First, and most important, please know that I am okay. I have a team of folks in my corner. Good, strong people who are helping me take care of myself. I’m just, well…it’s a family reunion thing, and that’s bringing up a ton of stuff.
And people, ministers, leaders, teachers, preachers, helpers—we all have stuff come up, just like anyone else. Only we’re encouraged only to talk about it when it’s not happening, when the story has a happy ending. Not to preach from wounds, but only from scars. Some of what I’m going to discuss—lots of it—is from scars. but not all of it. Some of it is still fresh, still hurts, is still something I carry every day.
Every time I preach. Every time I’m strong for someone. Every time I’m upset or well or centered or happy, this shit is lurking in the background.
So here is some for you. Maybe it will touch you. Maybe it will help someone. I hope so.
If you are significantly fat, you know all about the kinds of things I will cover in this post. I encourage you to read it only if you’re in a strong place. A place where you can identify, but not be overwhelmed by the fat-hatred that is instilled in so many of us from the time we are very small.
It’s a litany of things that will not surprise you. It may surprise you if you have never been fat. It may even surprise you for other reasons. But if you don’t want to read it, and read about a whole helluva lot of meanness, then go on and read my altar posts, or the prayer to the Real.
** ** **
There’s a lot of discussion among the leftie-progressive land in which I live and move about language—how we use it, what words we describe to say what we really mean, and how our metaphors affect other people, etc. I think such reflection is good stuff.
For example, I try no longer to say “blindness” when I mean something like, “willful ignorance,” or “black magic” when I mean what I might call “maleficia” or “the kind of magic I find unethical.”
I am also learning to use words like, “comprehend,” “perceive,” “understand,” and “know,” rather than only “see.” I also try to include multiple ways of perceiving when I’m talking or writing so I show a range of possibilities.
And when I talk about things like beauty, strength, power, or advantage, I try to remember that these qualities are not only found in the (usually temporarily) able-bodied, the white, the well-to-do, the educated, or the otherwise privileged.
I try to imagine a world in which I was not taught from as early as I can remember to be ashamed. I try to imagine a world in which peace and harmony exist because justice exists. Justice for everyone, irrespective of how our bodies “read” to others.
How our skin colors read to other people, how they tell stories about us based on our perceived race. How our gender identity reads and what stories it elicits. How our clothing and how we wear it reads. How our perceived abilities, disabilities, challenges, limitations, and strengths in our bodies read.
And how the shapes of our bodies read.
One of my earliest memories: “Catharine Birmingham Buck, you do not need to eat that.”
“You’d better learn to be your own seamstress! There won’t be anyone to sell clothes to you if you keep eating like that.”
“She’s hideously obese.” (I was a size 18 and 5’9″)
“Respice finem.” (This means “Mind your end,” and is a Roman admonition to be aware of death.) My father wrote it on the refrigerator in black marker to remind himself to be wary of his weight if he ate too much. Mind your end, death. And Mind your end, your fat ass.
In other words, food is dangerous. Food is deadly. Fat is deadly. Fat is to be avoided at all costs.
“That was for him,” I heard, not by him, but by way of posuthumous apology about it forty years later. It may have been “for” him, but children listen.
My parents apologizing to me when I was a youngish adult—for teaching me to appreciate and eat cheese. That they didn’t restrict my food enough. That it was their fault I was fat. Children listen…my fat was their failure.
But I had learned my lesson.
Food was bad.
Fat was bad. I learned about that study that said that a significant majority of people in the United States would rather lose a limb than be “obese.” Now the layers and layers of ableism THERE I can’t even get into here, but yikes!
I ate in secret. I tried not to eat too much when I was in view, and I never ate alone in public places. To this day, I avoid eating alone in a public place, or eating when other people aren’t.
I snuck sleeves of crackers up my sleeve.
I drank milk with the refrigerator door open, praying no one would find me there.
I went to college and became bulimic. Purging when I could. Cursing myself for a coward when I couldn’t bring myself to do it in public bathrooms.
Living on pretzels and Coke and lots and lots of coffee for most of a semester. Perhaps not unrelated, this was the semester when, directly after my piano jury (final), I was admitted to a psych hospital for suicidal depression.
One summer in high school, I tried to eat nothing but vegetable soup in a tomato brother.
I went on Weight Watchers. Twice.
The first time I remember being told by my pediatrician I needed to count calories was sometime in elementary school. Then I remember in high school saying, “I have things to do. I have a boyfriend. I don’t want to go on a diet.” Dr. Wong replied that I was endangering my health and there was nothing more important than my being on a diet.
I took diet drugs as a young adult and marveled at how my appetite vanished…briefly. And how sped up and excited I felt. How much work I could get done. How strung out and wired I felt. (Note: hypomania)
Then, of course, there had been bullying from the time I could remember.
From family members from as long as I could remember: “Thunder thighs,” “Oh my goodness, that photo of you! Your arms!” (It was one of my favorites. I was holding a dear, new baby cousin up to my cheek and wearing a red dress. I loved it. I looked big in it. I was big, so I looked big. I include a photo here that I love, and that also shows my rollypolly arms.)
