell. I decided I would lose weight. I would transform myself, and all my problems would vanish. I started to diet and exercise in a serious way, to the point of obsession. By the end of the year I had lost almost thirty pounds. My periods stopped. I didn’t care; they were a pain anyway.
Somewhere in there, a girl named Katy came back to school. She’d been away. No one knew where. When she came back, she was thin and fashionable. She moved with a kind of brittle grace. People whispered that she’d been hospitalized for losing too much weight. It was the first time I had ever heard of anorexia nervosa. And instead of being frightened and horrified, I thought, “I can do that. I may not be good at anything, but I can be the best in the world at losing weight. I can do it better than Katy.”
Other things happened that year. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that other things happened. For one reason and another, the group of girls I hung out with—we had our own clique of self-described social misfits, all of whom suffered from various forms of depression—imploded. I know now that high school girl cliques come together and fall apart like molecules in an atom-smasher, but at the time, for us, with our emotional problems, it was devastating. At the time, in the late seventies, in a private school, no one talked about “Students at Risk.” Clinical depression wasn’t a thing. There wasn’t even a word for it.
I started thinking a lot more about suicide. I say “a lot more,” because I’d thought about it on and off since I was twelve. I started on a cycle of self-harm behaviors, including cutting. I didn’t think of my obsessive dieting and exercise as self-harm. I thought it healthy. I thought it was the one thing I could manage in a life spinning out of control.
Late in June, a cutting session that went far enough to scare me landed me in the psychiatric ward of the hospital, and I stayed there for the rest of the summer. I actually found this something of a relief. I’d been trying for months to get my family to see that I had something really wrong with me—a reality they chose to ignore—and I thought that in the hospital I would finally be able to get someone to listen to me. What happened was, they fastened on my dieting behavior. What I ate or didn’t eat became a constant issue in every therapy session. I tried to explain that I was fat, that I had a history of being fat, and I had to work extra hard to maintain an acceptable body shape. They told me how many calories a girl my age “should” be eating, a number I knew would pack the pounds back on. When I didn’t clean my plate at every dietician-prescribed meal, they threatened to tube feed me.
I’m not convinced that I was truly anorexic at that time, though I may have been. I was certainly well on the way to it. What I know is, by the time the hospital released me to start my senior year of high school, I was five-foot-eight and weighed one hundred and five pounds, and I was anorexic.
I went back to school. People told me I looked great. People told me what I needed was a “ten-pound boob” on either side. I didn’t feel any better. I was more depressed than ever. I decided I still needed to lose weight to be truly happy.
I’m going to fast forward through the next few years. I lost almost enough weight to kill me. When I was admitted to the hospital for the second time in the summer of 1980, I weighed 67 pounds. All anyone could focus on was trying to get me to eat enough to keep me alive. I get that they were afraid for me, but the constant power struggles over food, never looking at the root of the problem, were not the way to help. They told me all anorexics were liars and all anorexics hoarded food, and all anorexics binged and purged. They forced huge meals on me that made me sick, and I couldn’t keep them down. I learned binging and purging in that hospital, which resulted in my struggling with bulimia for the next five years. I spent three years in and out of hospitals that never addressed my underlying depression or the impossible cultural standard of extreme thinness as the only acceptable body type for any kind of female. To support my binging, I ran through a savings account that my father had put together to give me pocket money in college. When the money ran out, I dealt drugs and shoplifted. Once I got arrested. I did drugs to keep me from eating. For a while I shot up cocaine. I had a fair amount of sex, but I never had a boyfriend. I was convinced it was because of my weight; binging and purging to extremes had sent it up to one hundred and eighty. I was the fat girl you’d sleep with because she was available, but would never date.
In 1986, fate threw me a break. I met a guy who liked me in spite of my weight. I moved to New York to be with him. I got away from my old life, and in the course of building a new one, I decided that I couldn’t keep up the binging and purging. I hated myself when I did it, and I didn’t want it threatening the only relationship I’d ever had. It took me a couple years, but I did stop finally. The guy and I moved to California. I actually went there at the behest of my friend Heather MacAllister, who later became well-known as a fat activist and LGBTQ activist and founder of Big Burlesque. Heather later also posed for Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project. I hated California. Everyone was thin. Everyone looked down on me because I was fat. Being fat, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t have “the look.” I got depressed again. My guy fell in love with some skinny dancer he met at college and we broke up (we later got back together for a time). I tried to think of something I wanted to do, something I’d always wanted to do but had never done. I hit on dance. I’d always wanted to study dance, but after a few abysmal weeks in a ballet class in sixth grade, where Madame constantly berated me for my size, I gave it up. In 1987, I decided to pursue it.
