The first time I remember someone saying something nasty to me about my weight, I was in middle school. I was probably eleven years old. I was walking home from school. It’s a moment I will never forget, even if the exact words that were shouted from that passing car are lost to me.
What makes a person be mean to someone else? If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t yell horrible things at fat people walking down the street. Maybe you still have lingering doubts about whether being fat is a choice, but you probably aren’t outwardly rude and disrespectful of a fat person’s right to exist without being shamed and ridiculed. Sadly, there are a lot of people in the world who are not like you and me.
I started getting fat probably around third or fourth grade. I can remember understanding that I was bigger than a lot of other kids in school, but I also remember being loved and respected by my family and friends. My mom and dad didn’t punish me for the size of my body by making me go on a diet. I wasn’t ostracized in the cafeteria or the school hallways by my peers. All in all, I had a pretty good childhood.
Sometime in the mid-80s, I got this dress. I loved this dress. It was hot pink with black polka dots. It had ruffles. I wore it with a matching hot-pink bracelet and these amazing french-hook parrot earrings. This was my favorite dress. I wore it for special occasions, like my chorus concert and a baby shower for one of my relatives. I could not get enough of this dress.
Then, one day, I wore it to school. Just a regular school day, from what I can remember. And that afternoon, I started the almost mile-long walk home. I was only a few steps from the middle school, not even yet to the intersection of Liberty and Court Streets, when some older kids drove by and shouted at me. I don’t remember their exact words. Something about how fat I was, how I shouldn’t be wearing that dress. I’d made myself very, very visible in that dress, and those high school kids wanted me to know I was out of line. They didn’t like the looks of me.
I don’t think I ever wore that dress again.
Is it a coincidence that after that, there are many, many pictures in our family photo albums where I’m not smiling? I hated having my picture taken for so very long. I didn’t want my fat self captured on film for all eternity! Couldn’t we just get through life without documenting how giant and gross I was? It makes me so sad to see how unhappy I seemed to be. I don’t remember being unhappy very much – sure, I had my moments of gloom, mostly revolving around all those boys I had crushes on who didn’t like me back – but you wouldn’t know it by looking at pictures of me from high school.
Yes, teenagers can be mean and terrible. But adults can be, too. I’ve been shouted at by people in passing cars more as an adult than I ever was as a kid (because of course fat people should exercise to stop being fat, but we’d better not have the audacity to do so in public!). Society teaches us that it is okay to ridicule fat people, that shaming us is necessary to helping us get thin. Which is just a huge load of crap, honestly. If being picked on, bullied, shamed, and treated like less than human was a solution to the “obesity crisis,” there would be very, very few fat people left in the world.
I wish I could go back and tell eleven year old me to keep wearing that dress. To focus on how pretty and special I felt wearing it, and to not pay any mind to those mean kids who told me I was too fat to be wearing it. To smile in pictures. To love the great life I was living, no matter what size I was. I can’t go back, but I can try to make the world a safer place for all the other fat little girls in their favorite dresses. I can remind them that they have just as much right to take up space as their thin peers, that they are beautiful and worthy and wonderful. Will you join me?