“We’ll play a game. Your nickname will be Fats.” “Fat just shows more on girls.” – This one was in response to my asking why a boy in our class who was bigger than I didn’t get spit on, pushed around, have half-chewed candy thrown in his hair.
“Fat just shows more on girls.”
I was in fourth grade. Maybe fifth when I heard that gem.
And in college, when I was living on pretzels, Coke, and coffee, yeah, there was this winner you may have heard me mention before:
“Beached whales like her don’t deserve to live.”
Or when I, was literally screamed at by a woman who took the time to roll down her window, stick her head out, and yell, “You fat bitch! If you would learn to walk, maybe you wouldn’t be so fat.”
The four-year-old boy with his mother and younger brother who were with me in an elevator: “My God, you’re SO FAT,” his face twisted in what I can honestly say with disgust.
His mother was mortified and blushed. She put her hand over his mouth. I crouched down and said, first to her, “It’s okay.” And then to him, “I know you’re just trying to make sense of the world as you see it, but you should be careful. Saying that to people can hurt their feelings.”
His mother looked at me as though she’d seen an angel. She thanked me for my graciousness, and I looked her in the eye and hoped she saw, heard, felt what I tried to convey to her. “Where, where, and everywhere, did he learn to think and to speak like that?”
We went our separate ways, I to my train and they to theirs. I burst into tears.
It wasn’t okay. It was the kind of thing little kids say because they’re trying to figure things out, yes, but it’s also what they say because they’ve learned it’s appropriate.
And my dearest aunt Ceci, bless her and love her though I did, turned to me, an adult in my early thirties, and gave me shit for eating a cookie. I finally had had enough, and said, “You have been giving shit for being fat for as long as I can remember. It has yet to make me thin. You might want to try another tactic.”
But fat people deserve to be scowled at, pointed at, stared at, whispered about.
Fat people deserve to be punished.
That’s what we learn, fat or thin or in between. Fat people deserve what they get. And health, as the brass ring and as defined be people who are not us ourselves, is to be preserved, sought after, and demanded at all costs.
And then there are the well-meaning people who want you not be hurt anymore say things like, “You shouldn’t let awful people take up space in your head.”
“I’m sorry that so many years later, they still have the power to hurt you.”
“Don’t rent out space in your mind to people who aren’t worth it.”
Friends, if you have heard these things, all of which imply that it is your fault you have been or are hurt, even after years and years, please know IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
It is not the fault of fat people that we’ve been trained to hate ourselves. Trained from as young as I, at least, can remember. Trained even when I was an active, happy, cutie pie eight-year-old girl running around the neighborhood and riding my bike everywhere.
It is not the fault of fat people if we’ve come to believe the messages that WE HAVE BEEN MEANT TO BELIEVE.
Children will listen. They do listen. And so do adults.
We have been trained to hate ourselves. Trained, and most of us have bene trained well, consistently, and with vigor.
I am very, very fat.
And like most fat people, I have been on approximately a zillion diets. I wouldn’t be surprised if my calories were being counted before I could read. And I read early.
Friends, let us love one another. Let us tell one another we are beautiful in one another’s eyes. Let us eventually learn to look at ourselves in photos and see joy, dynamism, coyness, cuteness, glory, enthusiasm, serenity, and not just fat.
My body, slow and painful and fat as it is, gets up every morning, types these words to you, allows my brain to think and my mouth to speak. It helps take me where I need to go, it has gone through suffering and struggle and it is still here.
Our bodies are our homes.
If you, parent, uncle, aunt, friend, are saying terrible things about bodies, including your own or other people’s¸ you are training the fat people around you to hate themselves. You are part of evil that is done in this world.
Remember, as David Bowie said,
“… [T[hese children / that you spit on / as they try to change their worlds / are immune to your consultations. / They’re quite aware / of what they’re going through…”
While they/we may be immune to some adults’ consultations, we listen.
They/we are not immune to your hate for yourselves, for others, and for them. They know you’re spitting on them. And they will come to believe that they are worth spitting on.
Don’t spit on us, on others, on yourself.
It’s not nice or loving or good. And it doesn’t accomplish anything.
It’s not love. And love is what we all, children perhaps most of all, need.
Thank you so much for writing this and making it available to me. I have heard my daughter speak badly of fat people, and when I have asked her what she values in her friends one of the things is slenderness. I was blown over and horrified and have begun to notice that you are right- the way I talk about and treat my own body- my desire to lose weight and my discouragement about it- have gotten into her in a really bad way. I am working on it. I am so very not perfect. But I am working on it.
Valerie – We’re all just working on it. I am so glad if I’ve even helped a little bit. Blessings on your path.
You give me courage, Catharine. Thank you for writing this.
Dear Marie – I am so glad to hear you are taking heart (being courageous). Thank you and you’re welcome.