I enrolled in classes at Santa Barbara Community College, and I got my second break from fate. The teacher, Kay Fulton, was a large, 50-something woman of color whose motto was, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog, and he buries it.” I realize this would now be seen as skinny-shaming, but at the time I found it so liberating. No one had ever once even intimated to me that a woman of size could be attractive, could be anything but second-rate, if that. Kay also said things like, “I wanted to be a ballerina, but I decided I was too fat and I decided I was black.” I thought it so powerful that she could frame these two body aspects—size and skin tone—as matters of decision. I started taking every class she taught: Jazz, Modern, Ballet, African. At first I covered up in sweatpants to hide my huge thighs, but pretty soon I was wearing leotards and tights like everyone else.
Only one thing really tarnished my experience in those classes. I went out for the dance concert that year and I didn’t make it into any of the pieces I really wanted to perform in. And I noticed my auditions weren’t any worse than anyone else’s. I was just bigger than anyone else auditioning. Now, I am the first to admit that I may have a personal bias here. I may be blaming my size for something that was, in fact, due to some other flaw in my dancing. I don’t think it was that, but I don’t know.
This is one of the insidious things about being fat and suffering from fat discrimination: You never really know, and you’re always ready to find some other reason you don’t get what you want. Because not getting a job because you’re fat, or not getting a role you’ve auditioned for when you truly think you did better, or being ignored in a class when you raise your hand… It seems preposterous to ascribe all those things to your size. You start thinking, “Maybe I really wasn’t as qualified as that thin girl,” or “Maybe the audition piece really didn’t go as well as I had thought,” or “Maybe the prof just didn’t see my hand was raised.” And so, in addition to hating yourself for being fat, you begin to question your abilities in every other area of your life.
It hurt me that Kay cast only skinny, “dancer” types in her piece, a piece I desperately wanted to be in. It made me think less of her for subscribing to the very thought form about bodies that she sought, in her classes and her teaching, to subvert. And like I said, maybe that wasn’t the real reason for her choices. But I think it was.
Anyway, after a year at SBCC, I decided I wanted to pursue dance. It had made a huge difference in my life, and I wanted to help other people realize this difference. Partly for that reason, I settled on trying to get into a Dance Therapy program. But you know what? The other reason I decided not to go after a straight dance degree was my size. I suspected I was too fat to succeed as a “real” dancer, or even to make it into a “real” dance program.
At this point in my life, and for the next few years, I was dancing six to eight hours a day, as well as practicing Aikido. My main means of transport were my bike and my feet. And I ate—and still eat—healthier than just about everyone I know. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I hate junk. I love to cook and I balance my meals. I was still the biggest person in my dance therapy program, at 185 lbs. Once I went to the doctor and when I told him what I did, he told me I must be lying. “If you were really as active as you say, you wouldn’t be so fat,” he said.
Time for another jump-cut. I completed my BA in Dance and Psychology, but for various reasons didn’t go on with the MA. I realized I was unhappy with my boyfriend—the same guy with whom I had moved to California, who split up with me and then later rejoined me in Colorado. I split up with him and started a relationship with another man whom I later married. We’ve been together twenty years. We moved from Boulder to a rural town in Western Colorado. There are many things I love about living here, and one of them is the relaxed attitude towards body size. I’ve been bigger, and I’ve been smaller since I’ve been here, but none of the doctors I’ve seen has ever ridden me about my weight or blamed other health problems on it. A few years ago my husband, an English teacher, took me to my first High School Prom. I was delighted to see many, many beautiful young women of many sizes, large and small, all enjoying their formal wear and their dates, and none of them seeming at all abashed about strutting their stuff.
So. Twenty years in rural Colorado. My weight continues to be an issue for me. I’ve gone on Weight Watchers a number of times, once with some “success.” But it became so tiresome. I lost weight, but as soon as I went on what they called their “maintenance” program, I started to gain it back. I suffer uncontrollable hunger. I can eat a full meal and an hour later feel as if I haven’t touched food for days. This isn’t emotional hunger. I am well-versed in the things I do out of depression and/or boredom, and eating isn’t one of them. My body simply doesn’t know how to process food. I have a medication that helps some with that, but not always. Over the last year and a half, I’ve put on a huge amount of weight, even though my eating and exercise habits are good and neither have changed. I now weigh 238 lbs. and stand five-foot-eight-and-a-half inches. I went back on Weight Watchers six months ago and though I follow their program rigorously, it has made no difference. I have tried every diet drug there is. None of them worked. My doctor is stumped. She’s pretty sure I have PCOS, but without an ovarian biopsy there’s no way to tell and since I’m now over fifty no one will do an ovarian biopsy on me. She actually suggested I consult a bariatric surgeon. I was aghast. My problem is not the amount I eat. Getting my stomach stapled will not fix the fact that my body has a problem processing food and losing weight means, and for me had always meant, doing three times the exercise and eating half the calories any “normal” person does. To her credit, my doctor did say that the bariatric guy is the one in the area who specializes in weight, and he has a whole staff of nutritionists and physiotherapists and psychologists and what-have-you, who might have some clue what’s going on with me. She said she knows I don’t feel healthy and she wouldn’t have recommended the referral if I did. Okay.
I get so angry sometimes. I have a lot of friends who are into “fitness.” “Fit is the new thin!” I see these memes all over facebook and all over twitter. And sure, I’m all for fitness. But what I hate is the idea that the same system will get the same results from every body. Eat this way. Do these exercises. It will work. No excuses. If you just dedicate yourself to the work (instead of sitting on your fat lazy ass eating bonbons all day because it’s easier than working up an honest sweat—never said, but implied), YOU, TOO can have six-pack abs and a body that people admire.
It makes me want to scream. I hate the implication that if you don’t do this, if you don’t even want this, you are somehow morally deficient. I hate the blindness when people claim that genetics and gender make little difference; it’s the training system and your personal dedication to it that counts. I hate seeing beautiful women cutting necessary foods out of their diets because they stopped losing weight and some shredded guy at the gym told them that dairy is evil (He’s a med student; he must know what he’s talking about!)
I hate the futility and self-loathing I feel when diet and exercise don’t work for me. I hate that I question my own dedication and willpower instead of wondering if the “program” isn’t right for me. I hate feeling like I haven’t “done it” right because my body refuses to conform to someone else’s standard. I hate going to my doctor in tears and asking her if I’m doing “enough.” Asking her when it will ever be “enough.”
I can look at any woman (or man) of any size and think she’s (or he’s) beautiful. But I can’t look at myself and think that. In my rational mind, I know a lot about the size of my body is beyond my control. In my rational mind, I know that I do what I can, and that I’m allowed to choose the amount I can do. I’m allowed to have a life beyond working out. I’m allowed to eat food other than hard-boiled eggs and green salad with plain vinegar for dressing. I’m allowed to enjoy things. Lots of things, including good food.
In my emotional mind, I do not know any of these things. (And this is where I start crying.) In my emotional mind, I have a closet full of clothes I can’t wear because over the past couple of years, for no reason I have been able to discover, my body decided to put on forty extra pounds and I can’t make them go away because I don’t have the sheer willpower, and not having the willpower makes me less human. In my emotional mind, I am holding onto that pair of size 14 jeans from three years ago, hoping against hope I will ever again experience the pride and worth I felt when I first put them on, despite the fact that size 14 is still considered “chunky” in this country. In my emotional mind, I am unloveable and unattractive. I am ashamed of going into public. I am afraid of the consequences.
In my emotional mind, I am still eight years old and those mean girls are still smacking me on the butt “to see the fat jiggle.” Because fat is bad. Because fat is wrong. Because my size makes me less. Ironic, the way the bigger you are the less you are worth.
All this, this whole story, is why I am smashing the scale. I do not want other women to experience what I have experienced. I want all women to understand themselves as creatures of beauty, simply because they are.
Don’t let a sick standard of beauty and worth define you. Smash the Scale.